Two years after being named a PW Flying Start for her debut novel, The Reader, Traci Chee delivers the final book in the Sea of Ink and Gold series, concluding the fantasy adventure set in a world where reading and the written word are unheard of and the power of story reigns supreme. Chee spoke with PW about worldbuilding, writing oneself into (and out of) corners, and what she hopes readers will take from Sefia’s journey.
After spending so many years immersed in the world of the Sea of Ink and Gold, how does it feel to know the conclusion to Sefia’s story will soon be in the hands of readers?
I have a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I’m really excited. I’ve had this ending in my head for 10 years; I’ve known this is the ending image, this is what will happen at the climax, this is who is going to live and who’s going to die. So, knowing that I’ve been lucky enough to write it is really cool. I’m excited to have all the pieces and clues that I’ve laid along the way all come together. I hope people say, “Oh, that character! I didn’t think he was important, but he’s back and he’s got a lot of stuff to do!” I’m excited for them to see that everything had a purpose and meaning. At the same time, I’m nervous because it’s hard to end something in a way that’s satisfying. After spending so much time with characters, readers want certain things to happen. They dearly wish for a happy ending, for things to be okay, but all I can say is that things are going to be okay—eventually.
It sounds funny to hear you, the author, were surprised by some of the twists in this final book!
Well, I’ve had this book in my head for a long time and, during the writing of books one and two, I set up these rules about how the magic and world works. Then I got to the last book and thought, “Oh, dear, how I have written myself into a corner.” So I did find a way out, but it took some “tricksiness” and narrative acrobatics.
From where did you draw inspiration to develop Sefia’s unique world and magic?
The inspiration came from a few different and seemingly unrelated places. The no reading aspect was pulled from oral cultures. Finding a way for characters to communicate across long distances without written language was the hardest to figure out. That’s where the messengers’ guild came from and why they are so powerful in the books; because they’re basically the media and control the information. They control the story and story is everything in Sefia’s world.
The romanticized American Wild West with pirates setting came in part from watching Pirates of the Caribbean, but I also grew up in California cattle country, so I knew ranchers and actual cowboys. There was this feeling of discovery and exploration outside your back door. I wanted to embrace that feeling, that there are unknown things just beyond the horizon.
My desire to write a more egalitarian world was a huge part of the worldbuilding, too. I wanted the world to be more ethnically diverse and more inclusive of women, transgender, and nonbinary people. I wanted a world where it wasn’t a big deal who you love or are attracted to. I think, as the series has continued, we see more and more of these types of characters.
Do you have any tried-and-true methods to employ when worldbuilding?
I have a lot of scribblings. I would figure out my magic rules, then realize I needed to change things or figure out a way to allow for a plot point. So, I’d rewrite and rewrite. I also had various maps to figure out where everything was plot-wise as well as where every character was at any given time.
I would do it differently if I were to write another big worldbuilding fantasy. I would try to be more organized and have a story bible with geography, clothes, culture—everything. I wouldn’t have to pore through old journals to find one piece of information!
There are hidden messages throughout each book in the series. Did it get harder to incorporate those puzzles in inventive ways?
I think it got easier because I knew that I could repeat the form from book to book. This also made it possible for readers to know what to look for in each book. But, as I started to do more interesting things with Sefia’s book, that also opened up new possibilities.
Do you ever hope to return to this world or its characters in a future project?
I think that would be so much fun because of the nature of this world. Story is supreme, so I think there are tons of legends that I could dig into.
What do you most hope readers gain from Sefia’s story and the world you’ve created in this trilogy?
By the time we get to the third book, Sefia and her best friend and love interest, Archer, are fighting an unwinnable fight, trying to save him from fate itself, while not letting the world implode. They have an uphill battle, but they fight it anyway. That’s important to me because there are lots of times that fights feel unwinnable and that we can’t make a difference, but the important thing is that we try.
One of the other inspirations for the series was grief and loss. I feel like this shows up a lot in the first book when Sefia’s parents are murdered and her aunt is taken. Archer has lost a lot, too. I wanted to address what we do when the people we love are taken from us. How do we keep going? It’s something I’ve grappled with in my personal life. By the end of the trilogy, we’ve lost a lot of characters. The ones that remain are not okay, but they find a way to go on. It’s a reminder to have hope in the future despite what you’ve lost. Pick up the pieces and keep going.
How has your understanding of the publishing world changed since your debut two years ago?
I knew nothing as a debut, so now I know a little bit more than nothing. Of course, as soon as I think I know something, I’m proven wrong. Things are changing so fast.
What changes have you noticed?
I’ve been excited to see that what people were calling the “diversity trend” isn’t going away because it’s not a trend! Readers and the publishing community are embracing more and more delicious and inclusive stories from perspectives we’ve not seen before by people who have lived those experiences. I don’t think we saw that back when The Reader was published. It’s so great, but it’s also not enough. I have a sense of hope and resolve.
More than publishing, I’ve learned about my own writing process and how I function as a writer.
Has it been difficult to navigate the stresses of social media as an author?
We are more connected than ever and [authors] are developing social rules about how connected we should be. I feel that pressure. I try to watch other people who seem to be doing better than me and learn from them. Every time I think I figure out how to cope with it, I end up overwhelmed, but I am developing healthier habits. Meditation. Exercise. Stress baking.
Do you feel that having Pitch Wars as a launch pad has affected your publishing journey?
Yes and in the best ways. I love and owe so much to Pitch Wars. For me the point of that contest was not the agent round; it was the chance to have a two-month mentorship with Renée Ahdieh. That was incredible. What a gift she gave me.
I’ve also stayed friends with many of my Pitch Wars cohorts. We’re all at different points in our publishing journeys, which is great to see.
In what ways has your relationship with your editor, Stacey Barney, evolved over the course of this trilogy?
I still worship at her feet. I have her on an altar of awesomeness. I don’t think anyone else could have edited these books. This trilogy is so complex, yet she did it with such grace. She constantly pushed me to be a better writer; she didn’t let me get away with anything.
What can you readers look forward to next?
I’m not able to talk about what I have upcoming, but I can say that I’m interested in writing outside of YA fantasy. I feel that this series is genre-bending, and different book structures are fun to me. I want to keep challenging myself to keep growing in my craft and as a storyteller, attempting more ambitious and weird things.
The Storyteller (Sea of Ink and Gold #3) by Traci Chee. Putnam, $19.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-399-17679-1