Alanna Peterson, author of the debut novel When We Vanished, was gracious enough to answer questions I had about her book and the process of writing it. Read below to hear some amazing insights into the world of writing and where you can find the book!
When We Vanished Synopsis:
When Andi Lin overhears details about a harmful research study at the food corporation Nutrexo, she’s instantly worried that her dad is involved. He left home to participate in one of the company’s clinical trials, and was in frequent contact at first—but her recent attempts to reach him have been met with silence.
Fearing he may be in danger, Andi sets out to investigate. She finds an unlikely ally in her neighbor Cyrus, whose mother once worked for Nutrexo and is hiding secrets of her own. Their search for answers leads them to the head scientist at Nutrexo’s confidential research facility, where they learn that the truth is more complicated—and more devastating—than they ever could have imagined.
This captivating debut is at once a page-turning thriller, a contemporary coming-of-age story, and a thought-provoking look at the consequences of our desires for power, success, and control.
1. Our main protagonists are young people going through some very difficult situations. What made you write this as a young adult book?
I love YA. In general, YA novels have this sense of immediacy that gets you right inside the action, but they also give equal importance to the inner conflicts and emotions we experience as we try to make sense of who we are–and all of this is delivered with a lack of pretension that I find very appealing. But also, I guess a part of me never fully grew up, so writing from a more youthful perspective just felt natural.
Interestingly, though, this started as a middle grade novel! I think Andi was 9 or 10 in the very first drafts. But I did a writing workshop early on and got feedback that the story seemed more YA. So I re-worked everything, and it turned out to be the right move. That allowed me to go as deep as I needed into some of the darker aspects of the book.
Because you bring up a good point–the situations these characters face are really tough. And I know it may be hard for some readers to see young people going through such intense circumstances. But at the same time, messed-up things happen to kids every day in the real world, and I didn’t want to shy away from this, to gloss over it and pretend it doesn’t happen or doesn’t matter. Sometimes horrible stuff happens to good people–and when these people are also young, still trying to figure out their place in the world, the consequences can be especially profound. So even though many events the characters experience are much more likely to happen in a thriller than in real life, I felt it was important to explore the psychological impacts and ripple effects that acts of violence can cause.
2. What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Well, most of all I hope that they connect with the characters and have an enjoyable reading experience! But I also hope that it illustrates some of the complexities of the food system: the food companies’ quest for endless growth, the structural inequalities baked into the system, the expectation that technology will solve all our problems–and how these things can impact environmental and personal health.
That said, my intent isn’t to preach at people, because everyone is coming from a different place and there isn’t one “right way” to eat or to address these issues in your own life. This book was just my way of trying to get inside the minds of people at all ends of the power structure, and thinking about why they might make the choice to perpetuate the system as it is, or disrupt it in some way.
3. Who was your favorite character to write and/or who was the hardest character to write?
Hmm, this is tough, because I love them all. But I have to say that Roya is probably my favorite character to write. Her sweet, unassuming perspective is really refreshing, and her chapters always flow very easily and need little revision. Naveed is probably the hardest character for me to write, but I enjoy the challenge. Many aspects of his personality are very different from mine, so it can be hard for me to put myself in his shoes at times. I spent a ton of time revising his chapters, because he had a very dramatic arc and I wanted to do his struggles justice.
4. What was the process of writing this book like?
It was a long, LONG process. I started writing it almost eight years ago! I learned a lot about novel-writing along the way, so it went through many drafts and rounds of beta readers. There were also a few times where I scrapped the whole thing and started over.
But even after I’d finally wrapped up this book, I knew it wasn’t the end of the story. So I opened up a new document for the sequel the day after finishing When We Vanished. It soon became clear that all four books in the series would be very intertwined, so I went ahead and drafted the other books before coming back to this one for more revisions. I had to know how it would all end so that I could keep things consistent between the four volumes. It’s a lot to keep track of, but I love escaping into that other world.
5. How did your background in molecular biology and nutrition help you in the writing of this book? Did you ever find yourself getting too scientific?
Ha, SO many times! There were certain sections I had to go through over and over, smoothing out the dialogue so that it wasn’t too technical or filled with jargon. But, part of the joy of writing is being able to geek out over things that fascinate you and try to transmit that excitement to your readers, so I really enjoyed this aspect of writing the book.
I definitely drew a lot on my experiences, particularly my time doing undergrad research in a microbiology lab and my stint as a clinical dietitian working in a hospital ICU. My academic training made it a lot easier to sketch out the overall narrative and make the consequences more realistic… but I did have to work to stay firmly planted inside the minds of my characters, making sure that their understanding of the events was only based on their own knowledge and experiences.
6. Did the title or the story come first?
The story, definitely. I am SO BAD at coming up with titles!! It literally took me years to come up with the perfect name for the book. One thing that’s great about novel writing, though, is that it’s so fluid–details in a work-in-progress can always be changed if new information is made available or you have a lightbulb moment (which, for me, would sometimes happen months after writing a scene).
So, one day I woke up early and was noodling on what I should call the book while half-dozing (incidentally, I do a lot of “writing” this way), and it came to me: When We Vanished! I loved it instantly, and was able to go back and insert the phrase in some dialogue midway through the book. And now it looks like it’s always been there… guess that means it was just right!
7. Did you journey to any of the places while writing the book? Did you discover anything new or did looking at the places through the lens of having to write about them change how you viewed or experienced them?
Yes, absolutely. One of the things I love about being a novelist is having an excuse to go location scouting–or, as I think of it, detail hunting. I traveled to a few of the specific locations mentioned in the book while writing: little towns in the foothills of Mt. Rainier, certain Seattle parks and markets… I even took a dizzying elevator ride to the top of the tallest building in Seattle to see what the city looked like from way up high.
Knowing that I was gathering research for the novel definitely changed the way I experienced all of these places. I found myself paying more attention to the way things looked on both a macro and micro scale, to how I felt in that place, to the smells in the air and the quality of the light. And then I’d jot down a bunch of notes and try to recreate some of the details that stood out to me when I sat down to write about that location later. I love books where the setting is so tangible and well-developed that it almost feels like one of the characters, and I’m always trying to infuse my work with a deep sense of place as well.
8. Were there any books, articles, or other media that inspired you?
So many! Several pages on my website list some of the food system and cultural/racial-justice resources that I consulted while writing this book. On the non-fiction side, Food Politics by Marion Nestle was a big one for me; I read it right before starting grad school for nutrition and it forever changed the way I thought about food. When it comes to fiction, I’ve been hugely inspired by amazing YA novelists like Tahereh Mafi, Mary H.K. Choi, and Nicola Yoon (to name just a few). I learn so much whenever I read one of their books and strive to use that knowledge to make my own better.
So I’m a very omnivorous consumer of media, and have been inspired by all sorts of things from nonfiction books and novels to documentaries, TV shows, and poetry. All of these things tumble together inside my head and, through the strange alchemy of writing, turn into a wild adventure.
9. What are you currently working on?
Well, this spring has been… um, a little unusual, and since I’ve been adapting to our new reality and focusing on this release, I haven’t had time to do much writing. But, the second book in the series is out with a sensitivity reader right now and will be going through one more revision after that. It’s slated to come out in November, so there’s not too much longer to wait for the sequel! I’ve also been working on a related side project, a companion story featuring a few of the characters from When We Vanished. I’d love to put together a collection of short stories delving into the perspectives of some of the minor characters in the series. That may be a ways off, but I’m hoping it will happen eventually!
Thank you so much to Alanna for being my first author interview! When We Vanished is out today (June 2nd), so go check it out. I promise you won’t be disappointed! The plot is gripping and you’ll easily fall in love with the characters (Roya is one of my faves). I absolutely loved it, and it was one of my 22 book recommendations for my birthday. You can check out my non-spoiler review on Goodreads or Instagram, and you can also find out more about Alanna and the book on her website.