The novel Shattered Veil -- about an 18-year-old woman named Aris who technologically disguises her gender to serve in the military -- is the first sci-fi adventure in Tracy E. Banghart's Diatous Wars series. The book was self-published via CreateSpace in February and received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer saying, "What starts as a tale of star-crossed romance quickly evolves into a gripping page-turner, with gender roles and identity explored and questioned at every turn." We caught up with Banghart to chat about self-publishing and the exploration of gender in fiction.

Why did you decide to self-publish Shattered Veil?

I did pursue traditional publishing first. Getting an agent was a pretty easy part of the process for me, but finding a publisher was difficult. I realized that I was so desperate to please a publisher that I sort of lost sight of my vision for Shattered Veil and for myself as a writer. So I thought, "You know, self-publishing is something I have the skills and the entrepreneurial spirit for." I got to the point where I stopped being willing to let someone else determine my value as a writer.

How did you come up with the concept for Shattered Veil?

Shattered Veil began with a dream that I had when my husband was deployed. My life was very much tied to what was going on in the war. In the dream, there was a lot of longing and the sense that no one really understood what I was going through with him being gone. And that started the gears turning.

Working out the military and political details of the world and the story was a great way for my husband and I to bond when he was gone. His experiences and his knowledge of military history really informed a lot of what happens in the book. Every time I wrote a scene where Aris is with her unit, I was kind of checking with him to make sure the details were realistic. I tried to ground it in reality that way. I can definitely say that I wouldn't have been able to write the series without him.

Also, when I was writing the first draft, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still in place, and there was a lot of controversy over women in combat roles. In the book, the people in charge know that the women are serving in the military, and they're fine with it, as long as they don't expose themselves. That's really influenced by the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

How did your main character Aris evolve over time as you were writing the book?

I'd like to think that my original conception of her as a character has stayed the same from the very beginning. Figuring out how to make that come alive on the page was difficult.

Aris is probably my favorite of all the characters I've written. She starts the story focused on her future with her boyfriend and not really interested in the world around her. Then she goes on this journey of self-discovery.

It was hard to write that character arc so that she was sympathetic from the beginning to the end. If I made her too weak and lovesick in the beginning, then people wouldn't be interested in finding out how she changes. If she was too strong, then she wouldn't get that wonderful, empowering self-discovery throughout the story. So there was a lot of finessing.

And it's funny to me -- I still get readers who comment that she's sort of annoying at the beginning because she's so lovestruck. But her responses to her boyfriend being sent to war were pretty much drawn directly from my own feelings about my husband being deployed!

But I get it. That was the intent of the story: She starts with a very limited world view, but then she discovers that there's more to fight for than just love.

I saw some similarities to The Hunger Games, but the exploration of gender was a really great turn in the story. You mentioned it a little bit before with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but can you tell me a little bit more about why you wanted to explore gender?

One of the larger things that inspired the book is the sense that I had that people had low expectations of me because I was a girl. I wasn't strong enough or smart enough. It's kind of sickening how often that happens. Also, with becoming an author, I got a lot of side-eye: "Oh, that's a nice hobby." And that really instilled in me an overwhelming desire to prove them wrong.

That really informs the gender identity stuff. In young adult books, there are a lot of strong female characters. But the one issue that I saw was that, in order to make these female characters strong, there was also this dehumanizing effect -- making them emotionally distant. Katniss in The Hunger Games is a good example of that. My husband has read the books and said that he wouldn't want Katniss in combat with him; sometimes she's a killing machine.

Being strong physically or emotionally doesn't preclude you from having traditionally feminine qualities. That's one thing about Aris: even though she goes through this self-realization, she was strong from the beginning. She just didn't realize it.