Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Interview Wednesday: Karen Sandler on Tankborn

I'm talking to Karen Sandler here, about her new YA release from Tu Books, Tankborn. Today's Interview Wednesday roundup can be found at Tales From the Rushmore Kid.

[Uma] A post-apocalyptic setting, a dystopian world, and the remnants of a caste system loosely related to ancient Hindu practice and their fragmented extrapolation into this fictional future. How did these particular elements come together for you in this novel?

[Karen] Believe it or not, this story was 30+ years in the making. Not that I was working on the novel for that long, but the first elements (caste system/Indian influence) started germinating back in the mid-1970s.

From 1976-1978 I worked as a software engineer for the aerospace company Rockwell International in Downey, CA. Rockwell was contracted to build the Endeavor, the first space shuttle (which never flew a mission). I had a newly-minted BA in math with a minor in physics and had taken a short course in Fortran (a programming language), so I was wetter behind the ears than most.

One of my co-workers was Dr. Azad Madni, whose simulations modeled the as yet untested space shuttle’s flight path. Azad told me stories of life in India. We remained friends for years and I’ve recently made contact with him again through the internet.

So that started my fascination for Indian culture. The next piece of the puzzle, genetic engineering, came about in the mid-1980s. That topic area intrigued me as well and led to me writing a screenplay titled ICER. ICER portrayed a dystopian society in which genetically engineered slaves (gene tricks, or jicks) did the scut work for the privileged bio-norms. The characters were adults rather than young adults, it took place on (a perhaps post-apocalyptic) earth, and there were many spaceships crashing into one another. The script underwent many re-writes over the years, was optioned a couple of times, and Steven Spielberg’s company actually read it at one point, but it was never produced.

I always loved that story though and often pondered novelizing it. When I was considering making the switch from adult romance to YA, I started thinking about ICER and how it could work with younger characters. I ended up retaining very little of the screenplay’s plot—only the idea of genetically engineered slaves and Kayla’s name and sket transferred over directly. Devak’s name was originally Davik (which I made up), but I changed it when I decided Indian culture would have a heavy influence on Tankborn’s society. Exactly when in the creative process that happened (India’s influence) I don’t recall. I do remember thinking, Well, it could be China, considering that nation’s growing influence. But thanks to Azad, I felt more of a link with India. (There is one Chinese character in Tankborn—Junjie. You’ll see more of him in the second and third books of the series).

The religion also evolved as I wrote the book. One night at dinner I had a long conversation with my son and daughter-in-law (and my long-suffering husband) about how incorporating religious beliefs increases the complexity of a fantasy or science fiction novel. We brainstormed ideas of how the religious beliefs of Tankborn’s castes might have developed. I’ll be touching even more on Lokan religion in the second Tankborn book.

[Uma] Friendship and loyalties lie at the heart of this novel. Talk about how the structure of the story came to be, in the intertwining narratives of Kayla and Mishalla.

[Karen] After writing 16 adult romance novels, I wanted the freedom in Tankborn to focus on strong, non-romantic relationships. I knew there would be a romance plotline in the book (two, actually), but from personal experience, I know how important friendships can be to teen girls. In the frightening new world that Kayla and Mishalla enter, where they truly don’t know who to trust, where one wrong step can lead to obliteration, their friendship with each other is their only bulwark.

Mishalla started out as a passing mention. Early in the book, Kayla thinks of her friend, sent far away, now lost to her. I hadn’t intended to do anything more than that with her. But as the story developed, Mishalla demanded her voice be heard. I then had to justify hearing the story from Mishalla’s point of view. Her experiences had to be inextricably linked to Kayla’s and their goals had to ultimately become the same one.

One of the most challenging aspects of storytelling is weaving in all the strands and knowing (to quote Bob Seger) “what to leave in, and what to leave out.” I can have a perfectly lovely scene or exciting action, but if it doesn’t move my story forward, I have to cut it. Interweaving Kayla’s and Mishalla’s POVs in Tankborn didn’t happen all at once. It took many iterations and much brainstorming to figure out how they would each tell their part of the story.

[Uma] Thank you Karen! Good luck.


  1. I love how this story was not lost, but morphed over time (a long time!)from a kernel of an idea, to an adult screen play and now a YA novel!

    I like the idea of this marriage between ancient hindu culture and futuristic dystopia.

    I am not a big Sci Fi fan, but Karen's description of Tankborn, and a personal interest in India, has me intrigued to read it.

    Thank you.

  2. Joanna, I do believe that stories find their own form in their own time. And I do like the kinds of books that don't purport to offer answers, just raise questions pertinent to our here and now.