From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Rebecca Roanhorse

Has the pandemic and/or current events impacted your reading habits or your writing practice? And how have you adjusted?

What are we, two years in now? Starting our third year? My creativity and ability to write have taken pendulum-like swings over the past two years. Of course, when you’re on deadline, you can’t always wait for the muse to visit. You have to push yourself to create, and at a high level. That’s where having a writing practice really helps, emphasis on practice. And I was unable to read for quite a while. My mind wouldn’t settle and my concentration was shot. But returning to some old favorites really helped, and now I’m reading more than ever to work on refilling that well of creativity with inspiration from other great authors.

What were the books that were significant for you when you were younger, and do they still hold up? Do you see their influence your writing?

I was a huge fantasy reader, so my childhood was The Dragonlance Chronicles, The Belgariad, and very much Dune. I haven’t revisited Dragonlance or the Belgariad, but I recently reread Dune. While it’s certainly problematic, I think it held up pretty well. I loved the recent movie adaptation. It ran for two and a half hours but I could have watched another three easily.

In a way, when your books were announced, and when award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” came out, you exploded onto the scene kind of out of nowhere. Now you have a ton of work out and an enthusiastic fan base. Which means, no doubt, that you get a lot of opinions. How much does reader feedback influence what you do, especially with your books?

Creativity is fragile. You can’t let many voices in because there’s always plenty of people who want to tear you down, not realizing your harshest critic is yourself. Or at least it is for me. So while I do sometimes read early reviews, I tend not to read anything about my work after it’s been released. It’s already gone through editors and a critique group and many, many drafts. And no work will ever be perfect or please everyone. It can only capture a moment in time for the author – who they were and what concerned then when they wrote it – and then we move on to what’s next.

Fevered Star is your second published novel sequel – you had Storm of Locusts come out in 2019, following up Trail of Lightning. What did you learn in the process of writing Storm of Locusts which you brought to writing Fevered Star?

I had the luck of writing Storm of Locusts in a bubble. Trail of Lightning hadn’t come out yet, so I had no idea what kind of reception it would get, and therefore no pressure. But no matter what, Book Twos are hard. What Storm taught me and what I bring now to all my works is the importance of structure and outlining. I’ll never pants a novel again. (Famous last words.)

One of the strengths of Fevered Star (and, I’d argue, your work in general) is the way you combine compelling story with interesting characters. What was your approach for this in Fevered Star?

I remember I was on a panel at Worldcon in San Jose and someone asked something along the lines of what “big questions” our work tried to answer, and I said I’m not interested in the “big question.” I’m interested in the small ones. What makes humans who they are, how do we navigate relationships of all kinds, what makes us more than, and sometimes less than, ourselves. So while I do sometimes tackle big issues, for example, Black Sun was very much about generational trauma and the tension between the individual and community – what most interests me, always, is people. And that makes for compelling story and interesting characters.

Readers who loved Black Sun often commented on how original it was, how unique. What sometimes happens with sequels is that the shininess of the fresh and the new is no longer there; or, the power of it diminishes somewhat. What, for you, is really important about Fevered Star, what stands out for you as central to this book?

There are pros and cons to Book Twos. Sure, it’s not shiny and new, but that can be a good thing. Now that a reader is grounded in the basics, the author can go wide and deep. There’s so much more to discover about the characters’ lives and histories, and there’s the opportunity to bring new characters to the forefront who were more in the background in the earlier book. Honestly, the world in the series is so huge and diverse, and the history so rich, I could write a dozen books and still find new things to share.

What were the biggest challenges for you in writing Fevered Star?

I wrote it while juggling a day job in TV writing, a school-age kid struggling with Zoom school, and a world-wide pandemic. What wasn’t challenging?

Looking at book two, and the journeys the characters take, what are your favorite things about Serapio, Naranpa, and Xiala? What was the best part about writing these characters?

They are all finally coming into their own, however that manifests. I tend to write characters that have been kicked around by fickle gods and difficult destinies, so often their arcs are about finding their own power and wielding it, for better or worse. The characters in Fevered Star are doing a lot of self-actualization and plenty of magic, and they’re different people by the end than they were in the beginning. I love that. I love seeing them grow.

Back in our Clarkesworld interview for Black Sun, we talked about the ways in which that book stood in conversation with notable fantasy novels. Does Fevered Star deliberately carry on or further develop that conversation? Or is there a point at which the conversation is left behind?

It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind the way it was when I conceived of Black Sun, but there are elements of the conversation in there. Particularly around the idea of the Chosen One. I am also very opposed to this idea of good vs. evil and much more interested in balance. Most fantasy readers want the good guys to win, but I’m less interested in the idea of good guys at all.

In just a short time on the scene, you’ve been up for a slew of awards, and won a good number of them, including Nebula, Hugo, Locus, and Ignyte Award wins. What does winning and being nominated do for you, personally? What impact, if any, does it have on your craft or process? And do you feel that awards have had an impact on your career?

Of course it feels great to be recognized by peers and fans, and anyone who says they don’t like outside validation of their work is lying. But I don’t think it’s impacted my craft or process. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking about awards. I’m just trying to tell a story to the best of my ability at the time. As for impact on my career, maybe less than one would think. Awards in genre tend to be a pretty insular thing.

Fevered Star is coming out several novels and short stories after your first publication, back in 2017. Do you feel like your writing has changed in important ways over the past few years?

Well, I hope it’s gotten better! I’d hate to have peaked craft-wise five years ago. Listen, I am always trying to improve my writing, always studying craft and how other writers do it. I am a forever student of the things I love, and I love writing most of all.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about Fevered Star?

I think it’s the best novel I’ve written so far. It’s a bit more settled than Black Sun, and much more politically complex. And of course, it’s not perfect and nothing I write ever will be. But there are moments that surprised me and directions it went that I wasn’t expecting. I can’t wait to tie all the threads together in Book Three.

What else do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?

The last issue of my Marvel comic series is out soon, PhoenixSong, which follows the character Echo as she wrestles with new superpowers. I also had the pleasure of working in the Echo TV series writer’s room, so look for that on Disney+ later this year. Also, later this year I have a novella coming out, something completely different and a lot of fun, so keep your eyes out for that.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist and a 2022 Locus Award Finalist for his work as co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine. He is also a 2022 recipient of SFWA’s Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, and a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards: for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, is scheduled to be a guest at both Cascade Writers and the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Find him on Twitter @arleysorg. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.