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As a part of a series of interviews from last year’s Book Riot Live event, I was able to connect with the very busy and very talented fantasy/sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin. Her works include the popular Inheritance Trilogy series, the Dreamblood duology, and her latest The Fifth Season, the opening book in the new Broken Earth trilogy. Before she headed out to get a day of writing done, she gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions.
BlackSci-Fi.com: For readers that haven’t heard of your books, how would you describe them?
NK Jemisin: The world of the Inheritance Trilogy is one in which 2000 years before the people of that world, through a series of really complicated circumstances involving a godly war between the three gods that created the world, some of the people were given ownership of several gods and slaves and promptly used them as weapons of mass destruction. The story starts with a young woman who is peripherally attached to the family that does this, to the Gods, and ultimately has to decide whether to allow the status quo to continue or disrupt it and rebel.
The Dreamblood series is set in a magic faux ancient Egypt-like world that has a giant gas moon. This is a world where the priest of the Dream Goddess are able to use all kinds of interesting dream based magic to help their nation thrive, be well and be peaceful, as peace is the core creed of their religion. They go forth and administer peace, helping and dealing with threats to it.
The Broken Earth is set on another earth-like world that has a lot of seismic activity going on to the degree that every century or so they have an extinction level event. A volcanic winter can last years instead of months and people who don’t prepare for it end up starving to death. This is a world where people have learned to adapt to this environment, using magic. People that have magical abilities to manipulate seismology, stop volcanoes and earthquakes, and raise mountains, because their power is so powerful and destructive they are hated, feared and effectively enslaved by the people that don’t have these abilities.
BSF: What’s your writing process like? Do you write with an ending, or begin the story and let it progress organically?
NKJ: It depends on the story. I usually start with an outline, that’s where I work out the important plot kinks and how things tie together. As I start writing, I often don’t look at the outline, then I forget what I put in it and I just keep going with whatever direction kind of feels good and after a while I remember there’s an outline. I go look at it and I go “oh crap, I wrote myself into a hole”, and then I can try and go back and fix it, or sometimes I change the outline to make it fit in with the direction of the story. So it’s a little bit of both.
I write stuff like short stories all the time. I think one of the things I found most useful in becoming a writer is learning how to write short stories and learning how to condense ideas down to the crucial bits or the juicy bits or whatever you want to call it and do that kind of world building in a short space. It’s made me a better writer, and I enjoyed doing it. In fact I tend to do it as a kind of proof of concept when I’m testing out a new idea for possible use as a novel. If I can make it work as a short story, I know I can make it work for a novel.
BSF: You’ve been nominated for a few awards (the Nebula Award, the Goodreads Choice Award, the World Fantasy Award). When your win occurs what’s the celebration going to be like?
NKJ: There’s been this whole conversation the last few day about the World Fantasy Award and I posted something on my blog recently that if I had won the World Fantasy Award at some point, the two times I have been nominated, I would have had to figure out what to do to make it very clear that I’m not happy with an award shaped like the head of HP Lovecraft. And I said I was going to put it on top of my cats litter box. The problem is he won’t tolerate anything on his litter box and probably would have broken my award. That aside I would celebrate, go out for a drink with my friends, agent and editor.
BSF: That touches on my next question. With diversity being a hot topic at most cons and expos, what can people do to make it go from topic to reality?
NKJ: Well I don’t know if that’s something that can be moved wholly by the people that are asking for it. For it to be moved it also has to change among the people who are comfortable with the status quo. They have got to understand that the status quo, it’s not good for their conventions and their genre. And I think that we’re starting to see that realization slowly come over the more conservative status quo lovers because their conventions are dying out.
There is a lot of conversation of the greying of science fiction fandom. The truth of the matter is science fiction fandom is not grey at all. The people, the younger people and the more diverse people and when I say diverse, I hate using that as a euphemism for people of color, women, and gay people and so on, but it is an indie shorthand. But you know the people that are enriching and renewing the genre just aren’t going to those particular kinds of conventions because they can sense when they’re not welcome, and they’re going to Comic Con and Book Con, and they’re full of young people that are excited about science fiction and fantasy. So if the status quo `files are going to continue to resist change, they literally will die out and have trouble finding more and more work that they’ll enjoy reading because it’s become antiquated and obsolete.
But true change can’t be driven just by the people on the receiving end of exclusion and discrimination. True change has to be throughout society. There is a form of change that comes with saying “f*** this s***, I’m out” and going off and doing your own thing, but the people who maintain the “standards” for the genre and who actually put a lot of work and time into building structures that they hope will last, they are going to have to understand for these structures to last they have to make them more welcoming. That is what we’re seeing with the World Fantasy Awards, where people started agitating for change, when it became clear if you going to give this award to black people you have to think about what this means.
BSF: Before we wrap up, what’s coming up or next for you? Is your secret project still secret?
NKJ: So secret I can’t even talk about it, but I just turned in the first draft of the second book Obelisk Gate, and I’m working on the revisions for it. I’m trying to finish the revisions as quickly as I can and I think it is answering some of the questions from The Fifth Season and I’ve actually broken ground on the third book in that series. My goal is to have all the major writing done by this time next year. I also, have a short story coming out from Tor.com, I don’t know the release date on that though it’s called The City Born Great and its set in New York.
Update: In February Ms. Jemisin was nominated for a 2015 Nebula Award in the novel category for The Fifth Season. The SFWA Nebula Awards Banquet will take place on May 14th, 2016.
George Carmona 3rd is an Artist/Designer, former Milestone Media Intern, former DC Comics paper pusher, book lover and lifelong comic geek. You can find his work at FistFullofArt.com or follow him on twitter at GCarmona3.