What Writers Can Learn from ‘Origin’ by Jessica Khoury

Origin by Jessica Khoury

South Carolina is best-known for its “beach reads,” like Nicholas Sparks’ coastal romances and Pat Conroy’s lowcountry epics.

But a 23-year-old novelist in Columbia, SC–Jessica Khoury, who is of Syrian and Scottish descent–is quickly changing the state’s literary reputation. This Saturday, May 17th, she’ll be speaking and signing books at the South Carolina Book Festival.

Khoury is the Michael Crichton of young-adult fiction: she infuses high-concept thrillers with the dark side of scientific and technological progress. Her debut novel ORIGIN was published in 2012 to widespread acclaim, spawning additional books set in the same fictional universe, this year’s VITRO and the forthcoming KALAHARI.

In ORIGIN, 17-year-old Pia is “perfect” in every quantifiable way: her senses and reflexes are heightened, her skin is impenetrable, and most importantly…she will never die, thanks to a century-long effort by scientists to imbue human DNA with the near-magical properties of a rare flower (echoes of 2013’s THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES).

At a secret Amazonian laboratory known as “Little Cambridge,” Pia’s mentors have taught her everything they know about biology and genetics, preparing Pia for the day when she joins them as a scientist in their mission to perfect humanity.

But they haven’t told Pia anything about the world beyond her corner of the rainforest, or about the costs of making her immortal.

Why? And what happens when she breaks out of the lab?

You’ll have to read ORIGIN. Trust me, it won’t take you long…the book is impossible to put down. It would (will?) make for an excellent film adaptation in the hands of the right screenwriter (cough).

Here are three things writers can learn from Khoury’s impressive debut:

Limited Point-of-View
Khoury’s protagonist has grown up in a glass box, behind fences, sheltered from the outside world. All references to geography or history in her textbooks have been blacked out.

By severely limiting Pia’s perspective, Khoury creates tension in two ways: via dramatic irony (we know more than Pia) and “iris-out” suspense (there’s more than meets the eye).

Like Jeff VanderMeer’s ANNIHILATION and the early seasons of the television series LOST, Khoury’s novel uses an “iris-out” technique to gradually reveal more and more of the mystery, eventually leading to a host of surprising revelations. The most celebrated use of this technique in young-adult fiction is probably in THE GIVER, where (SPOILER ALERT) we don’t realize the narrator sees in black-and-white until he realizes it.

Your novel doesn’t have to be written in the first person, like Khoury’s and VanderMeer’s, to utilize this effect. Using free indirect style, you can seamlessly embed a character’s perspective into third-person narration, limiting your prose to any character’s unique style of thinking and observing.

Competing Desires
Beginning writers tend to cast their characters as one-dimensional archetypes. The mild-mannered geek. The cynical hipster. The sweet old man.

But real people are never so singular. We all have competing desires that fight for a say in how we behave. In my work-in-progress, THE HIDDEN CITY, the main character has been teased for most of his life because he’s a short, scrawny bookworm who’s bad at team sports. But at the same time, despite his low self-esteem, he wants desperately to be a bold man of action instead of a weak-willed boy. The novel gives both sides of the character a chance to manifest.

Similarly, in ORIGIN, Pia thinks of herself as a dutiful, self-serious student with no time for her innermost desires. Simultaneously, she wants both to belong to a cloistered scientific community, and to break free and travel the world. A protagonist without this kind of inner conflict is dead from page one, because the reader can always predict exactly how she’ll behave in any given circumstance.

Consider Real-World Consequences
Too often, novels featuring characters with superhuman, supernatural, or paranormal abilities fail to realistically depict the impact said abilities would have in the real world, both on a micro- and macro-level. In ORIGIN, Pia’s immortality isn’t just a cool superpower that gives Khoury an excuse to orchestrate grandiose action sequences.

Instead, Khoury takes the concept of immortality and considers the psychological consequences it might have on a real-life teenage girl. Loneliness. Detachment. Guilt. Knowing you will watch everyone you love die. Fearing the eventual ennui and boredom that might result from centuries of existence. Spending decades trapped inside a hungry anaconda.

Don’t limit the speculative nature of your fiction to the concept or the plot. Explore how the unnatural, supernatural, unknown, and impossible might affect human beings.

Khoury’s next two novels, VITRO and the forthcoming KALAHARI, feature the same Dharma Initiative-esque corporation (Corpus) at the center of ORIGIN. I’ll blog about the former soon.


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