I’ve almost run off to get a master’s degree about seven times because A) I like reading things and B) I want to be told I’m the cleverest student in all the land, pat pat. I suppress this urge by A) looking at my bank account and B) reminding myself that I can, in fact, read a lot of things on my own.
As such, whenever I start writing a book, I make myself a syllabus. The syllabus morphs as the story takes shape, but by the time the book is done, I usually have a big list of authors to whom I feel a debt of gratitude. I compiled my list of books that were particularly formative to Girls at the Edge of the World here. You can find my list for The Sea Knows My Name here, but I thought explaining how and why I chose the books I chose would offer a bit of insight into how authors write books. Or, at least, how I write books.
So here’s the annotated bibliography for The Sea Knows My Name.
Nonfiction: On Science
The Sea Knows My Name is set in a world inspired by England circa 1860. This was a huge era for scientific study and advancement, but also a huge era for using pseudo-science to justify bigotry. If you’re curious about the history of sexism and racism in science and medicine, start here.
The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner
Throwing it back to 1995, Weiner’s book tells the story of two biologists studying the evolution of some finches in real-time. It’s an exploration of the scientific process, but really, what I took from this book were the voices of some people who really love birds. How does a person sound when they love nature THAT much? That’s what I needed to understand before I could write about Thea, Wes, and Thea’s parents.
This is both a memoir and a biography. It provides background on David Starr Jordan, noted discoverer of fish, president of Stanford, and supporter of eugenics. This is a book about making sense of chaos—sorting fish into taxonomies and sorting life events into meaningful stories. It’s also a book about fish, which was helpful reading for a book set on the ocean.
Really, though, the most important thing this book gave The Sea Knows My Name was insight into the culture of academia both past and present. It’s a startling look at what powerful men can get away with—and how future generations will shape their legacies.
Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in swimming. It’s a beautiful meditation on how humans throughout the world (and throughout history) have formed livelihoods and communities around water. Since I knew the ocean would be an essential presence in Thea’s life, I wanted to reflect on how swimming impacted (and continues to impact) me.
Also, this book reminded me to swim more often, and 90% of my plots are constructed during slow freestyle sets.
Nonfiction: On Sexual Assault
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
I’m not breaking any new ground by saying this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s powerful and impactful, personal and universal. The legal battle Miller details in her memoir unfolded during my time at Stanford. I would like to see this book on every student’s shelf.
I didn’t immediately realize how similar my title was, but I’m happy to consider it an homage. To reclaim your name, your identity, your body after an experience of sexual assault—there is profound power in that. It was a theme that impacted me deeply while reading Know My Name, and it was a feeling I hoped to capture in Thea’s story.
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
As there is sexual assault in The Sea Knows My Name, I read a lot of books on sexual assault in my research. I also had a lot of conversations with friends about their own experiences—largely on Stanford’s campus. The sheer volume of stories is exhausting. It should be exhausting. Missoula was particularly interesting to me because of the chorus of voices Krakauer included.
Nonfiction: On Mythology
Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser
The Sea Knows My Name is punctuated by myths. I invented these myths, but if you were a Greek Myth Kid, they will be familiar to you. Notably, the myth of my girl Cassandra, who was cursed to tell accurate prophecies that no one ever believed. The metaphors write themselves.
Lesser’s book is about the women in our stories—the Cassandras and Eves—and what happens when we center stories around the Apollos and Adams instead. As a Greek Myth Kid, I used to believe girly things were stupid and Artemis was the only cool goddess because she murdered people with her bow and did not have children. This is a good book if you want to interrogate why you, as a fellow Greek Myth Kid, developed these beliefs.
Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg
This is a book about how disgruntled men on Reddit use shoddy history to justify their shitty beliefs. I do not like these men. They make it very difficult to be a Greek Myth Adult. They also make it difficult to exist on the internet as a human woman.
Though I’m interested in classical works themselves, I’m more interested in modern responses to these works. In the context of writing The Sea Knows My Name, my question was: How do people use mythology, stories, and history to justify patriarchy?
Mythos by Stephen Fry
This is definitely not nonfiction, except that it sort of is. It’s a collection of Greek myths told in Stephen Fry’s inescapable voice. I find it difficult to read myths as just fiction. They’re so far removed from modern fiction, and they are often devoid of even slightly sympathetic or relatable characters. So when you read a book of myths, it feels more like you’re reading a historical artifact. Except, you know, in the voice of Stephen Fry.
Also: Myths are weird. Zeus will literally just swallow a fly and then give birth to an armor-clad warrior goddess. And everyone’s like, “Yeah, what of it?” Since I knew I wanted to write my own myths for Thea’s story, I had to spend some time reacquainting myself with this specific brand of bizarreness.
Nonfiction: On Overcoming Stuff
Daring Greatly by Brené Brown
Much of Thea’s story is about how she relates to and differs from her mother, a pirate queen who embodies the 2010’s Strong Female Heroine persona. Thea’s mother seems invulnerable. Brown writes about how parents (and people) demonstrate vulnerability and how it changes relationships. This book helped me consider how Thea should weigh the trade-offs between closed, stoic strength and gentle, warm strength.
Circe by Madeline Miller
Pretty much the gold standard for turning a myth into a story of feminist empowerment. Also—this book is just bloody good. The shape of this novel reflects the classic hero’s epic, but it gives center stage to a minor figure from Homer rather than a war hero or a god. It’s about power and it’s about storytelling.
You have probably already read it.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Do I think you should read Moby Dick? Like, not really. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t been part of a college class. But also, I do get why this book is “brilliant” and “a classic” and “actually kind of funny if you’re into pre-post-modern dick jokes.”
The Sea Knows My Name starts with Thea on a whaling ship. Moby Dick got me interested in whaling. It also got me interested in how people thought of whales in historical periods.
Also—”The Grand Armada” chapter? Right??
The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
This is the first in a series of books I call “YA novels about sexual assault that made me cry on public transport.” I read this book when it first came out, long before I had dreamt up Thea. If I hadn’t read this book, I probably would not have written The Sea Knows My Name at all. This was among the first YA books I read that tackled sexual assault so… nastily. I mean that in a good way. It’s such a brutal and ambitious book. And it made me cry on a bus.
Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
Oh! I love this book so much. Like Thea, Tess (of the Road) runs away after she is betrayed by someone she thought she could love and trust. As a writer, I was captivated by A) the deft interweaving of present action and past backstory and B) the fact that this was a fantasy book about people. I love fantasy books about people. I’m not a huge military strategy girl, if I’m being honest. I want the fantastical setting, but I want characters and conflicts that feel real. Which this book does very well.
For those keeping score at home, I cried while listening to this audiobook on a train.
Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake
This one made me cry on a plane. It’s a book about a girl whose twin brother is accused of rape.
Rape is easy to write if you want to cast the perpetrator as a villain who has always been a villain and will always be a villain. Moral binaries make for simple storytelling. It’s unhelpful to characterize rapists this way because with that kind of absolutism, it becomes exceedingly difficult for anyone to accept that they (or their friend, partner, family member, or favorite celebrity) could have committed such a crime. This is what this ambitious book examines. And I think it’s an important consideration for writers and non-writers alike—how to discuss perpetrators of sexual assault without further raising the burden of pain and guilt on survivors.
A Heart in a Body in the World by Deb Caletti
This book is a masterclass on interweaving past and present timelines to explore trauma. Thea’s story is also told in past and present timelines. I would be very flattered if I did it even a quarter as well as Deb Caletti.
There’s also a lot of running in this book. I love that as a vehicle for reclaiming power: spending time in your own body. That was a big theme for Thea—she hikes and swims and takes care of herself even though she doesn’t really want to, and in so doing, she reunites disjointed parts of herself.
Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough
This is technically a novel in verse. If you haven’t ever read a novel in verse, start here. It tells the (true!) story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a young Italian painter who took her rapist to trial despite the hostile seventeenth-century legal system. She was a remarkable person and artist. This book is both lyrical and affirming—two things I wanted Thea’s story to be.
Bright Raft in the Afterweather by Jennifer Elise Foerster
If you, like me, think this is the most beautiful title you’ve ever read, you will, like me, find these poems astonishing. They’re about the natural world and its cycles of destruction and rebirth. It’s all quite mythic.
I knew Thea’s story revolved around these same cycles of destruction. I also knew she was the kind of character who would be a little bit in love with the natural world. As I wrote, I wanted the seas and stars of her world to be lucid and plentiful; in this collection, they are.
If you want to buy any of these books (which, obviously, I recommend), you can find the whole list on Bookshop. Plus, if you think any of these books sound neat, then hey, maybe you’ll like The Sea Knows My Name. It comes out June 14, 2022. It’d be cool if you preordered it. Thea says thanks.