Karen Sandler, author of the fantastic YA sci-fi novel Tankborn (which we reviewed last Friday), was kind enough to answer a few questions for us regarding her influences, her education, and the rich world of her novel.
Phoebe: You have a strong background in the sciences—a BA in math, a minor in physics, and a pre-writing career spent working as a software engineer in the aerospace industry. What sort of impact did this background have on the writing of Tankborn?
Karen: In addition to the BA, I have an MS in computer science, so I’m a very well-rounded science geek. I think my background in the sciences, as well as my continuing interest in science, helps with the extrapolation of current day technology into the future. Holography has always fascinated me, for instance, so I found ways to use it in Tankborn’s society, in applications both purely decorative (false home facades) and utilitarian (holographic displays and keyboards). Genetic engineering has intrigued me since I first found out about it in the late 70s and I had a lot of fun fleshing out ways GE could be used in Tankborn’s future world (and how that use would shape its society).
Phoebe: You recently made the shift from writing romance—with well over a dozen titles under your belt!—to writing young adult sci-fi. How does writing genre work for teens differ from writing romance for an adult audience?
Karen: More than half of the romance novels I wrote were what are called “category romances.” By their nature, they’re fairly restrictive as far as plot is concerned. The characters must have deep-seated conflicts to help carry a book whose main focus is on the developing relationship between the hero and heroine.
That training in character development that goes deep into the characters’ backstory has been extremely useful, independent of the genre. I used similar tactics in developing Kayla, Mishalla and Devak that I’d used in my adult romances.
However, with Tankborn, I wasn’t under the same kinds of restrictions plot-wise as I was in my romances. Yes, the plot elements had to fit and service the story I was telling, which is true of any novel. But the romance plotline did not have to be front and center and essentially the be-all and end-all of the story. The romance in Tankborn between my main characters is in the background, with the science fiction/dystopian story front and center.
Also, I had the freedom to feature ethnically diverse main characters, not something that would be as acceptable in category romance. I could give them extraordinary abilities, put them on another planet. I could write as complex and as long a story as I wanted (my romances were about 55K words and Tankborn is 90K+). All that made Tankborn much more satisfying to write.
Phoebe: My favorite thing about Tankborn is the lush, rigorously developed setting. It really reminded me of sociological sci-fi classics written by writers like Ursula Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, and Octavia Butler. How did you approach your worldbuilding? And what science fiction authors do you count among your influences?
Karen: The worldbuilding happened in layers. I got the bare bones of the plot down, then handed it off to my son (a voracious SF/F reader) for a beta read. His feedback led to another layer of worldbuilding, then the same with my agents and eventually my editor, Stacy Whitman at Tu Books. Stacy’s feedback led me to fleshing out the most complex elements of the planet Loka and Tankborn’s society. In fact, on my hard drive, there are files full of details that never made it into the book, although they inform the structure of Loka’s society. Stacy would ask questions, which led me to creating a particular aspect of Loka’s backstory, which I would send to her to answer her questions, which would lead to more questions and further answers. There’s some pretty interesting stuff about Loka that’s hiding on my hard drive.
As to authors who have influenced me, Ursula K. Leguin tops that list, along with Julian May, Sheri S. Tepper, C. J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold (newly added), Anne McCaffrey (selected books) and probably many others I’m drawing a blank on. I confess I seek out women SF/F authors.
Phoebe: The GENs of Loka have their own (terrifically well-developed) religion. What made you decide to include religion as a theme? And was building a religion for your book a daunting task?
Karen: During the re-write in response to my son’s beta read (which required gutting the book then stitching it back together), I was reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife and Curse of Chalion series (both fantasy). Religion plays a large part in the societies depicted in those Bujold books and it adds a compelling complexity to them. About half-way through the re-write process, I had dinner with my son and daughter-in-law and we got on that very subject—including religion as a component in an SF/F book. We brainstormed a bit about possible religions for the GENs in Tankborn and I took that and ran with it.
Phoebe: Were you a science fiction reader as a teen? What SF authors—current or classic—would you recommend to your young readers?
Karen: I read widely as a teen, but science fiction was my favorite. I was a big Ray Bradbury fan, and also read Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree and others. I discovered Ursula K. Leguin in my very early twenties.
I highly recommend Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea trilogy to young readers. Leguin’s wizard school on the island of Roke pre-dates Harry Potter’s Hogwart’s by nearly three decades. Other Leguin books, for example, The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness are literary classics. Perhaps a more challenging read for a young reader but very worthwhile.
I loved most of Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books. She gets dissed sometimes by “serious” SF scholars, but her characters are wonderful and her world is very inventive. I suggest the Dragonriders of Pern and Dragonsinger trilogies.
Phoebe: What’s next? Will we be seeing more of Kayla, or more stories set on Loka?
Karen: There are two more Tankborn books planned which will send Kayla and Devak on further adventures, but no definitive dates yet on publication.