In Anne Yoder’s debut novel, The Enhancers, teenager Hannah navigates life in Lumena Hills, where the culture and economy are overtly linked to the town’s pharmaceuticals factory. While her family and teachers expect and encourage Hannah to take advantage of mind-altering drugs, she catalogs the growing number of species which are endangered and extinct worldwide. When she and her friends react badly to their pills, the solution is isolation, and more pills. But the relationship between Lumena Hills and pharmaceuticals is fragile; when a factory explosion upsets the balance, Hannah begins an investigation into options beyond prescriptions.

On Labor Day, my phone displayed a red band of heat melting around the globe. Sweating and delirious in the Bay, I clicked into a zoom call with Anne in Chicago, where the weather was mild. We spoke about world building and narrative, prescription drugs, and writing the voice of a teenager. Engrossed in conversation, I soon forgot the heat.

Hannah Lamb-Vines: So you built this world. The town that the story takes place in is Lumena Hills, and it revolves around the factory. It’s richly detailed and reads as fully realized, with its own demographic and city structure. How did you develop a “map” of the world you were writing into? Did you base Lumena on a “real” place?

Anne Yoder: Thank you. I’m glad that it comes across as fully realized. I was very intentional. I wanted to set it in a place that wasn’t identifiable as any town specifically. But I also think my intent with that was so that anyone who read the book could imagine that it’s kind of where, or close to where, they’re from. So they could imagine themselves into it. It’s like before I moved to New York, I would read a book about New York and still feel like I was there. 

And yeah, I did draw maps. Through revisions I realized that I needed to be more specific in my mind about where everything is located. The school, the factory. Just even for consistency, where the characters are going. But, you know, it’s not a very complex town in that sense. I’m sure the blueprint is probably towns that I’ve lived in. But—

Write what you know.

Yeah, I mean, how can you not? You know, on some level. I mean, I am not somebody who is deeply invested in sci-fi or world building. I was actually thinking like, why did I do this to myself? But I think because I was setting it in the future and with these pharmaceuticals, it inevitably had to be world building versus something that I felt was set in a very distinct place that I know.

An early sketch of Lumena Hills’ city plan.

I was curious about when it’s intended to take place. Lumena Corp was founded in 1981, and so much of the book feels contemporary, recognizable. So I wasn’t sure if it was an offshoot of our reality, or a projection into the future of our reality.

Maybe both. I imagine it being about thirty years in the future. I wanted it to be dystopian. I started writing the book before the Trump presidency, and I found that dystopian didn’t match our reality. Now it does feel maybe even more in line with the possible future in some ways. I was also thinking about climate change and extinction and the ways those things will be marked or experienced in the future.

And the ways that the dystopia of the pharmaco-pornographic industry is so linked to the dystopia of climate change and extinction are made so obvious in The Enhancers.

Testo Junkie was a book that I read when I first started writing this and thinking about pharmaceuticals and the ways that they’re used. On some level you could say that pharmaceuticals are kind of a capitalist coping mechanism, too. A lot of articles have been printed recently about teenagers and depression and all of their medications. And it’s like “Hey, there’s actually so much anxiety and distress and inequality and oppression in our current society. Let’s try to treat that with therapy. Wouldn’t it be great if that were included in insurance plans?” 

The pharmaco-pornographic isn’t selling a product, but an experience or a feeling or a space away from the contemporary reality. You can take a drug and have an epiphany. That epiphany might be very real and change you, maybe alter how you engage with the world. But it does seem to offer some kind of escape or alternate reality. On one hand. At the same time, I don’t want to debunk, say, the wonderful things the vaccine for COVID has done. But it’s all capitalism. It’s all things that you can sell.

Right. The vaccine has done wonderful things to get us back to work, restore our drive to exist normally in an arguably abnormal world, right?

Right! And as we move further into abnormality, it’s just like, how do we cope, right?

What else were you thinking about when you started writing The Enhancers? Did your perspective or orientation towards those thoughts change as you wrote into this idea?

I was really thinking about multiple threads. Like, how can I write my experience as a pharmacist, as someone who’s gone through pharmacy school, into fiction? I’ve always avoided bringing those two together. It was just like, “Okay, this is something I do for a job and a paycheck, and this is something that I do to escape and for creative pleasure.” The idea came in grad school. I was TAing for Eduardo Kac, who is a bio artist best known for the GFP Bunny (a transgenic bunny with the green fluorescent protein, or glowing gene, found in jellyfish). The class was bio art and technology, and I was thinking about medications as a bio enhancement.

I was also thinking about consciousness. I was reading William James and On The Varieties of Religious Experience. Thinking about experience and the multiple forms of experience, everything in our bodies is chemically modulated. 

I also wanted it to be a poet’s novel. So it changed. In the beginning I thought, “Oh, this is going to be about language and ideas. It’s going to be very short, straightforward.” I was reading Anarch by Francis Richard. There’s something about this book. It’s so good. 

I was thinking, too, about how to structure the book. In my mind, the structure is riffing off a package insert for a drug with the chapter headings. But it’s become more of a novel than a poet’s novel, but it’s not a novelly novel, a traditional novel. It maybe lost some of that distinction of structure as I teased out the narrative and the characters.

I rewrote the book multiple times because I found it really challenging to bring five voices together. I thought, “I want to bring these five voices together and I’m just going to do it. I don’t know how I’ll do it or if I can do it.” It was a huge task of rewriting, to bring those voices together in a cohesive narrative, then thread in the medical voice.

Like a chorus.

Yeah, that’s valid. It is kind of the chorus, just this medical text or the voice of medical advertising. The cliche phrases and uplifting names that are chosen just because they sound good. I was talking with a friend about this drug called STELARA, and she was like “That sounds like it came out of The Enhancers!”

Can you say more about these five voices–who they are, where they come from, how to recognize them?

I wanted the factory to be a character, too. The factory section stands alone as a third-person omniscient narrator. 

But it’s Hannah who is actually telling the story. Hannah, in the future, performing the different voices. It’s told in the past tense perspective, and the parents are seen through her eyes. They’re told in the ways that one knows one’s parents so well that one can speak with their cadence while also intervening with one’s own. 

And the chorus. That’s the least defined in the sense that it’s not just one author. Even if Hannah is performing them, it is more of a chorus, the medical perspective. 

But they are all linked by a certain tone, Hannah’s. It’s so distinctly familiar and teenage. Her vocabulary is contemporary, with phrases like “obvy” and “WTF” and “AF” but then there’s a distance to it, too. Something kind of impenetrable about the way she speaks. So I’m really curious how this voice evolved and how you landed on it.

It’s really challenging, I found, to write an alienated voice. The distance is there in part because of the distance that she feels. All the screens and pharmaceuticals, and especially the way that she reacts to V, or VALEDICTORIAN, the mental augmentation that she’s forced to take. 

It took a few tries to really land on her voice because I think the alienation was at first not expressive enough. You know, for a reader. But how do you write absence or how do you write alienation in a way that is engaging? I found that drawing out her relationship with Celia and Azzie did that. 

I was also really trying to center and remember what it felt like to be a teenager. I read Megan Abbot’s Dare Me, which is a book about teenage cheerleaders and it’s good. I mean it’s dark. Which is obviously the interesting part. But it’s also so in that teenage world. Also Jade Sharma’s Problems, a bit older in terms of narrator. But just that really straightforward, clear voice, she really nailed it, and it all comes together with drugs.

So it took a bit to really say, “Okay, I want this girl to be smart and disaffected in some way, but also like a teenager.”

The Enhancers is available from Meekling Press.

I noticed, especially with Hannah’s relationships with her friends, how the narrative structure is dissimilar from a lot of typical plots with their rising action, falling action. In this story it seems like there’s crisis after crisis, and none of them are really ever fully resolved. 

Well I started with the idea of a poet’s novel, which is kind of like saying “I don’t even care about narrative structure and plot.” Probably to a fault, I am not somebody who reads for plot or necessarily even thinks in plot. Like, my partner has dreams with narrative arcs. I have dreams about colors, just about emotions and shades. So that’s part of it. 

Some of those crises were to move things forward. And to show the side effects of the drugs. I mean, the side effects of the drugs are that Hannah feels very disassociated from the world, disconnected. But you can’t just depict that as her sitting in a room. I mean, maybe you could. But that takes a level of skill that I was not able to bring.

I wanted the language and the characters to move the story forward. I tried to rewrite so there is a mounting tension and awareness of what’s happening. There’s this control and oppression within the society where it’s like, “Take these drugs. You need this in order to become a fully realized human.” Which on some level, to succeed in Lumena, you do. But it’s so far from an idyllic fantasy of reality. So with the crises, I was trying to give it some shape.

I could definitely feel the tension mounting, but there was never any falling action at the end. It was just a straight roller coaster that kind of hung out at the top. Which feels very true to the experience of watching the news, where there’s just crisis after crisis, one crisis replaces the next.  And it’s like, “Wait, what about that one thing that happened last week? Did anything ever come of that?”

Well I didn’t want a false resolution, but I also wanted a space for hope for Hannah. Maybe what I envision is a more realistic hope than everything being resolved. It feels embedded in realism, in the sense that things have changed; some things are better or different than you would have expected, but it keeps going. Hopefully not pummeling you. 

That’s something that I really appreciated about it. I love that The Enhancers is a coming-of-age dystopian novel. But unlike a lot of YA dystopian novels, it’s not like the whole fate of the world rests on Hannah’s shoulders. It’s not like she’s really able to change the world at all—but she is able to change herself, which is pretty major. At one point in the novel she asks, if we change ourselves and our perspectives, is that a change in reality? And it is. If we go from screens to weather balloons, it does become a material change.

And maybe it’s just more realistic. In college in the late ‘90s, my friends studying biology were talking about how we’re in the sixth extinction. And it’s far more common now for that to be talked about. But nothing has changed, nothing’s gotten better. Not to be catastrophic, but that’s climate change. And all this loss is catastrophic in some way. And how can you change that? 

Of course there are things you can do individually. Maybe that is a question I was asking within the book. What can you do, as a single person? And part of that is, yeah, you can change yourself. You can act within that space. You might not even know how you’re contributing to that change, but it’s still something that you can do and have and rest in. 

Those world building books, like Hunger Games, those are great. But it’s not where I’m coming from. It’s odd, I think, because I have this scientific background and my parents were both scientists. This practice of pharmacy, fundamentally, writing about that in a fictional way brings it into the realm of science fiction. Or it can, very easily. 

Yet I feel far more connected to literary fiction. Like, yeah, I’ve read Neuromancer and various other sci-fi books, but I’m vastly under read if that’s what I’m trying to do.

As someone who has an Adderall prescription and also takes vitamins and allergy pills and drinks a ton of caffeine, I’m interested in the framing of natural supplements and ritual medicine like mushroom tea, which the Resisters drink. Everyone uses something. What do you see as the difference between the “natural” drugs and the Lumena Corp drugs?

The natural drugs aren’t participating in the capitalist system. They’re generated on their own. They’re usually plant-based, and there’s a longer history of cultural use. 

Then Lumena creates some of these chemicals in synthetic form and claims patents. I was recently reading about all of these startups that are patenting psychoactive drugs and psychoactive drug delivery devices. They’re anticipating that psilocybin and other psychoactive drugs will be legal, not just for use in therapy but recreationally. Widespread. 

I’ve thought a lot about the incentives for drug companies to manufacture medications they don’t make money off of. Lithium, the mood stabilizer, isn’t more popular in psychiatry partly because it’s an element, so no one was able to patent it or make money from it. The medications that are tested and approved and offered are all within this for-profit system. The drug company wants to make money. 

These distinctions have really blurry lines, contradictions. I’m more curious about the questions that these contradictions present.

Hannah Lamb-Vines is a writer and library worker in the Bay Area, as well as an interviews editor at Full Stop. You can find links to her work here and pictures of her dog here, and you can email her about interviews here

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