YA author Martin Wilson’s sophomore novel has a gut-punch premise: One hot day in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an 11-year-old boy takes off on his bike and vanishes. Three years later, he returns, gravely changed.

“I’m trying to write stories that are honest and emotionally powerful,” says Wilson, author of We Now Return to Regular Life, based on a true story of abduction and abuse he followed in newspapers some years ago. “I want an emotional reaction from readers, because I had emotional reactions writing it. It took a toll on me to go to such a dark place.”

He took permission, in part, from the example of Elizabeth Scott’s Living Dead Girl, a dark, frank story told from the point of view of an abducted child.

“I [thought], if she can do this as YA,” he says, “I can do my story.”

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Wilson grew up in Tuscaloosa, which is also the setting for his debut, What They Always Tell Us, winner of an Alabama Author Award and a Lambda Award finalist. He lives in New York City and works full-time as a publicist at Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

We Now Return to Regular Life is the story of the long-awaited return of Sam Walsh, told from the points of view of Beth, his older sister, and Josh Keller, the last friend to see him on the day he disappeared. In the intervening years, the pair experience fear, regret, numbness, sadness, and anger.

“Sam was out there, somewhere, I was mad at him for doing this to us,” Wilson writes in a chapter narrated by Beth, three years after that day. “And then I was scared for him. And then I started crying, wishing I could go back in time and grab him and tell him there was no way he was going to the mall. He was going to stay right here in this damned stuffy house with me.”

Josh and his family move away from the neighborhood (same school district), while Beth stays stuck in the same “damned stuffy house,” with the same phone number, just in case Sam calls. Her mother is shattered; her stepfather, stoic.

“What happened to Beth was hard to put into words,” Wilson says.I could [more easily] enter the mind of Josh because it was tragedy for him, but he could walk away. Getting into the head of a character who had to deal with such tragedy on a daily basis was far outside my realm of experience, so I really did grapple with Beth’s perspective.”Martin Wilson Cover

Beth and Josh are soon grappling with the shocking consequences of Sam’s unexpected return. For its skilled take on a shattering topic, Kirkus calls We Now Return to Regular Life “a fast-paced yet complex and heart-rending read.”

“Ultimately, I want readers to find some kind of solace in the story,” Wilson says. “I wanted to show that there is a lot of awful stuff in the world, but there’s also a lot of good.

“One of the things I’ve learned from reading fiction and growing older and writing fiction,” he continues, “is it helps you empathize with your fellow human beings. You don’t view humanity as something in black and white, and that [generosity] is what I want for my characters. Beth has flaws, Josh has flaws—Sam, obviously—but they’re still good people, deserving of love and respect.”

Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked