Keshav Kant: Okay! So, let’s dive straight into The Ones We’re Meant To Find. We’ve seen a lot of siblings saving each other and trying to save a dystopian world. But your book takes a unique approach to that storyline; what drew you to that?
Joan He: Well, it came from a lot of young adult dystopian books that I read when I was a teen. During the Hunger Games boom when I was in middle School going to high school. One of the popular tropes from that was how the older sibling tends to protect the younger sibling. It’s kind of used as a device to make the older sibling more empathetic and more relatable.
And it kind of came to me in a dream. I wanted to subvert that trope. Even though she is searching for her sister, you think that her sister needs protection. I wanted to be the opposite way where the younger sibling is more than capable of protecting themselves. Also, more capable of making an impact on the world.
Kesh: That’s something I can relate to for sure, and other writers too. Sometimes, you know, the best moment for you to develop stories is when your brain is running on autopilot.
Okay, so you mentioned Hunger Games and the relationship between Katniss and her sister Primrose. They’re a fair bit more codependent, at least until towards the end of the book. The Ones Were Meant To Find, on the other hand. You have an unmistakable idea of who they are from the jump. So was that an intentional choice for you? Or was that something you worked out as you explored the story a little bit more?
Joan: Yeah, that was an intentional choice from the beginning. I’m someone who comes up with a plot first. I kind of think of the rest as an obstacle course. Then, after that, I will construct my characters. I guess it is like auditioning for a reality TV show where I try to build characters.
Who is going to be the most entertaining to watch when they’re navigating. So I knew from the start that I needed to add the midpoint twist of a book already. So for The Ones, We’re Meant To Find I knew from the start. I knew I wanted the sisters to have very opposite personalities. Because it really brings out the twist a bit more.
I also wanted the sisters’ personalities to kind of be reflective of their environments, like being on an abandoned Island without anyone on it. I felt like she would have to be someone who is probably more social and loves being around people. Then for Casey living in this kind of more isolated place where people are living in like these pods. They’re still engaging through this big virtual element; there are still a lot of people around her.
Kesh: Definitely! I’m also very plot first when writing up, you know. Character histories and flushing out who they are as people can be a lot of work. Especially when writing about people in such a complex world.
Joan: Yeah, I think I definitely feel that I guess half the time when I’m writing. So I very much dislike my characters. Mostly because they’re just, especially in the case of Casey where she’s very intelligent. And it’s just like, it’s killing my brain cells.
But yeah, my hope is that they are real and that they make choices. Maybe the reader doesn’t agree with them, but they are still true to themselves and that’s the part that gets me into a story. I hope that’s also what gets people into it, too.
Kesh: Yeah, I can see that. And I think the exploration that you take would be like, how they go about making different choices in their lives. It shows a level of inner conflict at times that can be interesting. The very first chapter of The Ones Wew’re Meant To Find, Celia’s moment right before she is leaving the island. She has that brief moment where she sort of sitting there, debating if she wants to go or not. That was grounding.
Joan: Honestly, what’s most interesting to me and the characters is the way you rationalize things and especially for irrational decisions. I also think the mind is a really interesting and powerful thing where what you believe and what you tell yourself got true. I mean, if you think it, then it is true. This is not only in this book but also with my debut, Descendant Of The Crane that was a big theme in the book.
Kesh: I’m really glad you bring up Descendants. I know this chat is mostly about The Ones We’re Meant To Find. But obviously, that seems like a pretty common theme across both of your books. You seem very interested in sort of exploring how people make choices that won’t necessarily be like the most rational in whatever setting they are in.
Like for example, in descendants of the crane, the lead is basically committing treason because it’s the right thing for her to do. Is it something you find like yourself exploring on purpose? Or is it something you find yourself revisiting instinctually?
Joan: Yeah, so I think not necessarily it’s not necessarily like the decisions that I’m trying to make but it kind of like what happens after those. For example, I guess going with Descendants, because it’s easier to explain without spoiling things.
I think it is kind of standard. I would say, for young adults because you see live characters like, you know? Teenagers like breaking the mould and going against the rules that they learn about growing up. So I think, even though it doesn’t make sense for the world, it kind of does for them.
I think that it’s something I definitely revisit through my stories. If the things that we feel like our trigger ourselves actually are or if they’ve somehow been instilled in us because of our upbringing or background, the people around us.
I used to do like I was, I used to be in the visual arts, and I saw and when you go down the professional oil painting route, and it was something that I was really good at, and I got a lot of validation and praise from my peers, teachers and my parents. But, I guess I realized that it wasn’t really something I wanted. That was really hard for me to realize during those years because I identified as an artist. It’s what people around me knew me as, and so when I finally broke away from that and started actually getting into writing and exploring that, I realized how hard it is.
Kesh: I love that; maybe that’s why I saw so much of myself in the characters because I made a very similar decision. Going from the model Asian kid, who like, went to med school and stuff. Then I did a 180 and was like, nope, never mind, I’m going to work in production and publishing. So, I don’t necessarily regret the choices I made. But, being Asian, we’re very collectivist, so my choices aren’t mine alone. And that has been a really interesting emotional journey. So, seeing that exploration in your books was gratifying since that’s something we don’t necessarily see all the time.
I’ve noticed a lot, especially for a lot of Asian authors that explore those choices and then like how we think that they might be the wrong thing. Do you think that’s more of a cultural thing for us since we experience a lot of those moments?
Joan: Yeah, for me, they’re definitely is like a cultural element. Like you mentioned, collectivism versus individuals. And that’s something that has been studied in Psych between like, you know, like Asians and people born like The West.
And this isn’t really reading into the text, but I guess. In The Ones We’re Meant To Find, I wanted the characters to be from an Asian background in the floating pod cities in The Ones We’re Meant To Find. Not so much like a specific point of time or country, but mostly so that the more familial collectivism energy comes through. Especially since we’re in a time where countries are below the water and live in these floating cities where everything is shared and comingled.
Kesh: Well, it definitely comes through! Okay, you and I have been chatting for a while now, and there are so many questions I have for you, but spoilers. So, is there anything else you’d like to mention, or you’d like our readers to know?
Joan: Nothing I have mentioned just yet! You know I don’t do sequels, but there is something in the works. It’s not a sequel! But you’ll just have to keep an eye out for updates when they come.
Kesh: *laughs* I’ll be sure to have my notifs on then! Joan, thank you again for taking the time to chat with me. It was an absolute pleasure, and I cannot wait to see what this mystery book you’ve got in the works for us.
Joan: Thank you! This was really fun.