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Author Interview: a.w. karen

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Dianne Woodman is talking with a.w. karen, author of SPVCE.

FQ: From mechanical engineer to author - that’s a great story in itself! Did your desire to write stem from your career and do you think writing a futuristic world story is the natural choice for someone working in the sciences?

KAREN: I actually started writing SPVCE before I decided to be an engineer. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school – in the midst of my college search – that I impulsively switched from wanting to be a math teacher to wanting to be an engineer. I believe I started SPVCE during my sophomore year of high school. I’ve always loved books and writing, and the ideas behind SPVCE really grabbed me. It was the first book that I was able to get past the first few chapters and actually keep writing.

I think working in the sciences can make you really passionate to write sci-fi, futuristic worlds because that’s the mindset and subject you’re comfortable with. On the other hand, some people might want their writing hobby to be as separate from their work as possible. I see the draw in both sides. I think – for me – I’m interested in writing a variety of genres to see how my voice and my values shine through each genre’s lens.

FQ: The story is geared toward young adult readers. What made you decide to focus on a group of teenagers rather than adults?

KAREN: A lot of what inspired SPVCE comes from the pressures I faced in school and my personal mental health journey. School, obviously, is mainly relevant to teenagers and young adults. Plus, my anxiety started when I was 13-years-old (around eighth grade). So, I really wanted to capture a lot of the raw emotions and personal growth I went through in my young adult years.

FQ: Why did you create a society in which children are treated as objects rather than being treated with respect and value as human beings?

Author a.w. karen

KAREN: In a way, SPVCE is my commentary on our current education system. I think students are often reduced to their grades or the statistics they provide for schools and states. Even worse, they’re often reduced to some kind of cookie-cutter “renaissance man” that society expects them to be. We expect every kid to be good at the same subjects regardless of whether they need them in the careers they want. We look down on students who might not want to go to college and discourage those who might want to take a chance on an artistic field. There’s so much stifling of creativity and confidence; it breaks my heart.

FQ: You created a diverse and relatable set of characters who played essential roles in the story. They’re a great mix of STEM disciplines (plus a few others). Did they come, at least partially, from your experiences in different science courses that you took through the years? Do you think your real-life experiences helped make them believable?

KAREN: I don’t think I necessarily drew from classes I’ve taken. I wanted to include a variety of academic specialties because I think any team benefits from a variety of perspectives. Plus, I’ve always found it fascinating how your interests are often reflected in your personality, so having a diverse group of specialties allowed me to create a diverse team of cadets.

I do think I based the characters’ personalities, instinctively, on people I’ve met throughout my school years. I mean, you meet such a myriad of different personalities at college. When I started writing the story, I laid the foundations for a character and then I just...let them talk? It’s hard to explain, but I guess I imagined what a “real” person might say or do – like imagining how a friend might act in a given situation – to guide the characters’ behaviors in the story.

FQ: Maci specializes in psychology. Why did you pick that field of expertise for her? How did you decide on the specialties you chose for each teenager?

KAREN: I wanted Maci to be grounded in something purely human. And I think that’s reflective of myself. I was inspired to become a mechanical engineer out of my desire to help people. For me, it’s cool to see where the machines and the humans collide – to see what we can create when we design to help people and improve other’s qualities of living.

I think, as I mentioned in the previous question, I wanted to include a variety of specialties to ensure the crew had a variety of perspectives and personalities. Also, there’s something to be learned from every academic field. I have mad respect for people who study stuff outside of engineering – like business and chemistry and art – because I’m not sure I could do it. As important as technology and STEM are, they’re not the only fields of value, you know? The world would be so boring without artistic careers… and completely dysfunctional without logistic and trade school careers.

FQ: Within the story you share your personal perspective on anxiety - was this difficult to do and/or was it perhaps cathartic?

KAREN: Writing everything down was extremely cathartic. It gave me a chance to take a step back, for once in my life, and put my anxiety into words. I never got to talk to anyone about it growing up. It wasn’t until, honestly, two years ago or so that I got professional help for the first time since being diagnosed at 13. SPVCE was my chance to finally talk about my struggles with anxiety.

It’s definitely nerve-wracking, though, to think about people reading the novel because very few people in my life know about my anxiety… or how severe it is. But I wanted to share my experience because I know there are people out there suffering through the same stuff. My embarrassment or nervousness is a minor price to pay to help others know they’re not alone.

FQ: While the story shows characters dealing with anxiety attacks, it makes it clear that such issues do not define the individual nor take hold of every aspect of a person’s life. How important was it for you to educate readers about this?

KAREN: So, so important. As I mentioned in the previous question, very few people know about my anxiety because I forced myself to hide it for years. People thought I had everything 100% together because I was an overachiever – straight A’s, extracurriculars, working a job, acting in community theater, always smiling, always helping people. But I was extremely fractured on the inside. I kept myself busy so I didn’t have time to listen to my brain. Mental health wasn’t something people talked about, and – while I was growing up – it was often viewed as a weakness. And I didn’t want people to see that I was barely holding myself together… especially my family and my friends. They thought the world of me, and I was terrified to lose their respect.

Fortunately, mental health is finally becoming more normalized, part of the everyday conversation. Even in just the span of my lifetime, I’ve been amazed how much society has shifted, how much people are willing to fight for mental health awareness. It brings me to tears sometimes because I don’t want anyone to go through what I did. I want people to know their mental health does not lessen their worth or define their limits. It’s another part of being human, another factor that makes us different from each other. And the more open we are about the topic, the less people have to suffer in silence.

FQ: Are any of the character’s bouts of anxiety attacks based on firsthand experience?

KAREN: As hard as it is for me to admit...yes, they are. I’m not ashamed of sharing my experiences – it’s just hard for me to tell my family and friends who read SPVCE that I really did go through much of what Maci does. I’ve already had some people reach out to apologize and say they had no idea and that they wish they had done more. But, you know, it’s in the past, really. I don’t blame anyone for not reaching out to help me because I thought I didn’t need help. I was trying to figure it out myself, and I thought I had it under control.

And I think a lot of these thoughts are reflected in the novel. Maci’s brief journey captures a whole decade of my living with anxiety. I really got to flesh out her thoughts and the different symptoms she experiences because I had time to digest how I felt and was dealing with them.

I touch upon it in the novel, but – for me, at least – my anxiety is very much a series of different waves. I’ve had various periods in my life where my anxiety switches between different triggers, different symptoms, and it’s definitely not been easy to deal with, but it’s been very eye-opening. Anxiety is a very intricate disorder that manifests in so many different ways. I’m hoping the novel can spread some awareness on what those around you could be experiencing when it comes to their anxiety.

FQ: Your website is very cool. I love the main page/background visual as well as the book trailer. The rest of the site is clean and easy to navigate. So many authors skimp on their websites but it’s obvious you put a lot of thought into your site. How important do you think your website is to your marketing and what would you tell other authors about working on their sites?

KAREN: Aw, thank you! Honestly, I’m a very visual person – I’m one of those people who is obsessed with making PowerPoints and was always in charge of them for group projects. I think presentation is very important, especially nowadays with how much information is conveyed online and through social media. I’m still learning how to handle all of the marketing that comes along with being an author, but I think having an author website is pretty essential. It serves as like a hub for all your information, and it gives you an opportunity to offer a deeper look into your brain and your creativity.

I think it’s worth it to invest some time into a clean, user-friendly site. I use Wix for my website, and it is amazing… really straightforward with a lot of options for customization. As I said, I think presentation is very important, mostly because it conveys a message to your audience before you say a single word. I’ve always made my PowerPoint presentations – back in school and in my current job – very clean and as visually appealing as possible because these aspects tell my audience that I’m professional, put-together, confident in what information I’m sharing with them. I think the same applies to an author website, for sure.

Also, as a fun fact, the book trailer was something I had an absolute blast making. It gave me an opportunity to dust off my community theater chops, haha.

FQ: The ending leaves the door open for a sequel revolving around the teenagers in the story. Are you planning on writing one?

KAREN: You know, I went into SPVCE confident there would not be a sequel. But I’m on the fence now. Maybe one day there might be… it depends on if the characters have more to say. I am, however, working on a companion piece for SPVCE. More of a short-story thing that offers some background into one of the characters that we – in my opinion – don’t get to learn enough about in the novel. I’m hoping to release more information about this in 2023!

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