Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wherein I Interview Katja Millay (aka: the Author I Wish I Was)

So, if you’d met me anytime before about two months ago and we’d talked about “people who make us star struck” I would have smiled and nodded and thought smugly to myself “I’m just not that kind of person”. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are people on earth I’d be excited to meet. But back then I really believed there wasn’t anyone who’d make me, you know, stop breathing.

Then, a couple months back, I read the amazing book THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY. In a subsequent conversation with my agent about reading and current YA Cool Books, I told Brittany that TSoT was now officially my favorite book ever. Brittany then just casually mentioned that she just happened to know Katja, and that actually, Katja was really cool and deserved to be in the Cool Books category.
In a burst of juvenile fervor, I wrote Brittany an email that discussed, amongst other things, how if me and Brittany were ever in the same room as Katja, I would FORCE her (through violence, if necessary) to introduce me. But then, Brittany would need to talk through me like a sock puppet because, frankly, I’d lose all coherent speech. Cue amused, self-indulgent email conversation, followed by segue back into, you know, real business.

I didn’t think about it again.
Until I woke up the next day to a tweet from Katja, telling me “Josh says hi”.

And I hyperventilated.
I tell you this because I’m about to enter a conversation with aforementioned AMAZING author and even my fingers are struggling to breathe at this point. So if it devolves into a gushing, tear-soaked rant about how AMAZING Katja and her book are, please forgive me.

(For my readers who haven’t partaken of The Awesome that is TSoT yet, you can read the blurb - AND BUY THE BOOK - here).
*Ahem* Okay. Here we go…

Katja, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk today. And because The Sea of Tranquility  is such a long title, and because I’m going to talk about it a lot, from here on out I’m just going to refer to it as The Book I Love With a Passion that Rivals My Husband. (TBILWAPTRMH for short) Okay?
Of course, I’m just kidding about TBILWAPTRMH. That’s clearly waaaaaay too long. I’ll just call it My Passion.

Moving on.
Q. Where did the TSoT story start for you? What inspired it?

TSoT started with the image of Nastya and her hand and what had happened to it.  The first part I wrote was the flashback scene detailing what had happened to her.   I was very intrigued with the idea of who this girl was before that day and what she became after it and exploring all of the whys that that entailed.  That was the starting point for me.

Q. One of the things that drew me into The Sea of Tranquility right from the beginning was the uniqueness of your characters. Josh, in particular, strikes me as such a realistic dichotomy of earned maturity (through trauma) and screwed up adolescent defense mechanism. Did he spring into your head fully-formed, or did he evolve over time? (And, can I meet him?!)
I don’t think any of the characters came to me fully formed.  I had definite ideas of who I wanted them to be and the relationships that I wanted to form between them but as the writing progressed, the characters evolved as well.  I believe when characters are developed well enough, they begin to breathe on their own.  They get to a point where they make decisions and turn in directions you may not have anticipated and you often have to allow that whether you like it or not.  Sometimes that means you end up incredibly pissed off at them because they do things that you may not personally agree with - which happened to me with both Josh and Nastya as their characters evolved.  I would have loved to stop them from doing some of the things they did but it wouldn’t have been right.  They needed to make those mistakes.  I don’t think we always have to agree with the choices a character makes as long as those choices are true to the character.  For me, that was the most important thing.

I saw Josh and Nastya both as possessing a level of immaturity and selfishness that is part and parcel to being a teenager and yet at the same time they had a level of maturity that surpassed their age earned through life experience.  Josh starts off as somewhat abrasive.  He, like Nastya, has developed his own methods of keeping himself distanced from others.  When we meet him, it’s unclear if Josh would have willingly distanced himself from everyone from the start or if he’s convinced himself that that’s what he wants because people made that decision for him.  Either way, he’s far from friendly or approachable.  That attitude is put on in much the same way as Nastya’s own “adolescent defense mechanism.”  People started avoiding him so he’s convinced himself that he doesn’t want them around as a form of self-preservation.  But underneath that, in a part of himself that he doesn’t want to acknowledge because he doesn’t want to be in the position of ever experiencing that kind of loss again, he wants someone to care about; he craves the human interaction/intimacy that defines family and that’s the part I wanted to see emerge over the course of the book.
Q. Another unique twist in TSoT is Drew’s character arc – from Man-Whore to Best Friend to Big Brother. (I love Drew. Can I meet him?) Did you see his hidden maturity from the beginning? Was that always inside him? Or is there a magic formula you use that I can steal so my characters have similar depth?
I can’t lie; I have an affinity for Drew.   It was fun to write such an unabashedly arrogant and unfiltered character.  He screws up but he owns it.  He’s conceited but he owns it.  He’ll choose the wrong thing over and over again but he is fiercely loyal to those he loves even though he often tries to hide that part of himself.  From the beginning I knew there was more to Drew than the persona he had created and I wanted to offer him the chance to prove that.  Drew was sheltered and immature; he was irreverent and pampered and he hadn’t been world hardened like Josh and Nastya.  Things were easy for him and he never really saw the ugly side of people or of the world, though he did recognize what he perceived as ugliness in himself.  He accepted who he was but he also wanted to be a better person and I wanted to give him the opportunity to do that.

I’m not sure if there’s a magic formula for creating characters.  If there is, I’d love to get my hands on it.  One thing that was necessary for me was to understand my characters’ backstories even knowing that most of that information would never actually make it onto the page.   Developing those backstories was vital for me in determining their way of thinking, their decisions and their actions.  The characters, even the secondary ones, have lived lives before the stories start and I believe that, as a writer, it’s important to understand those lives and how they impact who a character is and how he/she behaves.

Q. Can you tell me a little about how Nastya came to be? I’m (again) impressed by the layering of her character. One of the aspects of this that I enjoyed and really connected with, was her “rebellion” against disappointing her family. That their love was just too great a burden for her to deal with in the midst of everything else. Was that a motivation you were aware of from the beginning of writing her? Where did she come from? (And can I meet her?)

The book basically grew around Nastya and while it’s told in alternating perspective and balanced out with Josh, in the end, I believe it’s her story. Her arc is more defined than his because her character has more changing to do.   As far as where she came from, I had a vivid picture of this driven, determined girl and she was so certain of herself and of life and she has all of these plans and then in one afternoon all of that changes and she’s left unsure of everything.  She’s forced to try to figure out who she is without the piano, which is how she had defined herself for so long.  Her entire identity was wrapped around this talent and then it’s lost.  And really it isn’t even the talent that’s lost – it’s the ability to express it.  I imagined how that level of frustration would affect a fifteen year old girl without the maturity and the life skills to deal with such a loss.
Nastya’s love for her family was a significant part of who her character was from the beginning.  She was brought up in a very close-knit family and no one in that family is the same after that singular afternoon.  She knows how much they love her and she feels responsible for the fact that she can’t give them what she feels they want from her.   Her need to focus solely on her own survival is at odds with her desire to make her family happy.  She can’t handle that pressure on top of everything else so that becomes a huge influence behind many of the decisions she makes.

One of the most difficult things for me in writing her character was being aware of who Nastya was before that horrible afternoon and what she still was underneath all of the false bravado and then having to wait for her to be ready to reveal those parts of herself.   I learned quite a bit in researching teenage victims of violence and their varying reactions to that trauma and I tried to write Nastya from a place of empathy.  Her decisions were skewed by the perspective of a traumatized young girl whose self-preservation tactics are formed by what is often flawed logic; they are born out of the weight of her experiences coupled with her youth.
I knew she’d make mistakes and questionable choices and I knew I’d have to let her.  Are her decisions mature?  Of course not.  And they shouldn’t be.  But they make sense to her.  Her logic and perspective are products of the trauma she’s experienced in conjunction with her immaturity and the self-centric view of the world which often defines adolescence.  I loved her.  Like her family and those who cared about her, it broke my heart to watch this girl self-destruct but I also respected her unapologetic survival instincts.  She was desperately clinging to some semblance of control and she handled her situation the best way that she could. 

Q. As a writer I’m in awe of the careful way you chose to reveal Nastya’s story and her experience – slowly peeling back her emotional layers, and her experiences. It’s clear that she’s a fractured soul and you really did justice to that in your plotting. How did you developing the pacing and structure of the reveals? Was it organic as you drafted? Or was there some kind of system you used that I could steal (please, pretty please?)

I wish I could say that I had some sort of painstakingly-developed system, but I honestly didn’t.  I knew there were specific pieces of information that couldn’t come out too soon and I had to do some cutting and rearranging because of that.  I cut one of my favorite parts of the book because it would have meant having certain details being revealed before their time.  But otherwise, I didn’t really overthink it.  I simply allowed the details to emerge organically in a way that mirrored the pace at which the relationship between Nastya and Josh developed.

****SPOILER ALERT**** My absolute FAVORITE moment in the book is when she enters the room after everyone’s been looking for her, and they’re all there, each calling her by the name that represents her to them. But she falls into Josh and it’s like he wins and… *sigh* I ACHE for that scene every time I think about it.
That isn’t really a question.... So, I do wonder how you feel about that scene – and do you have a favorite scene or conversation in the book? Something your mind goes back to when you think about Josh and Nastya?

That scene was a culmination of so many things.  Everything that Nastya had so carefully but precariously constructed was falling apart and she had to face that.  It was a convergence of all of these girls she’s been.  They are all in the same place at the same moment and it’s too much at once.  The weight of all of that comes down and she can’t run anymore.  It was also an acknowledgement, in front of everyone, of the place Josh had in her life and how necessary he was for her.   At the same time, for Josh, he’s finally getting what he wants - her, emotionally open to him - and it should be this hero moment but really he’s just a teenage kid and here he is trying to hold this girl together and all he wants to do is run.  It’s almost too much for him.  So there was a lot going on for me in that scene.
To answer the second part of your question, there are a lot of moments between Josh and Nastya that resonate with me for various reasons – the chair, the ice cream parlor, the pennies, the boots, etc.  But above all of those, the one that I think was the most meaningful for me was the scene where he tells her to sit on the bench with him in the courtyard.  There was such significance behind that gesture.  It was a simple, quiet moment and yet it was so huge in what it represented to both of them.

Q. So, it’s pretty obvious I think The Sea of Tranquility (AKA: My Passion. AKA: TBILWAPTRMH) is an incredible book. Which means, in my mind, you’re an incredible author. Do you have any advice for writers like myself who are still working towards publication? Anything you wish you’d known before you started on this journey?
I’d need a book longer than TSoT to list the things I wish I had known before I started all of this.  But if I had known all of those things, I may not have been naive enough to just sit down and write it and I definitely think this book was born out of clueless naïveté.

I don’t know that I have any profound advice for other writers.  Although it may seem overly simplistic or trite, I think the most important thing is to write the story you want to write. 

Q. Okay, even though I could literally talk to you about this book and these characters for weeks, I’ll wind this up. Final question:
WHAT ARE YOU WRITING NOW AND CAN YOU PLEASE SEND IT TO ME AS SOON AS IT’S IN DRAFT FORM SO I CAN MAKE IT MY PRECIOUS???????? *Ahem* I mean, Are you working on a new project at the moment? Do you have plans / timeframes for publication? (Or do you need a critique partner? *Cough, ME, Cough*)

The only thing I can really say is that I am writing and I’m past halfway there.  I write by hand, out of order, so it takes a little longer than it would if I were a sane writer.  Add that to the fact that I’m notoriously insecure so I don’t feel comfortable talking about what I’m writing until it’s done and I know that I’m happy with it and basically you have me being cryptic and vague and offering you an excessively long sentence with no real information whatsoever. J I promise that I’ll say something soon.  I just feel more at ease having the book in hand first and knowing that it’s the book I want it to be.
Thank you so much for stopping by, Katja. You've made my year!

Your Turn: Have you read TSoT? Do you have any questions for Katja? Or do you want to fangirl with me? Finish this sentence: Josh Bennett is...

If you haven't yet read The Sea of Tranquility and you're a YA fan, my advice is to go find it now. It's on bookshelves from today, and all the good digital outlets too! Just in case you don't know how to use your car, or your search engine, you're welcome to find it here:

Amazon Paperback

Kindle Edition

B & N Paperback





  1. FANGIRL HERE!!! Aimee, when you wrote that post about The Sea of Tranquility awhile back, I was in the midst of writing a dual narrative and on the lookout for a contemporary upper YA to compare and review to see what else was out there that worked. O.M.G. This book BLEW my mind. It literally is my favorite book of all time too. It was such an emotional rollarcoaster and I remember laying in bed next to my husband when I read the last line and I was like "WHAT?? WHAAAAAATTTTTTT OMGG HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT UNTIL NOW OMG I HAVE TO READ IT AGAIN RIGHT NOW"

    Something like that haha ....I have a million questions for Katja ...but most of them revolve around "Tell me how you created that amazing book!?!?!?"

    Beautifully written..just..there are no words except for you to read ALL THE WORDS in The Sea of Tranquility and find out.

  2. Aimee and Katja,

    I loved TSoT! Consider me a FANGIRL as well. I have literally purchased extra copies of this book for other people four times because I loved it so much. This interview just made me want to read it again.

    Katja, you are an amazing storyteller. Can't wait to see what comes next for you.

    1. Hey, Kari! I love meeting others who will SQUEE with me. This made me open the book again, too :)

  3. Aimee - you win. You are a much bigger fangirl than me. But then again I did do much jumping about and waving the kindle around before you discovered that which was Josh!!! By the way I totally love the new *cough* shortened title.

    Katja - It was a beautiful, beautiful book - thank you for writing it and sharing it with the rest of us. I loved the bench too, and was delighted when Drew turned out to be so much more than he first appeared.

    1. Yes, I will be forever in your debt my friend. Thank you for continuing to clunk me over the head with your kindle until I gave in and read it. The bruises fade, but my gratitude is forever.

  4. I've had this interview saved in my Reader since it posted because I didn't want it to spoil the story for me (I was a holding out for the physical book). Now that I've read (and ABSOLUTELY ADORED) THE SEA OF TRANQUILITY, I can tell you that this interview rocks. You and I have the same favorite scene (*chills*), and I loved all of Katya's answers to the questions. I love getting author insight on how characters are created! Anyway, fantastic interview, and AMAZING book.

  5. I haven't read TSoT. In fact, before I read this post, I'd never even heard of it. I'm definitely adding it to my to-read list now though - and placing it near the top. I skipped the spoiler parts but other than that, loved the interview. Your fangirl moments were very cute! :-)