I first met Karen Bao last fall when we both attended SIBA together. We were signing our debut books at tables next to each other and I couldn’t help but think that she was either really young, or knew about some miracle face cream that I needed to get in on. After chatting a little bit, she confessed that she was 19 — NINETEEN! — in college at Columbia in New York City, and that this was the first book of a trilogy she was working on.
Here was a young woman who was studying science at a prestigious college full-time and writing novels faster than I could go through a Costco supply of paper towels. It made me wonder about some of my life choices.
And then I was even more impressed when I read DOVE ARISING, the first in a YA trilogy about a young teenage girl living in a futuristic colony on the moon who has to join the militia in order to help free her mother from jail and protect her siblings. It’s a little Hunger Games, a little Divergent and a whole lotta page-turning suspenseful fun.
This week, I’m so pleased that Karen took a few minutes out of her very busy schedule to chat with us about superpowers, sea cucumbers and a violinist-literary-agent named Simon who helped Karen get her big break.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Those were strange times. I couldn’t decide between being a violinist or a scientist, so applying to colleges was really confusing and stressful. To escape, I drafted what would become DOVE ARISING, though I never thought it would leave my laptop’s hard drive. When it was done, I sort of liked what I’d written. It was a hot mess, but I decided to try and get an agent. By some miracle, it happened! There was no going back after that. I’m still trying to make the “scientist” thing happen, though — specifically, I want to contribute to marine research and conservation, but that’s one tiny piece of the problem. Humanity is emitting greenhouse gases, sucking out biodiversity, and messing with a complicated global system that we know very little about. If we’re not careful, we could end up with sunken cities, fractured economies, and very few of the species we know and love today. That’s the distant Earth my main character Phaet sees from her window.
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
After deciding that I wanted to publish DOVE ARISING, I freaked out because I had no idea how to proceed. But I did know that Simon Lipskar, the conductor of an orchestra I’d played in during middle school, was a literary agent. So I sent him an email, basically saying, “Help!” Simon remembered me from orchestra and asked for the manuscript; after a few months, he offered representation – which blew me away. That’s when the real work started. For a year, Simon and the editor at Writers House, Genevieve, helped me revise the novel. A few plot arcs didn’t make sense, one character’s personality was inconsistent, and the world building was incomplete. Sometimes I felt lost, because it seemed the process would never end. But without going through it, we never would have gotten a “yes” from Penguin. And I’m definitely a better, more methodical writer now.
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
Wait for Me by An Na hasn’t left my mind since I read it in middle school. It’s about a Korean-American teenager, Mina, with a horribly demanding mother. Her life is a lie; she’s faked report cards and even an acceptance letter to Harvard. She’s planning to run away from home. She loves only her hearing-impaired little sister, but she comes to care for a musical migrant worker at her family’s dry-cleaning store. He asks her: what does she want? And she goes through so much to find the answer. My parents – who are immigrants from China – have always encouraged me to do what I love. But there was immense pressure from other kids and adults to follow a certain life trajectory. Every time I felt like a failure for straying from the “acceptable” path – getting straight A’s, going to a “good” college, and becoming a doctor/lawyer/banker — I remembered Mina’s story.
Which talent do you wish you had?
I don’t just want a talent – I want a superpower: teleportation. Many of my friends live far away, and I haven’t seen some of them in years. Also, my family is spread out across the globe, and I really miss them sometimes. It would be so cool to teleport home for a bowl of my mom’s cucumber and egg salad (it’s delicious, trust me) or to Shanghai, where my dad lives and works.
Share one quirk you have that most people don’t know about.
I love to blare music and dance – but in the privacy of my bedroom, not in downtown clubs. In fact, I might be hopping around to Beyoncé as you read this. There’s an eclectic groove playlist on my phone; right now it includes Ryn Weaver, the 1975, Drake, and lots of Bollywood stuff. Sometimes I sing, too. You might wonder if I’m any good … just be glad I stuck to writing.
What’s your next big thing?
I’m hard at work on the next two DOVE books! I’m also thinking about my senior thesis – I’m hoping to study sea cucumbers in Fiji over the summer. They’re basically nature’s vacuum cleaners, eating dirty sand and excreting clean sand. It’s really flipping cool.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, March 6 to win a copy of DOVE ARISING. Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
About DOVE ARISING:
Phaet Theta has lived her whole life in a colony on the Moon. She’s barely spoken since her family died in an accident nine years ago. She cultivates the plants in Greenhouse 22, lets her best friend speak for her, and stays off the government’s radar. Then her mother is arrested.
The only way to save her younger siblings from the degrading Shelter is by enlisting in the Militia, the faceless army that polices the Lunar Bases and supposedly protects them from attacks by desperate Earth-dwellers. Training is brutal, but it allows Phaet to come out of her shell and make friends, including an uneasy alliance with the preternaturally accomplished Wes, a fellow outsider.
Rank high, save her siblings, free her mom: that’s the plan. Until Phaet’s logically ordered world begins to crumble…
Suspenseful, intelligent, and hauntingly prescient, DOVE ARISING stands on the shoulders of our greatest tales of the future to tell a story that is all too relevant today.
Karen Bao is a writer, musician, and aspiring ecologist. She’s three years older than her brother and sixty years younger than her violin. Born in California and raised in New Jersey, she currently studies environmental biology at college in New York City. Karen began writing Dove Arising at the age of seventeen. Connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.