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“I thought it was really important for me to read the Core as a writer and to know what intellectual tradition I was getting into.” — Karen Bao CC’16
The road to Karen Bao CC’16’s debut novel, Dove Arising, began — unbeknownst to her — when she was a violinist in middle school.
“I was in a children’s orchestra on Monday nights…. One day I looked in the back of one of the Eragon books by Christopher Paolini, and it turned out that my middle school conductor [Simon Lipskar] was Christopher Paolini’s literary agent.”
Bao, who was born in California and raised in New Jersey, didn’t think much of this at the time. A few years later, as a senior in high school awaiting college admissions’ decisions, she set out to channel the uncertainty she was feeling about her future into a story “about a girl who was also very uncertain about her future.” That story would become Dove Arising. Upon its completion, the childhood coincidence came to mind.
“I emailed Simon at his orchestra email address saying, ‘I wrote a book. What do I do now?’”
“I remember you. Send it to me,” Lipskar responded. Two months later, he contacted Bao again: “Let’s get this thing published.”
Dove Arising, in stores February 24, is the first book in Bao’s young adult science fiction trilogy, The Dove Chronicles. The novel takes place 200 years from today, when severe climactic patterns and resource warfare have led to the establishment of a colony on the moon where a group of scientists works towards a better future for humanity. The story follows Phaet Theta, a fifteen year-old girl whose father died nine years before the opening of the story. Managing to stay off the radar of the colony’s totalitarian government, Phaet works quietly in one of the colony’s greenhouses. But when the State forces her mother into quarantine, Phaet joins the government’s lunar militia in order to save her younger siblings from destitution.
Phaet is based partially off Bao’s best friend from home, whom Bao describes as “very introverted,” but who, like Phaet, possesses what she calls a “will of steel.” “[Phaet] doesn’t talk until chapter three,” says Bao. “But she’s a lot stronger than she appears or sounds.”
Bao, who says she found her own strength through the process of publishing her novel, learned quickly that publishing a book is no simple feat. Her lifelong dedication to violin not only provided her initial connection to the publishing world, but also served as a harbinger of what it takes to succeed as a writer. Not long after she connected with her middle school conductor, he put her in touch with Genevieve Gagne-Hawes, an editor at Bao’s literary agency, Writers House. Gagne-Hawkes sent her a fifteen-page letter outlining “everything that was wrong with [the draft].” After a period of intense revision, Bao sent the draft back; she received another long letter in reply. “It pretty much went like that for nine months,” says Bao. “Just getting yourself to sit down every day for months and crank out a novel — it takes a certain amount of ‘I’ve just got to do this whether I like it or not.’ The same thing goes for practicing technique on violin.”
Though Bao didn’t set out to write a young adult novel, she wanted to write a book that she, only seventeen at the time, wanted to read. “I couldn’t go older because I hadn’t [had] those experiences yet.” That the novel became a work of science fiction was also natural for Bao: raised in a family of scientists — her mother is an optics engineer, her father a medicinal chemist — Bao is majoring in environmental biology, on the ecology and evolution track. “I couldn’t have written …science fiction,” she says, “without having first known the science.”
Bao also stresses how crucial her writing experience has been as she has discovered the importance of communication in her scientific research at the College. Though Bao arrived at Columbia already interested in environmental protection and sustainability, it was on campus that she discovered her scientific niche. Choosing to go “into marine conservation bio would not have happened if I hadn’t come here, period,” she says.
Bao came to the College as a transfer student from Johns Hopkins, drawn to Columbia’s science research opportunities as well as its location in New York. “All the publishing houses and agencies are here and a lot of media outlets,” says Bao. “It helps me with my writing career to be physically in New York City.”
The Core also played an important role in Bao’s decision to attend the College. “I thought it was really important for me to read the Core as a writer,” says Bao, “and to know what intellectual tradition I was getting into.”
A member of Columbia’s Tae Kwon Do club, the Environmental Biology Society and the College’s chapter of the Roosevelt Institute, a policy think tank, Bao says that Columbia is unique in “the choices that [it] gives students. There are so many majors and so many different activities you can join here, if only you find out that it exists. People are so quick to welcome you in and just bombard you with information and help you.”
Three years of college, several long editing processes, a pre-publication book tour and the final two novels of her trilogy later, much has changed since Bao first began writing Dove Arising. As bookshelves are stacked this month with hardcover copies of her first novel, the second novel of the series is going into its final editing stage and the third is in the midst of revisions.
As she continues to work on the next two books in the series, Bao also continues to tackle the complications of being a full-time student as well as a professional writer. “It causes a lot of stress because [writing] is … a full-time job,” she says. “And I still want my degree.” But Bao credits her friends and the community around her as her inspiration and as a source of joy and relief from her day-to-day stresses. “Just coming into contact with a bunch of different people — it’s not only inspiration for my writing but also — how do they deal with stress?” she says. “How do they deal with their lives? How do they end up studying what they’re studying? It’s all just very interesting.”
As she embarks on the last semester of her junior year, her book launch party just around the corner and her second novel nearing its finish, Bao appreciates the importance of living her college life and taking full advantage of its experiences and opportunities, not only as a student but also as a writer.
“I find that as I’m growing up and learning things they [end] up in the books. I’ve actually solved some character and plot problems by just letting the book[s] sit, going out and living my life and then coming back to it,” says Bao. “I guess that’s the advantage of writing young.”
Sally Whalen CC’17, from Spokane, Washington, is a student web editor for the Columbia College website.