Madeleine George’s debut novel centers on two teens who could not look more different from one another: obese Meghan and hauntingly thin Aimee. Looks, which explores the ways girls—on both extremes of the weight spectrum—use food and their bodies to express their isolation and loneliness, will be published by Viking in June. Yet it was George’s work in another medium that caught the attention of senior editor Joy Peskin.

Madeleine George.

As a teenager, George had penned a play, The Most Massive Woman Wins, which spotlights four women awaiting liposuction procedures. Several years ago, one of Peskin’s friends, a theater director who also knew George, sent the editor a copy of the play. “She knew that I was interested in women’s issues and body issues,” says Peskin. “At the time I was new to Viking and was interested in developing new talent from nontraditional sources. I was completely floored by Madeleine’s amazing play and contacted her immediately.”

The editor’s timing was right. “Before hearing from Joy, I had been dabbling in short fiction on the side of playwriting and was toying with the idea of trying my hand at young adult fiction,” says George, who is also a founding member of the 13P playwriting collective and the director of the Bard College satellite campus at Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility in Manhattan. According to George, Looks grew out of “a scene about the mutual observation between an emaciated girl and an obese girl,” that she spontaneously wrote while at a diner with a friend.

That scene helped shaped Looks, as did the author’s own adolescence. “Growing up, I felt as though my body was at once the most private and the most exposed part of me and that it was odd to feel both so visible and so invisible at the same time,” George says. She hopes that in the characters of Meghan and Aimee readers “find an element of optimism in the sense that these two slightly desperate girls find each other in a way that may be imperfect, but is sufficient to keep them from being devoured by their high-school peers.”

The veteran playwright says she was not prepared for the change of pace novel writing requires, comparing it to running a marathon. “I didn’t realize how much aerobic writing stamina was involved,” George recalls, noting that Looks took much longer to write than she expected. “I had the naive notion that I would bang this out quite quickly, but it took me four years. Luckily I had an extraordinary editor who not only edited but taught me how to write in this genre, and did so with kindness and grace.

Peskin praises what she describes as “the seeming ease of Madeleine’s writing, yet the tremendous thought and work behind it.” Additionally, Peskin views George’s theater background as an advantage. “When we got together to talk about the book, she would take notes, just as theater people take notes when writers and directors confer,” see next paragraph she says. “Madeleine would then integrate my comments into her vision and come back with new pages that went where I wanted her to go—and so much further.”

George’s sensibility as a playwright also helped shape her narrative in several ways, adds Peskin, observing that since a play relies so heavily on dialogue, a playwright needs to be attuned to how people speak and to each character’s distinct voice. “Madeleine has a particular gift for dialogue, and I think that comes from a combined innate ability to listen closely and take a genuine interest in what people have to say and how they say it, and also from her training as a playwright.” The editor also credits George’s theater experience for enhancing her skill at setting scenes credibly and presenting strong visuals throughout Looks.

Even before Looks reaches bookstores, Viking has signed George on for two more novels, scheduled to pub in 2010 and 2012. “I felt so strongly about this author that I wanted to lock her in,” says Peskin.

Looks is one of two books included in Penguin BFYR’s recent Blue Ribbon mailing to 500 top accounts. The publisher has created a discussion guide for teachers and librarians, and George was selected to participate in a panel discussion at the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents workshop during NCTE in San Antonio next November.

And George says she intends to continue balancing her play and novel writing. “I definitely don’t want to choose between the stage and the page,” she says. “I find it interesting how writing drama and writing fiction can add spice to one another and I hope to keep moving back and forth between the two.”

Looks by Madeleine George. Viking, $16.99 256p ages 12-up ISBN 978-0-670-06167-9