February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Literacy Is Magic: Traci Chee on World-Building, Fantasy, and “The Reader”

The ReaderIn our starred review, we called debut YA author Traci Chee’s The Reader (Putnam; September 13, 2016) “A fresh, diverse fantasy; highly recommended for fans of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and female-powered adventures.” SLJ caught up with Chee and talked about her path to publishing, the need for diversity in genre teen fiction, and her writing process. She will be speaking on the Genre-Bending SFF panel at SLJTeen Live! on August 10. You don’t want to miss it!

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publishing?

I feel like there have been three stages to my writing journey so far: academics, Pitch Wars, and hang-on-to-your-hats!

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since high school, so I threw myself headfirst into it (as I am wont to do) when I went to college, taking gobs and gobs of literature and creative writing courses as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz, and later as a graduate student at San Francisco State. I loved it—the rigor, the workshops, the heady theoretical discussions. The intense focus on craft really helped shape my writing style and sensibilities, and it nurtured my desire to always keep learning and improving.

Then came Pitch Wars, an incredible online contest run by author Brenda Drake that matches up unagented writers with mentors who help them get their manuscripts ready for a great group of literary agents. After two months of working with my mentor, the fabulously talented Renée Ahdieh, bestselling author of The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, I landed with agent/warrior Barbara Poelle, who got The Reader and me to Putnam shortly after.

Everything since then has been this exhilarating ride, writing harder and faster than I’ve ever written in my life, and working with the amazing people at Penguin to put the best possible version of this book in readers’ hands.

The world-building in The Reader is just so intricate and complex. How did you go about creating this world where reading is forbidden and literally magical?

As a lifelong lover of books, I’ve always felt like reading and writing were magical. The written word closes the distance between continents, between the dead and the living and the not-yet-born, between the real and the imagined. It can change minds, hearts, and even the world. I wanted to take that one step further in The Reader: What if literacy was actual magic—a power hoarded by a chosen few?

I looked into oral cultures, different record-keeping technologies (like the knots you see in the first chapter), different forms of books, and different ways of reading. I thought a lot about the way stories shape reality and who gets to tell those stories. The more I learned, the more the world of The Reader took shape: the long memories, the importance of names, and the way characters not only read books but body language, tracks, fights, weather patterns, seas, and scars.

Traci Chee_WPThere are several time lines in this novel and they interconnect in so many ways. How did you keep track of all of them?

The intersecting time lines in The Reader come from a strange combination of organization and intuition. I relied heavily on color-coded maps, charts, spreadsheets, and flash cards to help me track each of the story lines, but I relied mostly on intuition to connect them, using the juxtaposition of different time lines to cement friendships, or delve into a character’s guilt, or explore how the consequences of one decision ripple out into the future. In a way, I hope the interwoven stories read a little like poetry, or music, where the resonance of one line echoes in what came before and what comes after it.

The relationships between Sefia and the people she cares about—her parents, Nin, and Archer—are always what keep her grounded but also influence her to do things that put her survival at risk. Why do you think teens would connect with this internal conflict?

For me, being a teenager came hand-in-hand with questioning authority, making my own choices, and facing the consequences (good or bad). Growing up meant that things weren’t as simple as I thought they were, and some things weren’t fair or right, but I had to deal with them anyway, and I think that’s reflected in Sefia’s character. She starts out believing good and evil are totally distinct, but the more she learns about her world and about the book, the more she realizes that life isn’t black and white, and the decisions we face are rarely clear-cut. I love how a book can make me question myself and my place in the world, and I can only hope The Reader opens up similar spaces for inquiry with teens who might already be doing the same thing in their own lives.

The characters here are unforgettable. Which one was the hardest to write? Who is your favorite? And, who do you identify with the most?

The most difficult character for me to write was definitely Sefia. She’s so complicated—naïve and clever, stubborn and temperamental, totally capable when it comes to survival but inexperienced and easily flabbergasted when it comes to human relationships—and sifting through all of her complexity to unearth at her story was a huge challenge. And although I see a lot of myself in Sefia (in her bullheadedness, particularly), I’ve been an overachieving Ravenclaw since pretty much ever, so I think I’m probably most like Lon—ambitious, bookish, full of wonder at the world and the marvels it holds.

However, my favorite character to write is probably Petty Officer Haldon Lac. A minor character among minor characters, he’s a beautiful, well-intentioned ninny, with a complete lack of self-awareness that’s just so much fun. I like to think of Lac and his compatriots as clowns, who stumble onstage and add a breath of humor in an otherwise very serious story, and I loved spending time his handsome, empty head.

A lot of recent YA fantasy has had lots of steamy romance and love triangles, but The Reader stays away from that trend. While we do get hints of romance, there’s more of an emphasis on the task at hand. Why did you choose to write your debut this way? Will this be changing in upcoming sequels?

Although fantasy as a genre is often very action-oriented, it’s important to me as a writer to create character-driven stories. The heart of Sefia’s struggle is loss and isolation. She loses her mother, her father, her home, her aunt, and with every loss she becomes more and more solitary—until all she has is the book, the only thing she has to remember her family, and her revenge. When she meets this completely traumatized boy, both of them are so broken that a steamy romance isn’t possible for either of them. Because of that, their relationship in The Reader is about learning how to form human connections again, how to open up, how to come back out of their suffering. While I think the last moment between them changes the stakes of their relationship in a dramatic way, as I work on the sequels, I hope to keep the development of their romance rooted in who they are as characters and what they need.

Also refreshing is having the protagonist be a teen of Asian descent and not having this be the crux of the work’s conflict, or having her be the sidekick. Librarians have long been crying out for genre fiction with diverse characters. What motivated you to create the book this way and what can educators do to continue to the struggle for diverse kid lit?

Setting out to write The Reader, I definitely wanted to include a protagonist that looked like me, because when I was growing up, I wished I had more characters like her—female characters on fantastic adventures, who could shoot arrows or work spells or speak with dragons, and who happened to have my eyes or my hair. I loved A Wrinkle in Time and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but while other girls had their Meg Murrays and their Hermione Grangers, their Galadriels, their Susans and Lucys and Lyras and Lessas, I had Mulan. And that was it. I think we’ve still got a way to go in giving readers more diverse characters, but I hope that some people who need her, now have Sefia too.

I said earlier that I believe books can change the world, but really I think change happens when people engage with the world around them, and books and the discussions they spark can be an integral part of that transformation. Which is why I have such great admiration for educators, who are right in the middle of it, empowering students not only by giving them access to diverse books but also by encouraging them to interrogate what they read. Embracing the hard questions about race, sexuality, gender identity, disability, religion, power and institutionalized forms of oppression; asking students to explore their own backgrounds and perspectives; opening hearts and minds.

The power of the written word and the importance it plays in human memory is a theme that runs through this novel. Do you think people today have forgotten that power? Or are they more in tuned with it than ever before?

I think we’re at this really complicated and interesting point in human history where we’re committing more and more of our memory to digital technology. Facebook and Instagram to remember moments. Google to remember facts and names. On the one hand, yes, we can bemoan the increasing fallibility of our physical memory and the shortening of our attention spans, but at the same time, I think the way we tell stories—and the way we make meaning—is simply evolving. On Twitter, stories can be shared in a series of threaded tweets, but each installment can easily be interrogated on its own (with the reply function) or taken out of context (with the retweet function). A story in 140 characters. Or on Snapchat, stories exist for a few seconds, in a single image. That’s powerful in a way I don’t think we’ve fully grasped yet.

As I think we’ve always done, we tell stories through what we choose to share and how we choose to engage. More people than ever have a platform from which to share and more ways in which to speak, and as we curate our digital presences, I believe we’re becoming more aware that the stories we tell shape the world we live in. What we do with that power is something we’re going to have to figure out in the years to come.

The entire packaging of this book—from the gorgeous cover of an Asian teen to the secret code found near the page numbers and the ink blots scattered throughout—are well-thought out. Did you have any input into these decisions?

I feel so fortunate and so grateful to be working with my editor Stacey Barney and everyone at Penguin because I feel like I’m part of a team that cares deeply about making The Reader the best book it can be, both in content and in form. From the beginning, they welcomed my input on the cover, but the look of it was the product of art director Deborah Kaplan, designer Kristin Smith, and illustrator Yohey Horishita, and I’m so thrilled with how it turned out. The “Easter eggs” were something I’d planned since my first drafts, so I compiled a whole folder of interesting formatting and different secret messages (yes, there are more!), and sent them off. Art director Cecilia Yung and designers Marikka Tamura and David Kopka not only found ways to integrate my ideas, they also came up with totally new, inspired places to hide things. The poem embedded among the page numbers is something they suggested, and it’s something I’m completely delighted by. I’ve had the most wonderful time working with the design team because they are so talented and they always go the extra mile.

What advice would you give to other aspiring authors of color as a debut author yourself?

While I was drafting The Reader, long before I had an agent or an editor, I was afraid of a lot of things (rejection, failure, a future replete with unfulfilled dreams), but the one thing I was never afraid of was that someone else would write this story before I could. And that was because I knew no one else would ever come up with it.

This book is a turbulent combination of my background, interests, and Big Questions About Life: my fascination with book art; my love of puzzles; my childhood in California, poised between the sprawl of the Pacific and the teeth of the Sierra Nevadas; my need to write a fantasy that felt distinctly American; my stubbornness; my grief. I really, truly believed it could only have come from me, and that gave me confidence even when I was consumed by fear and doubt.

I’m still at the beginning of my career, and this might change as I learn more about myself and about this business, but I guess for now my advice to aspiring authors, and especially diverse aspiring authors, is this: Write the story that only you can write, with the perspective that only you can give it. Write it so well—so brilliantly, blisteringly well—that no one can look away. Your voice is both unique and necessary. We need to hear you.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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