N.K. Jemisin: Change Theory

Locus Science Fiction Interview N.K. Jemisin

Nora K. Jemisin was born September 19, 1972 in Iowa City IA, and grew up spending summers in New York City and the rest of the year in Mobile AL. She studied psychology at Tulane in New Orleans, and went to grad school to study counseling at the Uni­versity of Maryland-College Park. After spending ten years in Massa­chusetts, she moved to New York City, where she has lived ever since. She worked for many years as a career counselor before becoming a full-time writer.

Jemisin attended the Viable Paradise workshop in 2002. Her short SF began to appear in 2004, and she has since published over 20 stories, including Hugo and Nebula Award finalist “Non-Zero Probabilities” (2009) and Hugo finalist “The City Born Great” (2017).

She has achieved her greatest success (so far) with the bestselling Broken Earth trilogy: The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017). All three volumes won Hugo Awards for best novel, an un­precedented accomplishment for a trilogy. All three were also finalists for the Nebula Award (The Stone Sky won) and World Fantasy Awards. First collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is forthcoming. She’s currently writing a trilogy based on “The City Born Great”.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I am increasingly antisocial as I get older. Cons are always an intense peopling experience, and I am one of those introverts who can get up in front of a crowd and talk and teach and perform, but then I need to go and recharge. Conventions don’t really give you the time to do that. They’re meant to be an intense social experience, be a chance for people who don’t see each other for like a year to get back together and party and have fun, which is great. I need a slower pace of social than any convention can possibly do. I think my first experience with Worldcon was back when I lived in Boston in 2004, before I ever started to get published. I remember going to it and being put off, because I came from the anime convention life. I used to run an anime convention called Shoujocon, back when I was younger, but it didn’t last very long, sadly. It was really mighty while it did – small but mighty. The anime con circuit is younger, much more diverse, with way more people of color and way more queer people. The science fiction con circuit – my first exposure was like day and night. I’d gone from cons that were full of vibrant young people having raves, to Worldcon in the early 2000s, where everybody was gray except me. I was basically the youngest person there, and I was 32. That was off-putting.

“Then when I went to a panel, an audience member stood up and said, ‘Well, we can assume from their academic achievement scores and so forth that certain groups are less intelligent than others, blah blah blah.’ I sat there watching this panel of writers, each of whom has the wall of books in front of them, and the panel did not stop him, did not interrupt him, did not say, ‘Whoa, what’s with the racist eugenics bullshit?’ That was my first impression of Worldcon. When I come to Worldcon, I am braced to enter a space that is not friendly, that is hostile, and that is not safe. I go into many conventions braced and prepared for that. And lo and behold, we had a fascist protest at Worldcon in San Jose. Granted, it was a very small number of fascists, and probably not from the con, but Worldcons in general are not the safest spaces.

“I do have more fun at smaller conventions, but it depends on the con. Some smaller conventions have made a real effort to improve and diversify, and some are just a bunch of friends who get together and just want to do the same thing and never change. It depends on the con. I don’t have time anymore to go to anime cons. I have such limited personal social capital, and I have to budget it carefully. I’m spending it all these days on science fiction, and I don’t have time to spend it on other stuff I enjoy.

“Everything I consume syncretizes into my art. Anime absolutely informs my writing. I’m not always inspired by specific anime so much as by the themes or aesthetics of anime – the fact that in anime, there’s absolutely no reason why some random character off the street can’t ultimately become a hero who saves the world by just working hard enough. The whole arc of shounen anime, the I’ve-gotta-get-stronger theme, is if you care about other people and you want to protect them, you will become a superhuman giant robot, or do whatever you need to, in order to protect those people. I respect that theme. You’ll see ele­ments of impressionistic art and impressionistic jazz in my fiction, and elements of Blaxploitation, because it’s all stuff I’ve been exposed to over the course of my existence. I don’t sit there and parse out which piece I’m going to use as an influence today. My brain collects all this, stuffs it into my subconscious, and then later I have bizarre dreams with iconic imagery, like totems and giant robots.

“I’ve spent the last few years dipping my toes into other waters, just to see how I like them. The media tie-in book I did for Mass Effect: Andromeda was to see if that was good for me. I’ve always loved gam­ing, and been interested in doing game writing. This was me dipping a toe and getting to know the writers. At least that was the idea. The experience ended up being something that unfortunately I can’t discuss, because I’ve signed a non-disclosure agreement, but it dissuaded me from ever pursuing a career in games again. I think the games industry is a bit toxic, and they’ve got some stuff they need to work out before I want to get even remotely involved again.

“I’ve been dipping a toe in comic books too. I can’t tell you which company or property I’m working on, but I just turned in 12 scripts for a run of a well-known franchise from one of the big two comics companies, which would be the first black female version of this character. If it actually runs. The comic book field is also dysfunctional and deeply toxic. It’s an experience that I’ve enjoyed, though, and now I know how to write comic scripts. Comic book scripts are different from film scripts, and I still need to learn how to do screenplay writing. I’m thinking about taking Tananarive Due’s and Steven Barnes’s class on doing so at some point in the future, when I finally find some free time. I would love to learn how to do screenplays.

“At the end of the day, both the gaming and comics industries are high value. There are large corporations investing ginormous amounts of money into these properties and reaping ginor­mous profits from them. Because of that, you’ve got corporate fingers in a creative pie. The book industry is a little different. Writers who want to be traditionally published still have to cater to what these giant corporations want, simply because the giant corporations won’t buy their books otherwise. But for the most part, giant corporations in the SF field are more willing to take risks – gradually, and sometimes reluctant­ly and grudgingly – but they are more willing to take risks than people are in some other fields.

“Creators are less respected in gaming and comics and film than they are in book publish­ing, and that is a thing I’m not sure I’m willing to give up yet. If I’m going to write a video game, I want to work with a group of writers who are good writers, whose talent is respected, and whose suggestions for the direction that their property should go in are heard and heeded. Ob­viously, you want to work with good designers, good artists, good developers, programmers, all that other stuff too. Or in the comic book field, good letterers and inkers and all of that. You want to work with a good team of creators, and it should not be driven by what some corporation is interested in. It should be about what the story and the game demands.

“It’s significantly more visual to have to write a comic book script, because you are writing things for the artist to visualize. With fiction, I can be impressionistic. I can throw a few sug­gestions at the wall and assume the reader’s subconscious will fill in the gaps. In comics you actually have to fill in the lines and do all the coloring. I hate that part. I find comics more difficult, probably just because I have a lot more practice at writing prose.”

Interview design by Francesca Myman. Photo by Arley Sorg.

Read the full review in the October 2018 issue of Locus.

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