Author Jeanne Ryan talks with Hypable about her book Charisma and whether or not she would take her fictional drug if given the chance.
Charisma follows the story of Aislyn, a painfully shy junior in high school who suffers from social anxiety. Speaking up in class and trying to have fun with her friends at a party are well outside her comfort zone. She finds out about a new underground gene therapy treatment in the form of a drug called Charisma. Aislyn’s personality completely changes, and suddenly she’s exactly the person she wanted to be all along.
But there’s one problem. The therapy appears to be contagious — and deadly. Worse yet, the doctor who gave her and a select number of other patients the drug suddenly disappears. Read our review.
Jeanne Ryan Interview
Tell us 5 random facts about yourself.
• Two of my brothers have the same name, kind of by accident. Just after my mom gave birth to her sixth kid in less than seven years, the nurse asked the name of her “baby.” Thinking the nurse meant the baby at home, my sleep-deprived mom gave her his name, and it ended up on the birth certificate.
• I could swear that when I was a kid a certain soup company ran a commercial where the main lyric in its jingle was “Constipation got you down?” However, to this day, I have never been able to find anyone else who remembers this.
• Until more recently than I care to admit, I thought narwhals were fictional. (In my defense, they look totally fake in photos!)
• I’d love to go to Burning Man one day.
• I was once in a commercial that ran during the Super Bowl. (Okay, it only ran in Europe on the Armed Forces Network, and was as forgettable as that soup commercial mentioned above.)
What inspired you to write Charisma?
If you’ve ever seen the kids’ show Between the Lions, you’ll know how they take a word, replace a letter to make a new word, replace another letter for another word, so that “look” becomes “book” becomes “boot” becomes “foot”, etc.
Well, the premise of Charisma evolved something like that, where I kept replacing key aspects (e.g. main character, setting, stakes, antagonist). The biggest piece of the puzzle came to me when I was planning to visit Indonesia and learned via the State Department website of a rabies outbreak in Bali. This drove me into a state of paranoia that I was only able to deal with by trying to find a way to use a lethal virus in my storytelling. (We writers are such scavengers.) At any rate, I imagined a virus both terrifying and awesome. This premise fell further into place when I ran across an article on gene therapy and learned that it’s usually delivered via viruses.
Have you ever had any issues with social anxiety?
Unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with it here and there. It can take a while for me to feel comfortable enough with someone to really act myself. Until then, I tread cautiously and keep the swearing to a minimum.
How plausible is something like the drug Charisma?
At this time, I think it’s implausible, primarily because “star power” is such a complex and difficult to define trait, based upon many variables of both the nature and nurture variety. However, gene identification is such a hot research area, who can say what personality traits scientists will one day be able to ascribe to our DNA?
Do you think gene therapy will ever become a common, reliable source of treatment?
I think genetically modified drugs will become common, and even applauded (e.g., the ZMapp treatment for Ebola). However, gene therapy itself, where faulty DNA in the human body is replaced with corrected DNA is pretty tricky, since you have to place the modified DNA into the right types of cells in the correct spot, activate it, and hope it replicates quickly enough to overcome the faulty genes. This will make it cost-prohibitive for many people. However, for those able to afford it, I think we’ll see more and more treatments available, starting with those for single-gene disorders. Looking farther out, there’s also hope for treating big diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
Of course, along with treatment for disease, there will be those who want to modify genes for enhancement purposes. We’ll have to tackle the ethical questions around doing so since this could ultimately lead to a Gattaca-like society of genetic haves and have-nots. This debate isn’t as far off as you might think—just last month, the British House of Commons voted to approve the genetic modification of embryos to replace faulty mitochondrial DNA.
If you were offered something like Charisma, would you take it?
After thinking about this a lot, I’ve concluded that as a teen I would not have (too threatening for a kid who felt as though she had little control of her life); however, as an adult I’d probably give it a try if it were proven to be completely safe. I’d love to see what extroversion feels like.
The cover is eye-catching and fun! Can you tell us how that came about?
I’m so happy with what the design team at Dial created! Kudos go to Danielle Calotta.
This was the second cover I saw, and the original cover was gorgeous in its own right. From what I understand, my publisher decided to go with a cover that was more thriller-y and a “thinker” as opposed to the original, which looked kind of sci-fi. I think they made the right choice. Those bunnies!
What is easier to write, the first line or the last line?
The first, because it usually pops into my brain all shiny and glorious. The last line always takes more pondering, and is the more important of the two since it’s what the reader leaves with.
What one YA novel do you wish you had when you were a teen?
Just one, huh? I’d go with The Book Thief because it’s an example of how beautiful and powerful a novel can be. Maybe it would’ve inspired me to start writing sooner.
What projects can we expect from you in the future?
Returning to my Between the Lions example, I’m still flipping through story ideas and doing research. One area in which I’m fascinated is cyber warfare. But, who knows, my next project could end up on a completely different topic based upon my fixation du jour. All part of the thrill of writing.
About the Author
Author Jeanne Ryan grew up in a huge family—eleven brothers and sisters!—that traveled the world. Before writing fiction, she tried her hand at many things, including war game simulation and youth development research. She has a PhD in Social Welfare and lives with her family in Seattle, Washington. Jeanne’s previous novel, Nerve, a YA thriller about an online game of Truth or Dare, without the truth, is currently being made into a feature film starring Emma Roberts and Dave Franco.