The ageless quest for life eternal
Publishing phenom Jessica Khoury has had a busy couple of years: In 2010, she graduated from college and got married. In 2011, she wrote a book (in about a month) that was snapped up by Penguin’s Razorbill imprint. This year, she finished revising the book, appeared at book and library conventions and traveled to the jungle for the first time.
On September 4, Origin—a thought-provoking YA novel with a fascinating premise—debuts with an impressive 250,000-copy first printing. And that’s not all: The 22-year-old Khoury is already writing her second novel for Penguin, and she has embarked on the publisher’s Breathless Reads tour.
But while the past two years have been a veritable whirlwind, Khoury wants to emphasize—especially to aspiring authors—that, as easy or speedy as her timeline might appear, writing and publishing a book takes significant time and effort.
“It’s important to know it’s a long process. You can write a book in a month, but it takes months and months to get it ready to go out into the world,” Khoury says in an interview from her home in Georgia. “Some people may say this just happened overnight, but it didn’t . . . and I have a great team of supporters who worked with me."
Origin isn’t the first book Khoury created. After being homeschooled, she entered Toccoa Falls College, a Christian school in her small north Georgia hometown, and began working on a high-fantasy trilogy. (Khoury says she has loved fantasy since “my dad forced me to read Lord of the Rings in elementary school.”) She was in the midst of querying agents and publishers about that book when the idea for Origin struck during a walk in the woods near her home—and that, as they say, was that.
"You can't get a more universal theme than mortality. We all think about it, and we all have to make our own decisions about what it means."
At the heart of the novel is a 17-year-old girl named Pia. She’s been genetically engineered to be perfect—and to be Person No. 1 in the immortal race a group of scientists has been secretly and feverishly working to create in their hidden compound, Little Cam.
This coming-of-age story is rife with romance, suspense and danger, plus musings on nature vs. nurture, the notion (and possibility) of immortality and archetypal mad-scientists-vs.-noble-savages, all set against the lush backdrop of the Amazon jungle.
The scientists are the only people Pia knows. They praise her superiority even as they groom her to carry on their work and strive to keep her ignorant of the outside world.
But, like any good coming-of-age tale, the time comes when Pia is offered a glimpse into a different sort of future, and she rebels—though the consequences are far more dramatic, even deadly, than typical teenage turbulence.
Pia begins to question her own viewpoints, and her very existence, when she sneaks away from the compound and encounters Eio, a handsome young man who lives in a nearby village. As she gets to know Eio and his tribe, she is shocked to realize the world is much bigger than she’d realized—and perhaps the goings-on (and people) at Little Cam are not what they seem.
Khoury describes the jungle’s flora and fauna, its colors and scents, in colorful detail. That’s no small accomplishment, considering she had never been to the jungle when she wrote Origin. “The jungle has always fascinated me. When I had the original idea, I knew the jungle had to happen, I just didn’t know which; I had to do a lot of research to decide which one.”
And research she did, “probably two hours of research for every one hour of writing,” Khoury says. “The week I came up with the idea and started writing, I made my husband drive me to Barnes & Noble and we bought coffee-table books, folklore anthologies and video documentaries; Wikipedia was perpetually open. I learned a lot as I wrote, and I tried to research every little detail so it would be real to the readers.”
The novel’s exploration of the possible consequences of immortality wasn’t something the author needed to research. “It has always been of weight with me because of my faith and religion,” Khoury says. “You can’t get a more universal theme than mortality. We all think about it, and we all have to make our own decisions about what it means. Pia struggles with that.” (It’s fun to note, too, that, not unlike Eve biting that fateful apple, Pia eats fruit-flavored Skittles shortly before her first escape from Little Cam—something Khoury says, “I didn’t even think about!”)
The weight of others’ expectations is also something Khoury’s felt, and explores through her protagonist. “For me, I’m still kind of coming from Pia’s angle and dealing with the expectations of people,” she says. “When I have kids, I’ll be looking at it from the other angle. I do that a little bit now with my four younger sisters [she has a younger brother, too]. I think, I don’t agree, but I support you, and nothing’s gonna change how I love you.”
Speaking of love, Khoury says her husband and family are very excited about her becoming a full-fledged author (not least her Syrian grandfather, whose last name she is using in tribute to him).
“My family has been waiting for this as long as I have,” she says. “I’ve been telling them I was going to be an author since I was four years old. They’re my biggest cheerleaders.”
They’ll have lots to yell about in the coming months, for sure. And of course, there’s Khoury’s next book, which may be a companion to Origin, maybe not: “Anything could happen down the road,” she says. A fitting outlook for a newly minted author.