Thursday, May 13, 2021

Five Questions for Author Joan He

Every fall, Boswell’s adult book buyer, Jason, asks the Boswellians for our Top Five Books of the Year. We can choose from any genre. Even though I read sixty or so books each year, it’s never a problem to narrow them down. I recognize them. Right away. Those top books have a glow about them that just isn’t there for books that are merely an outstanding read. When I turned the last page of author Joan He’s latest, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, I knew I’d found the second of my top five books (in no particular ranking). And interestingly enough, both books have the same publication date (May 4th) and are both sci-fi, which is not my usual genre (though I don’t like to think of myself as predictable when it comes to reading.) 

Today on the Boswellians Blog I’m lucky enough to be chatting with author Joan He - and it's an extra exciting week for He, because The Ones We're Meant to Find just hit the New York Times bestseller list. WOW! Welcome! 

JENNY CHOU: The Ones We’re Meant to Find has two point-of-view characters, Kasey who is a tech genius lacking in social skills and Cee, who is full of longing and determination, and each character has her own set of challenges. Let’s try really hard not to give anything away (though I’m absolutely bursting to talk about all the twists in your book), but in a non-spoilery way, what are Kasey and Cee’s biggest challenges? 

JOAN HE: Thank you so much for having me Jenny! 

Even though Kasey and Cee are very different characters, they face the same biggest challenge: to figure out who they are and what they want for themselves. For Cee, who’s living on an abandoned island, it’s in her nature to want companionship. Throughout the book she wonders if that’s superficial, if it’d be better to have goals independent of other people, but in the end being true to herself means caring for the ones she loves.  Kasey is the complete opposite; to be true to herself, she needs to not care about other people and trust in her own judgment. In that way, neither of the characters really “change” by the end of the book; they instead come to reaffirm the person that they were all along but not confident enough to accept.

JC: I have to say, The Ones We’re Meant to Find is an intriguing title to begin with, but over the course of reading the novel, it becomes clear how truly awesome it is. Was it the title of your book from the start or did you come up with it during the writing process? And what about that gorgeous cover? What can you tell us about the artist and how that particular image was chosen?

JH: Yes, the title was always that from the start and I was a very lucky author to be able to keep it from draft to publication! 

The cover, on the other hand, wasn’t anywhere near this final illustration from the start. The first drafts drew more from digital images and had a futuristic feel, but I suggested we go for an illustrated or more typographical route to highlight the humanity of the story. My publisher was kind enough to take my opinion seriously and brought Aykut Aydoğdu on board. Personally, I’m not actually the biggest fan of people or faces prominently displayed on covers, but if you look at Aykut’s portfolio then I think it’s obvious why we went in the direction of portraying the sisters. He really is so good at rendering people in a way that feels both grounded and surreal. I was adamant that we somehow incorporate the ocean in the cover because it’s almost its own character, and he went above and beyond in doing that too!

JC: Your book is so spectacularly twisty! How do you feel about the inevitable comparison to We Were Liars? And just to be clear, I knew about the comparison to WWL before reading and still gasped out loud every few pages because there was so much I didn’t see coming. 

JH: It’s an honor to be compared to We Were Liars! My debut novel, Descendant of the Crane, also has a really big twist, and in general I’ve been trying to make twists my “brand” since I’m writing across genres and want to try my best to give readers one familiar (or shocking!) thing to expect. I have huge admiration for books that subvert even the most basic of assumptions, and We Were Liars does that. I hope The Ones We're Meant to Find does too.

JC: One of the most chilling parts of The Ones We’re Meant to Find is how people’s social status and the privilege to live in the clean environment of a levitating city built in the sky is based on the actions of their ancestors. Someone whose grandfather invested in oil could find themselves floundering on earth’s surface, a victim of extreme weather, a doomed ocean, and an inhospitable atmosphere. Tell us how you got interested in sustainability and climate change and the research you did to create such a fascinating and potentially realistic world for your book. 

JH: Because I knew the plot of the book from the start, including the pivotal midpoint twist, I also knew that the world needed to be ending for the story to work. That’s when climate change entered the picture: when I sat down to think about what the world could possibly be ending from, climate change seemed like the most plausible cause, and the one that would require readers to suspend the least disbelief.

That said, I hesitate to say that the book is pro-sustainability; I hope it shows, if anything, that you can be among some of the most vulnerable populations and yet also be privileged enough to be able to do something about climate change and to adopt greener practices in your daily life or livelihood. It’d be great if everyone could think about the next generation, or the third, but just as there are many people who only think about themselves because they choose to, for many others, it’s not a matter of choice but of survival.

Overall, I’m much more fascinated by the interplay of choice and consequence, and the way individual freedoms can both amplify our own lives while suffocating others.  When the covid pandemic happened at first, I saw the satellite images of the atmosphere clearing up because people staying home meant fewer transmissions. And obviously, people staying at home was not only good for the environment, it was good for controlling the pandemic! And yet some of the countries with the highest rates of lockdown compliance per capita were able to achieve such results by invading what we over here in the US see as rights. Is this how we should have done things? I don’t actually think there’s an answer. The effectiveness of a system depends on the situation. 

JC: Wouldn’t I just love to ask you all about your brilliant plot twists and THE ENDING. OMG. THE ENDING. But (unfortunately) the Boswellians do not believe in spoilers. So instead, let’s imagine you get to be an Indie bookseller for a day! What new or upcoming titles would you recommend to blog readers? 

I was lucky enough to read an early copy of Jade Fire Gold by June CL Tan and I’m so excited for it to come out this October 12th! Also very excited to dive into The Infinity Courts which is at the top of my TBR.

Joan, thank you for your time, thank you for your words, and thank you for hanging out with me on the blog. Readers, you can follow Joan He on Twitter and Instagram @joanhewrites. 

(And if you read this entire blog post wondering what my other top book of 2021 is that also happens to be sci-fi and published on May 4th? It’s Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Click the title to read my review.) 

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