Q: What inspired you to write The Language of Seabirds, and how did you create your characters Jeremy and Evan?
A: Seabirds really started out just vibes, as they say. The title came to me first, along with an image of a boy on a beach watching another boy run past. I knew from that it was a first-crush love story, and I set about digging into who these boys were and what each of them was hoping for.
Once I had my bearings, I began weaving in other themes such as visibility and fathers and sons, making a conscious effort to steer the story toward the kind of affirming romance I could have really used as a deeply closeted gay 12-year-old.
As for the boys, Jeremy is the main character, so his hopes and fears are what steer the action. I put a lot of my own experiences into him as I wrote, of course, but he also turned out to have more much courage than I did at his age.
I knew his character arc was about learning to be seen, but within the boundaries of his own world he kept stepping forward into challenges and trying new things in a way tween-me wouldn’t have, so that was super fun to explore.
Evan came together as a bit of a counterpoint to Jeremy, personifying the cool, confident kid Jeremy hopes to learn to be, at least on the surface. It was when I understood that both boys had things to learn from each other that the story really began unfolding on the page.
Q: The novel takes place in Oregon along the coast--why did you choose this location, and how important is setting to you in your writing?
A: I’ve adored the Oregon coast ever since a family road trip there when I was 9. There’s just something magical about the volume of that landscape, in every sense of the word, and when the initial image that sparked the book arrived, I never questioned the coast in question was Oregon.
Looking back, I think it was because of the particular combination of sensations you get there of being simultaneously very, very small, and utterly free. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and exposed, but you can also feel gloriously expansive, and those two states are a perfect representation of what Jeremy goes through in The Language of Seabirds.
I also have to mention that Ursula K. Le Guin’s Searoad, set in a fictional small town on the Oregon coast, is one of my favorite books. Her imagery and understanding of the rhythms of coastal living contributed enormously to my inspiration on this project, and I put a little nod to Searoad into the book as an acknowledgement and thank you.
Overall, I tend to think of setting as another main character, since it brings with it patterns, freedoms, and limitations just like a person, all of which can deeply impact the story. That’s not even mentioning the effect setting can have on overall tone and mood. So, yep, I think setting is always incredibly important!
Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?
A: Without giving too much away, I knew from the start that the ending would be bittersweet. Jeremy was only ever going to be on the coast for a limited amount of time, and that meant whatever bonds he formed there were going to have to come to some sort of close.
I’m really proud of how the ending turned out, actually. It took a disproportionate amount of work, but I knew it absolutely had to land to tug heartstrings in the exact blend of joy and heartbreak I wanted.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: I hope readers of all ages connect with Jeremy’s fear and courage and catch a glimpse through him of the opportunities that may be waiting in their own lives. In particular, I hope the book acts as a booster for any queer middle grade kids who may be feeling unsure of their chances at finding happiness in the world.
Just like Jeremy, I experienced my first crush on another boy at the age of 12, but unlike him I rejected those feelings all the way into my 20s, partly because I didn’t think I had any choice.
Having a book like Seabirds around would have really changed things, if only as a declaration that feelings like mine could turn out well. Having this opportunity to write the story I needed back then for the kids of today was a huge responsibility, and I took it extremely seriously. I hope that comes across in the text.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on two more middle grade stories. One is a historical escape adventure set in 1142, all cold castles and grim faces and tangled forests. The other is a funny gay tween tribute to all my favorite dance movies (think Strictly Ballroom meets Center Stage with two polar opposite 13-year-old boys).
I’m having an absolute blast with both projects and hope they find their way into the publishing pipeline soon!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Can I geek out about books I’ve loved recently? Yay!
-Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhhà Lai, is one of the most stunningly gorgeous YAs I have ever read in my life by an author who never fails to make me want to weep in the best possible way.
-Almost Flying, by Jake Maia Arlow, is the sisters-and-families, roller coaster-road trip, girls-in-love middle grade adventure we all need.
-The Last Cuentista, by Donna Barba Higuera, is the dreamy coming-of-age MG space saga that kept me up way past my bedtime over and over again.
-Hide and Seeker, by Daka Hermon. For fans of scary MG, this is an absolute must. The incredible hook: During every game of hide and seek there’s an unseen creature called the Seeker playing along. (Yeah, that’s not your friend who just passed the door you’re hiding behind…) And when the Seeker gets mad, kids aren’t hiding anymore, they’re disappearing. If you ever like a Goosebumps book, this one is for you.
-The Healer of the Water Monster, by Brian Young. This MG about a Navajo boy finding himself and his place within his family, community, culture, and world is actual perfection. Brimming with heart, especially in the tough moments, and so, so beautifully written. I cannot recommend this enough to literally everyone!
Okay, okay, I’ll stop there. Thank you so much, Deborah, for having me and letting me chat about The Language of Seabirds!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb