Denton Novelist Scores Movie Deal

Kayla Olson became enthralled with the concept of nuisance flooding when she lived in Austin. This phenomenon describes minor flooding that comes from climate-related sea level rise, the loss of natural barriers and other factors, which has increased on every U.S. coast by at least three times since the 1960s. While it is aptly named in that it is not something that happens on a major scale all at once, she noticed that even local minor floods could affect people in many ways, from their drinking water supplies to illnesses.

She stated in an interview with The Dentonite, “‘What if Hurricane Katrina-level flooding happened at 15 places all along the coast?’ It’s not like the entire country is going underwater, but what if several places experience this nuisance flooding over and over again before they’re able to recover from it? Would our emergency response teams be able to keep up with that in one area, let alone all along the coasts? Would there be access to the resources—and who gets that access? There’s issues of privilege there as well.”

This provided the back story for her novel “The Sandcastle Empire,” coming out this June. The book is also being made into a movie; currently in development with Paramount Pictures, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Appian Way spearheading production.

In the dystopian near-future setting of “The Sandcastle Empire,” protagonist Eden breaks out of a prison camp in a land rife with the negative affects of widespread nuisance flooding in hopes of reaching Sanctuary Island, supposedly the last neutral territory in the world. Three other young women stake a claim on the boat with her, and they all come to find that different dangers face them in the dense jungle of this new land. Olson is a fan of the TV show “Lost” and the Harry Potter series, which are two of the bigger influences in the writing and story itself. 

The news of impending publication of her book and the movie news came within a month of each other. However, Olson’s career as a writer has been long and more storied than that of her novel’s characters. A naturally sweet, empathetic person, proceeding through all conversations—no matter how long or short—with genuine kindness. With that personable demeanor, she found herself working service jobs in which she was the face of the business for customers. That took her through stints as a bank teller for Bank of America, and a drive-thru window cashier at Chik-fil-A and Starbucks. However, she knew she wasn’t fulfilling her creative desires. She made the decision in 2009 to leave her jobs and write full-time. 

“The Sandcastle Empire” is her fourth writing project. The previous three reached various levels of completion, in part due to her previous writing technique. Olson chose to not revise, instead reading through drafts, taking note mentally of what worked and didn’t, and trashing her progress to start anew. About five years ago, Olson took an internship with a literary agent, where she read through manuscripts before sending them back or passing them along.

The agent also gave Olson valuable advice for her own writing: “Make sure your characters have truly tough stakes, and that they’re making tough choices. You get more into something when the things that they’re choosing between are not just left and right,” Olson recalled. “This ethical question that conflicts with this moral question. Which one do you choose? That’s when she also encouraged me to read more about plot and structure. That internship has affected everything I’ve written since then.”

The internship, arduous self-editing process she picked up, and experience paid off. Shortly after leaving the internship, she started writing her third novel. While it didn’t sell, she received several words of encouragement from publishers, and got her literary agents. 

The whole process has opened her eyes to why she writes. Olson has learned to be cautiously optimistic in her writing career, knowing that praise, validation, and success won’t just come, even though she works diligently at her craft.

“So many people say, ‘Just work and it’ll happen.’ I don’t believe that’s true,” Olson said. “Obviously if you don’t do the work, it won’t happen. If you're diligently working, there’s a higher chance it will happen. But you can’t force that, especially because it’s not just about the quality of the work that you’ve written. It’s about people's tastes and the timing. If they have another similar project that they’re already doing, they might love it but they can’t take it because it’s too similar. There is so many factors outside of just you having written something that might be publishable.”

After hearing no other times, the many yeses to “The Sandcastle Empire” were “all the more sweet” for Olson. While the movie will be less in her control than the book, she feels “it’s in the best possible hands, with Leonardo DiCaprio and his team. Really I’m just excited because it’s a different medium. Any book is going to be condensed, adapted. I’m excited to see their take on it. Hopefully it will continue. I have no reason to believe it won’t,” she added. 

While her story is not uniquely Denton, her story is played out in many young people I have come to encounter in their own variations, finding themselves working to support their true passions. She attributes a few select things to her newfound success:

“Learning how to write when all I heard was no,” Olson said. “Writing for me, and not writing just because I want validation. That has been a freeing thing, because it has allowed me to work on projects that are exciting to me, and not just what I think will sell. It has also given me the ability to persevere, because if my entire world was based on hearing yes, if I was to crumble when I heard no, I would have stopped a long time ago. Those aspects, and just sitting down and carving out the time, being diligent with it, and finishing have been crucial to [the novel’s success].”

Olson’s novel will be published by HarperTeen on June 6, 2017, and is available for pre-order on several sites. All info on the book and where to pre-order, the upcoming movie, and resources for aspiring writers can be found on her website

Photo (inset) by Emily Cline
Header image design by Brittany Keeton