November 2013 Features

A World of Her Own

Mawrter connections help Monica Hesse ’03 make the jump from journalist to published novelist.

By Joanna Corman ’95

Monica Hesse ’03, a feature writer at The Washington Post, recently published a young-adult science fiction novel titled Stray. The sequel, Burn, is scheduled to come out in February.

Monica Hesse ’03, a feature writer at The Washington Post, recently published a young-adult science fiction novel titled Stray. The sequel, Burn, is scheduled to come out in February.

While writing her first book, Stray, Monica Hesse ’03, sometimes felt like she was back in the throes of Hell Week. And her literary agent, Ginger Clark ’98, of Curtis Brown Ltd., sometimes felt like a hall advisor—always ready with an encouraging word.

A feature writer for The Washington Post, Hesse would force herself after a full day’s work to sit at her home laptop from 11 p.m. until 1 a.m. and write 1,000 words.

It didn’t matter how good the writing was, Hesse told herself. But if she kept at it, eventually she would have a book.

About eight months later, she did. Hot Key Books, a publisher based in the United Kingdom, issued the novel, the first of a two-part, young-adult science fiction series, in June. The sequel, Burn, is scheduled for publication in February.

Stray wouldn’t have come about without Bryn Mawr College, Hesse says. In 2003, Hesse was interning at Berkley Books in Manhattan. She worked for another Bryn Mawr alumna, Louisa Edwards ’01, who took Hesse to an alumnae Mets baseball game. There, Hesse’s colleague introduced her to Clark.

Fast-forward eight years. Hesse was covering the Nebula Awards, which honors science fiction and fantasy writers, in Washington, D.C. Clark was attending because one of her clients had been nominated.

They ran into each other, and Clark gave Hesse her card, which she does with many alums who are writers.

“I said if you ever write a novel, let me know,” Clark says.

About two months later, Hesse had completed a few chapters and sent them to Clark over a weekend.

“I started reading, and I couldn’t stop,” Clark says. “I wrote her and said, ‘This is brilliant; I would love to be your agent. Do you want to talk on Monday?’”

Stray describes a futuristic government program that raises unwanted children in a virtual world. The children spend most of their days in individual pods watching the on-screen life of Julian, a child deemed perfect by government officials. Hesse tells the story through Lona Sixteen Always, a teenager who escapes from the “Path” and lives with a band of program refugees who struggle to navigate real life.

StrayThe novel explores themes of whether perfection is attainable, how digital media influences our lives, and the challenges teens face in negotiating relationships, love, and self-identity. The sequel revisits Lona and her ex-Path friends as she searches for her mother and tries to understand her past.

At the Post, Hesse frequently covers the topics of teenagers and technology, including social networking and Internet culture, but the transition from journalism to fiction, she says, was nevertheless challenging. As a journalist, Hesse is trained to rely on facts, to avoid assumptions, and to stay out of the story. In writing her novels, Hesse wanted to see what would happen if she worked completely from her imagination, and she made a pact with herself that she would research nothing.

“It was really strange to realize that my character wasn’t going to get up and walk across the room unless I made her get up and walk across the room,” Hesse says. “For me, it was a personal exercise in forcing my own mind to create worlds.”

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