The Reader (Putnam, Sept.) is both Traci Chee’s first published work and her first attempt at writing a novel. The initial installment in the Sea of Ink and Gold series, The Reader was inspired by “one magical moment walking into a special collections of a library,” Chee’s appreciation of “outlaws with hearts of gold” (think Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven), and her interest in grief and loss.
Despite Chee’s lifelong love of reading and the fact that her favorite books have always been children’s books, “writing for children didn’t always seem obvious, though, in retrospect, it should have.” It wasn’t until an offhand comment from a classmate about her “energetic voice” that Chee realized, in studying adult literature and classics during college, that she’d drifted from what she really loved—children’s and young adult fantasy.
After working on the manuscript of The Reader for about a year, Chee decided to enter Pitch Wars, a contest where published/agented authors and editors choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions to ready the manuscript for querying. Chee was selected by YA author Renee Ahdieh, who “changed her life.” With Ahdieh’s guidance, Chee “did two revisions and cut out 10,000 words.” During the querying stage, the manuscript was requested by three agents, including Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Agency, who also represents Ahdieh. Chee accepted representation by Poelle, and two months later signed a deal with Stacey Barney at Putnam.
“I knew from 15 minutes of talking to [Barney] that she was the right person to edit The Reader,” Chee says. “She really liked the narrator and wanted to focus on that aspect of the novel. I immediately knew she got it. Every time that she sends me an editorial letter, she’s right. Every single time.”
The Reader follows 15-year-old Sefia, who is on a rescue mission after being separated from her aunt. Set in a world called Kelanna, where books, writing, and reading are unheard of, Sefia finds herself in possession of a book, which she is certain is the key to unlocking her mysterious past. Throughout the novel are many hidden puzzles and messages, some planned by Chee from the very beginning and included during initial drafts because they are “integral to the story,” such as a large section of blacked-out text early in the novel that comes into play later. “I had been collecting cool things to do in books for years and sent [Barney] a huge Google document with ideas,” she says. As far as she’s aware, “no one has found all of the hidden elements of the book yet.”
Chee declares the whole year “a stressful, overwhelming, lovely dream”; she attended TLA in April, NCTE in November, and visited schools and bookstores across the country. “Reception has been great,” she says. “The Reader was nominated for the Kirkus Prize and has been on some Best of 2016 lists.” She now has a better understanding of the publishing world, too: “It’s been really cool to see all the gears turning—there are so many things happening to get books into the hands of readers. It’s truly a miraculous machine.”
When Chee isn’t traveling, she writes full-time (often in her pajamas). “I’m of the mind that I want to challenge myself more with every project that I tackle,” she says. “Which is great in theory, but also super difficult.” In the second Sea of Ink and Gold book, which is slated for late 2017 and which she is currently revising, Chee has added “another set of characters and decided to tell a plot line backwards.”
When asked what advice she’d give others aspiring to publication, Chee jokes, “Pay attention to the suggested word counts for your genre.” Having experienced rejection after rejection when she first queried with a much longer manuscript than recommended, she learned that “those suggestions are there for a reason.” In a more serious tone, she says, “Always keep learning. There’s always something more to learn about craft or something you haven’t mastered.”