Today, Fantasy Literature is honored to talk to N.K. Jemisin, who, in 2016, became the first Black author to win the Hugo in the Best Novel category for her work The Fifth Season, book one in the BROKEN EARTH series. In addition to writing the INHERITANCE trilogy, the DREAMBLOOD series, and the BROKEN EARTH series, N. K. Jemisin is also a speculative short fiction author. She has also won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and has been nominated for numerous other awards such as the World Fantasy Award. N.K. Jemisin made time to talk to Kevin at the Brooklyn Book Festival this year about her writing process and her latest novel The Obelisk Gate, sequel to The Fifth Season. You can find her active online at her blog Epiphany 2.0, on Twitter, or on Facebook.
One random commenter with either a U.S. or Canada mailing address will win one copy of The Obelisk Gate. See below for details.
WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BOOK 1 AND 2 OF THE BROKEN EARTH SERIES
Kevin Wei: First, let me just say congrats on your recent Hugo win! We’re great fans of your work here at Fantasy Literature, so I just wanted to start us off by talking about how you write. I know you’ve said in the past that your writing process differs depending on what you write. Has the way you’ve written BROKEN EARTH differed significantly from the way you’ve written other works? Was there a large difference between the writing processes for The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate?
N. K. Jemisin: My process is still pretty much the same, at the planning stage. I outline, and I will put together different sets of information storage, like at one point I used to use a wiki. Now I just write notes, endless notes. I’ve got a file that’s nothing more than stonelore that I’ve made up and another file that keeps track of all the seasons, and then a file that keeps track of the way that plate tectonics would have moved over the years, and all kinds of stuff like that. But I think the difference now that I’m writing book three of the trilogy is that I am now completely off the outline; I have been pantsing it almost exclusively, which is not normal for me, and I’m not sure what that’s going to mean. I think it’s mostly just that I’m working at speed right now, and I’m working at such speed that I don’t have time to even slow down enough to check my outline and make sure I’m on track. It’s a fairly simple story at this point, all of the place settings have been moved and the chess board is all set up now — it’s just a matter of “now fight.”
That sounds very exciting. I know you’ve said that you needed a big break, a bit of a palate cleanser after book one due to how dark the world of the Stillness is. Did you need another one in between books two and three?
I did take one, but it wasn’t a big break. It was like a couple of months. And I didn’t need it in the same way. Really what I think is I’ve gotten used to the bleakness of the world. Also it’s OK when you’re doing something about the horror. It feels easier than if you were just wallowing in it.
Cool. Let’s talk a bit about your most recent work, The Obelisk Gate. There’s this moment when Nassun realizes her father has turned completely against her, and you write that “her heart breaks in this moment. Another small, quiet tragedy, amid so many others… It is a manipulation… and from now on all her acts of affection will be calculated, performative.” I thought this was a really tragic moment. How is the reader supposed to feel about this?
Well, I think it’s telegraphed in the text that it’s a tragedy. That is the nature of abuse and certain types of oppression, that they force kids of certain types to grow up faster than they would necessarily or than they should. That is the harm that’s done by this. It damages you literally from childhood up.
Is it maybe meant to tell us more about the Stillness?
Just that this is a common thing for orogene children. They all have that moment; you see multiple children throughout The Obelisk Gate, and you see the ways in which they’re all scarred. Sometimes overtly, sometimes more symbolically, but they’re all scarred realizing that the people in their lives can’t be trusted and hate them and will turn on them.
At one point, Essun decides that she doesn’t like Cutter because he’s hidden his orogene nature for most of his life: “something about the fact that he’s hidden all his life — which is hypocritical as hell after your ten years in Tirimo” (321). Is this suffering supposed to be viewed as some sort of necessary rite of passage for orogenes?
I think what I’m getting at there is this phenomenon, especially among African-Americans but you see it among other races where it’s possible, of passing. I’m really just touching on the fact that people who are capable of passing are not wrong. If you’ve got a choice between living, and someone trying to kill you and people sending you off to an abusive school and all the horrible things that happen to you, it makes perfect sense to avoid that. The catch is that people who couldn’t avoid it will hate you, and they will have that resentment towards you because you didn’t suffer something that they suffered. You suffered something different — and that’s the recognition that Essun doesn’t ever get, which is that it must have been hard for Cutter to hide himself, to constantly worry about discovery. All of that must have been its own hell, but she’s not there. She’s thinking about what she suffered as “the main hell.” I was really just touching on that. Yeah it’s hypocritical, but Essun came to that after a full lifetime of finding herself and getting herself together. Imagine having to hide as a child, when you don’t even know what you’re hiding from and you don’t know yourself. It does a lot more damage than she thinks it does.
Thanks for that; it was a great look at how oppression functions in The Obelisk Gate. I wanted to also take a look at Hoa. There are these parts of the story where Hoa is narrating in first person; you’ve discussed in the past why you’ve chosen second person and how you wrote The Fifth Season to make us feel sympathetic toward Essun. Are these first person sections with Hoa meant to do something similar?
To draw people closer to him, no. If people by book two haven’t started to engage with Hoa, then they’re not going to. All I wanted to do is to illuminate that he is a person, which I think I did by depicting him as a flesh-and-blood person before revealing his true self. He’s not as enigmatic feeling, or I hope he’s not as enigmatic feeling, as the other stone-eaters, but they’re all the same. I want people to think they’ve all got stories, they’re all the eye of a tale somewhere.
So it’s just to humanize him?
Yeah. He’s pretty human anyway. A lot of the things that I’m trying to do in this story is get past people’s initial impressions, readers’ as well as the characters’. I talked about this in one of my blog posts about how with Essun, she’s a middle aged woman, she’s what we would call black, she’s violent tempered, she’s got PTSD that manifests as wiping out cities every once in a while, and she does horrible things over the course of the story. A lot of people are going to look at that on a superficial level and immediately be like “I’m not interested in this character. I can’t identify with this character.” So this is why with the first book I took people through showing how she became what she is and hopefully getting people to identify with the character.
And the same with Hoa. Hoa is terrifying when you really think about it, creepy. He’s supposed to be. But on the other hand, in book three in particular, we’re going to see how Hoa became what he is. So you know, he’s still going to be creepy, but on the other hand you may understand him and you may be able to empathize with him. If people can empathize with the average character in fantasy, they should be able to empathize with a character like Hoa. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. It’s just a matter of how well I manage to bring it across.
Great. On a lighter note, I know you play videogames, and you recently finished No Man’s Sky. How was that?
[laughs] I hated that game. I used to use it to try and relax. My writing days lately have been, write 500 words, go visit a planet in No Man’s Sky, write 500 words, visit a planet. The problem is the planets were so repetitive that it wasn’t actually alleviating stress. So at first, I loved it. After planet number fifty that looked exactly the same, with the same squiggly tentacle things…it could have been a better game.
So do video games affect the way you write?
I use them for stress relief, and I have been inspired by video games. I’ve talked to people before about how the Dragon Age games partially informed the Fulcrum in The Obelisk Gate. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Dragon Age?
Dragon Age in thirty seconds is a medieval European world, but it’s got an interesting dynamic in which mages, people who are born with the ability to do magic, naturally attract demons, just because … magic, and they look tasty to the demons. So they’re at a greater risk of being possessed and turning into monsters that eat everybody. And because of that, people in this world shove all the magic users into a place called the Circle. They shove them all into magic schools, but they can’t leave. They’re literally snatched out of their parents’ hands and forced into it; they’re magically tagged and tracked. If they ever escape, hunters track them down and bring them back. If they continue trying to escape, they get progressively harmed through torture, solitary confinement. They’re allowed out under very prescribed circumstances. Like in a war, they’re allowed out to be weapons for the king, to fight on behalf of the country. They’re commodified.
It’s very much the same thing with what happens in the Fulcrum, and I wanted to explore that to some degree. What I think to some degree what I’m trying to engage with is that fantasy tendency to try and justify oppression. You see it again and again in fantasy that this one group of people over here are mistreated, but there’s a “good reason” for it. As in The Obelisk Gate, as in Dragon Age, they’re mistreated but it’s because they’re actually dangerous. And I wanted to interrogate that. In my series, the reasoning is that orogenes are more dangerous than other people because … boom. But throughout the story you see evidence that there’s different responses people could have from that. One of the responses they could have is snatch them away from their parents, kill them if they get out of control, shove them into this terrible place where they’re forced to learn how to control themselves. The other is leave them with their orogene parents so they learn from people who love them and who have the skill to help them. Don’t traumatize them. There’s a lot of different responses people could have had to realizing that you’ve got this group of people among you that is different; you could accommodate that difference, you could find a way to wrap your society around that difference and make it healthier and safer for everybody instead of shoving some into a horrible place or genociding them. What I keep wanting to show is that people think the idea that a group of people is legitimately different and that therefore it’s legitimately OK to discriminate against them…this is not really the question that should be being asked. The question that should be being asked is, “why aren’t you more willing to accept these people’s difference?”
Continuing on the track of your inspirations for BROKEN EARTH, here’s a question from my colleague Jana. What kinds of hands-on research did you do for The Broken Earth trilogy? I know you’ve said you’ve gone to the NASA Launch Pad workshop?
Well, Launch Pad wasn’t intended to be research for this. It became research for it because we had a really exciting conversation at lunch one day, at a long table over lots of beer. We had a really exciting conversation after coming back from the WIRO telescope, and we were talking about orbital mechanics and what happens if Earth loses its moon. And the conclusion was, the planet will pretty much be OK, but it may like tilt on its axis, kind of like Uranus. So climates will go crazy And this is really unlikely, but Earth might become tidally locked, which speeds up that process. And then life ends. But that’s a long, long way down the road.
So the conclusion was that it wouldn’t necessarily do that much harm in the short term — like, the span of human existence. But then someone at the table said, “but of course, barring magic or something…” Well, you just can’t throw that in front of me. So basically this is legit orbital mechanics plus magic.
And it’s not science fiction, it’s not meant to be science fiction. The fact that I use science in my fantasy doesn’t make it science fiction. There’s this weird resistance to putting science in your fantasy and magic in your science, even though magic has been in science fiction all along. Warp speed, you know, the ability to go faster than light, defies the laws of physics as we know it. That’s magic. Science fiction is a little more relaxed about this than fantasy seems to be. Fantasy is all like “eeee science!”
You’ve done more research than just Launch Pad, right? I think you’ve said in the past that you went to lunch with a seismologist?
Yes, I did.
And visited four Hawaiian volcanoes?
Yes, I did.
So what was some of the other research that you’ve done?
Well, mostly that. I follow some geology accounts on Twitter like The Earth Story and a couple of others. I follow geology groups on Tumblr. And periodically I strike up conversations with them about like, “so lahars!” Or “tell me about lapilli. Is it OK if lapilli is still on fire when it lands on you? Will it kill you?” Lapilli is teeny-tiny little, like 2 millimeters of volcanic material. If you’ve ever seen a volcano and you see showers of sparks, that’s actually itty-bitty lava bits. So I needed to ask someone, is lapilli deadly? And the answer was, depends on how close to the volcano you are. So I do some things like that.
The trip to Hawaii was kind of the core thing. There’s a volcano museum there on a volcano, which is awesome. That was actually the bulk of what I needed to know. Mostly I’m doing seismology for dummies, Wikipedia pages of geology; those are really helpful to me. I’m not doing anything that will really pass muster when you look at it. But also there’s magic, so I’m not really intending to pass muster. The goal is plausibility, not a textbook.
Another question from a colleague, this time from Stuart. Why did you choose to settle down in Brooklyn?
Some of my family is here. My father lives in Brooklyn and has for forty years. I partially grew up in Brooklyn… it’s home.
And finally, an inquiry that’s become customary here at Fantasy Literature. Do you have a signature drink or favorite beverage? Hot, cold, sweet, bitter, non-alcoholic or not, anything goes!
Oh, my gosh. Well for a long time I liked Long Island Iced Teas, but it’s hard to find people who know what they’re doing. A lot of people screw it up. Good Long Island Iced Teas tastes like Southern iced tea, and you can barely taste the alcohol. But you go to bars up here and they’re loading up on the alcohol and it tastes like Coke. Anyway, I don’t really have a signature drink at this point.
I was actually just up at Butter & Scotch last night with some friends, and I had a jello shot for the first time in twenty years. It’s when you make jello with alcohol instead of hot water, and you have to freeze it harder because alcohol has a lower freezing point. And it’s jello, but it’s also a shot. You’re supposed to eat the jello quickly, and you get a mouthful of rum or gin or whatever in the process. And I discovered I liked jello shots again. But I don’t know that I would call that a signature thing.
Thanks for spending time with us, N. K. Jemisin! We’re very excited about book three of BROKEN EARTH!
Comment below for your chance to win a copy of The Obelisk Gate! U.S. and Canadian addresses only.