Swanky Seventeener Tracey Neithercott recently sat down with Sweet Sixteener Traci Chee (yes, it’s a confusion of Traceys—or Tracis) to discuss her new YA fantasy THE READER (Putnam/Penguin, Sept. 13, 2016).
Sefia knows what it means to survive. After her father is brutally murdered, she flees into the wilderness with her aunt Nin, who teaches her to hunt, track, and steal. But when Nin is kidnapped, leaving Sefia completely alone, none of her survival skills can help her discover where Nin’s been taken, or if she’s even alive. The only clue to both her aunt’s disappearance and her father’s murder is the odd rectangular object her father left behind, an object she comes to realize is a book—a marvelous item unheard of in her otherwise illiterate society. With the help of this book, and the aid of a mysterious stranger with dark secrets of his own, Sefia sets out to rescue her aunt and find out what really happened the day her father was killed—and punish the people responsible.
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts, though she also dabbles at piano playing, egg painting, and hosting potluck game nights for family and friends. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. Traci grew up in a small town with more cows than people, and now feels most at home in the mountains, scaling switchbacks and happening upon hidden highland lakes. She lives in California with her fast-fast dog. The Reader is her YA debut.
Tracey: What comes easiest to you: plot or character? Do you plan these out ahead of time, or discover them as you go?
Traci: There’s only one thing that just comes to me easily, and it’s “that’s a cool idea.” I’m terrible at characters because it takes so long to find them.
I’m naturally a pantster, because for me writing is thinking. I don’t really know what’s going to happen, and then the words find me through the page. For me, it’s figuring it out as I’m doing it. I tried plotting out Book 2. I read that 100K a Day book. It didn’t work out. Now, with the sequel, I’m learning how to draft on a deadline.
Tracey: This was a really intricate plot—multiple point-of-views, multiple timelines, a large cast of characters. Did you plot it all out? How did you go about making everything so interconnected?
Traci: In its original draft, this whole world was a girl with a book on a ship reading about a boy with a book on a ship. The library plotline came up later—I needed a mentor character to teach the reader the rules of the world.
It was extraordinarily difficult to keep track of the different timelines and how they all intersect. I invented strategies to keep track of things. There were a lot of charts and graphs. I relied a lot on the hero’s journey. And then I wanted all of the other stories to have mini heroes’ journeys.
Tracey: One thing I really loved about the book is all of the added details—the blood smears on the pages, the words written beside page numbers, blacked-out sentences. It made me feel like I was reading the book alongside Sefia. Was that an idea you had from the start, and what was the process like with your publisher to make it happen?
Traci: I brought it up to my publisher, and they ran with it. I’m so excited. I’ve been fascinated by the power of books and the book form since college. I’ve done quite a bit of museum-going in “what are the shapes a book can take?” I had some of the secret messages—not planned, but I hoped for them. It was a really interesting and fun experience working with people who are professional bookmakers on this.
Tracey: A lot of times, books with main characters of color don’t always have that reflected in the cover. Was this something you discussed with your publisher?
Traci: I was really lucky in that from the beginning. Right after I signed, my editor asked me for ideas for the cover. I was very fortunate that they showed me what they were doing and I liked what they were doing.
Where do you write?
At my desk.
Music or silence?
Both—it depends on how I feel.
Book you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read?
Paper books or e-books?
Paper. I like marking up my books. I like dog-earing my pages. When I read a book with those, it makes me feel like an archaeologist when I’m reading something someone else read.
Which fictional characters would you like to stumble upon in real life?
I’d love to find out the characters from The Book Thief are real because I love them so much. There’s this book coming out this month called Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco. I’d want to be friends with the main character and go solving mysteries with her. And this one isn’t a person, but I would love it if the time traveling ship from Heidi Heilig’s The Girl from Everywhere was real.
Greatest piece of writing advice you can give aspiring authors?
Always keep learning. That is my general philosophy in my writing. I feel like to keep growing as a writer, I need to keep honing my craft. Whenever I start a new draft, I’m looking for ways to get better.
Tracey Neithercott’s first book was written by hand and illustrated with some really fancy colored pencils. It was highly acclaimed by her mother. Now, she writes YA stories of friendship, love, murder, and magic. (None of which she illustrates—you’re welcome.) She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, who suggests improving her novels by adding Star Wars characters.
She’s the author of GRAY WOLF ISLAND, a YA magical realism novel about the truth, a treasure, and five teens who travel to a mysterious island in search of both. It’s coming fall 2017 from Knopf/Random House.