N.K. Jemisin is the author of the Inheritance trilogy and the Dreamblood series. Her latest novel, The Fifth Season, is set in a world constantly wracked by natural disasters where sorcerers who can control earthquakes and volcanoes are both feared and valued.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.
First of all, tell us a bit about what some of the books were that really got you interested in fantasy and science fiction.
I was a giant fan of Tanith Lee, of Octavia Butler, of C. S. Friedman. Kind of all over the place in terms of my interests. But I’ve also mentioned in other interviews that I read a lot of mythology, especially as a child and as a teenager.
How about those authors you mentioned, what are some of the things about their work that really drew you to them?
I liked the way that Tanith Lee played with conceptualizations of good and evil and also the way in which, in a lot of her work, she emulated that sort of ancient, epic style. So, for example, with the Night’s Master, Death’s Master, I can’t remember what that series is called [editor’s note: these are books one and two of the Tales from the Flat Earth series], but it felt very oral tradition recorded on paper, even though you knew that she had made it up. But she was able to capture the feel of stories that had been passed down and stories that had grown apocryphal with retelling and things like that. I like the way that she played with concept of who the hero was. You started off with, I think, Azhrarn as the first book’s protagonist, who’s a terrible person—well, a terrible god. Over the course of the story you started to see so much more complexity to them.
Then with Octavia Butler, I liked the darkness of her science fiction. The fact that she really just did not pull any punches where it came to really depicting not just scientific implications if aliens showed up, not just depicting the way that the world would change, but depicting the way that people would react to those changes, which was something that I really had not seen a lot of in science fiction at the point that I had first started reading her. You see the usual science fiction . . . It’s Star Trek, we’re all going to boldly go and meet these aliens and we’ll get along with them relatively well, or we might shoot a few, but for the most part we’ll have a decent relationship. Really no discussion of, “What about us? Are we going to get ourselves together in order to meet these other peoples?” And Butler’s take on that was, “Eh . . . maybe.” With a whole lot of mess in the way. And I love the fact that she did not pull punches on that. That was refreshing for me, at the point that I encountered her.
I’ve heard you say in other interviews that you’ve been writing since you were a small child, but when did you start getting serious about wanting to publish your work?
I turned thirty and had a mini-midlife crisis. A very early midlife crisis. That was the point where I kind of decided I want certain things out of life, and one of those things is that I wanted to see if this thing that I’ve always done for fun is any good, and the way that I decided to determine whether it was any good was to see if it was publishable. So, at the time, I wasn’t entirely sure how to begin. I started researching it, and I called up my father and asked him if he would loan me some money to go to Viable Paradise, which later on, I looked it up and found out they had scholarships, but anyway . . . at the time I didn’t see that part. But I begged Dad to let me borrow some money—and I did pay him back—to go to Viable Paradise, and he paid for it, and I tried to get in, and I did get in. That was where I got my first taste of hey, you are good enough. This is the process you need to follow, or these are the steps you need to take. And basically a nice, useful blueprint for how to make that dream become something real. So I started following those steps, and lo and behold, it worked. So, yeah, that’s an endorsement for Viable Paradise, too.
Was your dad a science fiction fan? Could he relate to your desire to want to attend the workshop?
He’s both a science fiction fan and an artist. When I was growing up, we would watch old school Star Trek and The Twilight Zone every night on channel eleven at one in the morning during the summer times, and he would talk with me about them afterward, and he was geekier than I was about those shows in particular. Because he would be like, “This is the first kiss between a woman of color and a white man on television in years,” and I had no idea. He was a giant science fiction fan. He was also very familiar with the desire to express yourself through artistic means. He does artwork as Noah Jemisin. Noah as in the ark. And does visual work and so forth. I decided to not really follow in his artistic footsteps, but writing is a form of art, and he was pleased that something of that creativity passed down to me.
Wow, that’s great. So you attended Viable Paradise and then what happened after that? Did you get an agent, or were you sending out stories—what was the next step for you?
The next step for me was getting better at writing. I had actually already sent a novel to, I think, the Tor slush pile, which was not a very good novel, I have to admit. I sent it to the Tor slush pile, and then years passed because the Tor slush pile in those days took a really long time. Meanwhile was when I went to Viable Paradise. There they talked to me about the fact that I wrote novels, or had always written novels, but had never even attempted short stories. Several of the folks there basically convinced me that learning how to write short stories would make me a better novel writer. Because before that, I had been kind of thinking short stories and novels are not really the same art form. And they kind of aren’t. But, that said, if you do cultivate the ability to grab a reader quickly and to tell a story succinctly, that can only help your novel writing. And they were right about that. So, I joined a writing group. The folks that had been in VP created a writing group that we called “The Boston Area Science Fiction Writers” for a while, until we decided that we needed a better name and became “The Brawlers.” I don’t remember what that stands for. But we formed a writing group in Boston at the time, meeting once a month, and were celebrating not just successes and submissions and so forth, but also celebrating the other parts of being a writer, like rejections. We had this tradition where every fifty rejections, we went out for beer. That kind of thing.
Right, so then I assume you started selling some short stories?
Yeah, relatively quickly, although I continued to rack up rejections for quite a while. But I think my first pro sale took several years. I did a number of semi-pro sales before that. But then once I’d done enough semi-pro sales, I kind of felt like I was getting the hang of the short fiction format, and I started writing novels again. That’s when I started working on the books that became the Dreamblood [duology]. When I finished the first one of those, I sought an agent, and that’s when I got my agent, roughly 2005/2006, somewhere thereabouts, Lucienne Diver, who was my agent then and still is now. I continued writing short stories, and I continued trying to get short stories published and having better successes with those as I got better as a writer in that area. And I really do think that learning how to write short stories did make me a better novelist, and it started to show in the successes I started having in the novels from that point on.
That was The Killing Moon, right?
It had a different name at the time, but yeah. All of my early novel names were something different. I’m terrible at naming things. But yes, the book that became The Killing Moon was my first finished, publishable, in my opinion, novel. And it’s the one that got me my agent, but it didn’t sell. It got sent to all the New York houses. Some of them were more positive than others, including Orbit, the folks that ultimately did buy it, but some of them sent it back with perplexing or uncomfortable notes, saying that they were uncomfortable with it, essentially. They weren’t sure how to sell it. They weren’t sure what audience would possibly be interested in it. Those kinds of things.
I got a little frustrated with that. I’m understating things quite a bit here. I went through a long dark night of the soul, actually. Kind of trying to decide whether I even wanted to continue with this genre or whether I wanted to continue trying to write at all. And around that time I actually started exploring self-publishing options and so forth, because I was hearing from a lot of other writers of color that my chances were none. The genre did not want writers of color writing about characters of color. And unless I was willing to give up some things that were near and dear to my heart, like seeing people like me in fantasy and science fictional settings . . . their conclusion was don’t even bother.
But, I will say that a couple of things changed my mind about that. One was having my writing group, which was as supportive as it was, and the other was my agent, who was as supportive as she was. She really did believe in The Killing Moon. She did urge me to try writing another book, which I did. In fact, I took an old book and retooled it, literally reworked it from scratch, which was the book that became The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I retooled it to make it more what I was then capable of writing. I had become a much, much better writer in the meantime. When I read the old draft, I was kind of like, “Ehh, something about this just isn’t right. I don’t know exactly what.” And I scrapped it entirely and started over from scratch, and it just worked so much better the second time. I think I just wasn’t good enough to write that book at first, and then second time was the charm.
I heard you talk about in interviews about how the frustration of your experience with The Killing Moon actually informed The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the form it took. Could you talk a little more about that?
Well, I was angry, and so Yeine spends the book very angry. I think that was partly me channeling, you know, “Take that, publishing industry.” But a lot of it was generalized anger about . . . I can read the subtext. I can hear the unspoken. And when someone is saying that, you know . . . The Killing Moon is a bog-standard fantasy novel in every way except in that it takes place in Egypt and has an almost entirely black cast. It was third person. It was very traditionally shaped. There was a quest. There were bad guys. It was as traditional as I could make it without putting it in a very traditional medieval European setting, and giving it a white male protagonist instead of two black men and one black woman. And, so when I hear these statements like, “I’m not sure how to sell this. I’m not sure who its audience would be,” the assumption, the implication of that is, “I don’t think its audience would be the existing fantasy readership, and I don’t think the existing fantasy readership would buy this book.” And I was angry about that because it just kind of smacked of the whole, “We’re not racist. They’re racist. We don’t discriminate. They would discriminate. We’re just trying to look out for you.” And I think pretty much every person of color has encountered that kind of attitude and those kinds of excuses at some point.
So it felt very clear to me what was really going on and what the subtext was. And so when I rewrote the story, I think, initially, in the early version of it, the protagonist was male. The protagonists, I didn’t mention their race, although I did mention that their culture and their class was something not acceptable, but I don’t think I’d even gotten really into describing skin colors at the time that I first wrote the book. And when I decided to rewrite it from scratch, I just said, “I’m going to write this the way I feel like writing it. And the voice that was speaking to me was first person, so I decided to do it in first person. The character felt a little blah to me. I decided to make her more interesting to me, and she ended up being a woman of color, although not a black woman, although lots of people seem to think she’s black. I ended up making her a small, scrappy little woman of color who is cold and not necessarily likeable, certainly not perky. And she felt real to me, if not necessarily bankable, but I said whatever, I’m going to write what I feel like this time, and that was what resulted.
We mentioned that this book, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was the first novel of yours to get published. Could you talk about that experience? What was it like having that book get published, and what sort of response did you get?
I think the first indication that I got that the response was going to be positive was actually when the book went to auction. So, for folks that are not familiar with how the publishing industry works, or at least the traditional publishing industry, you give a book to your agent, your agent gives it to a bunch of publishers and says, “Let us know if you’re interested.” The publishers then say, “Hey, I am interested, and we’d be willing to buy this book for X number of dollars. And this is the kind of contract and these are the rights that we want, yadda yadda yadda.” Well, when multiple publishers respond that way, then the agent is like, “Woohoo, bonus time.” And turns it into a kind of game show where, I don’t know, this is in my head, basically I was at work that day, and Lucienne kept calling me throughout the day to say, “Okay, so publisher A has said X number of dollars, and they really like this book, and they would like to find out if you’re willing to do a sequel.” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And a few hours later, “Okay, publisher B doubled that offer and wants three books.” And I’m like, “Yeah?” And as the day wore on, I was kind of more and more shell shocked, and my coworkers were like, “What’s wrong with Nora today?” because I would periodically close the door and scream. It was a scream of excitement, but it was still a scream.
That was my first inkling that it was kind of a better book than I had thought it was, and the response to it was going to be a lot better than I thought it was, because I’d developed a bad impression of the genre based on the reception to The Killing Moon. I kept thinking to myself, “Well, you know, I’m angry with these publishers that didn’t want the book, but at the same time, they know the industry better than I do. They know the genre and the audience better than I do, and what if they’re right? What if all these people that have been telling me it’s a waste of time trying to traditionally publish, just do self-publishing, what if they’re right?” I’d be lying to say that the self-doubt wasn’t there. All that said, the book was not a bestseller when it did finally come out. It has sold steadily for all these years. It has never really stopped or slowed down. I get nice, even royalty checks for it, which is nice. And it seems to have gained popularity over time and through a steady plateau of readership, as opposed to any kind of arc or curve, and that’s wonderful. I’d say that if I had all the sales that I got over the years, that if I’d gotten them relatively quickly, then yeah, it would have been a bestseller, but in terms of flat sales, what you want as a writer is enough sales to keep your career going. And that’s what I’ve got.
I heard you say that the book sold well enough that you were able to quit your day job, which is the dream of most writers, but you discovered that you didn’t actually want to quit your day job.
Well, okay, the advance was good enough that I kind of had to, because with the way that the deal was structured, I needed to deliver books two and three relatively fast, and I didn’t think I could do that on top of the job that I had at the time, which was roughly sixty-five hours a week and involved a lot of travel. I quit that job because I felt like there was no way I could do both and function as a breathing human being. I decided to use that as a chance to see what the dream writer’s life of just living on my writing was like, and that’s when I discovered that I am miserable when I don’t have enough to do.
I sat at home for about three months. Going out, I tried to make sure that I created a nice routine for myself. I would get up at nine every day, I would go to the gym, I would come back, I would go to the coffee shop, and I would write, and I would make sure I did a certain number of words per day. It was very productive, but on the same level, I just kind of felt like I was missing things that I needed to feel fulfilled. I really do like my day job. My day job career involves working with young adults, mostly college students, and helping them figure out their lives. And that’s just cool. So, I missed it, and I went back after a while and got a part-time job.
Eventually, when the money from the advance started to run out, and New York started to look more and more expensive, I decided to go back to a full-time job. Largely, that was for the insurance. This was before Obamacare, and my health insurance was starting to look more and more prohibitive, and I didn’t like the idea of trying to wing it and see if I don’t get hit by a bus. I decided to go back to work in a job that was much lower in terms of its time demands, and thus far that’s worked out. My day job folks have been very supportive. They’re all aware of my writing career. My students aren’t, which is kind of interesting. Some of them, some of them figure it out. A few of them that are into fantasy and science fiction say, “Hey, your name is a lot like the name of this author I like.” And I’m like, “Really?” And I don’t say anything. But that said, my current day job is very supportive. They don’t mind me doing things like Skype interviews on the work computer after hours, and that’s worked out nicely.
We mentioned that you finished the Inheritance trilogy, and then the earlier books, including The Killing Moon, you finished those as well. What kind of fan letters and things do you get? What do people really respond to in those two series?
With The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the Dreamblood, they are somewhat different audiences, I think. A lot of the folks who liked the Inheritance trilogy did not necessarily like the Dreamblood, and vice versa. I get a lot of people who like historical-flavored fantasy loving the Dreamblood and then bouncing hard off the Inheritance trilogy, and that’s not necessarily something they convey in fan mail, it’s just something I’ve noticed.
I do read my reviews, which I’m going to have to stop doing with The Fifth Season because while I’m still writing that trilogy, it’s making me a little crazy, so I’m going to try not to do that with the Broken Earth trilogy. But I have read my reviews for the other two series, and it’s clear to me that different things are speaking to different readers there. Although, I will say that both sets of readers do seem to really like the fact that what I’m writing is not traditional fantasy, even the Dreamblood, which as I said was traditionally shaped, just the choice of an all-black cast; I think there’s like three white people in it. But I think just the choice of an all-black cast is radical enough to interest folks who are interested in that. And the choice of an Egyptian setting, certainly I’m not the first writer to do so, Judith Tarr, a bunch of other folks have touched on that subject matter. But it’s still rare, and I think for people who are getting tired of traditional fantasy, or have left, I hear a lot of people saying, “I stopped reading fantasy because it was the same story over and over again.” Or the same setting, or the same kind of story over and over again. And people who are sick of fantasy seem to be pulled back into it by my writing. Of course, there are some folks who have never left fantasy who like it, but I’m kind of heartened to help to further the genre by stemming some of the loss that we get. That benefits not just me, I think. But I’m glad that it benefits me.
You mentioned that this new series is called the Broken Earth and the first book is called The Fifth Season. Could you just tell us a bit about how this project came about?
There were two or three impetuses. One is a dream that I had, and I think most of my stuff stems from weird dreams that I start trying to explain in logical terms or making logic to fit the dream, and that’s how the initial worldbuilding starts.
But then, the other piece of it is, I felt like it was time to do something that would challenge myself. I felt like, “Okay, I’ve tried writing three standalone stories in the same universe. I’ve tried writing first person and third person. I’ve tried a story set in an Earth-like place, and a story set in a vaguely Earth-flavored place. Why don’t I try writing a story in nothing that resembles this world with a group of magical beings that are not mythological in a setting that is based on logic and how planets work, but is still fantasy.”
And I did not set out intending to do the second-person component that is part of the way that The Fifth Season trilogy is being told. I didn’t set out to do that. But, as I was writing test chapters, that was the voice that seemed to work best, and I resisted it for a while. I felt like this is not necessarily the way to tell any fantasy story. I didn’t think I liked second person, and I know a lot of other people that say that they don’t. But, as I tried working on it, it just felt right, and I tend to go with my gut on these things because my gut has been right so far. So, I finished it that way, and the result was this story that I could not tell in a single volume. This is going to be the first contiguous fantasy—I don’t know what you call it when you write a series that is the same story of the same person just spread out over time. This one is different from everything I’ve written before, in that the stories are not complete standalones. I don’t think they’re going to be standalone at all, but it’s hard to say at this point.
You mentioned that this was partially inspired by a dream. Do you want to tell people what that dream was?
The dream was super brief. I had a dream of a pissed off woman walking toward me with a mountain floating along behind her, and I was not visible. I don’t know why she was mad at me, but I just knew that she was going to throw that mountain at me. That was it. I woke up in a cold sweat thinking, “Oh my god, a mountain. How do I stop a mountain?” And also, trying to figure out, “What do I do with this? Why was this woman mad? How is that mountain floating along behind her? Why is it a mountain?” Then I needed to again build logic around that dream. It took a while. It took a very long time. I had the dream, and I came up with the core idea in between the end of the Inheritance trilogy and me revising the Dreamblood books for their publication. I came up with it, but then I needed to do a lot of research because I know squat about seismology, geology, any of that stuff. It literally took me a year or so of research before I felt ready to begin writing, and even then, I started writing while still doing research. I went to Hawaii to visit volcanoes and things like that. That’s basically it.
The fact that you did a lot of research into seismology is very, very evident in this book. This book is full of really interesting words, some of which are real, and some of which I think that you coined yourself. I have one paragraph here I want to read to give people a flavor of this. One of the characters says in the book, “Everything does point to either a major pyrogenic deformation or possibly just a simple disruption of isostasy throughout the entire plate network. But the amount of orogenesis needed to overcome that much inertia is prohibitive.” I just love all of those words. But, a lot of those are real, right? Do you want to talk about . . . if any writers want to write a book about earthquakes and volcanoes and things, what do you find are the best resources that they should look into?
Just to back up with that passage, I will say that was done for comedic effect. That was me deliberately pulling a technobabble moment, and in that same scene, all the other characters in the room stare at that character like, “What the hell are you talking about?” I also have no idea how that plays to real seismologists. My guess is that they’re like, “Oh, technobabble and BS.” But that said, the best resource that I actually got was interviewing some seismologists. There are a number of watering holes on the internet for seismologists, amateur and professional, and if you go into places like that, the various boards, and you’re very nice about saying, “Hi, I’m a science fiction/fantasy writer who is interested in learning a little bit more. What very basic plate tectonics for dummies books can you recommend?” . . . I got a lot of resources that weren’t so much books as a few scientific articles. Visiting museums was also useful for me.
I found it most useful to literally go to a volcano for things like smelling the sulfur and seeing what the sky looks like over a caldera and realizing how fast forests grow back in the wake of a major seismic or volcanic event. I walked across the Kīlauea Iki, which was a lava lake fifty years ago and now you can hike across it, and there’s a small, early-growth forest developing at one end of it. I stopped, and I had some spam sushi with me, and I toasted my spam sushi over one of the heat vents, so I got to eat some seismic energy, some geothermal energy. It was delicious. That was the stuff that I was looking for. It was not so much science. It is fantasy at the end of the day. I’m telling a story that is meant to be interesting and engaging to people. I’m not writing a textbook.
You also say in the afterword that you were influenced, at least to some extent, by the Launchpad workshop. What role did that play in the development of the idea?
Launchpad has impacted pretty much all of my novels thus far. You see it the least in the Inheritance trilogy, I think, because I was partway through it at the time when I went to Launchpad, but in the Dreamblood, for those that don’t know, the story is set on the moon of a gas giant. I needed to figure out what the phases of that gas giant would look like in the sky to the people on that planet. So, there I was in Launchpad, doing some orbital mechanics and things like that, trying to figure out what happens if this moon gets in the way. “Oh, I just destroyed the planet. No, bad idea.” And so on. So it was helpful to work that out in my head. Now, how much of that actually turned up in the story? Probably two sentences worth. But that said, understanding it helped me come up with some concepts that I had not before. Then, with this one, what I was trying to figure out was what happens if you’ve got a planet that does certain things. What happens if you’ve got a single large landmass? How does that get in the way of things like prevailing winds and water currents and so forth, and how does that impact what the landmass turns out to be? I don’t think that was anything that we discussed in Launchpad proper, but since Launchpad was a bunch of smart people who liked science geeking out together, we had lots of interesting conversations over time about . . . well, I remember one really good conversation over beer one night, and I can’t get too deeply into that conversation because there’s some spoilerific stuff that I don’t want to mess up for people who haven’t read The Fifth Season yet, but it was really useful.
I think we should say, for our listeners, what the Launchpad workshop is. Could you say a bit more?
Launchpad is a NASA-sponsored workshop aimed at influencers, for lack of a better description, people who have the ear of the media, or the ear of the zeitgeist, I guess. It’s kind of flattering that they think science fiction and fantasy writers might be such people, but they made the very clear case that one of the reasons that a lot of Americans believe complete bunk about the way that, say, for example, the seasons work, is because science fiction and fantasy writers had been telling complete bunk in a few cases, along with other people.
In my Launchpad workshop, there were comedians there, Brian Malow, who is the science comedian, I think is what he’s known as. Phil Plait was giving a lecture, he wasn’t really a student in the workshop, but Phil Plait is known as the Bad Astronomer. He used to run the Bad Astronomy blog, which I think was part of discover.com. I don’t remember. He’s still active on various media, magazines, and Twitter, debunking bunk. I think most recently I saw him complaining about a meme that was going around saying that Mars and the Moon were going to show up in the sky as looking the same size as each other on some particular date in August. And he was like, “No, no, it’s just not going to happen.” He was one of the people involved in helping to present the information in the workshop. But, the workshop proper is run by Mike Brotherton, who is a physics professor at the university of Wyoming. It was fantastic.
We mentioned that the series was called the Broken Earth, and this novel is called The Fifth Season. Do you want to explain what those titles mean?
The Broken Earth trilogy name is something I literally just came up with. I told you I’m bad at naming. I was trying to think of a name for the series. My editor had asked for a complete synopsis. I was like, “Uh, something about rocks. Uh, earth? Uh, stones? Broken stones? No, that doesn’t sound right.” And that’s how I came up with that. With The Fifth Season, though, it’s the name of a phenomenon that occurs in this world. The Fifth Season is set in a world in which, for various reasons, every few years or so, there is an extinction level event.
In some cases, it’s triggered by a volcanic eruption or massive earthquake. In some cases, it’s triggered by various gaseous emissions that cause long-term negative effects on the ecosystem in a given area that triggers famines or something like that. This is a society that was at one point a globe-spanning society. But they’ve developed a system of preparing themselves for these events, which they call fifth seasons. In that system, whenever a season is declared, whenever they notice, “Oh hey, the sun hasn’t come out for like three months. And we’re starving,” things like that, then they declare seasonal law, and every small community turns itself into a self-sufficient survivor community, and they store massive amounts of food against the eventuality that this will happen. They build walls, they keep their population small, and they separate themselves into groups of essentially castes based on usefulness. So, the fifth season is referring to this cultural phenomenon as well as the ecological phenomenon that triggers it.
Right, and so you have this sort of post-apocalyptic-type vibe to the setting, and then also there’re some magical elements to it. You want to talk about the magic system in this world?
Basically there are people in this world that have the ability to control seismic energy. They can trigger earthquakes, they can stop earthquakes, they can shut down a volcano, and channel away all that heat into water or somewhere else. They can stop geysers and gaseous emissions and things like that. They are tremendously useful in this world, but the catch is they use energy to do these things, and when there’s already an earthquake or a volcano going off, they can use the energy of that. When there’s nothing happening, though, they drag energy from the ambient, from everything around them, including the heat and kinetic motion of living things. So, they kill a whole lot of people. They’re called “orogenes,” and this is a fantasy mutilation of a real word—the science of orogenisis or orogeny is the processes through which mountains are created—and I just thought it was a cool word, let’s turn it into a fantasy word.
So, these orogenes have this ability. There’s more magical elements to the story than the orogenes, but the story focuses on orogenes and how they are treated by their society, which both values and is terrified of them, and tries to control them. It does so in a lot of cases by essentially enslaving them. But, other pieces of the story are these giant obelisks floating around in the sky, nobody really knows why, but they’re big, shiny gemstones that seem to be flickering in and out of reality. Sometimes they seem real, sometimes they seem translucent or like ghosts, and they do things, but it takes a while in the story to realize what they do. There’s also a non-human race in this, which was my attempt to take the idea of the mythological creatures that you see in a lot of fantasy and create a set of mythological creatures from scratch. Instead of making elves or dwarves or whatever else we’re used to seeing, I wanted to create something new. These creatures are called stone eaters, and they look like statues. Like, very realistic, classical statues, human features and so forth, but they are alive, and they can transit through stone, and they can do a lot more than that, but I don’t want to get into spoilers.
You mentioned that a lot of the novel focuses on the way the orogenes are treated by their society, and they have this kind of magical academy called the Fulcrum, and I was wondering if you could talk about . . . obviously there are magical academies in Harry Potter and Earthsea, could you say a bit about how the Fulcrum compares to the magic schools we see in other kinds of fantasy?
It’s evil. That’s the simplest . . . okay, I don’t want to get simplistic and binary here, and talk about good and evil, but it is very much a part of the system of oppression that they’ve put in place. Orogenes are not permitted to exist unless they are products of this Fulcrum, and I will go long here, and just sort of point out that I’m a giant Bioware, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age fan, and I will say that this was probably influenced . . . I didn’t realize it until I was halfway through the first book, but I realized that this is influenced by Dragon Age’s mages and mage circles. There are other places in fantasy and science fiction where I’ve seen similar systems put in place, but in this case, it’s small children, or basically anybody before their teens, if they are caught and found to be an orogene at that point.
It’s an essentially random thing. It just pops up in the populace whenever someone has this ability. They just luck up with it, or unluck up with it, whatever you want to call it. And, a group of people called Guardians will come and get them and take them to the Fulcrum. At the Fulcrum, they learn how to control their ability. If they learn how to control it well enough, then they become Imperial Orogenes, and they are dispatched to various places on the continent to seal volcanoes and help to stave off the coming of the next Fifth Season. They are trusted to do this because they’ve learned how to control their power, they’ll never kill anybody by accident, that kind of thing.
But, if they don’t learn it well enough, they’re simply killed. The system cannot abide those who are not good at learning, or those who are not obedient. And so, it’s how a lot of systems of oppression work. It was also inspired partly by, you probably heard, reservation schools and schools to which indigenous peoples on multiple continents—this was not just a North American thing, but also Australian and so forth, where the children of indigenous people were snatched away and sent off to these places where they weren’t permitted to use their own language, and where they were forced to acculturate to white society—because it almost always happened in European colonized places—forced to acculturate on pain of death, and in some cases . . . well, it wasn’t overtly said that it was on pain of death, but in actual practicality, a lot of kids died in these schools. So, there were a lot of influences in this, but I was thinking about the ways in which oppression tends to work. It is not always a case of an evil overlord coming in and saying, “Mwahaha, I’m going to make you my slave.” In a lot of cases, you’ve got people complicit in the system who are part of it themselves. The Fulcrum is run by orogenes, and you see that it is not a kind or gentle place despite that.
You mentioned Bioware games, and one thing I was really wondering, I’ve heard you say in interviews that you used to play Dungeons and Dragons, as I did, and my favorite campaign setting was the Dark Sun campaign setting. I was wondering if you’d ever played that?
No, around the time that I really was wanting to play D&D, I found an early group that I got involved in, and they kind of soured me on it because I wanted to be a paladin who was a black woman, and the dungeon master at the time was like, “No, you can’t. Paladins have to be white guys.”
I know, I know!
We were kids, in this person’s defense, but that said, it left a bad taste in my mouth, and I stopped playing until I got to college. When I got to college, I found a group of multi-racial, very geeky players who got me back into tabletop gaming for several years, and I loved it then because I had the dungeon master . . . well, we played multiple games. It wasn’t just D&D; in fact, I don’t think we ever did play D&D. So, the dungeon master, though, was perfectly cool with you having a black female character who was whatever, and because I was comfortable because I could do that, I started having characters that weren’t just black women. Once I was allowed to be anything I wanted to be, I could then, and I did then become anything I wanted to be. But no, I wanted to play Dark Sun, but around the time that I fell out of love with gaming was around the time that that came out.
Well, if you ever get a chance, you should check it out, because it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic fantasy, and they have these magic users called Defilers, and every time they cast magic it sucks all the life out of the things around them.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. I remember that. I remember reading the playbook. I will check it out at some point.
I really love this book, and one thing that really struck me in the afterword is you say that there was a point at which you had to be talked into keeping it going, that you were considering giving up on it. I find that inconceivable, but what was going on that you would think of just abandoning the project?
I think every writer has these moments of self-doubt, and mine tend to be along the lines of, “Is anybody going to want to read this?” I look at the genre, and I see how the genre rewards adherence to formula, or adherence to a particular style and mode and setting and so forth. Although I’ve read a lot of very different stuff in other genres, I had not read a lot of second person in fantasy, for example. Even though that’s only one of the three perspectives in The Fifth Season, it’s still a perspective, and I’d gotten the distinct impression that nobody liked second person. And that no one was going to read it because of the second person. Even though I had seen other writers tackle post-apocalyptic-flavored fantasy before, most notably Brandon Sanderson and the Mistborn books, again it was not common. And a lot of people in this genre are very . . . hmm, what’s the word . . . very particular about how they want things.
It’s like the old Reese’s commercials, “You got your peanut butter in my chocolate. You got your chocolate in my peanut butter.” I think I was terrified that the entire fantasy readership would take look at this and be like, “You got your science fiction in my fantasy. What is wrong with you?” and “You got your literary writing styles in my fantasy.” I still get flak from people who got pissed off about the first person that I used in the Inheritance trilogy because first person is just not done in epic fantasy, apparently. It is. It’s been done, but there are a lot of readers who are like, “I don’t want it in my fantasy.” Or who don’t want romance in their fantasy. Or who don’t want whatever.
I was doing a lot of things that were probably going to annoy those kinds of readers. And so, yeah, I kind of had a long dark night of the soul again, I have those often. I called up my editor and was like, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work. This is terrible. I’m going to send you the bit that I’ve got, but it’s awful. Awful, awful, awful.” And, “What do you think if I change this from being a trilogy? I can rework it as a standalone that ends after the first book, and then I’m going to go cry somewhere.”
She was basically like, “Calm down, Nora.” She gave me some extra time to kind of go sit and think about it and decide how I really felt about it. And, I took some time, and during that time I wrote The Awakened Kingdom. I needed a palate cleanser, basically. And The Awakened Kingdom is a novella, roughly 40,000 words, sort of a sequel to the Inheritance trilogy that is about as light-hearted as that Inheritance trilogy can ever get, and it was from the perspective of a child god who does and says a lot of funny, cutesy things. I needed happiness and light for a while. After that break, I went back to it. The book was finished, but I went back and read it and was finally like, “Okay, this is not as terrible as I thought it was. I don’t know if it’s going to do any good or if it’s going to end my career, but I’m satisfied with what I’ve produced, and I am now willing to continue with it.” At that point, I sent it off in its final form, and we started the process of production.
I just think it’s terrific. I really encourage everyone to read it. I hope it doesn’t end your career, because I’m looking forward to the next two books.
I hope not either. Thank you.
I wanted to ask you, the dedication of this book says that it’s for all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question. Do you want to say anything . . . what does that mean to you? Or, do you want to say anything more about that?
Sure, while I was writing this book was when Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter protests began. I attended one rally for solidarity with Ferguson here in New York. I don’t often have time to do protesting anymore. I’m forty-two, and I have a day job, but I went when I could, and when both of my careers would spare. It’s hard to follow Twitter, to pay attention to world events, and to kind of realize that this is happening over and over again, and it has always been happening, and that really only the advent of social media is making the mainstream world aware of stuff that we’ve always known.
I was raised to be very wary of the police. I was raised to stay away from them unless you absolutely have to, because they’re dangerous. I was told that if I ever get pulled over, there are certain things that I have to do. There’s the talk that all black parents have, always with their boys, sometimes with their girls, too. I think they should have them with all of their black kids, because it’s an issue for everybody.
It just started to really grate on me, because every day there was a new hashtag, every day someone else had been killed, or harassed, or beaten, or had their spine broken for looking at the cops. Nothing more than that. Or for talking back. Or for anything. It wore on me. So, this novel is, in a lot of ways, my processing the systemic racism that I live with and see and am trying to come to terms with. It’s covering a lot of issues, there’s a lot of different kinds of identities being explored in the story. It’s very layered, I think, in some cases, because I felt like real life is layered. I shouldn’t be doing just one thing. And I wanted to write stories that felt real to me, and I wrote characters that felt real to me. There’s a trans-woman in the story, there’s gender issues, there’s explorations of relationship configurations, and so on. But, at the core of it, the orogenes are me trying to process systemic racism. One of the ways in which the orogenes were kept in line was that they were told repeatedly that if you act right, if you are respectable enough, then you won’t be hurt. And it’s a lie. It’s always a lie when you hear that kind of thing, because being respectable didn’t stop Skip Gates from being arrested for trying to get into his own home and so forth. So, that was me processing real world events. A lot of times my fiction is allegorical, and in some cases it’s not deliberately allegorical, but whatever is going on in my head tends to flavor what’s coming out on paper, and I realized it in the case of The Fifth Season, and that was where that came from.
In the book, it does feel very, very real, and like I said, I was really impressed by this.
Oh good. All right, thank you.
Unfortunately, we’re pretty much out of time, so just in order to wrap things up, do you want to tell us what’s the status of the next two books in the Broken Earth trilogy, and is there anything else that you want to mention?
I have finished the zeroeth draft of the second book. I’ve been hesitant to give it a name, but it sounds like we’re going to stick with the name that I initially came up with, which is The Obelisk Gate. I will not explain that because spoilers. But I have seen the draft cover of it. Orbit will probably do a big debut at some point soon. So, because the zeroeth draft is done, I’m currently working on a revision to polish it up into a first draft, and I intend to turn that in by the end of this month because (A) I want it off my plate, and (B) I promised myself that if I finished it before my birthday, which is September 19th, I’m going to buy a PS4 finally. And I want that PS4, so I’m finishing it by the end of August. It is done. It needs to be made presentable.
Book three, I will start probably after about a month of relaxation time. And, other than that, I’ve got some short stories that I’ve written and are in slush piles and may get published soon. I have another novel idea that’s brewing in the back of my head, Lord help me. And that’s pretty much what’s going on so far.
I guess I’ll mention to that you have a short story called “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the same universe.
Oh yeah! I forgot about that. When I’m working on a novel, I will often do something that I call a proof-of-concept story to kind of test out the world and see if it’s ready to be novelized, so I’ll write a short story set in that world, and “Stone Hunger” was that story. I think one of the characters in it shares a name with one of the characters in The Fifth Season, but beyond that, the characters are not related, and the stories are not related. It just happens to be in the same setting. But, if you want a taste of the Broken Earth without having to read an entire trilogy, “Stone Hunger” was published by Clarkesworld [clarkesworldmagazine.com/jemisin_07_14].
I think we’re going to have to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with N.K. Jemisin, and the book is called The Fifth Season. Nora, thank you so much for joining us.
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