James Davis Nicoll did a really terrific interview with N.K. Jemisin for us. Three of the Qs and As are in the magazine this week; for your reading pleasure, here’s what didn’t fit on the page.
JDN: Your debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was nominated for the Nebula, the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. Any novel being nominated for all three is rare. Having a debut novel achieve this is even almost unheard of; the only other examples I can think of are Tea with a Black Dragon and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. What was your reaction when you discovered you had this nearly unheard of hat-trick in nominations?
NKJ: Lots of screaming and jumping up and down, mostly. There was individual screaming and jumping up and down with each nomination, and then exponentially greater screaming and jumping up and down once trifecta was achieved.
JDN: What are you going to do with your Hugo nominee pin?
NKJ: I have two so far, since I got nominated last year too for my short story “Non-Zero Probabilities”. Thinking about making earrings.
JDN: How did you come to be published by Orbit Books?
NKJ: I started the way all the “how to break in” books say you’re supposed to start. I wrote for a long time—terrible stuff at first, but it got better. I did a search-by-mail for an agent, using Locus as a research tool, and that netted me representation by Lucienne Diver. Because of that, when The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was ready to send out to publishers, it was remarkably easy from my end: I sent her the manuscript and waited. Magical things happened. (Specifically, she sent it to several publishers, there was an auction, I screamed and jumped up and down some more, then I accepted Orbit’s offer.) Then suddenly (two years later) I was published.
JDN: What works influenced the Inheritance Trilogy?
NKJ: Too many to count, honestly. But off the top of my head: Louise Cooper’s The Time Master trilogy; C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy; Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth stories; Stephen King’s Dark Tower; half a dozen shoujo manga series; bits of Tolkien, James Joyce, and Storm Constantine; life in New York City from the 80s to today; several obscure video games; a couple of drum n’ bass bands; and a lot of nonfiction about the development of large and complex social systems.
JDN: One of the defining elements in the Inheritance Trilogy was obsessive and often destructive love. Another was a political structure notable for its brutality and authoritarian aspects. The two elements are linked in that one of the most obsessive romantics also was responsible for the political situation in the first; were you trying to make a more general point by featuring both so prominently and so inextricably intertwined?
NKJ: I’m guessing you’re leaving the identity of the obsessive romantic unmentioned because there are so many of them in the story! But honestly, I wasn’t trying to make a point about that. I don’t think that oppressive, authoritarian political systems have anything to do with love. Control is not a part of love.
With respect to the political structure, I wasn’t trying to make a point about that, either, or at least not consciously. I was trying to hold up a mirror to our own society, I suppose. After all, in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms every child born grows up with a good education, good nutrition, a very slim chance of dying in war or poverty, and a very good chance of living to a venerable age. In real life we make the same rationalizations that the Arameri do, for far less benefit. So which world is truly brutal?
JDN: Why, Oree Shoth aside, was your focus in the Inheritance Trilogy on the travails of Gods, godlings and aristocrats rather than those of persons of more humble origin?
NKJ: In the Inheritance Trilogy I’m trying to emulate the epics of old: all those stories in which the gods get bored and start playing with mortals’ lives for kicks, or in which mortals get caught in the crossfire when one god does a drive-by on another, or in which the odd lucky mortal gets a chance to count coup on a god and lives to tell the tale. The characters in those tales—gods aside—are kings, tailors, princesses, priests, mighty warriors, goose girls, housewives, and random wanderers. They come from all walks of life. The only constant in the tales are the gods themselves—who are often as human and fallible as mortals, for all their power.
JDN: Your blog’s About Page says you are “a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger”; elsewhere on the same blog you mention that you are somewhere to the left of the Democratic Party. Speculative fiction is a genre not noted for its embrace of progressive politics, feminism or, as shown in 2009′s epic RaceFail flamewar, diversity; in light of that, what attracted you to this particular genre?
NKJ: Actually, before I got into the creative side of speculative fiction, I thought of it as the most progressive genre. Friends and family members who knew of my interest helped to steer me towards writers like Anne McCaffrey, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein. I saw science fiction and fantasy writers imagining amazing futures that ordinary people seemed to think were unattainable, or not worth striving for. The first speculative novels I read were full of badass “liberated” women, kids from poor families who changed the world, black guys who witnessed the dawn of a new humanity, Muslims in space. I grew up on shows like Star Trek, watching people of color go into space and even flirt with Spock. But back then I lived with so much inequity and exclusion in the real world that the tiny, grudging steps toward progress that I saw in speculative fiction seemed like the strides of a giant.
As I grew older, I began to realize just how small those early steps I’d seen were, mostly because I started reading speculative fiction that took much bigger steps. I read works like Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which taught me there are no utopias—and that the people who don’t see the ugliness in the world are making a choice to ignore it, on however subconscious a level. I began to learn more about how the real world works, and it finally hit me that speculative fiction reflects all the same limitations and prejudices as reality—they’re just hidden better. There’s a reason it’s easier to find blue people in this genre than black people. There’s a reason we’re still so surprised to see people like me—for whatever value of “like me” you choose to focus on—reading and writing and thriving in these futures and myths that we create.
So I started writing speculative fiction because at first I didn’t know any better. I kept writing it because I got pissed off that it wasn’t what I thought it should be. Anger’s a great motivator, but it’s fun, too, so I guess I’ll keep writing this stuff for awhile longer.