Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

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Interview: Rebecca Roanhorse

Rebecca Roanhorse is a Nebula and Hugo Award-winning speculative fiction writer and the recipient of the 2018 Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction has also been a finalist for the Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. Her novel, Trail of Lightning, was selected as one of the Amazon, B&N, Library Journal, and NRP Best Books of 2018, among others, and is a 2019 Nebula Finalist. Her short fiction can be found in Apex Magazine, New Suns, and various other anthologies. Her nonfiction can be found in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation (Macmillan). She lives in Northern New Mexico with her husband, daughter, and pug. Find more at rebeccaroanhorse.com and on Twitter at @RoanhorseBex.

Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are the first two novels of your debut series, the Sixth World. Tell us about what the term Sixth World refers to.

In Navajo traditional stories, similar to other Indigenous cosmologies, there have been multiple iterations of our world. We now live in the Fifth World (some say Fourth, depending on regional differences). It made sense to imagine that when our world essentially ends after apocalyptic climate change, we would be entering the Sixth World.

In your series, you have a supernaturally gifted monster hunter named Maggie Hoskie who kicks ass in this post-apocalyptic setting where the gods and monsters of Navajo legends walk the earth. How did the premise come together for you?

I’m an Urban Fantasy fan, particularly the stories centering badass women, whether they be private detectives solving supernatural mysteries or vampire hunters. I wanted to write a story like that with a Native woman at the center, living in a Native world surrounded by the gods and heroes of an Indigenous cosmology. That was the first seed of the idea. And I knew I wanted it set in the future, since Natives are so often relegated to the past when we are still here and will continue to be here in the future. Monster hunting was an obvious fit, since Navajo stories already have a tradition of monster hunting in the Hero Twins stories. I didn’t want to write about the Hero Twins directly but thought it would be interesting to focus on a woman who was trained by one of the heroes and what that would entail, emotionally and physically. And the story kind of took off from there.

Your Hugo Award-winning short story, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM,” shows the effects of settler colonialism and cultural appropriation on Indigenous peoples reaching as far as virtual reality. Your Sixth World series, however, shows a future where the Navajo Nation has reclaimed its land and is in better shape to survive the apocalypse, because their ancestors have lived an unending one for centuries. I was wondering if the direction you decided to take with the series—one showing a reversal of settler colonialism through apocalyptic climate change—was informed by the direction you’d taken in your short story.

Actually, the first book in the series, Trail of Lightning, was written before the short story. Trail was bought in August of 2016, and I didn’t write the short story until the spring of 2017. Yes, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” was published almost a year before the novel, but that’s because publishing is slow. The novel actually came first. So while the topic interests me and shows up in different ways in my work, there was no deliberate connection between these two.

There’s a Book Riot article about the inherently sexist tendency to classify SFF written by women as YA or middle-grade fiction, and Trail of Lightning appears as an example. Did you have any response to that?

Well, I think it’s undeniably true, and my book was and still is often labeled as YA, despite my gentle corrections. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate my younger readers, but I didn’t write the book for a teen audience, and the protagonist is not a teen (although she is young . . . more like twenty, but to be fair, I am purposely vague about her age), so I don’t want readers to come to the book with a certain set of expectations and be disappointed. And certainly, the characters don’t make decisions like teens. But, on the other hand, there is some excellent Fantasy being written right now in YA, so perhaps we should stop using YA as a way to dismiss women SFF writers and see it as a compliment to our creativity.

Good idea! Were there particular books or other sources of inspiration that guided the overall storyline, characters, and writing style?

I mentioned my love of Urban Fantasy. That was definitely my template, and I consciously incorporated a lot of those familiar tropes. As for the style, I wanted it to feel post-apocalyptic. I joke that there are no semi-colons in the apocalypse, but I think that gets to the idea that I wanted the prose to be short, choppy, and feel sort of sharp-edged and unfinished, like the main character herself. No flowery descriptions allowed. It’s also just the style that I gravitate to, generally.

Speaking of the main character, what have readers’ reactions been like so far to Maggie Hoskie?

Just like Maggie herself, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I think most readers love her and identify with her, but there’s certainly a subset of folks who find her unlikeable, to the point of putting down the book. I always laugh a little when I see that and think, “That’s my girl! Alienating the best of them.” Because she is definitely a prickly character who makes bad decisions and thinks violence is the answer to most problems. And she’s not exactly wrong. But, through the course of the book and the series, she learns other, better ways to deal with her problems, and I think that’s character growth. It’s a tough hand she’s been dealt in life, and she’s doing her best.

That tough hand includes trauma and violence. Maggie’s clan powers—superhuman speed and hunting skills—spring from both. In Trail of Lightning, she debates with medicine man and sidekick Kai Arviso, also supernaturally gifted, about whether any good can come of her powers, given how dangerous they are. In the second book, Storm of Locusts, she becomes the guardian of Ben, a young girl with a strange clan power she hasn’t seen before, and gains a new perspective on her own. At one point she says to Ben, “Clan power seems to want to fix things for us.” Is this a sign that she’s on the road to healing from her trauma?

One of the themes of the book is this process of moving past survival and into flourishing, both on a nation-building level for Dinétah—formerly the Navajo reservation—and on a personal character level. Maggie’s not there yet. She still sees things in terms of “survive or die,” with no room for happiness or family. And yes, she sees the power she has as a curse instead of a blessing, like many women do at some point in their lives, at least in my generation. Hopefully, she will come around, but that’s not guaranteed. Just like real life, it’s easier to stay the same than to change, and it’s often one step forward, two steps back.

I hope she comes around, too. Other characters process trauma in their own way. Take her friend Caleb Goodacre in Storm of Locusts. Along with Kai Arviso, he falls in with a mysterious cult led by Gideon, the Navajo legend also called White Locust. When Caleb is rescued and talks about his time in the cult and his experience of having huge wings grafted to his back to make him fly like a locust, it sounds like he’s in denial of being in an abusive relationship. He says Gideon didn’t hurt him, which is messed up for the poor guy.

Trauma in its many forms manifests in my work. I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably a solid through-line of what I feel compelled to write about. Same with abusive relationships of all kinds, not just romantic.

So, about those locusts: The locust/angel image comes up frequently throughout the book. Does it have any significance in Indigenous traditions?

None that I’m aware of. That’s more my theological background probably bleeding through. I have a BA in Religious Studies and a Master’s in Theology, so feel free to blame my interest in cults and biblical beings on my education.

As a monster hunter, Maggie has seen the worst, supernatural-wise and otherwise. But she’s terrified of locusts because of “the mindlessness of the horde.” Why are insects the one thing that really creeps her out?

Because they creep me out. Actually, I find locusts very interesting. I learned lot of locust facts that didn’t necessarily make it into the book, but I do love this idea of regeneration and cleansing that they represent for Gideon, the villain. And power in numbers, which is something loner Maggie needs to learn, too. Those two, Maggie and Gideon, have more in common than they realize.

It looks like she’s starting to learn the power in numbers. She’s brought into the fold of family when she becomes Ben’s guardian and when her friendship with Caleb and his twin siblings, Rissa and Clive, deepens. Her relationship with Kai Arviso appears to deepen, too. This is after Trail of Lightning introduces her to us as an isolated character because of her role as a monster hunter—ostracized from her community. How intentional was it to give her more familial bonds when her adventures take her outside of Dinétah in book two?

Those walls around Dinétah are both physical and metaphorical for Maggie, is that what you’re saying? I believe that a person can’t grow into their full potential self unless they push past boundaries, so that’s what Maggie has to do, literally and otherwise. As I say in Trail of Lightning, those walls may keep the people within them safe from the outside world, but they are holding the monsters (physical and metaphorical) inside, too.

Tell me if I’m wrong, but Storm of Locusts seems to have more comedy, or more comedic moments than Trail of Lightning. Coyote seems to be the comic relief of the first book, whereas there appears to be more characters, including Maggie, making droll asides, even in dire situations, like when she and Rissa Goodacre are in the den of the body harvesters in the second book.

Absolutely and purposefully. I will quibble and say Coyote is not meant to be comic relief—he’s dangerous and a trickster, even in Trail of Lightning. But yes, I wrote Trail during the Obama administration and felt free to delve deep into trauma, abuse, and other heavy topics. I wrote Storm during the first year of the Trump administration and I needed something lighter and with a little more humor. Still post-apocalyptic, but not quite as bleak, since reality was feeling bleak enough. I think Storm is much more hopeful and fun overall.

One of the fun aspects of it is the scenes where Maggie has to bargain and trade with the gods, including Coyote. Is this a common feature in Native American traditions that you’re bringing into the series?

No. That’s more of an apocalyptic tradition. Although there is that famous Smoke Signals joke: “We’re Indian, remember? We barter.”

I’ve seen some people on Twitter saying that Netflix should turn your series into a show. It’s even been suggested in one of the blurbs. I agree: The story lends itself so easily to a visual rendering. Do you have a dream cast in mind that would play the characters in a TV miniseries adaptation? Do you have a dream team of screenwriters and director?

I would love to see my story on the screen but I don’t really have a dream cast and crew. I’d want as many Natives in front of and behind the screen as possible. And I’d want it filmed on the Navajo Nation and in the larger Southwest. New Mexico has a booming film industry, so it would be perfect. It would also be cool to have someone who understood horror and genre but was also aware of how important Native representation is, since we don’t get much of it outside of Westerns.

So true. These being your first published novels, did you always know they were going to be a series?

Yes. The world was too rich and the characters too complicated to get it all done in a single book. I wanted time to explore this world and different places and people within it. The first book keeps us in Dinétah and very focused on Maggie. But the second book takes us out into the larger post-apocalyptic world and expands the cast as we get to see what’s become of the larger world of what was formerly Arizona. The third book will take readers to the Burque (the former city of Albuquerque, NM), where powerful land-grant families rule in what are essentially city-states, controlling the water and other resources. I wanted space to develop a complete post-apocalyptic Southwest, as I saw it.

When can we expect the third book? And what other future writing projects of yours can you tell us about?

Book three won’t be out for a while. In the interim, I have a new series starting, an Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan/Indigenous-inspired Epic Fantasy. The first book is titled Between Earth and Sky and it will be out in 2020. I also have a middle-grade novel coming this fall in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint which is sort of like Trail of Lightning for the eight- to twelve-year-old set with Navajo gods and monsters aplenty, called Race to the Sun. And, lastly, I have a secret project that will be out in the winter of this year that I can’t give details on. I’m really excited about that one, and it should be announced in April or May, so stay tuned! Oh, and lots of short fiction in both adult anthologies like New Suns (Rebellion Press) and The Mythic Dream (Saga Press) and some YA anthologies, too.

Cool! Is there anything else you’d like to say to your readers about the Sixth World series?

I hope people enjoy the books. I think they work on different levels, depending on what the reader is looking for. If you just want a bloody adventure with a badass monster-hunter set in the post-apocalyptic American Southwest, that story is there. If you want something more about trauma and survival and healing, that’s there, too. I especially hope Native readers see positive representation and dig it, but I hope all readers love the story and maybe get curious about the rich homegrown Indigenous cosmology of the Americas and seek to learn more about Native cultures, both contemporary and futuristic.

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.