To celebrate the release of the When We Vanished audiobook, I met up with the narrator, Dana Wing Lau, for an Instagram livestream on March 19, 2023. We had a great time chatting about the book and many other things, including the joys of sharing meals together, working science into fiction, writing and performing diverse characters, and the pitfalls of leaf-blowers.
You can watch the full video, or read through the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Alanna Peterson: Hi, Dana! Nice to talk to you face to face. I’m so happy that you were willing to join me today.
Dana Wing Lau: Oh, thank you for asking me! I’m just excited that you wanted me to be a part of this.
Alanna Peterson: I guess we’ll go ahead and get officially started. So, I’m Alanna Peterson, the author of the young adult eco-thriller series the Call of the Crow Quartet. The first book, When We Vanished, just came out in audiobook, and Dana narrated it beautifully. I’m just super excited that you’re here with us, Dana. I’ve spent a lot of time with your voice over the last few months!
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, I’m sure you were like, “Whoa.” It can be a lot to be immersed in that, you know? And I’m sure from your side as the writer, listening to your words being transitioned into audio… is that weird for you?
Alanna Peterson: It was an experience! I mean, I was not really prepared for any of it. It’s the first time I’ve ever done an audiobook, so I was just kind of like, “let’s see what happens,” you know, but I really didn’t have any clue what went into it from your side of things. It takes lots of work and time… and it was really cool for me, as the author, to be able to hear someone performing my story!
Dana Wing Lau: And you already have the whole–this is a quartet, right? You already have all the books written?
Alanna Peterson: I do.
Dana Wing Lau: That’s such an undertaking!
Alanna Peterson: It was huge. When We Vanished originally came out in June 2020 in print and ebook, so it was the height of early pandemic times, a really interesting time to be debuting as an author. But in the years since, I have managed to publish all of four books through the publishing company that I founded, Rootcity Press. In 2022, I decided I really wanted to get an audiobook out there for people who prefer that format, or maybe that’s the only format they can use, so I really wanted to do that and I was just thrilled to find you through the Findaway Voices marketplace.
I would love to hear about the process from your perspective. How does it work for the narrator to record an audiobook?
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, for people who aren’t in the audiobook world, or maybe have never listened to an audiobook–I encourage you to go and pick one up and see if you like it. On the narrator’s side, everyone has their different process, but a lot of work goes into it because it’s kind of like being an actor. It’s kind of like you’re in a play and reading the script.
A lot of times when you pick up a book as a narrator, you read it maybe three times through. So you’re reading it just to read it, to know the story, and then you have to prep the book as well. I have an Excel spreadsheet and I’m taking notes of characters, ages, different words that might describe them, and then I’m color coding them as well because I’m putting a document together in PDF. I use an application called iAnnotate, so that’s what I’m reading off of as I’m narrating, and I have to mark up the book and color code all the dialogue so I know who’s coming to talk.
I’m also underlining how [the characters] are saying things. [The author] might say, “she says empathetically,” or “she says angrily.” So you kind of hit those notes. I’m circling words that I have no idea how to pronounce, or just checking pronunciation, or maybe jotting down questions that I might have, and I’m making notes about who’s relating to what or where, and things like that. You have to prep the book to know where the story is going, and at the same time, when you’re narrating–just like with acting–you have to be in the moment as you’re narrating it.
Alanna Peterson: Right. With When We Vanished, it definitely felt like I was there with the characters, which was cool. I mean, of course, I wrote this book and I’ve read it like a million times, but to experience it from a new perspective… I could feel that you were getting caught up in it, and that was really exciting to me.
Dana Wing Lau: Sometimes it’s hard, too. Especially for this one, you know, I was alone in my booth. (You’re half in my booth right now, everyone! My booth is hanging on ceiling tracks and I just kind of cocoon myself in here.) But I’m by myself in the booth doing what we call in the audiobook world a “punch and roll” edit before I send it off to an editor, and sometimes, you know, you get caught up in the emotion. But I can’t cry because then I have “bad audio.” Like, the audio is bad, or I mess up words and I’m flubbing. There were a couple times in here, like with Andi, she’s going through a lot with her father and she’s trying to literally save him, save his life, but she’s really in her head sometimes, and just being caught up in that–you have to go back and fix any mistakes.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah. And I feel like the sound editing step is pretty intensive (or just more involved than I had expected).
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah. Having good people on your team, if you’re outsourcing, is great. And then, you know, there’s a few different ways that narrators deliver their files. Also making sure you have clean audio. I’m lucky, I live in a fairly quiet neighborhood, but then everyone’s doing yard work on the same day and you’re in a really good spot but you’re like, “Oh, I guess I have to stop for half an hour because everyone wants to blow their leaves right now.”
Alanna Peterson: That sounds challenging for sure.
Dana Wing Lau: Okay, so what about you? You come from a scientific background, and you can see what I mean as you read and hear the book, that you infuse your scientific background with food into something creative. So when did that happen for you?
Alanna Peterson: Well, this book has been a project since 2012, so that was a long time ago! When I was a kid, I loved writing weird stories, and that was what I thought I might want to do with my life. When I first went into college, I started as an English major. And then I took a psychology class, and I just got super interested in psychology. Then as part of my psychology major, I took a physiological psychology class and that really got me interested in the brain and neuroscience and I was like, “I think I want to go deeper into this and figure out how this all works at a molecular level.”
So I ended up finally majoring in molecular biology, and I worked in a microbiology lab as an undergrad doing research. I really loved it, but I knew that I didn’t want to be in that world forever, so when it came time for grad school I ended up going to a nutrition program because I also loved food and thought it would be the perfect way to marry food and science. It was awesome, but [the program] was also very sciencey, and not focused as much on food or culinary type stuff.
When I graduated, I did a lot of non-fiction writing. You know, like, “Here’s how you can get vitamin D.” Over time I just got bored of that. I did blog for a while, but then there was a time in 2012 when I was stuck at home with two young kids and was going a little crazy because I was just in my head all the time, and started thinking, “What if I wrote a book?” Not like a non-fiction book, but fiction… what if I wrote a novel? Which is something I’d always wanted to do, and I started getting this idea for a story about a girl whose dad goes missing and she has to find him.
So at that point it was very basic, but then I thought, well, maybe I could work in this whole nutrition and science background and have him participate in this clinical trial that went awry. Everything really snowballed from there until it became a sprawling series. But I just really loved that aspect of it, being able to work in some of those sciencey things along with really thinking about plot and character and all that craft stuff that you have to think about for novels. It was really a good way to spend my days, thinking about the plot instead of just twiddling my thumbs. So that was where it all started.
Dana Wing Lau: That’s great, and I think you have to write about what you know.
At the heart of the book, there’s a really good message [about food], because we live in a very fast-paced day and age, and I think sometimes eating and cooking become a thing of convenience. I really loved how you talked in the book about preparing meals and [the joy you can get from] even a little bit of food prep, instead of just popping a handful of processed things.
I try to make everything from scratch, sometimes to my detriment, because I’m like, “I can make it all from scratch!” and then five hours later I’m like, oh, shoot. So I really appreciated that message in the book.
Because it’s really important to me in my creative work as an actor and producer, I want to talk about the diversity of your characters. Was it a conscious thing for you to write that in?
Alanna Peterson: I love this question. I’m glad you brought it up. So, I grew up being exposed to media–books, TV shows and movies–with a very colorblind perspective. Like, “Race isn’t an issue! Look at this white protagonist, they have a Black best friend and they never talk about race because there’s nothing to talk about, we’re all good here!” And I definitely internalized that.
As I started working on the book initially, race wasn’t something that I thought about beyond this whole notion that if I didn’t say what race the character was, then people could decide to make them whatever race they wanted. But that’s really not how it works. As a white writer, that was something that I didn’t grapple with initially. But throughout the time that I was working on it, the Black Lives Matter movement got started, and the We Need Diverse Books movement, which was really pivotal in shifting my mindset. I realized, “Wow, I need to really think about this.”
My writing process is very intuitive in some ways. I often feel like I’m uncovering a story, or tapping into something that already exists, instead of just making it up out of my own head. That being said, I do have conscious control over it, and I have to take that step of thinking through what I put on the page, and what that means in a larger context, and what message it’s really sending.
So that was something that I had to stop and think about, and really ask myself: “What race are these characters?” Over time it became clear to me. Andi, who we’ve talked about, her mom is Taiwanese-American and her dad’s white. The other three main characters are all siblings and their parents are Iranian-American. When I realized that, it felt right. But I really did not take that decision lightly, because I knew that as a white writer I have a lot of potential to do harm in terms of reinforcing stereotypes or replicating that whole colorblind thing, where we might say that they’re Iranian-American but you can’t tell them from a white family.
So I wanted to go deeper, and I did a ton of research. Like lots of cooking–I think you can learn a lot about culture through its food. Also, learning languages, doing lots of reading and watching movies and all sorts of stuff, and that was really a fun piece of it. But the most important–and the hardest–part was really grappling with my own internal biases and unlearning a lot of what I had been raised on.
I had sensitivity readers that gave me feedback, which was a really important part of the process, because they did point out some missteps, and helped me see things from a deeper perspective. The race of the characters does really matter in the way that other people treat them, or other institutions treat them, and that influences their whole world view, and also what happens to them in the story to some extent.
So anyway, I put a ton of thought into that. Of course, it was scary as a white person to do this, but I think you have to face that fear in order to grow as a person and to really do justice to the characters whose story you’re trying to tell.
Dana Wing Lau: I love hearing how thoughtful you were in putting these characters in there. Also, this book is set in Seattle and the greater Seattle area, and Seattle is a very diverse metropolitan area, so why wouldn’t you bring together different races? These people coexist in real life so I think reflecting that back in a book also makes it ring true. I appreciated that.
Reading it as a narrator, I learned other things too, about Cyrus and Naveed and Roya’s family. So that was fun–I was like, “Oh, this is very interesting!” and I wanted to be at their family table, eating food as well.
The middle brother [Cyrus] is the one who cooks and brings people together. He’s found his niche in the kitchen as the middle sibling. So I think that’s really sweet, as a person who really believes that you can learn a lot about people by coming around a table and eating together.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, that was important to me. I know that we live in a world where it’s really hard to make time to do that, and a lot of people don’t especially enjoy cooking, so there are characters in the book who are “eat to live” people… but then there are the “live to eat” people, who I really enjoy writing.
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, I’m all about eating. Like, my tagline for myself is “Eater, Feeder and Creator.” I love to bake and cook for people, and as my husband says, I don’t know how to cook for one or two. I don’t know how that works, I don’t understand that concept! So I appreciated that part.
Alanna Peterson: That’s part of what drew me to you as a narrator too, because I read your bio and was like, “Ooh, she’s a foodie!”
Dana Wing Lau: I just want to eat! Also, this book was set in Seattle, and I traveled there in September. I started prepping the audiobook shortly after, so it was really great to narrate it about a place that I really loved visiting, and I could see myself living there, and we had actually already been talking about it.
I made a conscious choice to have a food itinerary as I traveled through Seattle, so I was eating all over the place, but it was cool to also see the characters travel to places that I touched upon. I went for a run in [Seward] Park, so when Andi and her mom went on a jog there, I was like, “I know where they’re at!” Or, it’s not huge in the book, but they’re in and around Pike’s Place Market, and I was just like, I know that place too! Because I had a chowder flight all by myself at a table in Pike’s Place. Everyone was like, “Can I sit here, or are you waiting for someone?” I was like, “No, this is all just my food, go ahead and sit down!”
One question I wanted to ask, because you talk about food but you also talk about food sustainability. I am trying to find more ways to be sustainable in my life in general, whether that comes from work/life balance, electronics, recycling, upcycling, clothes, all of that–but I wanted to ask, is there one thing people would be surprised to learn about food sustainability from your perspective, as someone who’s in and around this world?
Alanna Peterson: Well, I feel like a lot of the conversation around food sustainability tends to focus on individual choices, individual diets, what to eat, you know. That’s very tangible and understandable. But I do think there needs to be more focus on the actual humans who are bringing us our food, whether it’s the farmers and growers, or people who harvest and slaughter and process and package and transport and sell it to us in grocery stores and cook it for us in restaurants. I feel like that piece of the conversation is super important, because all of those industries have deeply unsustainable practices in terms of how they treat their workers and how they treat the environment in general.
So that’s what comes to my mind when I think about something that isn’t talked about enough. But in terms of dietary choices, cooking your food is awesome, buying direct from farmers, eating more plant-based… all the standard stuff. But I do feel like that can be alienating to people who are just trying to get food on the table at all.
I guess, in general, I feel like there needs to be more focus on our systems and institutions. If we really want to have a more sustainable system, there’s a lot of great work being done by food sovereignty and food justice organizations that are trying to lift up the voices of peasant farmers and people who are actually on the ground giving us food to eat.
So, I don’t know if that’s helpful at all!
Dana Wing Lau: No, I think it is, because people don’t know. And yes, I do “cook once, eat three times” six times a day.
I wanted to ask, too, because I’m always interested: if there’s one person you could share a meal with, living or dead, who would it be?
Alanna Peterson: I think my choice, if I had to choose one, would be Robin Wall Kimmerer, who’s the author of Braiding Sweetgrass. (There’s actually a YA version of that book now!) She’s a botanist and an enrolled member of the Potawatomi Nation, so she definitely comes at it from a very different perspective than a lot of scientists. It’s very rooted in her indigenous worldview.
I’ve come to a place in my day job–I still work in the research world–where I’m trying to figure out how to bring in my more creative and spiritual side to the scientific work that I do, and Braiding Sweetgrass is all about this focus on plants, and her relationship with plants, and how that influences the way that she does science. I would love to sit down for a meal and ask her what it’s really like, being part of the scientific establishment and having a worldview that a lot of scientists look down on because it’s more spiritual. I would just really love to talk to her about that–and the book is amazing, it’s full of beautiful essays about nature and food.
Dana Wing Lau: Oh that sounds great, I’m gonna put it on my to-read list. So is the full quartet available now?
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, the whole quartet is available in print and ebook, and maybe someday–if the first audiobook sells well–we’ll be able to make more audiobooks. I’d love to have Dana back to do the narration, so hopefully that will work out!
One thing I wanted to ask you, Dana, was what was your favorite part of narrating When We Vanished?
Dana Wing Lau: Well, like we were talking about… I know, Roya’s so great! Someone just [mentioned her in the comments]. She was really fun to narrate, but I really liked being with all the characters, like I said earlier, all over Seattle, and then also learning about them coming together and eating and sharing food.
Roya is a great character because she’s eight in this book and she’s so spicy, you know? She’s very empathetic as well, and so fierce in this eight-year-old way. She was one of my favorite things about the book. I really loved the different characters you had, because they are all adolescents (except for Roya) and especially with Andi, how they’re relating to each other and maybe crushes/not crushes… but also relating to adults and navigating the world as POCs. I think that’s really important, and a lot of that was really authentic because that’s what’s running in my head all the time, and I’ve navigated the world largely in white spaces, so it’s like an undercurrent of thought and I really enjoyed that. It felt to me something that was thoughtful and intentional.
Alanna Peterson: Oh, thanks a lot!
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, I appreciated that.
Alanna Peterson: Going into Andi’s head is always… there are four books of her growth, and I love all the characters, but I do feel a certain kinship with her, like on a basic soul level, even if I haven’t had all the experiences she’s had.
Dana Wing Lau: And she relates to the world through music, and I think that’s really great too because I have specific songs in my life that transport me back to that time. Or, you know, when she’s like, “I just need something loud and angry right now.” I totally relate to that.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, music was a big part of my teen years, and I spent tons of time listening to music and following the artists I loved. I was never a musician per se, but always appreciated listening to music, and it’s just such a good outlet. So I worked that in too.
Dana Wing Lau: So how can people find the quartet of these books, When We Vanished and the three after? How can people listen?
Alanna Peterson: Thanks, you’re a good promoter! So for the quartet as a whole, you can buy them in print or ebook at your favorite retailers by searching the title. Same with the audiobook. Just search When We Vanished. It’s available widely, so you should be able to find it wherever you like to listen to audiobooks.
You can also go to my website, alannapeterson.com, which has lots of information about all the books. It also has tons of resources that I’ve put together, like a list of food justice and food sovereignty organizations, tons of blog posts, behind-the-scenes kinds of stuff, and recipes. So that’s a good one-stop shop, and that will give you buy links to all the books as well.
If you’re at all into audiobooks, you should definitely check this one out, because I feel like I went on quite the journey while listening. I wrote the thing, but I was like, “Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen??” It was just so intense sometimes towards the end–it’s very edge-of-your seat.
Dana Wing Lau: Especially with Naveed. If you haven’t read or listened to it, Naveed goes on quite a journey.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, especially him… it gets pretty intense, pretty dark. But, as I mentioned, I do have a lot of interest in psychology and I wanted to do it justice. When people face really hard circumstances or violence, whether it’s physical or psychological, I think it’s important to follow that through, and not just gloss over it or be like, “Oh, he’s fine now.” The whole series follows his journey–and all of their journeys–after they have gone through the events of the first book, and what that means to them.
Dana Wing Lau: I have not read the next three books, but it’ll be interesting to see how this experience kind of keeps them going.
Alanna Peterson: It’s one of those things… We all go through those kinds of experiences–hopefully not as intense–but I think for teenagers in particular, it’s a tough world to be existing in right now, and to grow up in. So having books that reflect that, or just get into some of the really tough stuff that you have to deal with as a human in this world, is important.
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, and going back to Cyrus’s journey too: being the middle child and being close to your brothers and sisters but also feeling like you’re the one that’s not seen in your family–I think a lot of people can relate to that, regardless if you’re the middle child or not. I like his journey as he goes through that as well.
Alanna Peterson: I guess the hope is that the characters grow through this journey, and are able to see where they fit in and understand their little superpowers or their talents.
Dana Wing Lau: I think it’s important for young people to understand that they can have, I guess, a safe space within themselves.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah. They definitely go on so many ups and downs–it’s just roller coasters everywhere, but it was really fun [to write the series]. I mean, it was hard, but it was also fun to follow them all the way through to what felt like the natural conclusion of the whole arc that this book sets them on. So if you’ve read the first one, I highly recommend checking out the rest of the series because I feel like it really starts picking up in the second book.
Dana Wing Lau: And this is the Call of the Crow Quartet right?
Alanna Peterson: Correct, yeah. Starting with When We Vanished. I’ll show you the pretty book again!
So, what else are you working on right now, Dana? I’m curious.
Dana Wing Lau: I have a book coming out for Harper Collins, one of the Big Five publishers–they have an imprint that’s solely dedicated to AAPI stories, Alllida Books. You can check out their inaugural book; I’m one of the voices in it. It’s called You Are Here: Connecting Flights.
I also have a book by Susan Tan that’s coming out soon. It’s called Ghosts, Toast and Other Hazards and it’s a coming of age story. I’ve been doing a lot of YA/middle grade narration.
And, not in the audiobook world, I am pitching a docu-series about first generation Americans such as myself, so that’s been largely developed during the pandemic and hopefully you will find that available soon somewhere. It’s a lot about my own journey but also what it looks like to be American. So that’s what I’m working on.
Alanna Peterson: I’ll be watching for that! And I’ll make sure to let people know once that finds its way out there.
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, it’s called Othered. You can DM me [@danawinglau on Instagram] with your own stories of being othered. I’ve interviewed a lot of strangers in this process and gotten referrals from people just to make sure I developed it correctly. Right now we’re just in the pitching phase.
Alanna Peterson: As a writer, I went through a pitching phase when I tried to sell the books to traditional publishers, and that was really hard. So I can’t even imagine how it would be pitching a really personal docu-series kind of thing.
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah it’s, you know, the Industry (and I’m saying industry with a capital I). In film and TV and everything, it’s very much its own beast. There are so many ins and outs, and now there are so many different vehicles and platforms for content too, so you have to find the right place for yourself.
I also have a couple of feature films out, so be on the lookout for those! On May 12th, I believe, Robert Rodriguez’s new film Hypnotic starring Ben Affleck and Alice Braga is coming out. It just had a work in progress screening at SXSW which I was able to attend, and you might see a face you may know!
Also, an indie film called On Fire had its world premiere at the Mammoth Film Festival and a really good reception. I haven’t seen it yet, but it got nominated for some awards.
Alanna Peterson: Awesome, you’ve got lots going on, that’s so great!
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, it’s like, “I filmed this thing a year ago, I wonder where it’s at?” But especially for Hypnotic, if you like twists and turns you’ll like this. It also should be inspiring to all artists out there making art where you’re at, because this was entirely filmed in Austin at Troublemaker Studios with Robert Rodriguez.
Alanna Peterson: I definitely am all about that. Especially throughout and post-pandemic (or wherever we’re at now), art feels so important. It’s just so cool to see people pushing through all the constraints of what the pandemic brought to us and still making art, making amazing things.
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, someone at the Q&A for Hypnotic was like, “I shot a whole movie in my bedroom for three hundred dollars,” because Robert Rodriguez was like an idol to them. Just being able to do that and find a way to just be creative…
[Addressing viewer comment] Yeah, I agree, Seattle does feel like a really cool character [in the book]. Like I said, I loved that city.
Alanna Peterson: Come on back!
Dana Wing Lau: You might see me there eating oysters at a place near you! But it was a beautiful city. I really love there’s some side characters in [the book] that do a lot of farmers markets because that was the vibe that I was getting from Seattle.
Alanna Peterson: Just let me know next time you’re in town. I’m always down to share a meal!
Dana Wing Lau: Yeah, same here!
Alanna Peterson: Well, this was awesome. Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me today.
Dana Wing Lau: Thank you, it’s so great because a lot of times I don’t get to meet the authors or talk with them, so it’s really nice to get to know you more. And congratulations on not just one book but four books! Four books, that’s crazy!
Alanna Peterson: I know! It is kind of crazy, but I’m just thrilled to have all four out there now. It’s such a good feeling to have the quartet complete, and again, I really hope that we can get more audiobooks made. I just have to thank you so much, Dana, for putting so much work into this. I feel like it really added a lot of emotional depth to the story which was just so cool to hear and experience.
Dana Wing Lau: Oh thank you, I really appreciate that. Yeah, you know, audiobooks are a good alternative if you can’t read anything or you don’t have time… you can do it on your commutes, on your walks, whatever.
Alanna Peterson: Yes! Search When We Vanished at your favorite audio retailer!
Dana Wing Lau: [Addressing viewer comment] I can play the uke, I started learning but I haven’t re-picked it up. I think I can play three chords? I know that someone in the Rootcity Press sphere plays a lot of ukulele.
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, that’s Brett, he’s the uke player in the household. I did see that too when I was reading your bio, and I was like ooh, that sweetens the deal!
Dana Wing Lau: I’m learning, I’m learning. It’s been hard. I tried to pick up the guitar once and that just did not work with my hands. I did not understand it. I played the violin through high school, and every once in a while I’ll sit back down at the piano, but I’m not a musician by any means. I’m one of those people where someone needs to tell me what to do. I can’t just jam. I wish I could do that.
Alanna Peterson: You’re still a musician if you play any music in my mind!
Dana Wing Lau: I guess I’m more obsessed with–I play a lot of pickleball now, which was founded right outside of Seattle! When I was there, I took the ferry and they’re like, “To your left, you’ll see Bainbridge Island.” I was like, “Home to pickleball!” I play too much. So if you want to write that into one of your next books…
Alanna Peterson: Yeah, you know, I need to start! I need to get bit by the bug, and then you know I’ll be all about it.
Dana Wing Lau: Well, I’ll be happy to play pickleball when I come visit, all the things…
Alanna Peterson: We’ll share a meal for sure next time you’re in Seattle.
Dana Wing Lau: That would be great. Um, cherry turnovers?
Alanna Peterson: Yes! Well, thank you Dana, and thanks everyone who joined. It was just so awesome to have you here.
Dana Wing Lau: Happy reading and happy listening, everybody!