2021 Debut Author Interview: Cassandra Hartt!

In 2019, we made it our goal is to work with as many debut authors as possible and to spread the word about their debut novels. It was such a success last year that we decided to continue the fun for years to come! Follow us this year as we pick the minds of the 2021 debuts and chat with them about their writing process and what it's like to be a new author. Also stay tuned for news of giveaways, Twitter chats, and more!

At the end of 2020, we Tweeted about wanting to discover more debut authors and their books. We ended up finding Cassandra Hartt and her novel THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I, and we have been interested in it ever since! We are so excited to have Cassandra on the blog today to answer some of our questions! 

Cassandra grew up in Maine and upstate New York before earning an English degree from Dartmouth College. She currently lives in the Bay Area and wishes she had a dog.

Keep up with Cassandra: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

The Book Bratz: First of all, congratulations! How does it feel to be a debut author?

Cassandra: Completely unreal. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid, so it’s strange to go from having a lifelong goal of getting a book published to, uh, actually doing it! Traditional publishing is so unpredictable that you sort of have to train yourself not to dream too big—like, ok, I’m going to query this book, but I’m going to try not to expect anything from it. Ok, we’re taking this book on submission, but I probably won’t hear back for several months and there’s a good chance it won’t sell. I feel like I won’t truly wrap my head around the fact that it’s happened until I’m holding a finished copy of THE SEA IS SALT in my grubby little hands.

The Book Bratz: In your opinion, what's the best part of the writing process? What's the hardest?

Cassandra: The best is when you read something back that you wrote and you’re like, huh, I actually like this bit! Or better yet, sharing pages with readers (whether that’s a critique group or a wider readership) and hearing that people connected with your work. The hardest seems to be whatever stage of writing I’m in at the moment. If I’m drafting, then I’m frozen by uncertainty and the number of possibilities. If I’m revising, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done, and unsure if I can pull it off in the time required. If I’m line-editing or copyediting, I’m sick of reading my own words. For THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I specifically, both the initial drafting and later revisions were tough. Learning how to write something as complex and unwieldy as a novel is hard work, and as far as I can tell, there aren’t any shortcuts. So just hammering out the story and getting all the words down was a challenge, especially in the early days when I wasn’t sure if the story was any good. Later, after the book was sold to my publisher, I found big picture revisions a different type of hurdle. Luckily I had my brilliant editor cheering me on at that point, and once I was done, it was hugely satisfying to see how much stronger those edits made the story.

The Book Bratz: Where did you get the idea for THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I?

Cassandra: Like many first novels, this book was written over the course of years, so the story grew in layers. The book revolves around a few different relationships, and one of those is this deep friendship between two of the narrators, Harlow and Ellis. It’s less an “Omg we tell each other everything” friendship and more a “I know if I say this thing it will really push their buttons” friendship—extremely close in all the best and worst ways. In high school, I spent one week during the summer at a creative writing program a local college offered, and that’s where this image came to me of these two childhood friends riding their bikes down the street of a seaside town. I wrote a scene that week that, while it doesn’t appear in the final novel, is sort of the central, third-rail type emotional scene. Everything about Harlow’s and Ellis’s friendship is the way it is because of that scene. From there, I spent the next several years trying out different plots that would let me write about these two characters and their intense, messy friendship.

The Book Bratz: Who was your favorite character to write? Who was the most difficult?

Cassandra: Ooooh I love this question. To be honest, the most difficult to write was almost always “whoever I have to write today.” It was a big challenge to switch between three close-first-person POV characters and not let them all run together and sound the same. When it came to drafting, Harlow’s viewpoint came easiest to me. She doesn’t filter what she thinks or says (or so we think), so she gets to have some pretty blunt thoughts, the kind of stuff we all sometimes wish we could say out loud. She’s also an anxious planner-type, so that comes very easily to me, a fellow anxious person with a to-do list. Tommy’s viewpoint was difficult to write just because of the emotional content. He’s learning to navigate his chronic depression, and in early drafts, I sort of subconsciously pulled back from the darker parts of his story. At the very beginning of the book, he goes for an ocean swim that he doesn’t intend to come back from—and that was literally only hinted at in the version of the book I queried my agent with. Both my agent and editor encouraged me to put Tommy’s journey on the page. Pushing myself to let the darker aspects of mental illness bubble up to the surface more in his chapters was rough, but paid off in a big way. Many of Tommy’s chapters are my favorite scenes in the entire book.

The Book Bratz: This book deals a lot with devastating seaside storms and hurricanes. What made you choose that angle? (We live in a coastal area that was hit hard by a few hurricanes ourselves, so we're interested!) 

Cassandra: I grew up in coastal Maine, near where THE SEA IS SALT’s fictional town of West Finch is located, so I’ve seen this kind of devastation firsthand myself. Coastal erosion and flooding have been big problems for many seaside communities for a long time, but the effects of climate change and rising sea levels make these issues so much worse. One of the book’s three narrators, Harlow, hates change. She wants everything about the town she loves and the people in it to stay exactly the same. So from a writing craft perspective, having Harlow live in a town that can’t not change provides a lot of natural conflict. The thing she wants is impossible, so will what she wants change? How long will she fight it anyway? 

The Book Bratz: What do you hope that readers will take away from THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I? 

Cassandra: My biggest goal is always to just let readers escape into my story. I want them to feel transported to this place, to feel what the characters are feeling. If that happens, then I’ve done my job as a writer. Beyond that though, as someone who reads a lot of books and can now more or less predict what characters will do and how books will end, I hope that THE SEA IS SALT AND I surprises readers and makes them eagerly turn the page to find out what happens next.

The Book Bratz: Do you plan on returning to the world of THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I in the future, or do you have any other projects in mind? Can you tell us anything about them?

Cassandra: I wrote this book as a standalone, and although the ending may make readers think otherwise (no spoilers but...!), I think it’d be tough to follow up on all the emotional drama of this book with a satisfying sequel. But I do love the world of West Finch and wouldn’t say no to the chance to return to it again. I’m drafting a new project now, and though I can’t say much about it, I’ll share that I’m sticking with a New England setting but moving inland. Perhaps I’ll eventually work my way across the country and end up in California, where I live now. :)

Title: The Sea is Salt and So Am I
Author: Cassandra Hartt
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication Date: June 8th, 2021

Summary: West Finch is one hurricane away from falling into the sea. Yet sixteen-year-old Harlow Prout is determined to save her small Maine hometown. If only she could stop getting in her own way and find someone, anyone, willing to help. But her best friend Ellis MacQueen “fixes” problems by running away from them―including his broken relationship with his twin brother, Tommy. And Tommy’s depression has hit a new low, so he’s not up for fixing anything. In the wake of the town’s latest devastating storm, Tommy goes out for a swim that he doesn’t intend to survive. It’s his unexpected return that sets into motion a sea change between these three teens. One that tests old loyalties, sparks new romance, and uncovers painful secrets. And nothing stays secret in West Finch for long. 

Thank you so much to Cassandra for stopping by and answering our questions! We are super excited about THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I and can't wait for it to be out in the world on June 8th

Celebrate So Excited GIF by Hey Violet

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