N.K. Jemisin Opens Up On Awards, Writing and her Powerful Trilogy
N(ora). K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. In addition to writing, she is a counseling psychologist (specializing in career counseling), a sometime hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Her first two novels, The Broken Kingdoms and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, are out now from Orbit Books. Book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy, The Kingdom of Gods, is due out in late 2011.
A. They're both pretty darn nice. I'm taking it to mean people think I'm writing with a consistent level of quality across both the short and long forms. Considering I only started writing short stories a few years ago, I'm really happy about that.
A. And as of this writing, there have been several other award nominations and shortlistings. Locus Finalist (for first novel) makes ten.
At this point I'm kind of in "permanent stun" mode. I hoped I might get nominated for the Nebula. I figured I had no chance at the Hugo, but it would be nice. I completely did not expect to be nominated for *so many* awards. That's an incredible honor in and of itself; I'm stunned.Completely boggled.
But now I'll admit I'm starting to think, "Man, it's gonna be kind of embarrassing if I don't *win* any of these things!"
A. I was trying to write something I would enjoy reading, and yes I think I was successful at that.
Basically, I'm selfish. As a child, I started writing partly to occupy myself in between series installments or the next works of authors I loved, or during the three-month delay it would take my local small-town library to bring in something I desperately wanted to read by interlibrary loan. I also wrote my own stuff because so often I just couldn't find the kind of fiction I was craving, or I found it too rarely to satisfy. As I've gotten older I've kept on writing stuff I wanted but which just wasn't there -- modulating the meaning of "just not there" to cover styles and subject matter and characters/roles. But in my core I'm still that greedy, bored kid who's too damn impatient to wait for her favorite authors to write what she wants, so does it herself.
A. There's no real-life inspiration for the Arameri because people with absolute, unassailable power are as much fantastical creations the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' gods. There's no mafia, monarchy, or monopoly that can sink a continent in our world, for example (though I'll grant that they could probably make a continent unlivable, with enough time and carelessness). I've seen people trying to link the Arameri to this or that modern/real-world entity, and that's fine -- I'm glad people can see those kinds of links in my fiction. But in my own head, the Arameri are an amalgamation of ancient mythic archetypes. The people who consorted with and challenged the gods in most ancient tales weren't usually the Miss Manners of their societies, after all. I drew inspiration from stories of people (and gods) screwing up royally -- Hercules freaking out and killing his family, for example. Or Loki after the Baldur affair, triumphant but dreading the truly horrific comeuppance to come. I'm just not very interested in heroes who triumph over evil, end of story. I'm fascinated by people -- some heroes, some not -- who do terrible things and then have to work through the consequences.
A. I created the glossary while I wrote -- just kept a list of names and words that I didn't think were clear from context or which readers might have trouble remembering. Defining them was easy, and I just added to it for books 2 and 3. The other appendices I created once the book was done. I thought about doing the usual epic fantasy appendices -- lineages or songs or whatever -- but honestly, I find that sort of thing incredibly dull. But what I do like are things that offer further detail on individual characters and how they became the people readers get to know over the course of the story. None of it's necessary to the story -- that's why it's in the appendix. But hopefully it's at least fun.
I did something special with one of the appendices in THE KINGDOM OF GODS. Can't wait to see what people think of it.
A. Hee. Well, in THE KINGDOM OF GODS, the story is told by one of the gods themselves: Sieh, the god of childhood/mischief, and one of the gods who were previously enslaved by humans for centuries. Sieh is free now -- but abruptly, for no apparent reason, he suddenly begins aging at a human rate.
Growing up is inimical to Sieh, so this "mortaling" gradually weakens him and will kill him if it goes on for too long. But while he tries to fathom this mystery, he becomes unwittingly embroiled in mortal politics again, as the new Arameri scion tries to hold the world together in the face of a global revolution. Sieh doesn't care what happens to the mortal realm, of course; mortals will be mortals. But given that he's becoming mortal, he's gradually forced to reassess his priorities.
After that, sometime next year I've got two more books coming out from Orbit, which are tentatively called the Dreamblood duology. These are my attempt to experiment with a more traditional epic fantasy narrative style -- it's focused on the fate of a nation rather than a universe, it will have multiple third-person points of view, and so on. But that's as far as the traditional stuff goes. Beyond that, the story is set in an Egyptianesque kingdom called Gujaareh, and uses a magic system based loosely on psychodynamic dream theory and the Jungian collective unconscious. The first book focuses on a priest of the dream goddess, whose job it is to creep into people's homes in the night and kill them in their sleep. When he discovers an ugly conspiracy corrupting the nation, he's forced to deal with the dangerous people who dream and scheme in daylight (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot). The second book takes place ten years after the first, and I can't talk about it much without spoilers -- but it will focus primarily on a young woman who is the first female priest of the dream goddess. When a literal plague of deadly nightmares attacks Gujaareh, only she and a handful of others stand any chance of saving it -- though there might not be much to save, once war sweeps the land.
The Dreamblood books are new, but they're based on material I've been researching and playing with in various forms for several years, including a novelette ("The Narcomancer") that made the Nebula preliminary ballot a few years ago. So I was glad to return to that playground at last.
After that -- I've recently broken ground on a new fantasy that will probably be a trilogy, but I can't talk about that yet, although I'm kind of giddily excited about it. I also have a YA science fiction novel kicking me in the subconscious -- set in the same world as two short stories I've written ("The Trojan Girl", in the January 2011 WEIRD TALES, and "Valedictorian", in the forthcoming Datlow/Windling dystopian YA anthology AFTER), but that one will have to wait in line.
A. You're not the first person to mention Zelazny... and I've never read him. Shameful, I know. But after hearing all these people compare my work to his, I'm determined to get around to it soon. Whenever I have some time to read. ::sigh::
My inspirations vary depending on what I'm writing, but in no particular order I count Tanith Lee, Storm Constantine, C. S. Friedman, Louise Cooper, Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Fumi Yoshinaga, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Howard Zinn, James Joyce, Omar Khayyam, T. S. Eliot, and Li Po. There are more, a lot more, across genres and media -- but those are a good start.
A. I know before I start writing. Short stories aren't -- or shouldn't be, in my opinion -- just truncated novels. I had to learn this when I started writing them. For me, it's a question of focus. A short story can devote itself to answering a single question: shallowly or in depth, in a direct fashion or roundabout, whatever. It *can* do more, but it doesn't have to. I write novels when I have so many questions in my head that there can't possibly be a single answer.
A. No, I don't get much time for that. These days most of my reading has a purpose -- something for my writing group, something my agent or publisher has asked me to read and/or blurb, etc. Still, I manage to carve out a little time for "fun reading", and many of the works I've read in that time have ended up on multiple awards lists this year. I've read three of the short story nominees, one of the novelettes, and two novellas -- but only one other of the novel nominees. Was hoping to finish the short stories before the ceremony, but I don't think that's going to happen, alas.