April 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Debut: SLJ Talks to Katja Millay About ‘The Sea of Tranquility’

The Sea of TranquilityThe Sea of Tranquility is a novel about two teens who are suffering. Nastya was attacked and lost the use of her hand. Being a piano prodigy who based her identity upon her musical ability, she is trying to come to terms with what happened. She hasn’t spoken a word in over a year. Josh has lost his entire family and is now living alone, finishing high school. He has a passion for carpentry. When Nastya moves to Florida to live with her aunt, hoping for a fresh start at a new school, they meet.

Some of the story is told from Nastya’s point of view, some of it is told by Josh. The gradual building and deepening of their relationship is beautiful to read, especially their struggles to trust each other and to accept the intimacy of being loved.

I welcomed the opportunity to ask Katja Millay a few questions about her debut novel, The Sea of Tranquility.

Katja MillayWhat was the original inspiration for your novel? Did you begin with a particular character? With what happened to Nastya? Did you know it would become a love story?

The first thing I actually put on paper was Nastya’s attack scene.  Though it doesn’t come into the book until well past the halfway mark, it was the catalyst for the rest of the story. It was important for me to understand what had happened to her and to keep that in mind throughout the writing process because that incident affected so much of what she had become.

Everything began with Nastya. I lived with her in my head for a while before even trying to form a story. At that point, she fascinated me and I was just getting to know her. I was haunted by this very childlike, yet obsessively focused, teenage girl with an extraordinary talent and vivid expectations for her future. Then I imagined her after everything she had defined herself by had been taken away.

I was intrigued by the idea of talent and ability and how that forms our identities and sense of self.  It’s so common for us to define ourselves by what we do, not necessarily by who we are. Nastya’s entire identity and sense of worth was wrapped around her musical talent and then it’s lost—and really it isn’t even the talent that’s lost. Is she suddenly not talented because her hand can no longer play?  In her mind, she still had the ability.  She hadn’t lost that gift; she lost the means to express it. I equated that feeling to the way we feel in a dream when we know we should be able to scream but we open our mouths and our bodies betray us and no sound comes out; it’s a feeling of pure impotence. That’s how she feels with the musical ability trapped inside her with no way out. I imagined that level of frustration would be maddening for anyone, much less a fifteen-year old girl without the maturity or life skills to handle such a loss. The book began as a way to explore the effects of that.

I knew from the beginning that I would write it as a love story.  I’ve always been drawn to reading slow-burn romances where the relationship takes its time to build and develop naturally.  As I wrote TSoT, I wanted to see Josh and Nastya fall in love and I wanted to experience that with them. When I’m reading, I like to reach the end of a book and feel like I understand why two characters fell in love, because I was able to watch it happen. That’s how I hoped readers would feel at the end of TSoT.

The title has multiple meanings as the book progresses, and it means different things to Nastya at different points. Could you talk about The Sea of Tranquility?

Years ago, when I first learned what the Sea of Tranquility actually was, I felt a distinct sense of disappointment. I thought, Really? That’s what it is? I imagined Nastya feeling the same way, but to a greater extent because she had created a set of expectations that were rooted so much more deeply.

The Sea of Tranquility is a symbol of the disillusionment that Nastya is experiencing when we meet her—a sense of disappointment and the loss of possibility. Her life carried the promise of a bright future defined by music but reality has delivered something wholly different; just as the Sea of Tranquility promised a serene, beautiful body of water and instead delivered a “big, dark shadow on the moon.”

In some ways, I likened the Sea of Tranquility to the optical illusion that Nastya is described as in the text. Its implications shift depending on our perceptions over the course of the story. I referred to the book as The Sea of Tranquility as I was writing, but I always considered it a working title, not actually believing I would use it.  But by the time I finished, it had become clear that it reflected so many of the story’s themes in a way that nothing else would. Once I realized that, I knew that I couldn’t possibly call it anything else.

I am struck by how real—and lacking in cliché or stereotype—the teen characters are. How did you go about creating believable young people, from Josh and Nastya to their siblings to the kids at school?

Thank you!  One of my favorite parts of writing is developing characters and having the opportunity to get inside their heads and figure out how their minds work. I spent part of my career teaching high school and that experience provided me with vital insight into the world of teenagers—the way they speak, the maturity and naïveté that are at war within them during those years, the tough exteriors that often hide vulnerabilities and insecurities. That understanding ended up being invaluable to me and I tapped into it quite a bit.

I imagined all of my characters as real people. It sounds simple enough but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of characters as characters and when that happens they tend to become a type. Real people are complex and what you see is rarely what you get. I tried to keep in mind how often we meet someone in real life and construct a set of expectations based on what we encounter on the surface only to learn that, once we delve further, there’s much more to them. I never wanted to leave my characters on that surface level.

Developing backstories, for not only the main characters but the secondary ones as well, was also key. Even knowing that much of what happened in those backstories would never make it into the actual book, it was important for me, as a writer, to know their pasts so that I could understand their motivations and behavior. Characters aren’t born the moment they appear on the page. They’ve lived lives before the story begins and those lives have created the people they are. A person’s past experiences impact how they think and view the world, which in turn affects their decisions and determines how they act and react to the situations they’re placed in.

Josh is very mature and sounds older than his years at times. Could you talk about him and the voice you found for his chapters?

Finding Josh’s voice was a bit of a balancing act because in some ways he’s older than his years and in others he’s very much the teenager he is. At one point in the text, Mrs. Leighton refers to Josh, saying that he, “may seem like a very old man sometimes…” and I think that’s true.  I thought of him as weighed down by experience.  He’s had to endure rites of passage that many adults haven’t even gone through yet and with every one of those losses he gets a little older and a little more alone.  The magnitude of what he’s gone through makes things like high school seem trivial and yet he simply goes on, going through the motions of day-to-day life mostly because it’s easier than having to give it any thought.  While Nastya rails against her lot in life with bitterness and anger, he dissolves into his with a sense of resignation and acceptance that what is, simply is.

His self-preservation mechanisms are also firmly in place. People leave him alone so he’s convinced himself that he wants it that way and accordingly developed the abrasiveness that we encounter when we first meet him. But while he may have a deep level of understanding when it comes to death and loss, underneath that he’s still a 17-year-old boy and he really doesn’t have the rest of it figured out, especially when it comes to relationships. He makes mistakes. He’s far from perfect. He still has growing up to do and we see some of that maturation happen throughout the book. His relationship with Nastya allows both of them to be the teenagers they should be—to go on dates, to fall in love, to have a little bit of the normalcy that many of us take for granted.

What were the challenges of writing a novel around a character who chooses not to speak?

The fact that Nastya didn’t speak was actually a challenge and a blessing at once. Readers tend to crave dialogue and it’s an invaluable tool in character creation and story momentum. When you lose that tool, you have to compensate. For me, it became about developing Nastya’s inner voice so that it was rich enough to hold a reader. You spend a great deal of time in her head, so I had to stay constantly aware of her thoughts and ensuring that they were building her character, letting the reader get to know her and giving them clues along the way—advancing and enlightening. Nastya made things a little easier on me though because she always had something going on in her head. She was opinionated and observant and the wheels never stopped turning. So even though she wasn’t speaking, she always had something to say.

The blessing of spending so much time in Nastya’s head is that I was able to paint a detailed picture of who she is while giving readers the means by which to understand and connect with her. The tricky part was that all of Nastya’s secrets also live in her head, and I couldn’t let them out too early. So it was a very delicate line I was walking—trying to keep the reveals coming at a steady pace, without giving away too much too soon.

How did you go about maintaining suspense for 448 pages, especially when the entire book is about two people? The pacing of the development of the central relationships and Nastya’s healing are perfect. Could you talk about your process?

I’m not sure I could call what I had a process. Much of the book was written by hand, out of order, in pieces and moments. I’d scribble it down in half-scenes and random lines of dialogue and visual images, not even realizing at the beginning that I would end up with a book. At one point, I sat down to write an outline but it was a laughable attempt. I ended up scrapping it and just continuing to do what I was doing.

Once I had the majority of the pieces down, I finally embarked on putting it into the computer and I remember looking at the blank screen and then at my husband and saying, “I don’t know where it starts.” That moment was almost paralyzing for me. I began rearranging and ordering everything I had on paper.  I knew the thematic thread that was going to carry it from beginning to end and I knew the character arcs which, in my mind, were the most important elements.  That thread and those arcs provided the real framework for me.  Then it was a matter of filling in the holes and connecting the dots.

As far as the reveals are concerned, many of them were small and subtle. I wanted the information to come at a steady pace so that you felt you were always getting a piece of the puzzle even if it didn’t make sense yet. There was a blog that did a structural breakdown of TSoT several months ago and the author used the term “Greteling” to describe how the information was disseminated throughout the book and I loved that. I thought it was such a visually descriptive way to discuss how the clues are dropped like breadcrumbs that the reader has to follow to make it to the end.

In terms of the pacing, much of that was determined by the characters. As their trust in each other gradually increased, so did the amount of information they were willing to part with. Josh’s secrets aren’t quite as dark and certainly not nearly as buried as Nastya’s, so I knew they would come out into the open first. When it came to both of their stories, I simply allowed the details to emerge organically in a way that mirrored the pace at which the relationship between them developed.

Your novel appeals equally to teen and adult readers. Why do you think that is? To what do you credit its crossover appeal?

I’ve been so thrilled with how the book seems to have taken hold with both teen and adult audiences. I think the crossover appeal can somewhat be credited to the universal themes at work in the book. While the characters may be teenagers, they’re dealing with situations and life events that often come later. There’s also the exploration of the concept of identity and figuring out who we are. I think that’s something that many of us, even as adults, still struggle with.

In addition, in its simplest form, it’s a love story; it’s a story of acceptance and growing up. At its core, the story is one of friendship and family, faith and fate, choices and chance and I believe those things transcend age barriers.

Please see the SLJ starred review of The Sea of Tranquility, published on the Adult Books 4 Teens blog.

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Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.

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