One of the highly anticipated Y.A. novels this fall is by 22-year-old debut author Jessica Khoury. Out this week from Penguin's Razorbill imprint, it's called Origin. It's the story of Pia, a girl engineered as the initial member of a new immortal race by scientists who run a secret lab in the Amazon rainforest. On the eve of her 17th birthday our heroine sneaks out of the compound and meets a boy from a nearby village, Eio, for whom she has an unmistakable attraction. Together they race against the clock to uncover the truth about Pia's origin.
It's a thrilling, fast-paced read that has Y.A. circles talking and got the folks at Penguin so excited they moved up the release date for what they consider one of the biggest Y.A. books of the fall. Ben Schrank, publisher of Razorbill, told The Atlantic Wire, "What we love about Origin is that the story is entirely new, but feels like it’s been around for a long, long time.” Though it's not the same sort of dystopia as depicted in, say, The Hunger Games, nor are there kids fighting each other in televised games to the death, there's a similar feeling of a young woman in a futuristic yet maybe not-too-far-off environment, uncovering truths about herself and making difficult decisions. And, of course, there's the always appealing love-interest side story. The film rights to the novel have been acquired by Scott Steindorff and his Scott Pictures, which means you're likely to be seeing it on the big screen. (Check out the book trailer here for cinematic potential.)
I spoke to Khoury, who's wanted to be an author since she was four, about her inspirations, her upcoming fall book tour, and what's next for her, as well as how it feels to have her writing dream come true at such an early age. (We're a little bit jealous.) It all began during an afternoon walk last summer, when, she told me, "It came to me like a bolt of lighting, the image of a girl in the jungle, in a glass room. I had this whole concept and I ran home and started on the first chapter. I was so in love with the story from the first minute, I couldn't get out of it." She wrote the first draft of the novel in just 30 days, knowing what the ending would be from the beginning—she just had to figure out how to get there. From start to finish, the book took her less than a year.
As part of the book's promotion she'll be doing Penguin's Breathless Reads tour in the spring, along with Y.A. novelists Morgan Rhodes (Falling Kingdoms), Lili Peloquin (The Innocents), Fiona Paul (Venom), and Elizabeth Paul (Black City). This fall, she'll be visiting book festivals and bookseller trade shows across the country. Meanwhile she's in the early stages of work on the film, with the details being hashed out and a script to come. Writing the book, she says, was itself a cinematic experience because it involved so much video research. Having never visited the Amazon or even a rainforest until two months ago, she "bought all the big shiny coffee table books, watched documentaries, and even listened to rainforest soundtracks" as she wrote, she says, estimating she put two hours of research into every hour of writing. When she finally visited a rainforest in Nicaragua, and then St. Lucia, after finishing the book, she "felt for the first time that I was in the world of Origin, that the research had paid off."
Khoury cites as inspirations the show Lost and The Lord of the Flies, along with the books of Jean Craighead George, which feature characters in primal, wild environments. She qualifies that she's not just talking about jungle fare, though: "Origin is in a more modern era, and there's a lot of science in the book. You’re in the jungle and it’s primitive, but you get a modern feel from the lab, and there’s a clash going on, the sleekness of the lab versus the jungle," she says. Khoury's "perfect" yet terrifying envisioned world of Little Cam, the name for the community of scientists, reminded me of the world of Lois Lowry's The Giver, in which choices are limited for everyone's supposed betterment. "I read The Giver when I was very young," she says. "It was the first dystopian novel I’d ever read, and it’s very haunting. It really stuck with me. I think back to that book; it’s such a launching pad." She adds that she was also influenced by Flowers for Algernon, and there is indeed a lab rat in Origin, named Roosevelt.
In Khoury's book, it's the lead-up to a dystopian society, though, and not a fully realized one, based on scientific beliefs used to control people—a negative side of science along with the good. But Pia, importantly, still has the ability to choose and change. In some ways, it's a classic Y.A. coming-of-age story. "Pia starts out almost a little bit spoiled, raised believing she’s perfect, the ultimate creation, and no one can tell her otherwise," she says. "Until she meets Eio, she’s very naive and sheltered, with only one perspective, what she’s been told her whole life. But she breaks out of Little Cam and starts seeing herself less as the center of the universe and more a part of it. It's very much a growth story. Her situation is completely different than the average teen, but she asks the same questions: She’s just a 17-year-old girl trying to find her purpose."
A 17-year-old girl finding her purpose doesn't sound all that far off from a 22-year-old woman finding hers, though in Khoury's case her "Little Cam" is the tightly knit community of Toccoa, in the mountains of northeast Georgia. It's a town with a population of less than 15,000, where she's lived her entire life. They threw a midnight party for the release of her book.
So, does her age make her the perfectly engineered Y.A. author? "I can understand a lot of the experiences of teens and it's all very fresh for me," she says, "but I also feel like I have so much to learn. This has all been a lifelong dream," she added. And, yes, she's already working on her next book.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.