In 2009, she founded a small press named Tu Publishing, dedicated to publishing multicultural fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults, which was acquired by Lee & Low Books and became Tu Books.
Stacy spent more than three years as an editor for Mirrorstone, the children’s and young adult imprint of Wizards of the Coast in Seattle. She holds a master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College.
Before that, she edited elementary school textbooks at Houghton Mifflin, interned at the Horn Book Magazine and Guide, and spent a brief stint working as a bookseller.
From Lee & Low:
Karen Sandler is the author of seventeen novels for adults, as well as several short stories and screenplays. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a software engineer, including work on the Space Shuttle program and communications satellites.
Sandler first got the idea for Tankborn in the mid-1980s when she wrote it as a screenplay, and over the years while she was writing other books, the idea grew to include the planet Loka and Kayla’s life.
Sandler lives in northern California with her husband, Gary, and their three cats, and can often be found riding her Andalusian/Morgan mare, Belle.
Tankborn is Karen’s first novel for young adults.
SW: Most of your other books are romances set in the real world. What made you want to write a novel set in a completely new world like Tankborn?
KS: I often tell people who ask this that the real question is why did I write romances.
Science has always enthralled me, and I read science fiction from a very early age. My B.A. is in math with a physics minor and my M.S. is in computer science. I wrote science fiction throughout my teens and 20s and dreamed of seeing a short story published in “Analog Science Fiction and Fact” or “Asimov’s Science Fiction” magazine.
I started writing romance novels after reading several and discovering I really enjoyed the genre. But whenever possible I would sneak science into my romances.
I was thrilled to be able to create my own world in Tankborn. I felt as if I was at last coming home as a writer.
SW: You originally wrote Tankborn as a screenplay named “Icer” in the 1980s. How did ’80s culture influence your worldbuilding process?
KS: My inspiration centered around my fascination with genetic engineering, which was in its infancy in the early 1980s (Genentech, the first genetic engineering company, was founded in 1976). Engineers were tinkering with bacteria, viruses and mice; certainly not anything as large as a human.
Genetically engineered humans in fiction seemed to always be conceived as being superior to ordinary, naturally conceived humans. I decided to turn that idea on its head in “Icer”‘s world, have the “bionorms” be the elite overlords and the genetically engineered “gene tricks” be the slaves. The script’s story took place on Earth, with a subplot that involved cryogenically frozen bionorms (icers) stored in orbit around the planet.
SW: As times changed and your vision of the book changed, how did the current culture’s vision of the future affect your worldbuilding in the final version of the book?
KS: I’d say the biggest change was the ubiquitous use of tech. We all have iPods, smart phones, tablets, netbooks, and other gadgets. It’s an easy leap to imagine those devices in the hands of my future population. However, as we’ve seen with the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, insurrection can be quashed when those forms of communication are controlled by the elite.
Thousands were called to Tahrir Square using cell phones and Twitter, which helped to created an unstoppable force in Egypt. In some cases though, the government managed to shut down the internet and therefore shut down the protest (at least temporarily).
In Tankborn’s world, one way the trueborns control the GENs is by denying them any form of communication besides word of mouth.
Also, the economic ascendancy of India on the world stage legitimized my desire to use Indian culture and the caste system as an underpinning of Tankborn’s society. I could justify extrapolating India as the main source of engineering and financing of the diaspora to Loka.
SW: Why did you choose tattoos as the identifier of genetically engineered nonhumans (GENs)?
|Stacy and Karen.
KS: The use of tattoos to identify the GENs goes back to the “Icer” script. In the early drafts of the screenplay, the gene-tricks/jicks (which is what they were called in the screenplay) weren’t tattooed. Instead they had white eyes. Here’s how they’re described in one of those early drafts:
Some of their genetic manipulations are obvious—additional limbs, facial growths, patches of fur, scales or ridges on their skin. All share a tell-tale jick trait—colorless eyes, the iris solid white.
When the script was optioned, this was one of the first things to go. The problem is, an actor uses her/his eyes to act. Having a blank, white eye would make being expressive that much more difficult. So the colorless eyes went by the wayside.
But the tattoos didn’t immediately take their place. At first only one character had tattoos, the original Devak character (named Davik in the script). In the script, Davik was a jick rather than a bio-norm and an electronics expert. From the script:
Black and silver tattoos, patterned like electronic circuitry, decorate his arms.
Eventually, it became clear that the jicks needed some kind of facial mark making it clear they’re not “bio-norms.” That was when I came up with the idea of a facial tattoo. Here’s how I described it in a later version of the script where we see a baby gestating in a tank:
The fetus spins slowly, shows first the left side of its face, then the right where imprinted on the baby’s cheek is the double helix of DNA. The lines of the tattoo shimmer, iridescent.
So originally the tattoo was a strand of DNA. It wasn’t active the way the tattoos are in Tankborn. In “Icer,” gene-tricks were uploaded using a jack in the crook of their arms. The idea of using the facial tattoo as an electronic interface was a no-brainer in Tankborn once I put it on the characters’ faces.
But the henna-type design for the GEN facial tattoo came very late in the development of the book. Stacy wanted to know what the tattoo looked like (we would eventually need it for the cover). It wasn’t really concrete in my mind, but then the idea for a henna design hit me. It would tie in culturally, but would add sort of a creepiness factor in that henna tattoos are meant to be celebratory and temporary. They are anything but that for the GENs.
SW: What was the most surprising or challenging aspect of worldbuilding Tankborn?
KS: The governmental structure. I still don’t feel as if I have it fully fleshed out. For some reason, I’ve had a hard time getting a grip on that piece of the puzzle of Tankborn’s world. I’ll be glad for the opportunity to more fully develop Loka’s government in subsequent books.
SW: What was the seed that germinated the idea of Tankborn? (Yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but go with it!) How did it grow along the way? What cultures influence this book?
KS: Just as I began writing romance novels after reading and enjoying several in that genre, Tankborn started with a rediscovery of young adult literature.
As a member of Romance Writers of America, I often judged books for the RITA, the organization’s annual contest for published romance fiction. Amongst my packet of books a couple years running were YA books. I loved them. They were my favorites of the eight or nine I’d receive each year.
I started thinking about writing my own YA book, and serendipitously that compulsion linked up with my long-time desire to write a novel version of “Icer.” I considered how “Icer” might work with teen characters. I shed much of the original screenplay’s story along the way (although some of that will return in subsequent books) and eventually gestated what became Tankborn.
Indian culture of course influenced Tankborn, but also Roma, Irish, Celtic, and probably others that subconsciously made their way into the story.
SW: What kind of research did you do as you wrote this manuscript? What sources did you come to depend on?
KS: I confess, what didn’t come out of my own imagination and history came from the internet. I used Indian baby name sites, Wikipedia, and various other sites related to Indian culture. The site I visited the most was a searchable English/Hindu dictionary. You, Stacy, also had a consultant read the manuscript and give us feedback on my depiction of Indian culture.
SW: Why did you choose to explore the caste system? At what point in the writing process did that intersect with the ideas of slavery and genetic engineering?
KS: I first learned about the Indian caste system back in the mid-1970s when I worked on the Space Shuttle project with Dr. Azad Madni, who was originally from India. Azad told me stories of his life in India, about how the caste system worked, how his family was of the Brahmin class, and he showed me gorgeous photos of his wedding to his (non-Indian) wife. We remained friends for years, and I’ve recently made contact with him again through the internet.
The connection of slavery and genetic engineering originally appeared in “Icer.” The idea of using the Indian caste system to structure Tankborn’s society came about fairly early on, in the first draft of the manuscript.
I did consider that China could have been a major force in the diaspora from earth to Loka, considering that country’s growing influence. But I felt more of an affinity for India, thanks to Azad, and that was the direction I went. There is one Chinese character mentioned in Tankborn—Junjie. You’ll see more of him in the second and third books of the series.
SW: Why did you create the religion of the GENs? What importance in worldbuilding does religion play in Tankborn?
KS: I wanted to add as many layers and as much complexity as I could to Tankborn. My son, who had been my beta reader, was the first to suggest achieving that complexity by weaving religion into the story. My son and daughter-in-law (and my long-suffering husband) had a long conversation one night at dinner about how the religious beliefs of Tankborn’s castes might have developed.
It made sense to me that the GENs would have an entirely different set of beliefs than the dominant trueborns.
I’ll be touching even more on Lokan religions in the second Tankborn book.
SW: How do culture and religion intersect in Tankborn?
|Tu is an imprint of Lee & Low.
KS: The trueborns’ religion—belief in the Lord Creator—matches their position in Tankborn’s society. They are both the lords of all those beneath them—lowborns and GENs—and creators themselves (of the GENs). Many lowborns follow that same religion, as a way of aspiring to the rank of trueborn. There are other lowborn sects that will be fleshed out in the next books.
GENs worship the Infinite, who can only be looked upon as a reflection in a mirror. The GENs themselves could be thought of as reflections of what the trueborns want them to be.
SW: Let’s talk about the science of Tankborn. Do you think this is a possible future for humankind? What was your extrapolation process to build this world? Is genetic engineering good or bad? What happens when a society relies so much on “advanced” medicine that they forget things that we’d consider common sense?
KS: I think the technology will get there for GENs to exist, but I would hope controls on society stop that endeavor from coming to fruition. I don’t think genetic engineering is innately bad, although I can imagine it being used for bad purposes by certain elements.
In the case of Tankborn, I relied on extremes for the book’s view of the future. These particular colonists are more concerned with controlling their population than assuring all a fair place at the table. They see this control as essential for their survival, and use that as their justification for the suppression of GENs and lowborns.
None of this would happen overnight. It’s incremental. Perspectives change gradually, from one generation to the next. But since this group was born from chaos (the situation on Earth that led them to leave the planet), order is extremely important. That desire for order above all else just becomes more calcified with subsequent generations.
SW: Related, what about the social science of your world–culture, government, socio-economic status, racial politics, and so forth. How did such a world come to be?
KS: Those in the highest socio-economic strata have the most power and autonomy. That has always been true. In the case of Tankborn, socio-economic levels decide whether a given person can participate in government at all. Originally in the U.S., only landowners could vote. Likewise in Tankborn, with the additional control over who can even own land.
Which comes back to the answer to the previous question—the desire for an orderly society. Full democracies are messy and disorderly. An oligarchy, where the ruling class keeps an iron hand on the ruled, is much tidier.
What I was trying to do with racial politics was to reflect the single-minded focus we have on skin color in the U.S. I’m white, the color that bestows the most privilege here in the U.S. Many Americans are uncomfortable confronting that reality because we’d like to think we’re past that.
In Tankborn, the color of privilege is a particular shade of brown. Both ends of the spectrum away from that ideal, both lighter and darker, would be considered of a lesser class.
It’s even more complex in Tankborn because the strata of lowborn and GEN cut across the color rubric. You might not find a lowborn or GEN with that exact, special shade of brown, but it could be close.
Every member of Tankborn’s society is trained from childhood on to recognize and discriminate by class, even when it’s too subtle for the untutored eye to see.
SW: Talk to us a little about your use of language in Tankborn. There are many terms based upon Sanskrit, such as “adhikar,” and other words, like “sket,” which are blended words. What influence does such language have upon the worldbuilding of a book and how a reader experiences science fiction?
KS: When I’m reading science fiction, I like to see at least some terminology or language that takes me out of the ordinary world. It helps to pull me into the atmosphere of the story, helps me feel part of what the characters are experiencing. As a writer, those alterations and additions to current day language help me stay within the future I’m creating as I’m writing.
By the same token, that language should be easy for the reader’s eye to scan. For example, if I used sz;eoru to signify some crucial element of the story, most readers would be stumbling over that word every time they encountered it in the book. Each time, they’d be yanked from the story as they tried to pronounce it in their mind. It’s also a problem when futuristic language is overdone, so peppered throughout the book it’s a struggle to get through. I tried to use a light hand with Tankborn.
Read an excerpt of Tankborn.
Editor Interview: Stacy Whitman of Tu Books (Lee & Low) from Cynsations. Peek: “Speculative fiction is a great way to get a child interested in reading who might not otherwise have gotten interested. If diversifying speculative fiction for young readers helps some reluctant readers get more interested in reading, we’re opening up not only a genre to them, but a world of learning. But beyond reluctant readers, there are avid readers out there looking to see themselves reflected in the books they love.”
Interview with Stacy Whitman by Malinda Lo from Diversity in YA Lit. Peek: “…we’re moving more toward stories that are about something besides the ‘experience’ of being a minority. Hopefully, more and more books will be more about the adventures of a person who happens to be from a particular race/ethnic background, rather than about their trials as a person of a certain ethnicity (i.e., it’s so tough being X).”
Tu editor Stacy Whitman is offering a critique of the first 10 pages of a middle grade (8-12) or young adult (12 and up) manuscript.
The manuscript should be fiction (no nonfiction or picture books). Though she specializes in fantasy, science fiction, and mystery, other genres such as realism are welcome.
Her response will include a fifteen-minute phone call with the author and short, written notes about the submitted work.
The winner will have three weeks to submit an excerpt for critique, and the critique and phone call will occur within two weeks after that.
Submissions should be writing targeted to young readers, ages 8 and up.
The phone call may also touch on any questions the author has about the audience or market for the book, the publishing and submitting process, etc.
To enter, comment on this entry and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) to foil spanners or a link to an email address. Or you can email Cynthia directly.
An extra entry will go to those who, in a comment, ask Stacy or Karen a question or make a related observation. Additional extra entries will go to those who tweet, blog, or otherwise promote this link/giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment. Limit five entries.
Eligibility for this critique giveaway is international! However, if the winner is from outside the United States, Stacy will confer via Skype instead of by phone.
Deadline: midnight CST Oct. 24.