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Interstellar Imagination: An Interview with Karen J. Laakko, author of Beyond the Hostile Sky

Laakko Karen

Karen J. Laakko has explored many forms of fantasy and science fiction, and that varied experience inspires her to use and combine the genres’ motifs in different ways. At the same time, her love of imagery comes through in her simple yet rich setting descriptions (and her many references to glowing objects!). She strives to create immersive, innovative fictional universes in which those who read her words can both see and feel the action.

Karen is also a member of the International Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors (IASFA)!

You can buy Beyond the Hostile Sky here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The installment that I wrote first was Beyond the Hostile Sky. At the time I was still writing mostly by hand, and when the draft was nearly finished, I scribbled some possible titles inside the front cover of one of the notebooks (the story didn’t fit in just one!). The first few ideas were typical fantasy-type titles, just “okay” in my view…but once the combination Beyond the Hostile Sky came to me, the search was over. The title symbolizes the journeys within the story (both literal and metaphorical), and my younger self must have been pretty excited about it as well. It’s the last idea I wrote, and was underlined several times!

Then, shortly before finishing the installment that is now designated “Part 0,” I had the idea to make every title in the series a prepositional phrase. “After” was a logical preposition for this book because of the story’s position within the timeline, and for plot-related reasons I also wanted the root “broken” or “break” to be present. That’s where After the Breaking came from. I wouldn’t say the search took forever, but it was longer and less spontaneous than the idea-scribbling of years before.

And, finally, the series title came during my work with Atmosphere Press. I decided to name the series after Beyond the Hostile Sky due to the sheer importance of that installment, with the word “Cycle” added to reflect the overarching, not-entirely-linear structure.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Those moments were incredible—a dream come true.

Both covers do an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the books (and their fictional worlds) in image form; it was like seeing my words come to life. And I think, when the proof copy of the first book arrived, that was the moment when this journey of publication became “real” for me. I was no longer just writing and editing—my work was going to go out into the world!

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

All the credit for introducing me to writing goes to my mother, Janice (who is also an Atmosphere author!). When I was five years old, she asked me to try a writing assignment that she was planning to give to the students she was tutoring. In one way or another, I’ve been writing ever since then, and in my room is an entire file cabinet full of my childhood stories!

As far as influences go, the initial impetus—and #1 inspiration—for my present series was video games. I’ve been gaming since the late 1990s; the colorful settings of this form of media enchanted me from the start. Interestingly, though, I’ve recently gone back to some of my old favorite YA fantasy books and discovered that some influence came from those as well. So, one could say that my writing has been influenced by whatever media I was consuming at the time.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I’ve worked as an editor, translator, annotator, and paralegal, and held a variety of jobs during college and grad school. While in school, I could find something to get excited about in almost any subject…and that brings me to a trait that readers wouldn’t know about. Although my books are full of imagery and abstract themes, I have a secret quantitative side!

It started during my studies in linguistics, which is a very data-driven field. Since then, I’ve gradually constructed elaborate spreadsheets that break down my stories’ word counts by setting, by character, and more. I even have a computer program that can tell me the frequency of every word or phrase in one or more manuscripts! Working on these side projects helps me keep an eye on the series’ balance between fantasy and sci-fi, and it can also get me back into the story when I have writer’s block…but the actual calculations in the spreadsheets are pretty basic, by necessity. Maybe it’s good that I never took a statistics class?

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but prior to working with Atmosphere Press, I never seriously thought I would be published. That’s probably been the most meaningful part of this entire process: not only to find a lifelong dream being fulfilled, but also to gain a platform for encouraging other aspiring writers to keep pursuing their goals.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I’ve actually been compiling “story soundtracks” since high school! My favorite musical genres are heavy on vague metaphors and imaginative imagery, and as Beyond the Hostile Sky began to develop, it occurred to me that many of the songs I liked could fit some event or character. However, some in-story events have several songs dedicated to them, while others still don’t have any. Suffice it to say, I’m always pleased when the list can be expanded!

For the most part, my soundtrack for the series ranges from the mainstream “modern metal” of the early 2000s to some heavier styles that originated in Europe. A few songs are in other languages (German, Finnish). And because I thrive on musical contradictions, there are also a handful of remixed tracks from video games!

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Apart from the story itself, I hope readers come away with enthusiasm for the idea of combining fantasy and sci-fi elements in a single work. This is something I had seen in video games, and as I’ve turned more of my attention back to the world of books, it’s surprised me that this art form still features so little crossing of the boundaries. I’d love to see what other authors could do with the concept!

On a similar note, the perfect reader for my series would have at least a bit of interest in both component genres. Video gamers might find these books to be more immediately “familiar” because of the way the worlds are set up, but I also welcome readers who are not gamers. And genres aside, the perfect reader would love making note of details and forming theories based on the clues a story provides. As a theory-maker myself, I’ve included many details to reward such readers; some connections are even designed to emerge during a second read-through of the series.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

My newest writing project is not entirely new: I’m revamping and expanding an old draft of what will now be the fourth installment in my series. It’s a slow process—trying to work the story into the new, cyclic vision while preserving some of the original ideas—but still quite fun. And beyond that, plans are starting to come together for (at least) a fifth book. When it comes to this series, I am very ambitious!

Outside writing, I have a lot of interests. One ongoing project involves using song lyrics to learn a little Finnish (there’s a spreadsheet for that, too…). It’s been on hold for a while due to lack of time, but I’d love to get back to it at some point.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Working with Atmosphere Press was great! Everyone was friendly and helpful, and the books themselves improved immensely through the various stages of editing. I hope to work with the team on more projects to complete the Beyond the Hostile Sky Cycle.

My message to other aspiring authors is simple: Don’t give up! Sadly, there seems to be a societal perception that writing is not worthwhile as a career—people will often try to talk us out of viewing our creative endeavors as anything but a hobby. However, if writing is your passion and publication is your dream, you owe it to yourself to see where this interest can take you. The journey will likely take time, especially if you’re shy like me and don’t yet have a platform or an online presence, but it’s worth it. And if you work with Atmosphere, you can have a publisher on your side while retaining the final say over what your readers will see!

You can buy Beyond the Hostile Sky here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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