From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin is a New York Times-bestselling author, and the first in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards—all for her Broken Earth trilogy. She has won a Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, and a number of other honors. She lives and writes in New York City. Her recent novel, The City We Became, begins The Great Cities series.

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

It stopped me from writing altogether for a few weeks. I’ve worked my way back up gradually to about 1200 words/day at this point — but my norm is still 1500/day. Also, I’ve had to change the plot of my upcoming novels several times, due to my ideas being stolen by real life. That’s fun.

You write across a number of topics and genres, and people may even argue over where some of your work should land in terms of genre definitions. Do you feel like genre definitions are useful, are they important? Or are they just marketing tools?

Marketing tools. I have no interest in genre definitions beyond “fantastical” and “realist” — and frankly I’m willing to accept a lot of overlap in my own reading. With the Broken Earth series, for example, I basically had fun playing with the idea of “any sufficiently advanced science/sufficiently complex magic”, and I’m honestly a little surprised to see how many readers throw themselves into conniptions trying to classify it. A lot of the “science fiction” our culture embraces is magic, or spiritual beliefs with the serial numbers stripped off; a lot of the “fantasy” we embrace is actually alternate history, which is typically considered a science fictional subgenre, or something else skiffy. So what does it matter what it’s called?

In your LIVE from NYPL conversation you and W. Kamau Bell were talking about resistance, and different ways of resisting. In terms of fiction, is it important that fiction be part of resistance? Is making a stand of some kind inevitable; or is it perfectly fine to write a story which is “just a fun story?”

I don’t tell other artists how to do their art. For me, however, it’s important that art accurately reflect the world around me — how people really behave, how societies really work, how change really happens (or doesn’t). Even if I put it in another world, wrapped in trappings that have nothing to do with reality, certain things need to be true to life. That makes it political whether I intend for it to be or not. And right now I see (and feel) a lot of resistance, so naturally that appears in my work.

You also talked about scrapping parts of books, including taking out 90K words from a book. How many drafts did The City We Became go through? What were a few of the things that you had initially laid out but decided to change?

I’ve scrapped entire novels before. (Notably the book that became THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS.) TCWB just had one draft, although I think I went through six “test chapters” to decide on the right voice before proceeding. I can’t talk about some of the other things I had to change, unfortunately, since this is a series that’s still in progress, telling a whole story across three books. Spoilers.

One of the things I love about The City We Became is the individual characters, who feel so well-developed, so individualized, and yet so grounded, reading like real people. I almost expect to run into Bronca if I hit up a few Bronx art centers. Do you have specific things you do to make sure your characters are well-developed?

The standard things any writer does, if they want their character to be believable: I make sure they have an inner life as well as an outer life, I try to construct an arc for them to follow, etc. Beyond that I do tend to pick people as characters who feel “less seen” in SFF to me — women of color, disabled people, older women, mothers, etc. Where I pick characters whose background I don’t share, I try to find sensitivity readers who can help me get the large and small details of their inner lives right.

The embodiments of the various parts of the city are all very different from each other. Do you relate more to any particular character and their situations, or are they all very different from you?

Brooklyn is probably the character most like me in a superficial sense — a 40something Black woman who lives in Brooklyn. But because of that, and because Brooklyn is the borough I know and love best in NYC, I intentionally put her on a back burner for the first book of the trilogy. We’ll see a lot more of her in the subsequent books, but I made a choice to go out of my comfort zone initially. I actively dislike (the borough of) Manhattan, for example — so naturally he had to be my viewpoint character for much of the book! Love Queens, so backgrounded her; don’t visit the Bronx or Staten Island much, so brought them forward. It just seemed . . . fair? Eh, I don’t know why I do half the things I do, writing-wise.

But really, all of the characters are me in some aspect. Manhattan is the half of me that isn’t a New Yorker; the Bronx is half a dozen women I know amalgamated into one badass old lady I want to grow up to be; stuff like that.

I called this book “…a glowing but occasionally quite frank love letter to New York City. And it ain’t all pretty.” There’s this great balance between the beautiful and the problematic, as well as narrative, plot, and details. How do you strike these balances so effectively?

It’s gonna get less pretty! And I can’t explain how I do it. Like I said, it’s my duty as an artist to render the world truthfully — and the truth is that New York City is filthy and full of incompetents, assholes, and bigots, same as any other city in the world. I can love a thing and critique it. That’s how I love a thing, sometimes.

I think what a lot of people will see in this book is the discussion around gentrification as well as racism and hate. But one of my favorite things about it, and what I hope a lot of readers will also see, is discussions around love, and celebrations of people, communities, and culture. There’s a joy which comes through, for me; I spent a lot of time smiling during this read. Do you feel like positivity and joy are harder to transmit to readers; that people tend to gravitate toward anger in narratives?

I think that if you’ve done a good job of rendering the world truthfully (and that’s always going to be relative to the artist), then it will hold up a mirror to readers. They’ll see what they need or want to see in it. There are a lot of people out there who absolutely hate New York, for reasons that don’t really have anything to do with the city itself — they hate cities on principle, or they’ve fallen for the political football that loves to kick the city around as a symbol of decadence, or American exceptionalism, or whatever. Or their only experience of the city is what they’ve seen in popular media to date, like “Seinfeld” or “Girls,” which means their understanding of the city is completely inaccurate (or incomplete). What they see when they look is going to depend on how welcoming or resistant they are to a different truth, I think.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book, and what was the most fun?

The amount of research I ended up having to do was the hardest thing — much more than with any of my previous, secondary-world books! Writing the real world is harder. The most fun thing hasn’t happened yet, because the story isn’t done!

What can you tell us about where the next book in the series will take the story?

Nothing. 😀

I remember you talking about your volcano research for the Broken Earth trilogy, and eating Spam sushi cooked over a volcanic vent. Do you have favorite researched tidbits from The City We Became which didn’t quite make it into the book?

Compared to that, my research in New York sounds pretty mundane! I think the biggest adventure I had was when I failed to get into a tour of Old City Hall Station. You have to scramble for tickets at a specific hour of a specific day from the NYC Transit Museum; it’s harder than getting into a Beyonce concert. I actually scored tickets at one point, but caught the flu and couldn’t go! Then couldn’t get tickets again. So I had to build that scene — a pretty crucial one in the book — from online photos and books about the station. But even visiting places you’ve been to before feels different when you’re looking for the ways they fit into a story—a slightly sideways look at your own hometown.

I had a lot of childhood/teens cultural touchstones in this story but for me one that immediately comes to mind, I was reminded of old Super Sentai shows like Battle Fever J, in terms of the giant city battles, all the pieces coming together. We talked about anime in our Locus interview, I know you are a huge anime fan. When you looked at the book after it was done, did you see any particular anime influences? Are there other references or inspirations that people might miss which are special to you?

I was into sentai and giant robot stuff too! As a little kid I watched old dubbed syndicated runs of Ambassador Magma, right after Zoom and The Electric Company. Robotech was my first anime; typical 80s kid. Then Voltron — the one with the cats, not the cars. I never got into the live-action stuff, like Power Rangers; by the time it hit the US, I was off to college. But I did love manga like Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, and later a parody of sentai stuff called Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman — about a team of young corporate professionals who wear power armor in business-suit colors and throw weaponized business cards at enemies.

Since that Locus interview your DC Comics Green Lantern series started: Far Sector. You’ve described working on the project as “dipping your toe” in the medium. Did you gain anything from the experience of writing for this format which carried over into your novel or short story writing?

It’s difficult to say at this point. I certainly learned a lot about comics writing in and of itself, but it’s a very different discipline, and generally it takes a while for me to process a new medium or storytelling form, to see what I’ve learned from it.

What were your favorite things about working on that project?

I’m still working on it, remember! I think the best thing is simply working with amazing artists. The original artist we’d lined up for the series was Shawn Martinborough, who does a lovely, stark noir style that I tried to adapt my writing to. Unfortunately the Young Animal line got put on hiatus for a while, and various other things happened, so Shawn left the project and we got Jamal Campbell instead. Jamal’s facility with cityscapes added something amazing to the whole thing; he really brought the City Enduring to life as another character of the story. It’s such a thrill to see stuff I’ve just described on paper made visible — or not described; in many cases I just said “draw whatever you want here” in the script, and Jamal went gonzo. He’s amazing.

It’s a safe bet that fans would love to see more comic book stuff from you. What are your thoughts or plans along those lines?

Not anything I can discuss, sorry! 😀

You’ve dabbled in video game writing, comic books, and we talked before about the possibility of writing screenplays. Are there types of projects that you would still like to do but haven’t done yet?

Well, I haven’t actually done the screenplays, yet, so that’s coming at some point. I didn’t actually do any game writing, note; a novel tie-in is basically just professional fanfic . . . and after the experience I had, I think I’ll just stick to fannish fanfic. I’d still like to actually do game writing at some point — but that’s going to have to wait. At the moment the gaming industry is going through some stuff, and I think it’s difficult for writers to get much respect there, period, let alone a writer from another medium (and there are plenty of amazing writers already in that field). So unless it’s a game company that’s willing to prioritize story, and is prepared to defend that commitment against the kinds of harassment campaigns that have already run some of the best writers out of the field, I can’t see myself ever working in that area.

You’ve talked in several places about short stories being a difficult format. But at this point you have a large number of them out. Looking at your short fiction, are there any stories which stand out as more important to you, more personal for you, or harder to write, and why?

Not really. They’re all personal; that’s precisely what makes them so hard. Putting stories together for my collection, HOW LONG ‘TIL BLACK FUTURE MONTH, was like assembling a photo album of myself over the years—I can’t call any part of it more or less personal than any other.

You get interviewed a lot (and rightfully so). Are there questions you never get asked but wish people would ask?

Nope, I get interviewed too much for that, lol.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.