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Author Spotlight: Kayla Olson talks The Sandcastle Empire


Today is special because I get to welcome author Kayla Olson to the blog! In addition to being one of the nicest people you'll ever come across, Kayla is a talented musician (and she once auditioned for Survivor!). Her debut novel is a YA sci-fi/survival thriller that's already generating a lot of well-deserved buzz. The Sandcastle Empire hits stores on June 6th and was recently optioned for film by Paramount with Leonardo DiCaprio/Appian Way producing.

Hi, Kayla! Congrats on your amazing debut, The Sandcastle Empire ! Can you tell us a little about the story and what inspired it?

Hi, and thanks so much for having me! The Sandcastle Empire is a YA sci-fi/survival thriller set in the near future, in post–sea level rise America, amid a future global war. When main character Eden Andersen escapes to the only neutral ground left in the world, Sanctuary Island, she quickly discovers the island is every bit as deadly as the world she left behind—and surviving it is the only thing that stands between her and freedom. As far as inspiration goes, I’m a huge fan of the show LOST, and had been going through stories-featuring-mysterious-island with-drawals when I came up with the idea for the book’s setting. After that initial spark, I followed the trail of What’s mysterious about this particular island? Who finds it? What if they expect it to be a safe place, but it’s precisely the opposite? What are they escaping from in the first place? and the story started coming together from there.

Set in the near future, The Sandcastle Empire takes place on an Earth plagued by flooding and overpopulation caused by climate change. How much research did you do on things like global warming? Have environmental issues always been very important to you?

I did quite a bit of research, especially because the crux of my idea hinged on the effects of sea level rise and nuisance flooding catching people off guard much earlier than expected. So often you hear, well, in a hundred years we’ll start to see a noticeable change…but one thing I found intriguing is that nuisance flooding could hit a tipping point much sooner. I lived in Austin while writing the book, and we had an entire month of rain at one point that caused flooding issues; it made me wonder, What if these minor sorts of floods happened over and over, all along the coastal regions, to the point where the issues started piling up and they eventually ended up unable to recover? As I grew increasingly aware of environmental issues over the past several years, they became all the more important to me, especially once I became a mom. You can care about an issue in theory, about leaving a better world behind for the people who come next, but once you put a face on the people who will actually live in that world—not a hundred years from now, but possibly sooner—it feels all the more imperative that we take a closer look not just at how to prevent the change that’s coming, but how to be prepared for it on a large scale when the issues we can’t reverse start to have a stronger effect on our world and the people in it.

Who was your favorite character to write? And which character gave you the most trouble?

My favorite character to write was Alexa—she’s full of secrets and sadness, and it was fun to mine those depths. I found Finnley the most difficult to write; the other three girls at the forefront came to me fully formed, practically, but Finnley was trickier to figure out. She’s practical but paranoid, bitter and trying to pretend she’s not, especially to herself. The unusual dimensions to her character on the inside versus how she behaved on the page was a challenge for me to navigate at first.

I know you’re a huge music-lover! What songs might we find on a playlist for The Sandcastle Empire ?

Yes! I am a huge music-lover! Because I’m such a huge music-lover, though, I find it incredibly distracting to have it going while writing—I do all of my work while listening to a thunderstorm track on my phone. (I’m listening to it right this second, actually!) There were two songs I kept coming back to whenever I needed to get into the mood of the story. The first is “Set the Fire to the Third Bar” (Snow Patrol, featuring Martha Wainwright) and the other one is “This Love” from Taylor Swift’s 1989 album.

The Sandcastle Empire debuts June 6th, but it’s already been optioned for film by Paramount with Leonardo DiCaprio/Appian Way producing. That must be exciting (to say the least)! Do you ever daydream about who would play your main characters?

That has been such an exciting aspect of this entire experience! I think all authors daydream about who would play their main characters, and I’m no exception—I picture an ensemble of four unknown actresses to play the main girls, and have been known to scroll through IMDB listings occasionally to see if there are any who match the images I have in my head. (There are! But I’m keeping specific names to myself—I’m superstitious like that.)

What are you reading, or otherwise currently obsessed with?

I’ve been lucky enough to convince a few of my author friends with books debuting this year to let me read their sophomore books—I’m about halfway through Emily Bain Murphy’s next project right now, and it is incredibly good! I loved her debut, The Disappearances (out July 4, 2017 from HMH), and this new project is likewise full of gorgeous, atmospheric writing, set in a harsh-but-beautiful setting, with a mysterious plot that’s made it near-impossible to set down. (I have to eat and sleep, as it turns out.)

What’s one steadfast piece of advice you would give to writers working toward publication?

My one steadfast piece of advice is this: be grateful for every step as you walk the path to publication, for every no that paves the road to your eventual yes. There are always going to be things out of your control—focus on what you can control. For the most part, that’s writing the very best book you can. You can’t control whether it will fall into the perfect agent or editor hands at just the right moment, you can’t control if they’ll connect with it—or if anyone will connect with it. You can’t control how many people buy it, or review it, or give it five stars. If your goal is to write something you’re proud of, something you’ll love no matter what, you’ll be able to ride out the bumpy road (and make no mistake, it’s bumpy for everyone at some point) with a little less angst.

Kayla, you are amazing! Thank you so much for sharing some of your process and a bit of the journey that led you to write The Sandcastle Empire. Be sure to add Kayla's thrilling, and sure to be bestselling book to your Goodreads list, or pre-order your copy RIGHT NOW from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local indie.

If you benefited from any of Kayla's interview, or if you just can't wait for The Sandcastle Empire to release, please make it a point to head on over to Twitter to tell her at @olsonkayla. For more, check out her author website at


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