Michaela Dunn dreams of getting into an art school, but when her stepfather refuses to fund a trip there for a poetry workshop, Michaela enters a local contest searching for a poet to write the dedication plaque for a statue honoring Captain Benjamin Churchill, a whaler who died at sea over one hundred years ago. While searching for clues about this Cape Cod legend, Michaela discovers the diary of Leta Townsend from 1862 and gets a glimpse of Churchill that she didn't quite anticipate. In 1862, Leta writes poetry under the name of Benjamin Churchill, thinking him dead after being attacked by a whale. Leta is astonished when Captain Churchill returns, completely unscathed, his death just a rumor. She quickly falls for him. But is she falling for the actual Benjamin Churchill, or the boy she constructed in her imagination?
About the Author
Erica George is a writer of young adult fiction. She is a graduate of The College of New Jersey with degrees in both English and education, and is currently an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She resides in scenic Hunterdon County, New Jersey, but spends her summers soaking up the salty sea air on Cape Cod.
Many themes in Erica’s writing rotate around environmental activism and helping young people find their voice. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring, whale watching, or engrossed in quality British drama with her dog at her side. Words Composed of Sea and Sky is her debut young adult novel.
Interview by Andrea Wang
Hi, Erica! I’m so excited to interview you about your debut YA, WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY, which is both a contemporary and historical coming-of-age romance. I love stories about strong yet flawed characters, first loves, intersecting lives, and mysteries – and you have effortlessly combined all of these in your book! Okay, I’m going to dive right in and ask all my questions!
Andrea: I feel like I haven’t seen many YA romances that are told in split-time, like WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY. I think you did a masterful job of making both the main characters, Michaela and Leta, as well as the different time periods, distinct. What made you decide to make Leta a separate main character with her story told in her own timeline, versus having Michaela just read about her in her journal?
Erica: I think that decision was born of the fact that I was afraid just reading diary entries would get old fast. I wanted the reader to be as immersed in Leta’s story as they were in Michaela’s, to bring that narrative from the 19th century to life. Part of what was so important to me in writing this was showing the similarities in each of their stories despite living almost two centuries apart.
Andrea: I love that – we are all more alike than we can fathom sometimes. There were also two love triangles going on, one in each time period! How hard was it to keep all the characters straight while writing them, not to mention making each relationship unique?
Erica: There were! And this is coming from a reader that doesn’t particularly enjoy the love triangle trope. But when crafting these relationships, I was cognizant of how each love interest either challenged their female protagonist or put obstacles in her way, specifically concerning each girl’s character arc. Both Michaela and Leta struggle to see people as they really are instead of how they wish they were, or how they assumed they were, and I think each boy in this book helps them overcome their preconceived notions.
Andrea: Oof, learning that lesson can be so hard. Okay, I have to know. Team Benjamin or Team Elijah? Team Finnian or Team Caleb? They all are so interesting and handsome and have their own redeeming qualities! (Well, maybe except for one, but we won’t go there…)
Erica: I am absolutely Team Elijah and Team Finn! (Who could possibly pick anyone else over Finn??) Of course, I have an eternal soft spot in my heart for Ben, but I don’t think he’s necessarily the best option for any kind of relationship!
Andrea: I have to agree with you there. There’s something so compelling about Ben, and yet… You say in your Acknowledgments that “Benjamin Churchill first appeared to me when I was thirteen years old, coming home from having seen a production of A Christmas Carol.” Please tell us more about that!
Erica: Yes, Ben’s been with me for a long, long time, and it’s amazing how his story’s evolved and yet essentially stayed the same. I went to see A Christmas Carol in Princeton every year with my family (interrupted only by the pandemic!), and one night we were driving home, and I was thinking about how change plays such a prevalent role in the story. Scrooge is awful in the beginning and redeemed by the end, but that isn’t always how it works. Sometimes life wreaks havoc on people, and try as they might, they struggle to change. Benjamin Churchill just kind of appeared out of nowhere on the ride home, fully formed, and handsome, and successful, but really pretty damaged. Over the course of twenty years, he inhabited a lot of stories, but this is the one where he fit like a puzzle piece. Leta was the character who was capable of challenging him.
Andrea: And yet, despite being the first to appear to you, Benjamin isn’t a main character. How did Leta and Michaela come to you?
Erica: I think that Michaela’s story came first. I liked the idea of a girl who used poetry to express herself but ultimately hide behind, and then Leta appeared when the notion of writing poetry under a male name sprang to mind. Even though both girls want to express themselves and connect with others, they’re not one hundred percent willing to put themselves out there.
Andrea: I love all the poetry that is in the book. Which came first, the prose or the poems? Which did you find more challenging to write?
Erica: The prose most certainly came first! I have never considered myself a poet, and even though I enjoy reading other people’s poems, I’ve never really sat down to write my own. But I had a lot of help from one of my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Liz Garton Scanlon. She encouraged me to study the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman so that Leta’s work sounded authentic, and helped me find Michaela’s voice that often came out in her poems and not necessarily her dialogue or narration. It was certainly a challenge, but I’m happy with how they turned out!
Andrea: I was definitely getting an Emily Dickinson vibe from Leta! You touched on this earlier when talking about the boys “helping” the girls overcome their preconceived notions. That’s a theme that runs through both Michaela and Leta’s stories, of ascribing character traits to someone, or perhaps inferring traits that you wish someone had. Can you say a little more about that?
Erica: That theme appeared as I was writing, believe it or not! It felt like something authentic to a YA protagonist, this steadfast notion that we know exactly what we want in someone else, and when we find someone we like, there’s this tendency to romanticize them. It doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t legitimate, but it’s best to make sure we enter relationships with our eyes wide open!
Andrea: I definitely wish I’d learned that in high school! Is there anything you’d like to add that I should have asked you? Maybe tell us what you’re working on now or what you’ve got in the pipeline?
Erica: Currently, I’m working on revisions to my second YA novel, The Edge of Summer, which is out with Little, Brown BFYR in summer of 2022. It follows a teenage girl as she spends her summer on Cape Cod completing a marine biology internship all while coping with the unexpected loss of her best friend, first love, and disentangling humpback whales.
Andrea: Oh, that sounds amazing. I’m from the Boston area myself, and one of the (many) things I loved about WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY was the Cape Cod setting. I’ve missed it terribly since moving away, and your book brought me right back there and made me feel at home. I’m excited to read another of your books set on the Cape! Thanks so much for chatting with me, Erica!
Pick up a copy of WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY at your favorite indie bookstore or at the following retailers:
Andrea Wang is the award-winning author of The Nian Monster and Magic Ramen. Her debut middle grade novel, The Many Meanings of Meilan, releases in 2021. Her work explores culture, creative thinking, and identity. Andrea holds an M.S. in Environmental Science and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing for Young People. She lives in Colorado with her family.