Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Interview: Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

Na’amen Gobert Tilahun is a bookseller and freelance writer who split his early years between Los Angeles and San Francisco. His fiction, poetry, and critical writing are published across the web, and he is the co-creator and co-host of the geek podcast The Adventures of Yellow Peril & Magical Negro. The Tree is the second book in his Wrath & Anthenaeum trilogy.

The Wrath & Anthenaeum books are both your very first trilogy and your debut novels. Tell us what the experience has been like writing The Root (book one) and The Tree (book two).

It’s been an intense learning experience, especially with The Root. I came to publication differently than other traditionally published authors. I’d known Jeremy Lassen, my editor, for a while, and one day he asked me what I was working on and I described the beginning of what would go on to become The Wrath & Athenaeum trilogy. He had a spot in his schedule and had been looking for something with an urban fantasy flavor to fill it. I sent him a summary of the trilogy (which has maybe 35-50% in common with the finished projects), which he then passed on to the publishers. They asked to see a manuscript, which was great except, unfortunately, I didn’t have even a complete rough draft. I had maybe 30,000 words. Thus began a feverish few weeks where every spare moment I had outside of my two jobs I was at the computer writing. I sent the manuscript over, collapsed into bed, and a couple weeks later they offered me a contract for the trilogy.

I think a lot of aspiring writers, including myself, look at that first contract as the finishing line, but really it’s the beginning of the next race. For me, that meant the search for an agent. So I asked some of my writing friends and colleagues, did some reading and contacted about a dozen agents with my manuscript and the details of the offer. Some never replied; some said they didn’t represent authors who came with a contract in hand; some said they had full client lists. (Interestingly enough, very soon after I saw an agent who told me they had no space on their list lamenting the lack of diversity on their list and trying to solicit writers on social media, but that’s neither here nor there.) I got one really encouraging response that just didn’t end up working out, though he’s still on my list.

I ended up having to negotiate my contract myself, which was a different level of stress. In the end, I’m really glad, because it forced me to learn a lot I would have otherwise remained ignorant of. It made me surer of what I want both in my career and in the person representing me. Writing The Tree was easier because I didn’t have to deal with any of that, but at one point I did throw away over 40,000 words and had to go back to the very beginning to get the book where it needed to be.

In your blog post from October 2017 (bit.ly/2EojniB), you wrote about making playlists for novels you’re working on. Was there a playlist for The Root and The Tree?

Sort of. When I started writing The Root I created two playlists: a Wrath playlist (a lot of The Gits, The Distillers, X-ray Spex) and an Athenaeum playlist (a lot of Tori Amos, Thao & Mirah, Imogen Heap, etc.). I used them a little when I started writing the first book, but they were my first novel playlists and ended up being too narrow in focus. I created them too early and they didn’t encompass what the story became as I wrote it, so I couldn’t really use them past the halfway point in the first draft of The Root. I still have them in my Spotify playlists, though, because I don’t get rid of anything.

When writing The Tree, instead of the playlists, I listened to a lot of Lizzo, HAIM, Solange, Cardi B., and Halsey. All of them had new music drop while I was working on the book, and I got really into all of them at different phases in the writing process.

Lil and Erik are the magically powered protagonists, yet each chapter is written from the point of view of other characters, including the leads. How did you decide to write your trilogy as a multi-perspective narrative?

Honestly, I think it was just the way this story wanted to be told. I needed to give a lot of different perspectives on what was happening to get the full story. The full storyline of this trilogy is expansive, and the multiple perspectives seemed the best way to tell it, while also throwing doubt on what the reader and main characters believe to be happening. The Tree makes you question some things that The Root presented as truth, and I hope the final book, The Fruit, will have more surprises for readers in terms of motivations, relationships, and how it’s all going to end.

Funnily enough, all three things I’m currently working on are single-perspective narratives, and I don’t know if that’s just a weird coincidence or if my creativity was sick of the whole multi-POV perspective and wanted to try something new.

What’s the reaction from readers been like so far?

I’ve gotten some great comments, including comparisons to works that I love (like Steven Universe!), but the best thing was someone telling me that my character Tae was the first time they’d ever seen themselves in a speculative novel. That’s so important to me, because I spent a lot of time searching for that. I was always a speculative fiction fiend, but all I wanted were heroes that looked like me and my friends. I would love to get to a point where writing supports my daily life, but even if that never happens? I don’t care, because of comments like that. The ultimate goal of my writing is to tell great stories centering people who are Brown and queer and disabled and all of the other identities that end up pushed to the sidelines.

Your trilogy blends urban and epic fantasy. What do you enjoy most about these genres and how have they guided you in telling the story of Lil and Erik?

I love blending the modern with magic in urban fantasy. I instinctively resist the idea that magic and awe and superstition is or should be a thing of the past. I want to see the ways the mythic survived into the present day—vampires in the sewers, wererats in the walls, a dragon in the San Francisco Mint, and more. In epic fantasy, I love the complex politics, the intrigue, the high stakes, and especially the idea that one person or a small group of people can change the fate of the entire world.

Erik and Lil were in many ways formed in resistance to a lot of tropes of their specific subgenres and stereotypes in general. For Erik, I wanted to create a Black man who both embraced and defied the angry Black man stereotype. And I often want my queer characters to be angry, because I think anger is denied to queer characters who have every right to be angry and hurt. Too often, anger is decried as useless, and I wanted to show the power and use of anger, especially for those who aren’t considered as valuable in society.

Lil was centered because, among other things, so often when epic fantasy books set up a dynamic of oppressed versus oppressors, they also spend as much time as possible ignoring anything that resembles real world oppression as if that has no effect in a made-up world (my eyes roll forever). I wanted a stark difference between those in power and Lil, but also make her position a precarious balancing act. In some ways, while Erik swings from extreme to extreme, she does her best to stay centered; the conflict of both of them to choose something to counter their nature is what drives each narrative.

You mentioned the idea of a small group of people changing the fate of the world. With the narrative arc centered on Lil and Erik saving their respective worlds from impending doom with help of other magically powered humans, I’d say the trilogy also qualifies as superhero fiction. It’s way more inclusive—Black and Brown and queer people represent!—than the mainstream superhero fiction we’re used to seeing.

For sure! I am a huge superhero geek! When I was younger, my stepfather used to take me to this comic shop in San Mateo, California, called Lee’s Comics, and he would give me twenty bucks and let me loose on the twenty-five-cent bins. I would come home with this random collection of, like, seventy comics and devour them in the course of one evening. When we talk about the idea of saving the world, making sacrifices, and the cost of powers, the way I think about these things definitely stems from my grounding in comic books.

I’m annoyed by how monochromatic the superhero adaptations have been until this year (Woo! Black Panther!). Because the thing is there are so many Brown and queer superheroes that have existed over the decades that get ignored. I did an io9 post a few years ago listing a number of Black women characters from comics other than Storm and I could easily have made the list twice as long. I’ve always meant to go back and do a follow up, like thirty LGBTQ characters who aren’t Northstar or Iceman.

The impending doom in question is a malevolent force called the darkness that’s devouring Zebub, modern-day San Francisco’s mirror city in an alternate dimension called Corpiliu. It’s also threatening to devour our own world. Tell us how this idea came together for you.

It was actually a lot of smaller ideas coming together, which is how most of my longer fiction comes together. I have a few pieces of ideas that slowly float together in my unconscious until I figure out how they fit into a single story. Originally, Erik’s story was going to be about becoming the patron saint of San Francisco that led to a more traditional open-ended urban fantasy series. Meanwhile, Lil’s was a story of someone who lived in a very precarious society in a more traditional debauched high fantasy noble court. I liked both characters and the ideas behind them, but they didn’t feel like enough on their own. Once the two threads started to come together in my head and I realized the debauched high fantasy noble court Lil was dealing with weren’t human but creatures called Antes? Suddenly I knew where the stories connected and how I wanted them to weave into each other by the end. The rest was just about getting it out on paper.

At one point in The Tree, you make a comment about the deleterious effects of gentrification in the Bay Area. I couldn’t help but wonder if the darkness devouring Corpiliu was an interdimensional analogy of gentrification in general.

Definitely. This is one of the themes in the series I wasn’t aware of writing until I was writing The Tree. In many ways, the darkness is Corpiliu’s own version of gentrification. It devours the land and people at the behest of a force outside the community without regard for the original inhabitants. In the end, it makes the world unlivable to those who lived there first. It may seem to be taken to a ridiculous extreme by those less affected by gentrification; but to the targets, in many ways the place they came from is lost forever in a darkness they can never return to.

Why did you choose San Francisco and the surrounding Bay Area as the primary real-world locales?

I have a long history with the Bay Area. I lived there for a few years as a child, then after my parents’ divorce was official I lived in Los Angeles with my father but would visit the bay every year to spend summers with my mother and stepfather. I’ve lived all over the Bay Area—San Francisco, Redwood City, San Jose, Oakland—but I really wanted to set this in San Francisco as an homage to the city I remembered from my youth. A city that doesn’t exist anymore. It was also like a goodbye since I knew deep down I wouldn’t be staying in the Bay Area much longer. It was no longer economically viable to live the kind of life I needed for my own health and be an artist in that area.

I have very fond memories of what San Francisco was when I was growing up and, ultimately, I wanted to try to capture or recreate that city in some small way.

In your Qwillery interview (bit.ly/2GWqux2), you said that although you identify as an atheist, you’re fascinated by world religions. What are some of the religions you’ve studied and what about them fascinates you?

When I was in college, I minored in Judaism for a while because I was seriously thinking about converting from sorta-lapsed-never-really-believed Eastern Orthodox Christian. That didn’t happen in the end because I started to identify as an atheist, and that was when I really started to search out religious ideas and focused part of my schooling on Comparative Religions.

When it comes to more widespread religions like Christianity, I’m very interested in all the Apocrypha and minor sects and uncomfortable interpretations of scripture that had to be destroyed or erased in order for them to become a mainstream religion. I read up on the history of dead sects and mysticism like the Borborites who, instead of bread and wine, were said to use semen and menstrual blood as their sacraments. That right there might be propaganda by people who wanted them gone, but there are so many ways the idea of that could inspire a story of religious devotion. In contrast, closed religions, ones that accept no converts like Zoroastrianism or the Druze faith, are fascinating not only because of how such closed societies develop to be independent but also because they are so counter to most Western ideas of religion as something that is propagated and spread as widely as possible.

I think the root of what fascinates me about them all is the idea of belief and the different ways belief can shape societies, even years after the religion has died out or fallen to unpopularity. As I’ve said before, I’m not an atheist because I had faith and lost it. I just genuinely never believed, even as a child, and so I’m always curious about belief—where it comes from, how it’s used, and what causes it to become stronger or to break.

Are any of the creatures in your trilogy, such as the Antes that you mentioned before, drawn specifically from the world religions you’ve studied?

Many of the Antes are drawn from mythic or religious imagery. Some are my own interpretations of old school depictions of angels—the whole wheels of eyes, pillars of flaming sand, and balls of wings. Others are drawn from other traditions, such as creatures that resemble Lamia or white snakes, but none are taken directly from any religion as far as I can recall. There are hints in some of the Ante bloodline names of where exactly I pulled inspiration for their abilities and appearance.

Some of your imagery in The Tree references Clive Barker, David Cronenberg, and Star Wars. Are these major influences for you?

Yes to all three. Clive Barker was really important to younger me when I was going through my read-nothing-but-horror phase, because even though I didn’t know that Barker identified as gay at the time, there was an inherent outsider sexuality in his writing that still feels very queer to me. Barker understands the thin line that can exist between pleasure and pain and often embodies sexuality that people find uncomfortable as creatures that must exist outside of society. Often his villains could be described as more ineffable anti-heroes. You could fill a huge book of essays with the ideas of Cenobites and queerness and outsider sexuality that he plays with in Hellraiser alone.

Cronenberg is a master of body horror, and his films made me realize that I wasn’t always as horrified by what people called “body horror” as others could be. Often my first reaction was fascination rather than revulsion. In many ways, the crikes in my trilogy are probably the most direct link to Cronenberg in my work, because from him I learned that altering the mundane could be more horrifying than creating the monstrous. Crikes are literately giant carnivorous crickets made of bone and sinew rather than chitin, and I think it’s that line between familiar and horrifying that Cronenberg straddles so well and makes his work so disturbing to many.

Star Wars is one of those franchises that’s pretty inescapable in our society, especially if you’re a sci-fi geek like me. I saw the original trilogy at a very young age and watched Episodes 1 and 2 in the theaters but didn’t really emotionally connect with the mythos until the newer films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. It was the first time in the series that the Star Wars universe felt like a place where someone like me could exist (excluding the videogames, which actually had some good representation way before the films).

If I’m not mistaken, there appear to be some literary Easter eggs hidden in The Tree. In one scene, Erik has a series of bad dreams, one of which is about cities that run on the pain of one child. This must be a reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin—rest in power—right? And another character, a child named Melinda who’s mastering her dreamworld powers, says, “It just felt like the right thing to do” when her mentor Patrah asks her how she crafted a miniature city in the dreamworld and brought it into the real world. That line of hers has got be a quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Were these works—and other references—influential for the trilogy as well?

Wow! You’re the first person to catch that, or at least to mention it to me. But yeah, there are definitely Easter Eggs in the trilogy! I’m a huge fan of meta and referential fiction because creation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The stories we tell are influenced by our lives and the stories that we consume. I know that without the authors I love that came before me I wouldn’t be the writer I am right now, so whenever possible, and if it fits within the story, I do like to give a shout out to a piece of media I love.

P.S. I love/hate that Le Guin story. I think it was very important to me as a child because it represented resistance to me, but as I grew older my perspective became more complex and I got really angry at the people who walked away, because WTF? You’re just gonna walk away? You’re not gonna try and save that baby? Maybe Le Guin was pointing out the ineffectiveness of walking away as a form of protest? I’ve gotten into real heated discussions on panels about this story. In some ways, Erik and Lil are exactly the opposite of those who walk away because they would never be able to bring themselves to just walk away from innocent suffering. They know how it feels.

We can’t wait to see what’s in store for Lil and Erik. When does the final installment of the Wrath & Anthenaeum trilogy come out?

The final book in the trilogy, The Fruit, will be out in Summer 2019, and I’m very excited to see what people think of the conclusion!

Are there other upcoming projects you can tell us about?

I’m always working on multiple things because of how my brain works. I jump from project to project and circle back around. Currently I’m working on a high fantasy novella series about a young woman who joins something like a religious organized crime circle and subsequently gets involved in revolution, beasts and elected royalty. The first one is called The Trial of The Kouzinns, and I’m currently posting rough draft chapters of it every month on my Patreon.

I’m also working on a couple of standalone novels I intend to use on my agent search this year. They are both about adaptation and shapeshifting in different ways. One is called Lone Wolves and deals with an eastern European country approximately two years after the overthrow of a theocracy that started a cleansing of supernatural beings and eventually all “outsiders” and dissenters. The main character, Alfie, is the last werewolf in the country, dealing with constant pain and PTSD. He and his survivor friends, human and not, all scarred and changed by their treatment, have to find out who is hunting them down, because the killer is definitely a werewolf and more and more eyes are turning his way.

Finally, I’m working on my own version of a coming out novel ironically called Gangsta, which I would describe as something like Heathers meets Raw with a dash of Lucifer . . . so basically vicious high school politics with revenge, cannibalism, weird perverted Christian mythology, and lots of blood, but with a love story at its core. I wanted this to be about queer rage and what happens when some who is bullied is given power and allowed to let loose. How do the ways in which people treat us shape our morals to be more fluid, especially when it comes to our tormentors? I’m contemplating whether having recipes in a cannibalistic novel is too much. I’m leaning towards no.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.