In her debut YA novel, Descendant of the Crane, Joan He delivered a Chinese-inflected fantasy court thriller. Now, she’s switching gears for her sophomore effort, The Ones We’re Meant to Find, an intricate near-future cli-fi narrative she wrote while in college. The book centers two sisters: Cee, who narrates in an immediate first-person voice, and Kasey, who has a more removed third-person narration. PW spoke with He about her inspirations, process, and pop cultural preferences.
It was such a salient choice to separate Cee and Kasey’s characters by using different points of view. How did you decide to structure each perspective?
Some of the tropes I found in YA dystopia were part of the book’s initial inspiration, especially how those novels handled sibling relationships. Oftentimes [the presence of a sibling] made a character seem more relatable and empathetic from the beginning, even if the younger sibling didn’t drive the plot for the rest of the novel. One of the reasons I wanted to make Cee first-person present is because her character in many ways is a nod to those tropes; I found a lot of the books I read as a teen also used this point of view. For Kasey, it made sense to make her third-person limited because I feel like you need to work a bit harder to get to know her, and that seemed more respectful of her as a character.
Can you talk about your process behind making the timeline-shifting chapters cohere?
I knew the twist from the beginning, and because of that, I knew the stories would be told in different timelines. When I was writing the first draft, I wrote just straight through chronologically—I’d write a Cee chapter, and then a Kasey chapter. For me, it wasn’t too difficult to keep their timelines straight. Each of them has such an independent narrative in their respective point of view that switching back and forth wasn’t an issue—because they’re so distinct, I could easily remember where each sister left off. I will say that, in revision, it was a lot harder! Particularly, I had to focus on Kasey, rewriting a lot of her story again and then trying to fit it back into the framework of Cee, and making sure their emotions were melding together in a way that felt coherent despite the timeline shifts. I wouldn’t say I have any insight into the process or how it worked, exactly [laughs], because I was very stressed out while doing it.
What inspired you to put such a refreshing spin on human-bot dynamics?
I actually wasn’t thinking about the philosophical or moral or ethical questions about bots and humans while writing; I was more focused on the sisterhood aspect, and exploring how siblinghood is used as a storytelling device. Though I do agree with Kasey, in that I think what makes us human isn’t necessarily our biology, but what’s in our minds. Later on, after writing the book, I watched Westworld and found it so interesting because I loved just how human the robots were!
Did you specifically set out to write a sci-fi novel, or did that emerge organically along the way?
Definitely organically—the reason I was thinking about dystopia is because the very initial inspiration came in the form of a dream. I had this image of a girl diving to the bottom of a sea, looking for something or someone. As I tried to figure out what she was looking for, that’s when I started thinking about the stories I read as a teen.
Did anything change in your approach as you shifted genres from Descendant of the Crane to this novel?
Descendant was the book that converted me to becoming more of a plotter—I pantsed all those twists, and that did not go very well. [Laughs.] That was one thing that changed, but even when I was writing Descendant, I always knew what the midpoint and the ending would be—that’s just something I feel like I really need. Before I even start the book, once I have the idea, I need to know how I’m going to subvert it around the midpoint, and I need to know where it’s going to end up. So that stayed the same for both books, and in that sense, the overall process was the same. I did write The Ones much faster, though; I had a summer break between my junior and senior years of college and wrote it in two months. I don’t think I approached it differently because of the genres—if anything, I probably researched The Ones less! My honest answer is I just used as much of high school biochemistry and physics as I retained, and whatever I could kind of handwave, I did. Just because I feel like, sometimes the more you research, the harder it is to break out of the confines of everything you now know. I really wanted to write a sci-fi that was still intelligent, hopefully, but accessible if you don’t know much about science.
Which love interest would you choose?
I’d definitely pick Hero. I like a domestic guy who can cook for me and take care of me and not have all these angsty murderous intentions.
Which protagonist do you think you’re more like?
My easy answer would be both—I’m definitely more emotional than I am logical, so in that respect, I’m much more like Cee. But in terms of how I feel how I fit into society, I definitely feel like I am more Kasey. Cee reflects the YA protagonists that I wanted to be, but Kasey is much more who I actually was at her age—and still am.
What songs would be on your playlist for this novel?
This is so funny because I was just working on a blog post about this last night, and it was bringing back slightly traumatic memories as I revisited the playlist. I looped the songs like a hundred times as I was rewriting portions of the book! For Cee’s storyline, when I first drafted it, I was listening to a lot of the Gattaca soundtrack, particularly the song “Departure,” and “The Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter from Arrival. For when Cee and Hero have their moments, I was listening to “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron. And for Kasey, I felt like the songs “Unravel” and “Glassy Sky” from Tokyo Ghoul fit her storyline, as well as the opening song “This Game” from No Game, No Life to sum up her and Actinium’s relationship.
Your book is being comped to Studio Ghibli. Do you have a favorite Ghibli film?
Yes, I love anime! My favorite Ghibli movie is definitely Spirited Away; it left me emotionally distraught as a kid. In fact, I ended up writing a 140,000-word fanfiction, and that’s what got me into writing—realizing, “Oh, I can write that much, apparently.” But I also really love Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart—I love all of them.
Can you talk about any upcoming projects?
I just turned in what I’m hoping is my third book. It’s codenamed Mountain Book—The Ones We’re Meant to Find was codenamed Ocean Book—and it’s low fantasy, with a really big twist. I know I jump around [genres] a lot, but the twist aspect remains the same! I also would love to get back to Chinese fantasy, because that really has my heart. I grew up watching lots of C-dramas, and whenever I revisit the soundtracks I get nostalgic, so I’d love to return to that soon.
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. Roaring Brook, $18.99 May 4 ISBN 978-1-250-25856-4