Karen Sandler has written for most of her life and published numerous romance novels before deciding to write for teenagers. She says Tankborn was about 30 years in the making and had several incarnations—first, as an idea inspired by conversations on the caste system with an Indian co-worker, then as an adult screenplay for a futuristic thriller (optioned but never produced) before finding its final form in Tankborn, her first novel for teens. In it, teenage Kayla finds herself questioning caste rules in a far-future dystopia structured around racial classification.

Find more YA dystopias with teens on the margins.

You say that you became “enchanted” recently with young adult fiction. Why so?

Since I wrote romance fiction for many years, I also read widely in that genre. I respected young adult literature, but hadn’t really read any YA in years.

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Romance Writers of America has an annual competition for published books, and published members are asked to judge the contest. One year I was sent two YA books: Perfect You by Elizabeth Scott, and Giving Up the V by Serena Robar. I loved those books. Maybe it was because they were so fresh, maybe because they were so different from the adult romance novels in the packet, maybe because a teenager is still living somewhere deep inside me. In any case, it sparked my interest in writing YA.

How does writing for this audience contrast with the other kind of writing you’ve done, such as romance novels?

More than half 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.

With Tankborn, there was no restriction whatsoever plot-wise. Yes, the plot elements had to fit and service the story I was telling, which is true of any novel. But I could feature ethnically diverse main characters with extraordinary abilities, I could put them on another planet, I could write as complex and as long a story as I wanted. I did include a romance in Tankborn between my main characters, but in the background, with the science-fiction/dystopian story front and center. That made Tankborn much more satisfying to write.

You’ve set your novel in the futuristic world of Loka. Tell us how you went about imagining that world.

The imagining of Loka happened in layers. At first, I had only a vague idea of what the planet was like. I knew it was ugly, barren of trees, except for the symbiotic junk trees, the plant life scruffy, the creatures hideous by Earth standards. As I made my way through the book, new creatures or plants would pop up, and I’d add them to the taxonomy, adding another layer.

Then in the editing process…a light bulb came on, and I decided that the bulk of Loka’s creatures were arachnid-based—creatures I’d already described were changed to fit the spider-like model. I retained a couple mammals—the drom and seycat—but everything else became eight-legged and a bit on the creepy side.

Sci fi is a genre that could be seen as neglecting readers of color. Can you comment on this?

If I think back on the science fiction books I’ve read in my lifetime, I don’t know that I remember any featuring people of color as the main characters. Minor characters, yes, but not the main protagonist. I can’t think of any reason for that other than the preponderance of white authors writing science fiction. In fact, until fairly recently, it was mostly white male authors, and not only were people of color neglected, women were as well.

I’m thrilled to be part of Tu Books’ and Lee and Low’s mission to publish SF books that feature characters of color. Readers seem excited by the cover and the fact that Kayla is depicted clearly as a girl of African descent. Skin color plays a major role in Tankborn’s stratified society, although in an inside-out sort of way. I hope it gets people thinking about how we look at race, class and status.

Do you find yourself missing your characters once the story’s over, or is it hard to say good bye?  

You know, I never feel I have to say goodbye to my characters. Even after a book is finished, even if I won’t revisit those characters again, they feel alive in my mind. They’ve become like real people to me, like good friends I don’t see very often. Even characters from books I wrote 10 years ago are still lurking in the back of my mind.

Since I’m working on the second and third book of the Tankborn trilogy, I didn’t have to say good bye to Kayla and Devak for very long. I suspect Mishalla and Eoghan will make an appearance too, as well as a number of new characters.