Ooze and Gore: A Conversation with Nicky Drayden
Humanity is depending on Seske Kaleigh in Nicky Drayden’s science fiction work, Escaping Exodus. Seske Kaleigh is meant to become matriarch. Her sister, cast aside by kinship rules, still challenges Seske’s claim at every turn. And then there’s Adalla, Seske’s beast worker best friend and possibly forbidden love, facing a grim destiny of her own, toiling inside a space beast’s organs and arteries. Meanwhile, tremors threaten the stability of their new colony . . .
A systems analyst by day, Nicky Drayden is a two-time Locus Award nominee and a Lambda Award nominee. Temper appeared on the Barnes & Noble Favorite Science Fiction & Fantasy Books of 2018 list and the Publishers Weekly best books of 2018 list; and The Prey of Gods won a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award in the Sci-Fi Novel category, as well as the 2018 Compton Crook Award. Besides her debut series and forthcoming Escaping Exodus (due October 15, 2019 from Harper Voyager) Drayden has over forty short stories, plus a handful of poems, published.
What books did you read growing up and how did reading transition into being a writer?
I discovered Stephen King’s The Eyes of the Dragon at a Target when I was in sixth grade. It’s an epic fantasy about a young prince and secret dragons, and it totally blew my mind compared to the countless Judy Blume books, which had been my previous obsession. (No shade, Superfudge will always be my first true book love.) But suddenly I realized that fiction didn’t have to play by real-world rules, and as I read, I felt like the words were sucking me deeper and deeper into the page.
Immediately after, I read everything I could by King, only to discover that all those other stories weren’t quite in the same vein as The Eyes of the Dragon, but I devoured them anyway. Up until about 3/4 of the way through The Stand—when I was like nope, nope, nope—and didn’t read another novel at all for a good stretch of time.
I dabbled in stories on and off from childhood and into my college years, but I don’t think I ever considered myself a writer until much later. But if you’re curious about what thirteen-year-old Nicky Drayden was writing, you can check out her first legit short story here.
Many readers may know you from your books, but you’ve been selling short fiction since 2008 and poetry since 2009. How do your writing processes change from short fiction to novel-length work? Does poetry inform or affect your longer work?
Actually, I started out writing novels way back in 2004. I’d seen National Novel Writing Month on a local news segment and thought it sounded really cool. I love a good challenge! Only, there were just a few days left before the deadline, so I thought to myself, “I guess I’ll just do it next year.” But it soon became obvious that my brain didn’t want to wait that long because the ideas kept coming and coming, so I decided to do my own National Novel Writing Month in April, and I completed my first novel in just 22 days.
That novel is now sitting in a cool, dark trunk, but I’m still very proud of it.
Short stories started up a few years later, after I’d written a couple more unpublished novels. I participated in a lot of story prompts that generated quite a few stories. I’m reluctant to call myself any kind of a poet, but I do enjoy working bad poetry and song lyrics into my larger works. It’s fun dabbling in different formats of wordplay once in a while.
For both short fiction and novels, what was the process of “breaking in” like—did you stack up rejection letters from short fiction markets, or did you start selling right away? And how did you make it happen?
Haaa . . .
Well, my first short fiction sale was for a whole $5 and they wanted me to pay $6 if I wanted an electronic contributor’s copy, so there’s that. Then I sold a couple more where the magazine folded before they got to print my story. It was kind of a rough start. But soon, I had a couple dozen stories out there floating around in submissions piles, and managing them sort of became a part-time job. I didn’t dwell on rejections though, because I knew I couldn’t control those, but aimed for hitting a certain number of submissions per year. Not that the rejections didn’t hurt. And there were a LOT of them. But I sold most of the stories I submitted. Eventually.
For novels, I got a couple agent nibbles on the first book I sent out, but that ultimately went nowhere. (Which was probably a very good thing.) It took me about a year to get an agent for The Prey of Gods—the very talented Jennifer Jackson—who happened to be at the top of my agent list. It was a dream come true, and I thought things were really happening then! We had a few nibbles here and there, but it took nearly four years for the book to sell. I think most agents would have given up after a year, or certainly two, so I’m super grateful Jennifer saw something in that story that was worth sticking it out for.
In an interview with FIYAH magazine, you said that the inspiration for The Prey of Gods came when you were driving around downtown Houston. You saw a salon sign that said “Magic Nails” and you started thinking, “What kind of person would be giving manicures if they could do magic?” That said, how much of yourself shows up in the characters and situations in your books? How much is research and digging into people and places previously unfamiliar to you?
The Prey of Gods ended up being a travelogue in a futuristic/fantastical format. I visited Port Elizabeth, South Africa—the city where most of the novel takes place—back when I was in college, and I definitely pulled from a lot of my experiences there. I didn’t encounter any demigoddesses or sentient robots, obviously, but smaller things like dik-diks jumping out across the road and the wooden carvings that Mr. Tau made to sell at the market and the curious choice of Tex-Mex for my first South African meal all made it into the book.
I love learning about people and places. For me, the majority of my research usually happens on the second draft, when I pull together character sketches, maps, floor plans, and lots of random details, like which branch of a library a character would go to and what route they’d take to work. I dive into culture and histories—reading fiction, watching movies, talking to people about their experiences—and try to weave what I learn into the story in a meaningful way.
Did your third novel, Escaping Exodus, a standalone at that (separate from The Prey of Gods and Temper), change your sense of pressure or confidence compared to working on the other two books? Or did it affect the writing process?
Well, Escaping Exodus was the first book that I had to write under deadline, so there was indeed a lot of pressure. It was a completely different process than I’m used to dealing with, since my first two novels were written before I had a contract and were polished by several writing groups before they saw professional eyes. If I had to describe the publishing world for a new author, I’d say it’s like having to jump onto a treadmill running at full speed. And just when you think you’re starting to get the hang of it, they start throwing live sharks at you.
So, I’m trying to do promotion for The Prey of Gods—book events and conventions and all that—and at the same time I’m doing copyedits on Temper while drafting Escaping Exodus. It was a lot. But this is where having completed several NaNoWriMos came in handy, since I was already used to hitting ridiculous deadlines. I guess the good news is that eventually you get good at juggling sharks.
How did Escaping Exodus start for you? What was the inspiration and did the direction change after you went deeper into the writing?
Escaping Exodus started as a NaNoWriMo novel back in 2015 . . . twice failed, because after two attempts I never got past the fifth chapter. But I absolutely loved the little bit of it I had, and I held onto the ideas tightly. I think the writing block was opened when I read Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion, and I was so happy because it was the exact book I wanted to read, and I didn’t have to go through all the trouble of writing it myself.
I loved every bit of gore and ooze and birthing spaceship parts. I was inspired. I wanted to contribute something just as weird and squicky to the collective living spaceship trope, so when it came time to pitch a book three to my editor, the story got revisited a third time, and this time I plowed right through to the end.
The original draft had three point-of-view characters, but one of them we decided to cut, so that was a major change in direction. It allowed me to focus more tightly on the relationship between Seske, heir to the ship’s throne, and Adalla, a beast worker who’s just been assigned the prestigious job of working inside the ship’s massive heart. Seske and Adalla have been friends throughout childhood, but now that adulthood is setting in, their difference in class makes just being friends provocative enough, and their budding feelings for each other could be punishable by expulsion into the dead of space through the ship’s sphincters if they’re found out.
Tom Whitmore’s Locus review of Escaping Exodus says, “If you can imagine a feminist, Afro-centric, queer Heinlein juvenile, with a strong discussion of class politics, then you might get close to what she’s doing here.” Have you addressed class/race/feminism from the beginning, from your earliest writings, or are these things you grew into talking about in your fiction?
I’ve had an obsession with class from the beginning, my first novel being about humanity being split between people living below ground, people living above ground, and people living in the sky. The way people like to divide themselves really fascinates me, which I think becomes fairly obvious in Temper, where division is one of the main themes. Blackness and feminism are things I’d have trouble separating from my own lens through which I see the world, so I’m not quite sure what a story of mine would look like without them.
For instance, in “Memories and All That,” one of my earliest sales to a zine called Space Squid, a robot couple moves to the suburbs and are worried about fitting in with their all-human neighbors. It directly parallels my thoughts moving into a mostly white suburb. I didn’t skewer any neighbors with my extendo-robot parts though, like the character in the story did, so at least I’ve got that going for me. And more recently, my FIYAH story “The Rat King of Spanish Harlem” is an ode to microaggressions set against the backdrop of the entire population of New York City turning into rat people. I didn’t count how many microaggressions I ended up stuffing in there, but there are over a dozen. Most of the time, the main character is the recipient, but she deals out a few of her own as well.
That said, I’m always evolving and trying to learn to write with more nuance. In Escaping Exodus, being queer never once comes up in the story—that’s just the way of life. Nor is it mentioned that their entire ship is populated by Black people until late in the story when they come across people who aren’t. And even though the story is set within a matriarchy, the most feminist acts are performed by men.
What is your favorite thing about Escaping Exodus, what was the hardest thing about writing it, and what do you really want readers to know about it?
Well, besides the cover art (because it is just that amazing), I love being dropped in this world that’s so very different than ours . . . basically people living as parasites within a giant space beast. Working within a heart the size of mountain and being constantly covered in blood is considered a highly respectable job. Living in a house made out of bone is the norm. Being attacked by meat-eating plants is a regular fear, and dining on steaks made from giant beetles is a posh treat. But at the same time, the story feels so familiar . . . a civilization taking more than their world can support, running through resources like they’ll always be there, and disposing of people when they’re through with them just the same. I hope that readers let themselves be immersed in this world and not cringe away from it. There are a lot of parts that are hard to digest, but at its heart, it’s a love story between a woman born into power and a woman intent on disrupting that power, and all of the struggles they endure as their worlds continually collide.
For fans of your books who have never read your short fiction, what story should they read first? And what are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
Basically, I’ve got three modes: Toilet humor. Dark and gritty. And sappy love stories that will probably make you cry.
For toilet humor, check out “Wrath of the Porcelain Gods” at Daily Science Fiction—a story about an amateur anthropologist documenting the bathroom habits of all the species on their space station.
For dark and gritty, check out “Our Drunken Tjeng,” also at Daily Science Fiction, about a race of people living inside a sentient ship that is slowly drinking itself to death.
And for sappy love stories, check out “The Simplest Equation,” which was recently featured on LeVar Burton Reads. (I know, right!)
And if you enjoy all three of these, you’re definitely at a good intersection for loving Escaping Exodus. Right now, I’m concentrating on launching that beast of a book, and I’ll soon have more exciting announcements to come!
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also 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, 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. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.