Peculiar Notes of Contradiction: A Conversation with N.K. Jemisin
A simple walk, rich with impending doom. A chance encounter, taut with peculiar familiarity. A main character whose back-story drips into the surface action with maddeningly beautiful precision and poignancy.
Last month, N. K. Jemisin’s short story "Non-Zero Probabilities," was nominated as a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award. A well-deserved honor.
"N. K. Jemison is coming on strong in speculative fiction," said Lettie Prell novelist and editor of Broadsheet. "The first story of hers I came upon was "The You Train" published in Strange Horizons in 2007. That story went on to receive an honorable mention in the The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, 21st collection. Another story, "Playing Nice with God's Bowling Ball," won an honorable mention in the Year's Best Science Fiction (2008). Then in 2009 comes "Non-Zero Probabilities" (Clarkesworld #36), and after reading it I'm excited to read more from her, for her voice has matured and also her insights, and a more poetic prose that nevertheless maintains the unique voice I first noticed and admired."
Jemisin lives in Brooklyn, NY where she works as a counseling psychologist. Her stories have appeared here in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizon's, Baen's Universe and others. Her first novel, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was published in March by Orbit Books.
Her novel, like her stories, has been praised for its originality, complex-yet-clear plotting, and stunning world-building. In addition to all that, Jemisin’s fiction burns with an anger fueled by an undeniable gentleness of spirit.
"Nora Jemisin's imagination is refreshing and illuminating," said Ann VanderMeer, the editor-in-chief of Weird Tales. "I always know I'm about to get a special treat when I see a new work of fiction from her. I can't wait to see what she does next!"
Not long before the voting deadline for the Nebula, Jemisin and I talked about writing, rejectomancy, and peculiar notes of contradiction.
In an interview in the back of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, you cite John Coltrane as an influence. What is it about Coltrane and/or his music that influenced you?
I like the music itself — serious earworm stuff — but I also just love the way he plays it. There are times when you can tell he's stopped caring about what his audience thinks, or whether they're even there. He's totally caught up in it, playing for himself; the rest of us are just along for the ride. I admire that kind of submission to the art. Wish I'd been able to meet him.
What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?
Getting the voices out of my head? I'm not sure there's an "enjoy most" component to it — I've been writing for nearly as long as I can remember, and making up stories in my head for longer than that. Writing them down is almost a relief, because otherwise I find myself daydreaming and spacing out. (Sometimes I do that anyway.)
Lately, though, I've discovered another pleasure, which is seeing people get lost in enjoyment of something I've written. For example, I've seen a few comments on "Non-Zero Probabilities" from people who'd like to see more of the story — even a novel. I'm not sure I'll ever do that, but it's a real delight to see people say that they went on imagining what happened even after the story ended.
Do you prefer novel or short story writing? Feel more at home in one or the other?
I have a long-standing preference for novels, but I've learned to love short stories. I've always written novels; even as a child, my first story was intended to be a novel. (I didn't understand word count in those days; I just figured that if I put a cover and binding on it – cardboard and yarn in this case — it was a novel.) I only started writing short stories late in my professional career — less than ten years ago. I've discovered that they're just as exciting as writing novels — but they don't last as long. And I hate it when something fun ends too soon.
Are there any similarities between your day job and writing fiction?
Hmm, maybe a few. I'm a counseling psychologist in day job life, specializing in career counseling, so much of my work consists of helping people stay focused on their goals and reminding them of reality when the rejectomancy (e.g., "I sent out 50 resumes and got no callbacks. I'm unemployable!") takes over. As a writer, I'm constantly fighting rejectomancy, albeit of a different nature (e.g., "I sent out this story 50 times and nobody wants it. I'm a terrible writer!"), so I end up using the same pep-talks on myself. Beyond that, there's not much similarity.
Your day-to-day profession leads me to wonder and make some assumptions... how do you go about creating characters, developing, making them feel so real?
Honestly, I don't really try to do that. The characters spring into my brain fully-formed, or form themselves as the story progresses. Sometimes I choose to show everything I know about them, and sometimes I show very little. But it's plot, not characterization, that's difficult for me.
The world of the Inheritance trilogy, you've mentioned elsewhere, began with images. What were those images and how did you develop them into a world?
Well, I smoked a lot of crack — Wait, did I say that? Let me start over.
Actually, I dreamt them, or maybe day-dreamed them. That's how many of my story ideas crop up. In the case of "Non-Zero Probabilities", I imagined a woman searching frantically for a four-leafed clover in the funky empty lot on the corner of my block. In the case of the Inheritance Trilogy, the first image that hit me was of a child playing with floating spheres, a la the glass balls used by Jared in the movie Labyrinth. (Wait, did I say that too? Well, now you know what kind of stuff I was exposed to in my formative years.) In this case, the floating spheres were actually tiny planets, and the child — who was incredibly cute — had old, somehow disturbing eyes. Naturally I needed to immediately figure out the backstory of this image. As I did, other images came to me: of Sky, the "floating" palace; of a god on a leash; more. All of the images had the same peculiar note of contradiction in common — ancient eyes in a young face, an entity of cosmic power and significance reduced to slavery, and so on. The only thing I could find to reconcile these images was some sort of mythology, since mythology routinely syncretizes contradictions. Everything else fell out from that.
Power struggles, colonialism, social justice, what is it about these themes that sparks your imagination and compels you to write stories?
Well, really, none of that stuff sparks my imagination. It sparks my anger, and compels me to do something to solve the problem in the real world. But because that's part of my reality, it does tend to appear in my fantasy as well. Honestly, I'm surprised that I don't see these themes in fantasy more often. So much of fantasy focuses on worlds that are full of deep, deadly inequities — medieval Europe, for example. Feudalism wasn't exactly happy fun time for most of the population, the nobility included. Yet most fantasy seems to prefer an idealized, Vaseline-lensed version of this kind of society, rather than the reality. Granted, we're writing fantasy; it doesn't have to be realistic. But I do wonder why so many fantasy writers choose those particular elements to gloss over, again and again. I suppose because they don't want to deal with those things – but racism, sexism, classism, and the aftershocks of colonialism are part of my daily life. I don't have a choice about ignoring them, even in fictional form.
What role does the reading and creating of speculative fiction play in your life?
It's my cheapest and most reliable means of entertainment. I get frustrated with TV because the stories so often disappoint me, and because the images are never as good as what I can conjure up in my head. Video games do a better job, but they're expensive. I'm fond of visual and performative arts — been really getting into Shakespeare since I moved to New York; Shakespeare in the Park is the best. And I love having easy access to so many great artists who do mindblowing work: most recently I've been fascinated by Takashi Murakami and Yinka Shonibare, featured-exhibit artists at the Brooklyn Museum. But books are still the #1 mind-sink for me.
And what role does speculative fiction play in society?
A mirror? Prophecy? Reflective prophecy? I don't really know how to answer that. I think all stories, regardless of medium or genre, serve the same purpose for humankind: to help us define meaning in our environment or experience. I don't think speculative fiction is any more or less useful for that purpose than, say, romance, or high literary stuff. It's just the method/medium I enjoy most.
What's in store for the Inheritance Trilogy? Did The Broken Kingdoms present you with any notable challenges? How is work on Book Three coming?
The Broken Kingdoms was challenging at first because I kept trying to write the same kind of story that I'd done in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. But then I realized it can't be that kind of story. It's going to take place in a more open-air environment than the hothouse that was Sky: Shadow, the city beneath the palace. And it takes place ten years later, showing how the world has begun to adapt to the changes that took place in the first book. It will focus on Oree, a young artist who's just trying to make ends meet — "living just enough for the city", so to speak. (I'm a Stevie Wonder fan too.) So there won't be a lot of high-fantastic political intrigue, because the story isn't about the rulers this time. At the same time there will be a focus on things the first book couldn't really examine, like organized crime in a world of mortals and meddling gods, and what it means to be a victim of the Arameri's harsh rule, and what happens when a religion — and a god — suddenly lets faithful followers down.
Book 3 is moving in a still newer direction. That one will focus on Sieh, the trickster/child-god introduced in the first book. It's a kind of perverse bildungsroman, which starts when Sieh suddenly starts growing up against his will. Since his godly power and immortality are dependent on him being childish, what this means is that he's changing from an incredibly powerful god into a helpless mortal — a death sentence, basically, from which he's got only seventy years or so to escape. (Not much time, from the perspective of a several-billion-years-old being.) So he's working against the clock to figure out what happened to him and why — and in the meantime, since he now has to eat and sleep and avoid moving vehicles, he's forced to rely on some old enemies: the Arameri. Who are dealing with their own very serious problems by this point in the series. This one is turning out to be both funnier (because Sieh has the best sense of humor out of all the gods) and more bittersweet than I expected. We'll see what the final result looks like.
Coltrane's music grew more and more... expansive, mind-bending and limit-pushing. Do you see yourself heading in a similar direction?
It's too early to say! I'll go wherever my muse takes me, as long as someone's willing to pay me rent money in the process. I guess we'll have to wait and see.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and Booklifenow.com. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.