After the first two books in Jackie Morse Kessler’s Riders of the Apocalypse series—Hunger, about a girl with anorexia, and Rage, about a girl with depression—were so positively reviewed on the blog, we were incredibly excited to invite the author over for a joint interview. Both reviewers had a chance to ask her their questions; they came up with some wonderful ones about the books, about the handling of mental illness in young adult fiction, and more.
Alex Townsend: In Hunger and Rage you seem to personally relate to your protagonists’ problems (anorexia and depression, respectively). To what extent were/are these issues for you and what was the experience of writing about them in such a personal way like for you?
Jackie Morse Kessler: Hunger was always extremely personal to me. I’m a former bulimic, and I still have self-image issues. The protagonist Lisabeth is inspired by someone I knew when I was younger; she’d been a very close friend, and she was the one who introduced me to bulimia. The scene in Hunger with Tammy in the bathroom? That was me. The scene was raw because that’s what it had been like for me. I wanted the story to be raw. Eating disorders aren’t glamorous. They’re brutal. I wanted that to be clear in the book.
Rage was different. I’ve had no experience with self-injury (well, other than bulimia) so I did a lot of research. What I didn’t have to research, though, is how the protagonist Missy felt: the torrent of emotions, the feeling like her chest is too tight and she can’t breathe, the extremes. I’ve been there. I think we all have been there.
Writing the Riders books was emotionally draining. Channeling those feelings and capturing them in words was exhausting but also energizing. I suppose that’s catharsis. The most difficult book out of the four was Breath, because at the time I was writing that story (about Death, depression and suicide), I was going through a serious bout of depression.
Alex: Throughout the Riders series, there are also issues that come up that you may relate to less personally, such as Alzheimer’s, bullying, anger issues, and suicidal urges. Of the issues that aren’t from your personal experience, how did you go about researching and writing about them to make sure your stories were authentic? What advice would you like to give to authors looking to write about mental illnesses or other issues that they don’t personally have?
Jackie: We’ve got the whole world at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet. Doing research is both easy and challenging—easy in that there’s so much out there, challenging in that there’s so much out there! Doing research, whether through web searches, watching videos/shows on a topic, going to the library, or talking to people will take up more time than you realize, and getting information on one thing leads to information on another thing, and so on. So allot sufficient time for your research. And remember that you don’t have to use everything you find. Some of it won’t be relevant. Some will be fodder for another story. And some will be just enough to inform your writing—it may be only one sentence in your book, but it will be a well-researched sentence!
When it comes to writing about issues, the two pieces of advice I have are to be honest and to be respectful. If you’re honest, you’ll automatically be respectful because you have to understand to be honest, and with understanding comes respect.
Alex: How did the general world of Riders evolve for you as a writer?
Jackie: I was on chapter three of Hunger when I realized that I needed to figure out the purpose of the Riders. Why were they there? And that’s when I decided they weren’t harbingers of the end of the world (as in the Book of Revelation) but rather they were saving the world. It was about balance. Each book furthered the world building and the Riders’ history, and finally in Breath, everything was laid out. As I wrote Breath, I had Post-It Notes all over my desk, each with a different question or issue that I needed to resolve before the end of the book (Death’s origin, how he created the Riders, how Xander fit into everything, what happened to the Riders, and so on).
Katherine Locke: In Hunger, you tell Lisabeth’s story through a fantastical or paranormal lens. How did that change her story? What made you want to write it this way?
Jackie: This was the core idea I had from the very beginning: An anorexic teenage girl becomes Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. There was no other way I could tell the story; if you strip away the paranormal aspect, then Lisa’s journey to health would have been extremely different.
Katherine: Lisabeth’s relationship with her parents is complicated, but also not unusual. What about that relationship made you want to explore it on the page versus other relationships in Lisabeth’s life?
Jackie: Lisa didn’t wake up one day and decide to become anorexic. Her home life had a lot to do with her eating disorder. Lisa’s mother is very polished, very critical, and rarely home; Lisa’s father is a constant presence and he calls his daughter a princess. Her parents have left a huge impression on Lisabeth. Friends and boyfriends can come and go. Parents are more permanent—even when they’re not home.
Katherine: It’s hard to avoid numbers in this day and age. Calorie counts, fat content, everything’s printed on menus right next to the prices. People talk about their weight on commercials, especially this time of year, and it’s not just women. It’s hitting the whole gender spectrum right now. What would you say to a teenager drowning under these messages right now?
Jackie: It took me a long time to really understand that it’s never been about the numbers. That’s a lie. It’s not about what the scale tells us, or what size our clothing is. Numbers don’t define us. Numbers don’t have power over us. What it’s really about is living. It’s about doing something that energizes and inspires us. That’s going to be different for everyone; there’s no one right way to live, or to feel. What matters is doing it. As Death would say: Go thee out unto the world. 🙂
Alex: In Rage, the bullying Missy faces is creatively brutal and cruel. How did you come up with the varieties of antagonism she faces (including from figures of authority like her soccer coach)?
Jackie: I knew that the party scene was going to happen from the very beginning, and that it would trigger events that led to her taking up the Sword. It was influenced by a number of news articles about students committing suicide after suffering from cyber bullying (secretly recording someone having sex and then posting it online, for example). I thought about how trusting we are when we’re completely naked. I thought about how easy it is for people to be cruel, and to share that casual cruelty through technology. It’s a digital age where people are happy to share the good and the ugly with everyone – and it’s an age where people are so wrapped up in the moment that they don’t stop to think about consequences. And so, the party scene. As for what happened with the soccer coach: that was based on another piece I read somewhere, about a student being kicked off the school team because she was considered to be a bad influence. And I thought about how terrible that was: having someone who’s in authority automatically not believe you, not take your side, not listen to you. And then your one safe outlet is taken away.
Alex: It’s noteworthy that none of the protagonists of the Riders series fully overcome the problems that made them riders in the first place. Their situations improve, but it’s never really over. This is contrary to the way that mental illness is handled in many other stories. What made you decide to hold back from fully happy endings for everyone?
Jackie: We don’t always get happy endings, and especially when dealing with issues that eat away inside of us, I think it’s unrealistic to solve everything neatly by the end of the book. That being said, all of the endings are positive, even if they’re not happily-ever-afters.
Alex: What do you think of the state of YA literature today in regard to the portrayal of mental illness? Has it gotten better over time? What are some ways it might be improved?
Jackie: The important part, to me, is that books are tackling the issue. Some will do it better than others; some will truly be enlightening and some will miss the mark. This is true for any book. As long as the stories are being written, people will talk about the issues. And that, ultimately, is what’s important: that people become more aware of mental disorders – what they are, what they’re not – and what we can do to help ourselves and help others who are struggling. With stories come conversation; with conversation comes understanding. The best thing we can do is keep writing books about issues that matter to us, and keep reading those books, and keep talking about them.
Alex: What did you learn while writing this series?
Jackie: This was the most brutally honest series I’ve ever written. It was emotionally and mentally draining. I put a lot of myself into the pages. And it was worth it.
Alex: What messages do you want readers to take from reading The Riders of the Apocalypse? Did you write these books more for a general audience or the people who suffer from the issues you describe?
Jackie: The biggest takeaway I hope readers have is they’re not alone. Whether they’re suffering from anorexia or know someone who is, they’re not alone. If they’re being bullied or see it happening to others, they’re not alone. There are people you can talk to. Your voice matters and you deserve to be heard.
From this point on, are SPOILERS for the entire series.
Alex: You hint in some of your author’s notes that Hunger was originally supposed to be a stand-alone book. How did you transition that story into a series? If you’d known you were going to write a series from the start, would you have had Lisabeth keep the mantle of Famine? What made you decide to make Tammy the next Famine and when did you make that decision?
Jackie: When my agent said to me, “Which Rider are you going to write about next?” I replied, “Next???” And she said, “There are four Riders.” The proverbial lightbulb lit, and I started thinking about the next story. Based on the events of Hunger, it made sense to have the next book focus on War and her Sword—and as soon as I decided that, I knew that the protagonist would be a self-injurer. And based on that book, Rage, it made sense for the third book to focus on Pestilence and leave Death’s story for the final book.
Would I have changed Hunger if I’d known it would be the first of a series? I think that authors would always make changes to their work if they could. (That’s why deadlines are so important!) If I were writing Hunger today, it would probably be different, if for no other reason that writing changes over time. Who I am in 2015 is different from who I was in 2008, when I wrote the novel. That all being said … No, Lisa was never going to keep the mantle of Famine. Her decision was a major step in her journey. Once she gave back the mantle, she was empowered enough to tell her father that she needed help.
As for the next Famine … I could totally lie and say that I knew from the very beginning that Tammy would be next. Maybe that was always in the back of my brain. If it was, I didn’t realize it until I was writing Breath.
Alex: In Rage, the protagonist, a suicidal girl, eventually falls in love with Death. Was there any symbolism to this attraction? (Particularly as Death takes the form of Kurt Cobain.) Or was it a matter of chemistry between the characters?
Jackie: Important point of clarification: Missy isn’t suicidal, but she is sad and anxious and angry and desperately trying to cope with the severity of her emotions; she self-injures as a coping mechanism. This can be mistaken for being suicidal, and maybe some self-injurers are. Missy isn’t.
Why did Missy fall in love with Death? Part of it is because War and Death have a long history. Most of it is because Missy fell in love, as people do. He understood her in a way that no one else did. (That he understands everyone in a way no one else does isn’t important.)
Alex: In each of your books the protagonists struggle both with a personal problem (such as mental illness and bullying) and a difficult family life. Was this a theme you deliberately chose? If so, why?
Jackie: Do you mean the difficult family life? I think that we all come from families that aren’t perfect, and those families shape us. Lisa’s family planted the seeds that wound up becoming anorexia. Missy’s became self-injury. Billy’s was bullying (at home, that came out through his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s; at school, he was terribly bullied and felt like there was nothing he could do about it, just like there was nothing he could do about his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s; he thought all he could do was wait to run away to college). Xander was different—but then again, his role in Breath is different from the other protagonists in the series because Xander was never tapped to be the new Death.
Alex: In Breath, the final book in the series, the protagonist Xander is shown having two major loves in his life, Ashley and Riley. However, both people have gender-neutral names and are never referred to with pronouns. Is this meant to imply that Xander is gay or otherwise queer? If this is the case, why did you not want to make his orientation explicit?
Jackie: Actually, what I was trying to do is take gender out of it completely, because I thought it might be a distraction. It doesn’t matter if Xander is gay; that was never the point. I wanted readers to be able to identify with Xander, with falling in love with someone and that love leading to terrible consequences.
Alex: Within your universe, you’ve established that the riders of the apocalypse serve an important purpose in the world, actually helping to prevent the things they’re associated with. Why did you then decide to have the current riders give up their mantles? Will Death have to choose new horsepeople now?
Jackie: The people come and go; the Riders are eternal (as long as Death chooses, at least). It was important for Tammy, Missy, and Billy to make their own decisions about their mantles (as Lisa did in Hunger). Billy had been tricked into it, so it was extremely empowering for him to say no thanks. Tammy was finally ready to live her life, and that meant walking away from Famine, which had held her back; her life was secondary to her role as a Rider. And Missy, who more than the others had found the balance between being a Rider and being a person, said no only in part for herself; it was time for Death to go on his own journey to find the balance.
As for what happens next … I’d thought I was done with the Riders. But that may not be the case. I’m not being coy; some ideas have been percolating. I’ll see what happens.
Alex: And, just for fun, a few fan questions!
Jackie: Yay, fun!
Alex: Was the whole series in Xander’s head?
Jackie: Depends on how you look at it. There’s no wrong answer. (I know what my answer is: For Xander, it was all in his head.)
Alex: How often does Death regenerate? Roughly every 20 years? (As would be suggested by Xander’s lifespan and when Death regenerated during it.)
Jackie: No set cycle.
Alex: Why Kurt Cobain? And is Death’s new form another person we’d recognize?
Jackie: This was one of those fully-formed ideas that just popped out of my head. Death was always in the guise of Kurt Cobain for me. Why? I don’t know. I wasn’t even into Nirvana when I started writing Hunger. Something about him must have imprinted on my brain, because there was no one else Death could have been.
Death’s new form was Spalding Gray. It came to me literally in a dream: I woke up with the phrase “spalding gray” in my head, and after I went online I learned who he was. I truly don’t know how that got into my head; I didn’t even know who he was. Weird, huh?
Alex: Which book is your favorite?
Jackie: While Hunger is the most personal for me, I think my favorite is Breath.
Alex: Thank you very much for your time, Jackie. And thank you for writing some wonderful books. I’m thrilled to have them in my personal collection now.
Jackie: Thank you so much! (Now I’m blushing!)