Capturing the Intricacies of Climate Change, Sisterhood, A Decaying World, and the Worth of Humankind
The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He
by Sara Conway ’21 A&E Co-Editor
Cee knows two things: she woke up on a deserted island three years ago, and she does not remember anything, except that she has a sister named Kasey. And she needs to find her. Meanwhile, Kasey, declared a “STEM prodigy,” wants a solution. Humans are rapidly destroying the earth as she knows it, and the coveted eco-cities that float above can only protect humanity for so long. Two timelines; two stories; two sisters. One twist-filled sci-fi novel that tackles climate change, the end of the world, and the ever-lingering question of what it means to be human.
Meet The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He. Released on May 4, this book is He’s sophomore novel, coming two years after her debut novel, Descendant of the Crane. Prior to the publication of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, The Cowl spoke with He about the inspiration behind her latest book, writing Cee and Kasey’s characters, and the part oceans play in The Ones We’re Meant to Find.
Hi Joan! Thank you so much for speaking with me today for The Cowl. Let’s just jump into it then: How did the idea for The Ones We’re Meant to Find (TOWMTF) first come to you?
The initial idea came to me in a dream: I had a very vivid image of a girl diving to the bottom of a sea, in search of something or someone. As I tried to figure out the “what,” my mind went back to some of my favorite YA [young adult] Dystopians I’d read as a teen, such as The Hunger Games and Legend. They left a deep impression on me, particularly in how they signaled the relatability of their main characters. A single scene with a younger sibling, for example, could frame a protagonist as human and vulnerable before they went on to topple dictatorships or save the world. I wanted to subvert that. What if, I wondered, the girl in my dream is searching for her younger sister, but that sister is more than a storytelling device? And so came the heart of the story.
The title, The Ones We’re Meant to Find , has such a beautiful rhythm to it (and this line actually appears in the story). Was the title always this?
Yes—this was the title from the start, and I’m grateful it survived the many drafts, all the way to the final book.
TOWMTF is your sophomore novel. Would you say there was a difference in your writing process and approach to this story (sci-fi fantasy) compared to your debut, Descendant of the Crane (high fantasy)?
Descendant of the Crane was actually the book that forced me to become a plotter. Anyone who’s read it can probably understand why writing it without a plan was NOT a good idea. But even for DOTC, I knew the middle from the start, as well as how I wanted it to end. Same for TOWMTF. So the overall approach didn’t really differ even though TOWMTF is in a different genre. I will say though that the second book is harder solely because you have more voices in the room than you would when working on your debut.
One thing most readers probably notice is the distinction in point-of-view as the chapters alternate between Cee and Kasey. Why did you choose to write Cee’s chapters in the first person, while writing Kasey’s in the third person?
As mentioned above, part of the inspiration behind the book comes from the expectations set up by the early YA dystopias. Cee, as a character, is based off of a lot of the protagonists I found within the pages of those stories, and has many of the traits that, simply by appearing often enough, would be deemed almost requisite for a traditional YA hero. Likewise, I also wanted Cee’s POV and writing style to reflect that “canon” so that the eventual subversion of it would be more impactful. Hence, the first-person present tense. As it happens, it’s also well suited to her character.
Meanwhile for Kasey, I wanted to respect her character and give her the distance that she would personally have wanted from the reader. Her deepest thoughts aren’t something that anyone can or should be privy to. At times, even Kasey has a hard time accessing how she really feels when she’s overly aware of how she should feel.
What was it like finding and writing Cee and Kasey’s characters/voices (I’m especially curious about Kasey and her intelligence level)?
Writing Cee was pretty easy; there’s a lot of existing fodder and framework for her sort of character, and I never really felt like I was pushing the envelope with her voice. Don’t get me wrong—I loved writing Cee and had a lot of fun with her, but her voice felt like a safe choice.
Kasey, on the other hand, was much more of a challenge—and not just because of her intelligence. Time and time again, I wondered if I should give her a little more. Make her a bit more sarcastic, put more sass and bite into her voice, give her more opinions, more attitude, more flair. But none of those add-ons would be true to Kasey. I had to sit with the insecurity of writing a character who I knew was missing a lot of charm and wit. Her being smart, after all, doesn’t make her any less awkward. But it felt right that I would feel insecure about her, because if Cee is the kind of the character I would have wanted to be as a teen, Kasey is much closer to who I was. I didn’t feel like I fit in or had the most interesting things to say. I still feel the same insecurities, to this day. I hope that Kasey can show readers that there is space in books for characters like Cee, but also space in books for characters like her.
How and why (non-spoiler or super vaguely) did you choose each character’s name?
Cee’s name came to me first—the reason behind it is a spoiler, so I will not say. Once I had Cee’s name, I then tried to pick a name for the sister that would be a good complement for it.
The ocean plays a crucial role in TOWMTF (and the gorgeous cover definitely emphasizes this). Why the sea?
Because of that earliest dream I had, I always knew that the setting would be by the ocean. It worked out, because in the plot, the ocean serves as a huge obstacle both characters must overcome to find their way back to each other. As I continued to develop the story, the ocean also became more and more thematically relevant to the heart of the book and the world. It’s a crucial part of our biosphere. The earliest life forms originated from it, including our human ancestors. It’s a place of birth, and also of a place of death. Radioactive isotopes can travel from one continent to another by way of the currents. It connects all of us, no matter where we live. We’re dependent on it, and it also depends on us. It mirrors the conflict in the story perfectly, and adds to the mystery of the atmosphere.
Pollution, mass climate change, climbing death counts, and intense natural disasters create the backdrop of destruction for TOWMTF—this is the world the characters live in. There must have been points when you became overwhelmed with the state of their life (and its connection to ours) and the questions they were forced to confront. How did you strike a balance with the overwhelming, and how did climate change become the focus of TOWMTF?
Because of the twist, I knew I needed the world to be ending in the story. For what reason? I wondered. Since I wanted the focus to be firmly kept on the sisters’ relationship, I tried to pick the most plausible and intuitive cause. Climate change, therefore, felt like the obvious choice.
I first drafted the book in 2017, so of course I couldn’t have foreseen the parallels as clearly as I did in 2020, when I was revising it. There were definitely moments where I got overwhelmed—not by the story, but by the facets of human behavior I knew to be true. I’d seeded them into the book, and the moment I heard COVID was in the US, as early as February, I had a sinking feeling. We weren’t going to be able to contain it. If our best stopgap measure was relying on everyone to stay in and wear masks, that wasn’t going to happen on a wide enough scale to make a difference; it’s incredibly hard to get people to care about something that isn’t immediately threatening them. So, yeah, that was overwhelming. But the story in the book actually gave me hope. I knew I had to share it. Because as flawed as we are as a species, we are also capable of incredible things.
What songs and images come to mind when you think about TOWMTF?
I’m pasting an image below that comes closer to capturing the image I saw in my dream. As for songs: “TIME” by Hans Zimmer, “On the Nature of Daylight” by Max Richter, and the entire Gattaca soundtrack, but especially “Departure.”