A few weeks ago, my friend Brittany (of the Book Addict’s Guide) and I were talking on Gchat about the last books that blew us away. Without skipping a beat, Brittany recommended Katja Millay’s “The Sea of Tranquility.” I remembered Brittany writing about the book in her End of the Year Book Survey and figured it had to be worth reading to merit such gushing praise. So I bought it for my Kindle and read it overnight. It was that good.
Like any devoted reader, I become obsessive about the books I love (like “Eleanor and Park” or “The 5th Wave” or “Harry Potter” or anything by Melina Marchetta), so naturally I Twitter stalked Katja and asked her if we could host a Q&A. I’m so pleased she said yes.
The summary for “The Sea of Tranquility” calls it “a rich, intense, and brilliantly imagined story about a lonely boy, an emotionally fragile girl, and the miracle of second chances.” Written with remarkable emotional depth, “The Sea of Tranquility” has suspenseful pacing and breathtaking romance and beautifully flawed, complicated characters.
Here’s what Katja had to say about her
baby debut novel. I hope you’ll all start reading it immediately after reading the Q&A!
1. How did you come up with the story? Did something or someone spark your imagination or did the characters just live in your head? The initial spark for the story came from the image I had of Nastya’s hand and what had happened to it. I saw this girl and what she had been before this event and what she became after it. I wanted to explore the hows and whys of that. The first scene I wrote was the one detailing what had happened to her. Everything else developed around that vision.
2. Tell us about the process of getting it published. I read somewhere that your book was initially an indie book; it’s hard to believe any passed on it! When I started writing it, publishing wasn’t even a consideration. I just wanted to tell the story and to be honest, I wasn’t all that confident that I would finish it. It wasn’t until I had the first draft done and I was getting ready to start revisions, that I started thinking about the possibility of publishing it. I actually never queried agents or thought about trying to have it traditionally published. I looked into self-publishing and figured I’d put it out there myself and maybe a few people would read it. About three weeks after releasing it, word of mouth started spreading which was so unexpected and surreal. The rest happened very quickly. It was taken over by Simon & Schuster just over two months after my initial release.
3. I’ve heard people debate whether it’s a young adult book or a new adult book or even a grown up coming of age book… What do you consider the genre and did you have a target audience in mind? It’s very difficult to categorize. When I wrote it, I was completely uninvolved in the book world and wasn’t overly familiar with the emerging New Adult label so it didn’t enter my mind until I was ready to publish it. Throughout the writing process, I thought of it as YA, or more specifically, mature-YA. The protagonists are in high school but the subject matter is rather heavy and the material isn’t sanitized. However, since releasing it, I’ve found that many of my readers are not in the age bracket that the YA audience is traditionally comprised of. More and more I’ve been hearing it called New Adult and it’s also been categorized as Women’s Fiction.
I’ve run into the same difficulty as far as genre is concerned. I think TSoT is a strange animal, not lending itself easily to categorization. It can be called so many different things but it doesn’t fit any one label precisely. It’s not a traditional romance though there is romance in it. It’s not a mystery though there is an element of mystery. To call it a drama seems overly vague. Referring to it as coming of age is probably the most appropriate as the story deals with issues of identity, acceptance, growing up, falling in love, etc. At its heart, it really is simply a character/relationship study.
4. Melina Marchetta once said that two sets of her literary couples are damaged and seemingly broken people who help each other heal. That’s exactly how I saw Nastya and Josh, but I love angsty romances. Were you ever concerned that their sadness was “too much” for some readers? Thankfully, no. I really wasn’t worrying about readers’ reactions while I was writing it because I assumed I would probably be the only person who would ever read it. So I was somewhat freed of those thoughts which I guess was lucky, because if I had tried to consider how anyone and everyone was going to receive it, I may have ended up second-guessing most of the book. Every reader reacts differently to a book and its characters. Everyone forms their own attachments and takes something unique away from the experience. I think if you spend too much time obsessing about all of the reactions that you have no control over, you’ll end up driving yourself mad.
In any case, I think I was the last to know that it was sad or dark. I thought that I was writing a simple, sweet love story between two people who are just dealing with what life dealt them. I didn’t realize that it was overly dark or sad until I started reading the reviews. Not quite sure what that says about me! Wasn’t it Stephen King who said that the writer is the last person to know what he/she has written? Maybe that was the case here.
5. I loved how every character was beautifully flawed. It made me happy to see that Nastya wasn’t a straight-A student but that Drew was… Were you purposely trying to steer away from the “perfect” characters (especially guys) that seem to be so popular in YA books? I love flawed characters when I read. For me, they’re the best kind because they’re authentic. When I was writing, I didn’t think so much about what kind of characters I wanted to avoid as I thought about what kind of characters I wanted to create. And, really, what I wanted was to create people rather than characters. I’ve always been of the belief that real people are complex and characters should be also. I think there’s a duality to everyone. The outside image that the world sees and what actually exists underneath that. Those images are often in opposition to one another. Many times, the people who seem the most perfect on the outside are actually far from it on the inside.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect person in real life, which makes perfect characters very difficult to identify with. No one excels at everything. Everyone has their own gifts. Everyone also makes bad decisions. Everyone has flaws. That’s what makes characters interesting. At the end of the day, perfect is boring. I’m not sure anyone wants to read a story full of people who always do the right thing and never make mistakes and are awesome at everything. Those people don’t exist, and if they did, we would probably hate them.
Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.
Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.
6. I have a friend who isn’t sure she wants her teenage daughter to read the book, because of Josh’s “friends with benefits” agreement with Leigh. I promised her I’d ask what purpose it served; I thought it was just one more way he could hide from a real relationship but still have a physical need met. Like Drew says — he’s a good guy, but he’s not a saint, right? He’s a teenage boy and sex is just part of life for a teenage boy. I couldn’t pretend that those things don’t happen. Even Josh isn’t really sure his arrangement with Leigh should be condoned but he understands why he maintains it. Josh didn’t have the benefit of being free with his emotions. He wasn’t in a position to allow himself to love a girl and be in a traditional relationship but he also didn’t have it in him to use girls and mislead them into thinking he cared about them just so that he could have sex. Leigh allowed him some semblance of normalcy, or what he deemed normalcy, without requiring him to give up things he couldn’t. She offered a sense of comfort without making demands on him and that was something he desperately needed.
Whether or not that was right or wrong is not for me to say. As an author, I don’t think we necessarily have to condone a character’s actions in order to understand them. I try to stay away from making judgment calls on what a character does. I leave that in their hands.
7. I have to ask about two connections: 1. Are you related to Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poem is referred to in a pivotal scene? and 2. Are you friends with Gabrielle Zevin? Because you mention Nastya’s hatred of coffee and then a dystopian future where caffeine is outlawed. Just wondering! Sadly, no. No relation to Edna St. Vincent Millay whatsoever. But it would be awesome if there was! I, like the characters, read “Renascence” in high school and it is often used in high school curriculum and it worked perfectly within the realm of the story which is why I used it.
No, I don’t know Gabrielle Zevin at all. The line about coffee being a controlled substance was a complete coincidence and I only learned about her book after the fact but I’m definitely interested in reading it now!
8. Did you, like J.K. Rowling, have that final line/exchange in your head before you even started writing? Your ending is pitch perfect! Thank you! I did know that element of the story when I started writing which was vital because I needed to make sure that the foreshadowing was there throughout the book and that everything followed accordingly. I never wanted it to be something that came out of nowhere and it was important to me that if you went back and reread, it would all be right there, hiding in plain sight. That said, I didn’t know that I was going to make that revelation the absolute last line until I was well into the writing of the book.
9. Since even contemporary YA books aren’t immune to the companion books or series craze, I have to ask: do you think you’d revisit Josh and Nastya’s story or at least that universe of characters like other authors have done? I’ve been asked about a sequel often, and it hurts every time I have to say no. I’ve been very forthright from the beginning about the fact that I wouldn’t write a sequel. And there’s a part of me that would love to because I do miss Josh and Nastya – but I feel like they went through a true amount of hell and I left them exactly where they’re supposed to be. From the outset, I planned the book as a standalone. In order to write any story there needs to be drama and in order to have drama, you must have conflict. I feel that with this story and these characters in particular, for me to manufacture conflict for them would be to negate the ending of TSoT and I never want to do that.
There are other characters in TSoT that I do believe have stories to tell, and if I write those at some point, there is a possibility of getting a glimpse of Josh and Nastya. I can’t make any promises just yet. I want to make sure that the stories are there and the characters are strong enough to carry those stories before I commit to releasing them.
10. How much research did you have to do about woodworking? I kept staring at my coffee table wondering if it would pass Josh’s standards! Haha! I’m quite certain my coffee table wouldn’t pass Josh’s standards. It’s the one he’d let Drew put his shoes on. Lol! I had to do research for several aspects of the story but the woodworking was actually the least of it. Woodworking is something I’ve been surrounded by for years so I have a basic knowledge of it. I did research antique styles because Josh’s interest in those was not one I shared, but the woodworking itself was something I was comfortable with. However, I tried to stay away from including an excessive amount of detail in those respects because I didn’t think readers were going to be all that interested in routing techniques or the differences in various hammers and saw blades. But Josh could talk your ear off about those things – if he was inclined to talk.
11. What YA books are dear to your heart? Are there any contemporary YA authors you particularly admire? You mentioned Melina Marchetta earlier, and I love her writing. I only recently discovered her work in the past few months and since then I’ve bought every one of her books and I sing her praises to anyone who will listen. I also adore Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Scorpio Races.” Lyrical and subtle and haunting. It’s pure poetry.