A Chat with ORIGIN Author Jessica Khoury

As many of you undoubtedly know, noted TFC alumnus Jessica Khoury recently published her debut young adult novel, Origin. Released on September 4, the book has already met tremendous success, having been named by both Barnes & Noble and the Apple iBookstore as book of the month for September. She also appeared in chapel last week, speaking largely on the importance of Christians reclaiming the art world. Following the release of her book, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Khoury about this topic and others.

What books have influenced your writing career? Well, if I was very honest, I’d have to say every single one I’d ever read. But to pick a few: Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books were the ones which moved me to begin my first novel when I was thirteen. After that, I admired works by Orson Scott Card, C. S. Lewis, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Robin Hobb. ORIGIN itself was inspired by Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Nation by Terry Pratchett, and Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

What sparked your interest in Eugenics? Just before the start of my sophomore year at TFC, I went on a study abroad trip with Drs. Shelton and Elkins. We traveled through Germany, studying the roots of the Reformation (rock on, Martin Luther!) Anyway, we also stopped at the Dachau concentration camp—one of the most sobering experiences of my life. It’s hard to even talk about it. But that was where I saw with my own eyes the kind of horrors which rose from the eugenics movement of the early 1900s. A lot of the emotions I felt that day went into my writing of ORIGIN.

Have you always wanted to write science fiction? I’ve always loved to read and watch it, but I’d never imagined myself writing it—I was always more of a high fantasy writer before ORIGIN. So I’m still kind of surprised when people refer to me as a “sci-fi author;” it was never a path I envisioned myself taking. I always thought I wasn’t clever enough to tackle science—hence the hours and hours of research I had to do for ORIGIN, even though it’s technically sci-fantasy.

What is the draw to Young Adult Literature? Has that always been your target audience? Pretty much, yes.It’s what I love to read, and it’s the most exciting genre in modern literature. Did you know 55% of YA novels are purchased by adults? It’s a genre that transcends generations, something that parents and children can read and discuss together. I love that about YA. You can take risks, blend genres, and break rules in YA that are often too rigid in other categories of fiction.

How did your experiences at TFC influence your development as a writer? I wrote a lot while at TFC, whether for class or my own enjoyment. I also participated in Inklings II, a writer’s group hosted by Dr. Don Williams, which helped me to learn to share my writing and receive feedback on it. Advanced Comp with Professor Mehl was very helpful too, because he required us to submit short stories to magazines and journals, something I’d never done. It really prepared me for the submission process I’d have to undergo with ORIGIN.

What role does faith play in Origin? Did your own faith grow as you wrote? ORIGIN is not Christian fiction, but it is certainly influenced by my Christian faith. In a way, it’s what you’d call pre-evangelistic—something which attempts to get people to ask the sort of questions that ultimately can only be answered in Christ. But I didn’t write ORIGIN to be an allegory or anything of that sort; I wanted to tell a story, and that’s what I did. As a Christian, it was inevitable that my faith influence some of the themes and in writing, I often found myself contemplating questions of immortality, immorality, faith, and science as I wrote.

Do you see your writing as an opportunity for ministry? How has that come to fruition? Everything we do is an opportunity for ministry, whether it’s preaching a sermon or writing a science fiction novel. I think it’s important to have that mindset of perpetual ministry, and to act consistently.

Can you describe what the writing process looked like? I wrote ORIGIN very quickly, finishing the first draft in 30 days. I made it a point to write 2,000 words a day until the book was done. But that’s just the first phase of the process; months of editing followed.

Did you try to publish any of your previous work before Origin? What was that process like? Prior to ORIGIN, I tried to sell several short stories and poems, some of which ended up getting small publications. I also submitted a high fantasy novel to several agents, but before it went anywhere I began writing ORIGIN, and ended up shelving that manuscript in order to focus on my new one. I’d still love to see it published one day, though.

How has your life changed since writing and publishing Origin? Up until last year, my lifelong dream was of getting published, so since that’s happened, I’ve been able to live that dream to the fullest. I began writing full time, which means I really only write part time and spend the rest promoting and traveling. It’s everything I always dreamed of doing and more, and it’s been such a huge blessing and privilege to have reached this stage!

If you could do anything differently in the writing/publishing process, what would it be and why? Looking back, I could certainly have spent more time editing ORIGIN before submitting it to agents. It was in pretty rough shape since I rushed too quickly from writing the first draft to sending it out. I was just so excited about the book I couldn’t wait!

Looking back, is there anything you wish you would have known about the writing/publishing process that you didn’t? I’ve had to learn almost everything about the process as I go along, and my agent is extremely helpful in teaching me the ropes. But one thing I’d have liked to know beforehand is that though there are exciting days, much of writing is fairly tedious. There are many days when my inbox is empty and there’s no thrilling news to report, and I still have to sit down a put one word after another. The writing life is composed of long stretches of quiet solitude interspersed with days of frenzied activity, and you have to prepare for both paces.

What was it like to sell the movie rights to the book? What are your feelings about that? It was absolutely thrilling! I hadn’t dared to think we’d sell the rights so soon; it’s not often that producers pick up books prior to publication. I spent a whole week talking to the most incredible producers and filmmakers in Hollywood, the kind of people you never expect to encounter except in the credits before a movie. It was so surreal! Of course, the road to the big screen is terrifically long and unpredictable. There’s no guarantee that an Origin movie will happen, but we remain hopeful.

Do you have any specific tips or advice for aspiring authors? One of the most important things you will bring to your writing is your personal life experience. Books and courses and method and workshops are all helpful tools, but they’re just that—tools. The real art of writing must come from the part of you that makes you unique, from the stories you’ve lived, the places you’ve been, and the odd quirks and secrets that compose your identity. Don’t be afraid to try to new things, travel to strange places, eat bizarre foods, or meet new people—the more deeply you live, the deeper your story will be.

Khoury continues to receive high acclamation for her work, and we as a staff would not only like to congratulate her for all that she has done, but to thank her for blessing us with her time and art.