October 19, 2012

Psychtember Interview with Jackie Morse Kessler

I'm pleased to have Jackie Morse Kessler on the blog for a Psychtember interview! Jackie is the author of the Riders of the Apocalypse series, which includes Hunger, Rage, and Loss as well as the upcoming Breath.

First, a bit about Jackie and the latest in the series, Loss:

"Jackie Morse Kessler grew up in Brooklyn, NY, with a cranky cat and overflowing shelves filled with dolls and books. Now she’s in Upstate NY with another cranky cat, a loving husband, two sons, and overflowing shelves filled with dragons and books (except when her sons steal her dragons). She has a bachelor’s degree in English and American Literature, and yet she’s never read any Jane Austen (with or without zombies). She also has a master’s degree in media ecology. (The living study of technology and culture. Which is cool, but she still can’t figure out how to use Tweetdeck.)  Jackie spends a lot of time writing, reading, and getting distracted by bright and shiny new ideas. (She just came up with a new idea right now.) She has a weakness for chocolate and a tendency to let her cat take over her office chair." (from her website)

"Fifteen-year-old Billy Ballard is the kid that everyone picks on, from the school bullies to the teachers. But things change drastically when Death tells Billy he must stand in as Pestilence, the White Rider of the Apocalypse. Now armed with a Bow that allows him to strike with disease from a distance, Billy lashes out at his tormentors...and accidentally causes an outbreak of meningitis. Horrified by his actions, Billy begs Death to take back the Bow. For that to happen, says Death, Billy must track down the real White Rider—who is lost in his memories.

In his search, Billy travels through White Rider’s life: from ancient Phrygia, where the man called King Mita agrees to wear the White Rider’s Crown, to Sherwood Forest, where Pestilence figures out how to cheat Death; from the docks of Alexandria, where cartons of infested grain are being packed onto a ship that will carry the plague, to the Children’s Crusade in France—all the way to what may be the end of the world. When Billy finally finds the White Rider, the teen convinces the man to return to the real world.

But now the insane White Rider plans to unleash something awful on humanity—something that could make the Black Death look like a summer cold. Billy has a choice: he can live his life and pretend he doesn’t know what’s coming, or he can challenge the White Rider for his Crown. Does one bullied teenager have the strength to stand his ground—and the courage to save the world?
" (from Goodreads)

And now for the questions...

1.) The protagonists in both Rage and Loss deal with bullying. In what ways would you say Missy's and Billy's experiences are similar, and in what ways do they differ? How did this affect how you approached writing scenes involving the bullying they face?

JK: Both Billy and Missy are victims of horrible bullying. Billy is physically assaulted, again and again, in big ways and in small ways, by people he fears and by people he loves. Missy and Billy are both verbally assaulted and called terrible names, in public in front of their peers. Missy's humiliation is large scale and goes viral; Billy's is more localized and, at times, private. But even though there are differences in how they are bullied, they both suffer greatly.

While I approached LOSS as a story about a very bullied boy -- physically, verbally, emotionally -- I didn't see RAGE as a book about a very bullied girl, even though she is. She copes with her bulling, and all the pressure she's under, by cutting herself; Billy doesn't know how to cope with his bullying. She has reached her breaking point (which is why Death offers her a job); Billy hasn't yet.

In terms of the writing, the bullying in RAGE came across in an organic way - Missy walking in the hallways at school and insulted; Missy at the party; Missy interacting with her soccer teammates; Missy back in school after the party and dealing with more insults and direct attacks, to say nothing of the cyberbullying. With LOSS, the initial scene was planned -- the book begins with Billy getting the snot pounded out of him, again. And from there, events unfold as we see his home life and his terror of going to school, and what happens in school at the gym and in the classroom and in the cafeteria. The bullying is more at the forefront in LOSS because that's everything to Billy; Missy doesn't see herself as bullied -- it's just how things are. It's a very bleak outlook.

2.) It's pointed out a couple times in Loss that sometimes asking a teacher for help with bullying doesn't do any good. What advice can you give to a teen getting bullied who suspects telling their teacher won't improve the situation?

JK: Keep talking - if not to that teacher, to someone else. Your guidance councilor. Your parents. Other teachers. Your friends. Talk. You matter, and your words deserve to be heard. If you still can't find someone willing to listen, call a crisis group or help group like To Write Love On Her Arms, which can help put you in touch with people who can help.

3.) The concept of memory is threaded throughout Loss, and is especially relevant to the characters of Billy's grandfather and King Mita. If King Mita and Billy's grandfather could switch lives for a day, what do you think each of them would learn?

JK: I can't answer that. Billy's grandfather is suffering from Alzheimer's and Mita by the time Billy meets him is insane. If they were both in their right minds, they would see and identify with how much each man loves his family. But neither of them is fully capable of doing that when LOSS takes place.

4.) In Rage, Missy does not have a strong support system at home. How important a buffer do you feel support from family and friends is in preventing emotional distress from developing into something clinical? Do you think if Missy's home situation had been more positive, this might have affected whether or not she began cutting?

JK: It's crucial that people have a support system -- friends, or family, or teachers, or others. We all need someone to talk to. The act of talking can be its own sort of balm. I can't speak to whether a support system would prevent distress from developing into something clinical, but I know from personal experience that Interaction -- knowing that we're being heard and not dismissed -- can help us heal. It's certainly helped me. (I'm a former bulimic and I also used to be on antidepressants.)

5.) Which of your YA books has challenged you the most as a writer?

JK: They each got harder and harder to write. In many ways, HUNGER was the easiest because it had been brewing for 10 years before I wrote it, and I had personal experience with an eating disorder. I think that BREATH (which comes out in April 2013) was the most challenging to write, not only because of the subject matter (writing about depression and suicidal thinking when you're feeling horribly melancholy and possibly depressed is **not** fun) but because of the structure of the book.

6.) Death is one of the most interesting characters in this series, and undoubtedly many readers' favourite  (he's my favourite, anyway!). Can you give us a teaser from the final book, Breath, in which Death finally gets to be the center of attention?

JK: Thanks - he's my favorite too. :) For BREATH, well, how's this? "In the fourth and final volume of the Riders of Apocalypse series, high school senior Xander Atwood has a secret. Death, the Pale Rider, has lost his way. What happens when the two meet will change the fate of the world."

And here's the full back cover copy:

Contrary to popular belief, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse aren't just harbingers of doom -- they actually keep life in balance. But what happens when their leader and creator, Death, becomes suicidal? Before the first living thing drew its first gasping breath, he was there. He has watched humanity for millennia. And he has finally decided that humanity is not worth the price he has paid time and again. When Death himself gives up on life, a teenager named Xander Atwood is the world's only hope. But Xander bears a secret, one that may bring about the end of everything. This heart-pounding final installment of the Riders of the Apocalypse series looks at the value of life, the strength of love, and how a small voice can change everything . . . forever.

Thanks very much, Jackie, for stopping by and answering all my questions!

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