Welcome to the third interview in the Debut-to-Debut Series! I’ve been talking to a fantastic group of debut young adult novelists this spring and summer, and that will continue throughout 2017, 2018, and 2019—the year leading up to, during, and following my own debut. I’m so excited to share these books, and insights into these authors’ experiences, with you. You can find all the interviews in the series collected right here.
Earlier this month, I corresponded with Kayla Olson about her debut young adult novel The Sandcastle Empire (HarperTeen, June 2017).
From the jacket:
Before the war, Eden’s life was easy. Then the revolution happened, and everything changed.
Now a powerful group called the Wolfpack controls the earth and its resources. And even though Eden has lost everything to them, she refuses to die by their hands. She knows the coordinates to the only neutral ground left in the world, a place called Sanctuary Island, and she is desperate to escape to its shores.
Eden finally reaches the island and meets others resistant to the Wolves. But the solace is short-lived when one of Eden’s new friends goes missing. Braving the jungle in search of their lost ally, they quickly discover Sanctuary is filled with lethal traps and an enemy they never expected.
This island might be deadlier than the world Eden left behind, but surviving it is the only thing that stands between her and freedom.
KIT FRICK: Tell us a little about the research you did for The Sandcastle Empire. For instance, digital, medical, and mechanical innovations, and environmental resources such as silk and water, all play an important role in the world building for the novel, which is set in a post-revolutionary near future. What kind of research was necessary in order to construct Eden’s world, and what was born out of pure creativity?
KAYLA OLSON: Ooh, I don’t remember anyone asking this question before, and I’m glad you asked! Much of the future tech in my book was inspired by sifting through TEDtalks—silk technology, for example, is a real thing (watch this incredible video by Fiorenzo Omenetto to see what I mean), and the Havenwater bottles were inspired in part by Michael Pritchard’s Lifesaver filter (here’s his TEDtalk, “How to make filthy water drinkable”). I was also fascinated by Rachel Armstrong’s ideas on how to make architecture that grows itself. I loved the idea of future technology being the opposite of the flash and shine we often associate with it; for a book that had strong environmental themes as its foundation, I looked specifically for solutions to current problems that have sprung up out of nature. The world I built for The Sandcastle Empire was a world where these ideas had caught on—and then proved to be both beneficial and problematic to society.
KIT: The novel imagines a world in which a group comprised of members of the lower socio-economic class—known as the Wolfpack—are now in power following a violent revolution, and the surviving members of the once wealthy elite, including Eden, must struggle to resist their captors’ hostile control. There is a notable reversal at play here, wherein the oppressed have become the oppressors, and vice versa. Tell us a little about the role that class and the distribution of wealth played in your development of the novel.
KAYLA: As I started to envision a world where multiple cities, all along the coastlines, were attempting to recover from simultaneous disasters, it seemed like the sort of thing where emergency response teams might have a hard time keeping up—especially if more floods happened before the cities could recover from the previous ones. In this situation, I imagined how scarce the resources for food, shelter, and clean water might become, and how there are people out there who might try to take advantage of that sort of thing by charging extremely high prices for the essentials necessary to survive—and how those who couldn’t afford the resources would be, rightly, enraged. From there, it’s a question of How do we survive? How do we keep our families alive? So the desperate do what they feel they have to. The role reversal, at its heart, is a matter of fear taken to the extreme—a handful of power-hungry, persuasive individuals who slip in to the movement to take advantage of the desperate who truly do want justice, and end up twisting things for their own personal gain.
KIT: Tell us something about The Sandcastle Empire that isn’t apparent from the book cover or flap copy. We want the inside scoop!
KAYLA: Unless you’ve listened to the recent interview I did with Sarah Enni on her podcast (here, if you’d like to check it out!), you’re probably not aware that one of my initial idea sparks for The Sandcastle Empire came from thinking about pirates…and the thing that put pirates in my head at all was a Wii MarioKart track, ha! (Shy Guy Beach, specifically—there’s a pirate ship off in the distance.) I happened to play that course on the same day my little guy did a pirate ship craft at our local library’s story hour, and for some reason, that tiny little coincidence—two pirate ships in a single day!—sent my brain down quite the rabbit trail. That spark of inspiration ended up being pretty subtle on the page, but I might not have come up with the idea at all if not for being in such a pirate-y headspace that day.
[Insert Kit squeeing here because Shy Guy Beach is my absolute favorite MarioKart track ever! Excellent piece of trivia!]
KIT: What gives you the most joy about your life as a YA writer right now? What is bringing you satisfaction at this moment in time?
KAYLA: My editor sent a few finished copies my way recently, and it was so surreal to hold them! Even better, though, was the moment I showed my husband and little guy their names in the dedication and acknowledgments—I’d kept both a surprise, and I’m glad I did. I’ll never forget how excited they both were.
KIT: The publishing journey is unique for every author, but it’s safe to say that the road to book publication is filled with surprises, twists, and turns for all of us. What has surprised you most about the process of putting a first book into the world?
KAYLA: Having been on said twisty, turny road* (*and by road, I definitely mean roller coaster) for a long time now, I felt reasonably prepared for many aspects of publishing, but there have certainly been surprises along the way. One that stands out about the actual process of putting a book out there is that I was not prepared to love my copy editor so much, let alone the entire process of doing copyedits! I was afraid of getting paired with someone who wouldn’t get my voice/style, but the person they gave me was the perfect match. I just wanted to hug them by the end of the draft—I never realized how satisfying it would be to delete commas! I was also beyond impressed at one note that said, “You used this phrase 100 pages ago; okay?” I sincerely hope I get paired with the same person for my next book!
KIT: Drawing from your own unique experience, what advice would you to give to future young adult debut authors, or debut novelists in general?
KAYLA: There are only twenty-four hours in each day, innumerable things that will vie for your time, and only one of you—don’t despair if you are unable to clone yourself. Make lists to keep track of things (I highly recommend creating a bullet journal!), give yourself more hours than you think you’ll need to fulfill your various commitments and deadlines, then prioritize the truly important and not just the urgent. Do your very best work—but when it comes down to it, if your mental/emotional/physical health is suffering, take a step back and breathe.
Kayla Olson lives in Texas, and can usually be found in near proximity to black coffee, the darkest chocolate, Scrivener, and an army of Sharpie highlighters. Her YA debut, The Sandcastle Empire, is a near-future sci-fi thriller about a global war that erupts in the wake of environmental change (HarperTeen / June 6, 2017); when main character Eden escapes to the only neutral ground left in the world, Sanctuary Island, she quickly discovers the island might be deadlier than the world she left behind—but surviving it is the only thing that stands between her and freedom.
Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press, edits for private clients, and mentors emerging writers through Pitch Wars. Her debut young adult novel is See All the Stars (Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2018).
The Sandcastle Empire is out now and is available wherever books are sold. Allow me to recommend your local indie, in addition to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
Stop back soon for future posts in the Debut-to-Debut Interview Series. I’ll be talking to Emily Bain Murphy in July, Rebecca Barrow in August, and more fantastic authors in the fall, winter, and beyond!