Years ago I wrote a quirky short story about teens in an Eating Disorders Unit of a metropolitan hospital.
Sort of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” meets “Love Story.” Then titled “Iris and Jim,” it sold to a major literary journal. Later, a London publisher included “Iris and Jim” in their YA anthology, and after that it appeared in their Best Of collection.
In total “Iris and Jim” has appeared eight times worldwide.
My agent kept encouraging me to expand “Iris and Jim” (now titled Skin and Bones (Albert Whitman, 2014)) into a novel.
I spent months weighing the pros and cons of such an undertaking.
- The short story would serve as an outline since the basic story arc was in place.
- Each character already had a distinctive voice.
- The hospital setting was firmly fixed in my vision.
- The subject matter had proven itself to be of interest to readers.
- Proven ground is attractive to editors and publishers, as long as the topic is approached in a fresh way.
- The story would require an additional 60,000 words.
- I would have to create a cast of new characters.
- Every character would require a convincing backstory.
- I would need compelling subplots.
- Every scene would require richer subtext.
During the first draft I encountered a number of unexpected obstacles.
For instance, how could I keep up the idiosyncratic tone without the narrator sounding flippant?
Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive over-eating, etc.) are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. It took several drafts before the tone felt balanced.
More than one anorexic in my story figures out how to beat the health care system. After all, they’re experts at manipulating family, friends, and each other, as well their environment.
Yet I worried about Skin and Bones becoming a how-to manual for those still in the throes of the disorder.
On the other hand, I knew I had to include information about the potentially grave consequences associated with the illness. But I didn’t want to sound didactic. Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical scenes. Other times statistics emerged in dialogue between ranting patients. Either way, disseminating information felt more organic when slipped in sideways, and never straight on.
|Sherry in High School|
After the editorial issues had been resolved, it was time to solicit opinions from the outside world.
Comments so far have reinforced my decision to expand my story into novel:
“Male eating disorders are on the rise…Skin and Bones is an open and honest story that addresses a topic much ignored.” —Sharon M. Glynn, Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness.
“Reading this book was like going back into that hell—it was that real!” —A grateful, recovering compulsive-eater (Anonymous).
People have been asking why I chose to explore this issue in the first place. The answer is simple: the media gives attention to accidents resulting from teens drinking and driving, drug abuse, shootings, suicide, etc.
Yet anorexia is the third most common chronic illness among adolescents and has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
They also express curiosity because the main character is a teen guy. Most people don’t think of males as being afflicted with this illness. Yet eating disorders currently affect approximately 25 million Americans, of whom 25 percent are males.
Sherry Shahan has a wide range of children’s books to her credit, including Alaskan-based adventures Ice Island and Frozen Stiff (both Random House). She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension.
See also How Anorexia Is Striking What Many Consider to be an Unlikely Group: Boys and Young Men by Lia Steakley from SCOPE, published by Stanford Medicine. Peek: “… anorexia is generally more advanced among boys by the time they seek treatment.”