Where Do You Get Your Ideas?
In the case of my new young-adult novel, "A Trick of the Light" (HarperCollins), I know exactly where I got the idea, and also when.
On Wednesday, August 4, 2004, I read an article in the New York Daily News called "Not For Girls Only."
The article began: "Sue Roberts couldn't stop fuming after watching a 'Dr. Phil' show on eating disorders. The two-part series features several girls with bulimia and anorexia. 'What about the boys?' she remembers asking herself, then furiously writing an e-mail to the talk-show host."
Sue Roberts' 16-year-old son, Justin, the article said, "almost starved himself to death after several doctor's visits missed important signs." Justin was "a straight-A student who wanted to be perfect in every way." At 13, a coach happened to tell Justin that he could "shave a few seconds off his mile time if he lost some weight." Then, around the same time, a tall thin boy, a classmate of Justin's, looked over at Justin, called him fat and laughed. "Maybe I am," Justin thought, and decided to stop eating, pretty much just like that.
At first, Justin's parents complimented him on how good he looked, how disciplined he was. Then they noticed he was dropping weight too rapidly, that his personality had changed. "We were all walking on eggshells because he would blow up about little things," his mother said.
Within four months, Justin, five feet tall and originally 130 pounds, went down to 82 pounds. The article explained: "His lips, fingertips and nails looked bluish. He wore baggy sweatshirts to hide his frail body, but he couldn't conceal the malnourishment evident in his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks."
Justin's mother couldn't prove to her insurance company that her son needed hospitalization, so finally she had him admitted on her own. "His condition was worse than she thought," the article went on. "His heart rate was 42 beats per minute. He had zero body fat. His body temperature was 92, and there were patches of hair growing on his stomach and neck. It was his body's way of trying to keep him warm. He was days away from death."
During his brief hospital stay, Justin "saw an emaciated girl walking in the hallway, talking to herself." He decided: "I really don't want to be like that." He began eating and he recovered fully. In less than a year, he grew four inches. Talking of his present state, he could say: "I'm more outgoing, more confident. I'm happy now."
I got a strange feeling while reading this article. Kind of an other-worldly, floating, almost surreal sensation. I've written only three previous novels, and the same thing happened before I began writing the other books, too. In each case I knew immediately that here was a story that wouldn't leave me alone.
So it's not really accurate to say this is where I got the idea for "A Trick of the Light." This is where the idea was getting me.
I got in touch with the writer of the excellent article I'd been reading, Julie Patel, then a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News (she now she writes for the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida). She put me in touch with Sue Roberts and Justin. They were extremely helpful in giving me more details about the journey of recovery, and referred me to a doctor at Stanford University, James Lock, author of two ground-breaking books on eating disorders. Dr. Lock gave me the names of some doctors and families in NYC so I could meet and interview them. I stayed in contact with Sue Roberts; I'm very glad to say she wrote me recently that Justin, now a young man, remains happy and healthy.
The 15-year-old boy in my book, Mike Welles, has much in common with Justin. He, too, develops an eating disorder rather quickly, and loses weight alarmingly fast. A doctor misleadingly tells Mike he is fine, insisting that anorexia only affects girls. As the disease progresses, Mike's vital signs are similar to Justin's. Mike, too, encounters a girl at a hospital, who freaks him out because she's talking to herself. Mike doesn't recover as fast as Justin did, but he does take significant steps toward recovery.
Julie Patel's article emphasizes that eating disorders among men and boys are on the rise (this was almost ten years ago, and the problem has only gotten worse). Ten percent of people with eating disorders are male, and currently there are ten million people in the U.S. with eating disorders, which means at least a million boys and men (and many people say the figure is much higher). Their disease still gets missed by doctors who think only women and girls can get eating disorders, and many hospitals and eating-disorders clinics still only admit girls and women. Then, as now, eating disorders have the highest death rate of any psychological disorder, estimated between five and 20 percent.
I didn't realize, when the idea got hold of me, where it would lead -- right to the heart of a struggle against a disease that too often ends in tragedy.
© 2013 Lois Metzger, author of A Trick of the Light
Mike Welles had everything under control. But that was before. Now things are rough at home, and they’re getting confusing at school. He’s losing his sense of direction, and he feels like he’s a mess.
Then there’s a voice in his head. A friend, who’s trying to help him get control again. More than that—the voice can guide him to become faster and stronger than he was before, to rid his life of everything that’s holding him back. To figure out who he is again. If only Mike will listen.
Telling a story of a rarely recognized segment of eating disorder sufferers—young men—A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger is a book for fans of the complex characters and emotional truths in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.
Lois Metzger, author of A Trick of the Light, was born in Queens and has always written for young adults. She is the author of three previous novels and two nonfiction books about the Holocaust, and she has edited five anthologies. Her short stories have appeared in collections all over the world. Her writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Harper's Bazaar. She lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and son. For more information please visit http://www.loismetzger.com, and follow the author on Facebook