Phenderson Djèlí Clark will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. He is the award-winning and Hugo-, Nebula-, Sturgeon-, and World Fantasy-nominated author of the novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His stories have appeared in online venues such as Tor.com, Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Apex, Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and in print anthologies including Griots, Hidden Youth and Clockwork Cairo. He is a founding member of FIYAH Literary Magazine and an infrequent reviewer at Strange Horizons.
Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, Texas, he spent the early formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. When not writing speculative fiction, P. Djèlí Clark works as an academic historian whose research spans comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. He melds this interest in history and the social world with speculative fiction, and has written articles on issues ranging from racism and H.P. Lovecraft to critiques of George Schuyler’s Black Empire, and has been a panelist and lecturer at conventions, workshops, and other genre events. At the current time, he resides in a small Edwardian castle in New England with his wife, infant daughters, and pet dragon (who suspiciously resembles a Boston Terrier). When so inclined he rambles on issues of speculative fiction, politics, and diversity at his aptly named blog The Disgruntled Haradrim.
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
To have faith in your own writing and imagination. That story that you’re uncertain about, that you think might be too “out there,” might just be what readers are waiting to see.
Some of your work has been described as Lovecraftian horror. What draws you to the genre? How do you create such an atmosphere in your stories?
Cosmic horror is already entrenched so much in genre, it’s hard to not be drawn to it. When I use it in my own stories, I’m often attempting to convey a sense of the strange, the otherworldly, and at times inconceivable. That might be done by translating a bit of folklore through a cosmic horror lens, drawing on a favorite trope but finding a new way to present it, or by adding some well-placed tentacles. You can never go wrong with tentacles.
Your first full-length novel, A Master of Djinn, is a steampunk detective story set in an alternate 1912 Cairo coming out May 2021 from Tor.com Publishing. What were some of the challenges in writing across several genres?
I don’t know that I would call it a challenge. I don’t tend think of a specific genre when I’m writing. Or, if I do, I don’t consciously restrict myself to its traditional boundaries. Usually, I go in simply knowing “this is the story I want to write.” If that story has some fantasy in it, some steampunk, a little cosmic horror, even spaceships—that’s just what that story needed. And I would never restrict myself by thinking, “well this is fantasy and so-and-so can’t happen here.” Nah.
When you’re not writing, you work as an academic historian, which is reflected in many of your stories. Do you tend to come up with an idea first, or a setting, or character? How much outlining and world building do you do ahead of writing the rough draft?
It can be all of those things. Most often, I first get the barest hint of something and perhaps the protagonist—usually with a specific scene in mind. From there, if I sense a story, I start building it out which usually leads to feeling out the setting. After I’ve daydreamed (daydreaming is 90% of how I get ideas) and jotted down enough random notes and I’m committed to writing, I do an outline draft. I’m talking soup to nuts. I write down the main parts of the story, the setting, the characters, how I might imagine the sections/chapters going, all the way to the end. When I do start writing, I use that outline as my guide. Now, that doesn’t mean nothing changes. In fact, nine times out of ten, I veer from the outline. New characters pop up, new sub-plots, new sections/chapters, even completely revised endings. I like to go in having a plan. But I’m not beholden to it either.
How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?
Many stages. Even when I’m writing, I have multiple drafts. Sometimes three or four or twenty! Writing the story is always dealing with fighting the blank page. Sometimes the story will get done in a few weeks. Or a few months. Once that’s over, the editing process depends on the length of the work and the publisher. Editors will give you notes and direction. You get some time to handle those. Then when that’s mostly finalized, it’s off to the copyeditors—where all the finetuning happens.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
These days? I don’t know about “these days.” But something I often work hard at is making certain the worldbuilding doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s always a balance at work there. And sometimes you look up from eager writing to find you’ve wandered too far off the path. In those cases I stop, step away, then return with fresh eyes to try and recapture the thread.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
Always new projects on the horizon. Best way to not keep thinking about the last one you turned in. Working on a secondary world fantasy story about an undead assassin. We’ll see how it goes!