Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed author Karen J. Laakko about her writing and her recently released, The Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle 0: After the Breaking, an elaborate blend of fantasy and sci-fi set in a mythological realm. (Read the review here.)
Karen J. Laakko studied Latin, Classical Greek, Linguistics, and classic literature, and brings all of this knowledge together to develop and enhance her fictional worlds.
Karen works in editing, German-to-English translation, and dictionary analysis. In her free time she enjoys playing video games, learning new languages, watching sports, and searching for obscure bands to listen to. Like her studies, many of these interests end up feeding her writing projects, so one could say that she’s always writing!
The Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle combines elements of both science fiction and fantasy. Is that something you knew you wanted to do before you started writing, or did the combination happen organically?
It was something that I planned from the beginning. Works of “pure” fantasy or sci-fi present readers with situations that are new and exotic, but for the most part, the characters are depicted as living in the world that they’ve always known. So, combining the genres is my way of extending this feeling of “newness” to the character level. How might someone from a world of magic react to a more technological society, or vice versa?
Genre-blending is also something that I’d previously seen in video games more than books. In some games, the combination is seamless and atmospheric; in others, it feels less cohesive. Given my love of video games (which I’ll discuss further below), I wanted to take what I’d learned from that form of media and see what can be done with genre-blending in the context of a book.
You have a background in Classics, linguistics, and literature. How did that background factor into the world and story you created for the Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle?
The most “visible” connection with these fields is the fact that the character and place names, etc. are derived from words in real languages. This is something that I started doing in middle school; it allows me to use my passion for languages in new ways. I also enjoy adding layers of symbolism by picking names whose meaning is significant somehow.
Fun fact about Part 0: the names in the Prologue went through several iterations—and languages—based on what I was studying at the time!
Otherwise, my linguistics background helps me shape the books’ language and presentation, and my knowledge of Classics/literature works behind the scenes as well. For example, After the Breaking takes some direction from the three “unities” of Classical drama (Time, Place, and Action), and there’s a subtle connection to epic poetry that I’ll mention below. Although my books are squarely in the fantasy/sci-fi domain, I also like to work with themes and motifs like those that might be discussed in English classes.
What were your inspirations for the worldbuilding and the characters in the Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle?
This series draws on most of my primary interests, even beyond language and literature!
The single most important source of inspiration has been video games. I’ve always found visual media to be extremely powerful, and video games are even more so because of the interactive element. So, building my books’ worlds using game-inspired imagery has been very fun. This connection might cause the worlds to feel a little different from those of other books, and I hope it makes my series especially fun for gamers to read. Also, if I find myself stuck while writing, sometimes I need only pick a game to resume or replay, and the words will start flowing again!
Some influence has come from movies and TV shows—from sci-fi series to British period dramas. Fantasy books have had an impact as well, but to a lesser extent.
One inspiration source that might seem a little unexpected is music. My favorite genre is known for using imaginative imagery, and sometimes a song or a snippet of lyrics will give me an idea. Often, my musical interests also come through in the way I describe certain sounds. Although this might not be worldbuilding per se, it helps me develop the atmosphere, tension, or emotional or visceral quality that a particular scene needs.
Finally, as far as the characters go, they either develop organically or take inspiration from other characters—including some from my older writings. One aspect that might set me apart from many writers is that I don’t draw on real events, or traits of other people. Hopefully, this approach of basing fiction on fiction will help readers feel like they’ve traveled to a completely new world.
Who and what ultimately inspired you to become a writer?
When I was five years old, my mother (a tutor) was planning to give her students a writing assignment that took inspiration from a popular children’s movie. To test the idea out, she asked me to put something together based on the premise. The result was a short “story,” complete with handwriting and illustrations in true five-year-old style!
I don’t have a direct memory of this event, but I believe it provided the initial impetus for my interest in writing. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.
How long did it take you to write After the Breaking? What was that process like?
I started After the Breaking when I was in college, and worked on it for about a year and a half… but then it got stuck. Very stuck.
A few years later, while developing a different part of the series’ chronology (what is now the third book), I had the idea to combine the various installments into a coherent whole. So I imported some elements from that other part of the chronology, finished After the Breaking, and decided to put it first. It has some imagery that I didn’t want to lose, and it also provides a nice backdrop against which the rest of the series can be viewed.
All in all, the process took several years, with some writer’s block and reshuffling in between. There were many difficult points along the way, but I like to use this “story of the story” as a source of encouragement for other writers. No matter how stuck a story seems to be, you should never give up on it if you feel strongly about its potential!
What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
My favorite literary genre continues to be Young Adult fantasy. When I was younger, I read many books by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, and others. On the sci-fi side, Ender’s Game and a few Star Wars books are among the biggest highlights. And, of course, I enjoy a lot of classic literature—from ancient epic poetry to the works of Jane Austen.
When it comes to my writing in general, the biggest influence has probably come from Weis & Hickman. Although the books I’ve read from them are more on the side of traditional fantasy, there are points of inspiration and commonality that I can trace as I reread some of this author team’s (excellent!) works. And for After the Breaking in particular, I’ve drawn on an atmosphere that evokes Homer’s Iliad to some extent.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?
Definitely, my biggest challenge has been keeping the momentum going. My inspiration runs hot and cold; on some days I’ll churn out scenes or ideas, but on others I’ll find myself staring at a blank paper or screen… I think most writers can relate to this! Since I’m plot-driven by nature, and working on a long series, an especially tricky conundrum can arise as I ask myself, “What can I have character X do now, to keep him/her interesting?”
In a way, organizing the series as a literal cycle has helped me mitigate this challenge. Since I know where the plot is going, that framework can be used to develop and expand character-based story arcs. This also enables me to thread settings and imagery from one part of the chronology into another, thus preserving the momentum of writing (since I love to write settings!) and helping the later installments feel visual and “alive.”
Has this novel changed drastically as you created it?
It has. In the course of getting the story unstuck and reshuffling the order of installments (as mentioned above), I changed the entire purpose and backstory of the explorers in the Prologue, as well as the fate and/or history of certain characters from the earlier timeframe…. There was also supposed to be a “Part II” about the explorers’ ongoing journeys and discoveries in the destroyed realm and other areas, but it never got written at all!
With that said, however, I think the new directions that the story has taken/will take are fresher and more inventive—offering some interesting twists. I look forward to peeling back some layers about the large-scale arcs in future books.
Part 0: After the Breaking is the first installment in the Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle. Can you tell us a little bit of what to expect in the series going forward?
I have a lot of ambition regarding this series!
The second book, called Part 1: Beyond the Hostile Sky, will soon be finalized, and I’m hoping for a release date later this fall. As its title suggests (with the whole series named after it), it’s a very important installment; it will describe what happens when the “fantasy” and “sci-fi” worlds meet for the first time. Expect action, betrayal, imagery, and emotion!
I’m also self-editing a draft of the third book, writing the fourth book, and planning further installments. One especially fun aspect of writing a cycle is that I can (or even have to) think about the whole timeline at once!
Thanks for reading this interview! I hope you enjoy the Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle.
Categories: BookView Review Interview