A photo of author Savannah Brown next to the cover of her new book The Things We Don't See on a grey and pink background

Lightbulb moments: Savannah Brown on writing The Things We Don’t See

The author of The Things We Don’t See discusses the power of first experiences, and how she found the inspiration for her second novel by changing her perspective.

In her follow-up to her YA novel The Truth About Keeping Secrets, author and poet Savannah Brown continues to explore the complexity of truth-seeking: who it serves, why we’re drawn to the concept of truthfulness, and what we discover about ourselves in the process.

In The Things We Don’t See, promising young singer Roxy Raines vanishes into thin air one night in 1986 following her final performance on the tiny island resort of Sandown. The locals dismiss any foul play, declaring Roxy as just another teenage runaway. But 30 years later, 17-year-old crime podcaster Mona Perry arrives at the self-contained world of Sandown for a summer job – and to uncover what really happened to Roxy. Along the way, she makes some unforeseen discoveries, and not just about the young singer…

Below, Savannah writes about her fascination with life’s firsts, how a former childhood haunt inspired her latest book and why YA is so exciting to write.

The joy of firsts

I’m a little preoccupied with life’s firsts. I think there is no greater exhilaration than that which comes from completely novel experiences, and the experiences’ ability to remove one from life’s doldrums – to expand boundaries, to shift perspectives.

I was seven, maybe, when I felt my first lurch of vertigo. It was a hot, white-blue day and I was looking up at what I was sure was the tallest thing that could possibly exist: a taupe, windowless pillar that extended for what seemed like forever into a cloudless sky, as though a tunnel had been flipped vertically. Further dizzying was the swirling trek up to its highest point which eventually gave way to the promised panoramic view – miles and miles of sun-spangled water.

The pillar is called Perry’s Monument (which, I learned later, is actually the world’s tallest Doric column), a memorial built to commemorate the war of 1812 on the shores of Put-In-Bay – an island less than one square mile in size, just off Ohio’s Lake Erie coast.

Isolated by geography

I spent a lot of time in Put-In-Bay as a kid, as tropical a destination as one could hope to find in northeast Ohio. It’s accessible only by ferry and situated in a lake so wild and yawning it might as well be the sea. I felt it could be a fascinating setting for a book and when the idea came years later for a story about a missing musician from a small, secretive community, I knew this was the spot.

In The Things We Don’t See the island is instead called Sandown. My imagined island isn’t a replica of Put-In-Bay (alas, not a Doric column in sight), but there are key similarities: its seasonal employment program; around 200 year-round residents; and the island’s essence – a sort of visiting-place maintained to please passers-by, isolated by geography but also the otherness of the experience of being there as an outsider.

Atonement and truth

The outsider of The Things We Don’t See is Mona, a 17-year-old girl who has resolved to reopen the cold case of Roxy Raines – a musician who went missing from Sandown three decades prior – in a bid to atone for her own sister’s disappearance. Inspiration for Mona came from the idea of a teenager with the temperament of a hardboiled detective, a girl willing to go to great (and dubious) lengths for the truth, which she believes to be the world’s most important force for good. I wanted to write a mystery about a girl so frightened of the truth of her own story of loss, that she instead retreats into uncovering the truth of everyone else’s.

Ideas of loss

What I’ve found about what inspires me, in a grand sense, is that I’m drawn always to the idea of loss. And when dealing with loss in young adult literature, it’s not just the experience itself that’s being explored, but the discovery of it.

These discoveries happen in lightning-quick succession when you’re young. Everything is new. Everything is a lesson. There’s a chaos to youth. Teenagerhood facilitates the rapid expansion of the universe of one’s own life, barrelling further into the unknown, creating and populating itself with beliefs and memories and lifelong philosophies.

Everyone in The Things We Don’t See is concerned with arranging their chaos in different (and often opposing) ways. Mona decides she can’t be hurt if she simply detaches herself from the world around her – which works until it doesn’t.

I knew from the beginning that this choice would be the crux of Mona’s arc. Her worldview is flawed; she decides since she’s been hurt by people, all people must want to hurt her. But as she’s faced with her own weakness, in her universe’s rapid expansion, Mona realizes she’s wasted so much energy setting up the defence for an assault that would never come, and is now tasked, for the first time, with lowering it.

This is why writing YA is so exciting to me, and why The Things We Don’t See and Mona were so fun to realize. It’s such a joy to write about that first real dizziness that comes from glancing at the life that stretches above us – the tallest thing we’ve ever seen, that could ever possibly exist – which will require strength we may not believe we have to climb. And we might ask am I really going to make it all the way up there, and the answer is always yes, which we eventually come to accept because we have all heard the rumours of the incredible view.

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