Kaia Sonderby talks her Xandri Corelel series and how she would have written Star Wars

SciFiPulse recently had the privilege of interviewing Kaia Sonderby. She's the author of Failure to Communicate and Tone of Voice
Kaia Sonderby

SciFiPulse recently had the privilege of interviewing Kaia Sonderby. She’s the author of Failure to Communicate and Tone of Voice. Collectively these books are the Xandri Corelel series, which Kaia discusses in this interview. Additionally, Kaia talks about feminism as well as the future of neurodivergent representation.


SFP: How much was the character of Xandri Corelel based on your own experiences?


Kaia Sonderby: Some. There aren’t really any 1-to-1 correlations between us–nothing that is actually based exactly on my real experiences–but some things that are very similar to my real experiences. When I was creating Xandri, I also incorporated a number of things based on the experiences of other autistic people, too. I wanted her to be relatable to as many autistic people as possible. Admittedly, some of my own experiences made that easier. For example, I was never really a flapper and thus never dealt with people chiding me for it. But I do have ADHD and when I was younger, I wasn’t great at sitting still in a chair. That was driven out of me so effectively that I barely fidget at all now. So you might say that Xandri is an amalgamation of many people’s experiences, but my own were still vital to her creation.


SFP: Where did the idea for the Xandri Corelel series come from?


Kaia Sonderby: The origins of Xandri go back over a decade. I had recently started to understand just how much effort I put into reading other people’s non-verbal language, since like other autistics, I don’t have the instincts for it. We were watching a movie with aliens and I noticed how much easier it was for me to read their body language (since they had moving parts like ears and tails) and that was the first seed. Back then, though, it was going to be an urban fantasy, with a character who was a liaison to vampires and werewolves and the like. Only I don’t actually like urban fantasy. I started toying with the idea of it being a short sci-fi story instead, and poked a bit at that, but didn’t get far. It was getting to know other autistic people (on Tumblr, originally) that truly set the wheels in motion. That was where I learned to embrace being autistic, rather than hating it. Learning those things, that’s what made me sit down and finally, truly create Xandri and her world, for others like me.


SFP: Have you always been into sci-fi or were you a fan of other genres growing up?


Kaia Sonderby: I’ve come relatively late to sci-fi. I mean, I loved Star Wars from the time I first watched it when I was about nine, but I didn’t connect to most sci-fi. Fantasy was my first big love. I was also big on romance (writing and reading) in my late teens, early twenties. Then I found myself wanting to expand my horizons as a writer and dabbling in other genres, but it wasn’t until I decided to make Failure to Communicate sci-fi that I really came to love it.


SFP: What do you think “mainstream” sci-fi like Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who could learn from the work of #ownvoices authors?


Kaia Sonderby: That’s a pretty big question. I think mainstream sci-fi has this view of itself as forward and progressive. Star Trek was progressive for its time, you know, and so were a number of other sci-fi stories–for their time. That’s the key part. I don’t think mainstream sci-fi has actually evolved with the times. It could learn a lot from #ownvoices authors about what is progressive NOW–a lot about how to stop centering stories on white Western people and ideas. Modern mainstream sci-fi often thinks it’s enough that not all the characters are white or straight, and all too frequently neglects to make sure that not all social and cultural mores and traditions are Western in nature. Speaking in regards to my own work: Mainstream sci-fi could take the lesson that disabled people don’t all want science to magically cure us in the future.


SFP: What’s one story you would love to tell above all others?


Kaia Sonderby: I don’t really think I have such a story. I’ve always got loads of stories I want to tell, and I usually wish I could write them all at once. I do have one non-fiction project that I really hope I get to do someday. I want to do a cryptozoology book that focuses on the stories and folklore of local people, to seek out origins points, to understand when and where these creatures enter human awareness, and to make a clear, understood line between what’s a cryptid, and what are spiritual beings that are being appropriated from other people.


SFP: What do you think is the key to writing a feminist story that doesn’t diminish males?


Kaia Sonderby: That’s a good question. I see a lot of writers answer this kind of question with something like “Well, I just write them as people” and yeah, that’s a good start, but it’s not enough. It’s important to listen to people, to get to know them and understand what they see in themselves. What, in their own eyes, makes them people. If you don’t do that, you can end up writing perfectly well-rounded characters that are still heavily problematic. I also think it’s about mindset. When I’m writing, I think “how can I lift women up?” not “how can I tear men down?” That’s what feminism is about, in the end. I know I don’t need to lessen my male characters for my female characters to shine, because women are just as competent, intelligent, and skilled as men.


SFP: What do you think the future of neurodivergent representation in sci-fi looks like?


Kaia Sonderby: I wish I could be optimistic about that, but it’s hard. Neurotypical readers, writers, publishers, etc., still see neurodivergence as something that’s meant for stories like Rain Man and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. They still see us as plot devices and MacGuffins, or as something the protagonist has to overcome in some way, rather than as characters in our own right. It’s so hard to get other stories–especially those told by ourselves!–to people, and even on the rare occasion we do, people don’t always embrace them.

I’ve definitely noticed some (usually neurotypical) readers who seem like they’d totally be fine with Xandri being autistic as long as 1) she doesn’t challenge any of their preconceptions about what autism is, 2) she doesn’t accept and love her autistic self, and 3) her story isn’t one that forces them to confront that their attitudes towards neurodivergence (and disability in general) are harmful. That said, Failure to Communicate and other stories like it are reaching other neurodivergent people, and I hope that if we just keep writing them and reading them, and sharing them with each other, that they’ll have a place in the future of all genres. It may be hard to stay positive at times, but I’m certainly not giving up.


SFP: And finally, if you could change any one thing in any sci-fi book, show or film what would you change and why?


Kaia Sonderby: Oh gosh…oh, in for a penny, in for a pound. This might be kind of controversial to say, but if I could, I’d rewrite almost all of The Force Awakens. Not Rey, Finn, and Poe, they were hands down the best part, and the only characters to me that felt like they were in a Star Wars movie. But after seeing it, I had some ideas. They’re very spoilerific, though, just a warning. I’d change Kylo Ren’s story the most. In my idea, he’s an operative for the Resistance who infiltrates the First Order, and it’s there he’s corrupted and becomes Kylo Ren. At the end of the movie it would be Leia, trained as a Jedi as she should have been, damnit, who confronts him and convinces him to come home.

Or does she? ‘Cause then I was thinking in the second movie, he has to deal with the conflict of trying to play double agent and feeling the pull of his family’s love. Also, Luke isn’t in hiding because he’s a coward (something he has never, ever been, as the movies make clear) but because he’s gathering and training new Jedi and refuses to risk anyone finding out. 

Look, I’m autistic. I watched the original trilogy, all three movies, every day after school for months. What The Force Awakens did with Han, Leia, and especially Luke broke my heart. I’d rather they’d left the Skywalkers out of it altogether if that was what they were going to do with them. But I know mine is not the popular opinion on the matter


SciFiPulse would like to extend our most heartfelt thanks and best wishes to Kaia Sonderby for so graciously answering our questions.


Kaia’s Twitter is @KaiaSonderby.


Check out our interviews with Ada Hoffmann , C. L. Lynch and Chris Bonnello.

Autistic writer who loves sci-fi, cosplay and poetry. Actor with Theatre of the Senses. He/him.
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