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Emiko Jean On The Role Of Hope In Her Riveting New Thriller

by Brendan Dowling on May 23, 2024

It’s been two years since high schooler Ellie Black disappeared from a motel party in her coastal Washington state hometown. When she reemerges on a hiking trail, it seems like a miracle. Yet her reappearance elicits more questions than answers. Ellie refuses to talk about where she’s been or who took her to either her family or the police. Meanwhile, the detective working Ellie’s case, Chelsey Calhoun, finds that delving into Ellie’s kidnapping resurfaces memories of her sister’s murder nearly twenty years earlier. With The Return of Ellie Black, Emiko Jean has crafted a page-turning thriller that honestly examines trauma and full of characters struggling to do the right thing. Jean spoke to us about keeping the pace moving, her influences, and the function of hope in her terrifying thriller.

This book tackles so many big themes—gender, racism, politics. Is there a specific aspect you want to begin the interview talking about?

One of the things that is really important to me—and you’ll see this as a thread throughout all my novels—but the thread I’m really passionate about exploring is what it means to be a yellow body in America. With the exception of my first book that had a white protagonist, I’ve been really specific about casting Japanese and Japanese Americans at the forefront of my novels. Sometimes it comes across as exploring identity, but other times that’s not so much the focus. That’s what I wanted to do with The Return of Ellie Black. We have a Japanese American detective who’s a heroine, but her identity is not the issue in the book.

Chelsey is such a compelling character. Can you talk about how she’s uniquely situated to be the ideal detective for this case?

She’s a detective in a very small town and most of the community is white. She’s one of maybe one or two women who work in the precinct. And because of her family history—she’s been adopted into this white family, she had a sister that was the biological child of her parents who disappeared and died at the hands of a violent boyfriend—Chelsey is called to do this work on behalf of her sister. Not only that, but also on behalf of her adoptive father, who was a police chief. Her race and the fact that she’s a woman play a vital part in the novel in the sense that she deeply empathizes with these victims, with these women, and women who are put into corners and aren’t always paid attention to. She goes through in her narration about how when a girl goes missing, there’s this calculation where they use wealth and race to determine how many resources are going to be put forth to find this girl, which is a true thing that we find when girls go missing in the United States. There are certain women who make headlines, and there are certain women who don’t. I think Chelsey can very much see herself as one of those women who probably wouldn’t make a headline.

On the other end, we have Ellie, who’s seventeen when she’s kidnapped. Can you talk about what went into creating her?

So as you know, the novel has multiple perspectives and it uses the past present narration. Ellie’s perspective is first person and it’s told from a past perspective. She was actually the first character that I wrote. Usually I write a novel from beginning to end and all the chapters in sequential order, but Ellie’s voice was so strong in my head that I wrote all of her past chapters first. Then I was like, “What am I going to do now?” (laughs) I wanted to bring her into the present. Then I wrote the novel from her voice in the present too, so there is a version of this that exists where it’s Ellie’s perspective throughout the whole book. But that didn’t work in terms of plotting a thriller, twists, and everything like that. It just really dragged the narrative down.

But she was the first character that I thought of. The first image I had of Ellie was a girl who had been missing. She was presumed dead, running through this forest, finding these hikers and saying, “I think I’m missing.” I’ve always been really interested in true crime. And I’ve always specifically been interested in stories about kidnap victims who’ve returned, like Jaycee Duggar, Elizabeth Smart, and Amanda Berry. It actually kind of worried me because I was like, why am I so fascinated by these stories? You kind of worry about yourself, you’re like, “What does this mean?” But I’ve unpacked it a little bit and I think what drew me to that is the endurance of the human spirit.  How do we survive these things that might have otherwise killed us?

I’m fascinated by you talking about how you wrote all of Ellie’s stuff first, because the book is so deftly and intricately plotted. I’m just curious about what the writing process was for you with this. Was it something that you heavily outlined?

This was actually a book that I drafted way back in 2016 when I sold my first young adult novel. This was supposed to be the second book in a young adult thriller series. I wrote it, handed it into my editor, and she did not like it for a very good reason: it was way too dark. (laughs) It was way too gritty for the young adult market. I was really devastated because I thought that it was a good book. For some reason when she said she passed on it, that equaled, “Oh, I guess it’s not a good book,” which isn’t necessarily true. I put it on a shelf and I wrote something drastically different, but the characters stayed with me. I would go back and forth to it. When I published my adult novel, Mika In Real Life, it opened the door for me. It crystallized that this should be an adult novel, and that it should include adult characters. I wrote those other perspectives like Jimmy, the father, and Kat, Ellie’s mom, and Chelsey Calhoun, probably in a period of like three months. It broke the story wide open for me. Chelsey was always a detective in the novel, she was always doggedly chasing Ellie, but once I figured out that she needed to really be the main character of the novel, that’s when it all came to fruition.

The setting of the book is so important. The town where Ellie and Chelsey live is such an isolated community, where everyone’s lives are on top of each other and interconnected.

It’s actually based on a real place in Washington called Long Beach. I have relatives who live on Long Beach, so I grew up visiting there. If you look at the map of Washington, you’ll see there’s this very thin strip of land that juts out into the ocean, Long Beach. There’s only one way in and one way out. Quite a few years ago, there was a big New York Times article about how the Pacific Northwest is going to have a massive earthquake sometime in the next 100 years. It was quite terrifying. I live on the West Coast, so it was a really big deal when that came out, especially for places like Long Beach. That whole strip of land would be underwater if this happens. There’s kind of this existential threat looming over the town. Someday a tsunami is going to come in and wash it all away, and the roads will be washed away too if this massive tsunami hits. I thought that paired well with the survival theme in the novel.

One of the really compelling relationships in the book is between Ellie and her psychiatrist. Their scenes seem to be handled with a lot of care. Could talk about what went into creating that relationship?

Trauma is something that I’m really interested in looking at. I looked at intergenerational trauma in another novel, and trauma is something that I’ve experienced too. When I had my kids, my daughter had a very severe febrile seizure. She had to be intubated and we weren’t sure if she was going to come back. When I was working on this novel, I was also seeing a therapist for that experience, and we did a lot of EMDR work. We actually had a lot of side conversations about how she would have treated someone like this [who had been kidnapped]. She helped me form the relationship between Ellie and her psychiatrist. But what I learned from my own trauma and from talking to my counselor is how we carry trauma in our body and how it chemically alters someone. It changes you on a cellular level. I’ve always thought that was fascinating.

I also wanted the psychiatrist to play a role in Ellie’s character arc in that there is hope for Ellie. That was really the main purpose of having this psychiatrist there. There’s a line at the end of the book about how Ellie is going to learn how to carry the grief in one hand and hope in the other. That was really the purpose of having those scenes. I feel like they end a dark story on a hopeful note. At least, I hope so.

I’ve read some reviews about the gritty nature of the book. I would want people to know that was intentional. There’s a tendency to gentle violence against women sometimes. I thought it was important for this book to really give Ellie her voice back in telling her whole story, however gruesome it is and hard to hear.

You’ve written so widely across a bunch of different genres, but I was just curious to hear who were the writers that were influential to you, both growing up and then also as a writer yourself?

I read a lot when I was little, which is probably no surprise because I feel like every writer’s like, “I read a lot when I was little.” (laughs) I read all the stuff that little girls read. I read Ella Enchanted and stuff like that, but I don’t remember reading a Japanese American author or seeing a Japanese American character in any of the literature that I consumed. I actually didn’t see an Asian character in film in a positive portrayal until I was sixteen, and that was when Mulan came out.

I think that for me, it kind of shut off that valve, that belief that I could be a writer. I loved reading, but I never really believed that I could be a writer because I had never seen any writers who looked like me or any characters who looked like me in books. So I went along this path. I became a teacher and I continued to read. I read anything from young adult to romance to thrillers. Most recently some of the writers that I’ve been reading is because I’ve been into thrillers but We Begin At The End by Chris Whitaker, I read Notes On An Execution by Tanya Kafka, which is a brilliant book. It’s so smart. But then in between those I read Annie Bot by Sierra Greer. It was a really smart take on artificial intelligence.

The book moves so quickly and is really a page-turner. What went into creating that sense of pace? You’re spinning a lot of plates in terms of the character development, getting out backstory, and giving the reader time to catch their breath in between.

It turned out to be a roller coaster. There needs to be peaks and valleys, places where you want the reader to be holding their breath, but then you want them to be exhaling too. And so again, with those counselor chapters, those are kind of the exhale of the novel.

But if I were to think about it in a visual way, it’s like you have all these threads that are loose at the beginning, and then you’re trying to braid them all together so you have something that’s really tightly knit by the end of the novel. That was probably the most challenging thing for me, to keep all those threads alive and make sure that they all were part of that braid by the end. Because sometimes when you read a thriller, there can be something that’s dangling, and then you don’t feel like the twist has been earned.

I’m curious about your career as a teacher prior to becoming a writer. How has the time spent teaching informed your writing career?

As I reflect now on the books that I’ve written, I realize how much I’ve picked up things along the way that leant themselves to novels. I didn’t know that I was supposed to be a writer for a long time. I did other jobs too. I was a teacher, a florist, and a candle maker. I was an entomologist for a while. I just kept hopping around these different things to try to figure out what I wanted to do. When I was teaching, I worked at a low-income school that had quite a few foster kids and kids from troubled homes. The first book that I wrote had these kids who were in foster care and lost in the system. That’s one of the direct things that I can think of how my teaching career informed my writing, but you know, as I as I go on, it seems even more and more obvious. I’m going to start a new book right now that’s about motherhood and it’s about the bond between children and their parents. I became a parent like a couple years ago, so all of these things are reflections of my life. I think they’re also cathartic too because they help me process things that I have questions about or things that I want to explore more.

All of the high school characters are so vibrant, and not the kind of kids you necessarily see represented in culture.

I was a bad kid. I was one of those girls who no one really thought was going to make much of myself. I flunked my first year of high school so they sent me to this magnet school, which was kind of a holding place for kids until we graduated. Instead of taking tests, they just let us like write reports and stuff like that, just shuffle us through. I think that came through when I was drafting Ellie. I could have been one of those girls too that did the things that you shouldn’t do, that went to parties, that made “bad decisions,” even though they’re just kids.

Finally, what role have libraries played in your life?

Libraries have been vital in my life. I grew up as the youngest of four kids. My family didn’t have a lot of money, which meant we didn’t buy books. I remember very vividly going to the library with my mom, who was a reading specialist. You could check out as many books as you could carry. I remember the feel of those big stacks of books as I carried them out of the library. We would go every weekend, and it was always something that I looked forward to. That’s really where my love of reading began, with my mom being a reading specialist and taking me to the library. I don’t think that I would be where I am now without librarians ushering me into this world.