N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H. Her short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her speculative works range from fantasy to science fiction to the undefinable; her themes include resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up.
She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group, a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and she has been an instructor for the Clarion workshops. In her spare time she is a biker, an adventurer, a gamer, and a counseling psychologist; she is also single-handedly responsible for saving the world from KING OZZYMANDIAS, her obnoxious ginger cat. Her essays, media reviews, and fiction excerpts are available at nkjemisin.com.
Her newest novel, The Fifth Season, came out in August, 2015.
Part One of this interview posted last Sunday, and is available here.
What are some elements of your favorite novels or works that influence your work?
My inspiration is usually mythology. I’m more interested in stories as they’ve existed throughout antiquity. I like oral storytelling; I like creation myths of various peoples and cultures and religions. I myself am an agnostic, so I see all religions and all creation myths as mythology, although I know that for a lot of people it’s a lived experience. As far as I am concerned, humanity has had several thousand years to perfect storytelling, and there’s a lot to be learned from those basic, classic—even primordial—storytelling forms and ideologies. That is more interesting to me than what is selling best and what is popular. That may be why I’m not a bestseller! I don’t know. I write stories that excite me; I’m not trying to become the next G.R.R. Martin; I’m trying to tell a story that makes me happy. It’s entirely possible that at some point that writing a story like Martin might make me happy, but right now I’m a little more basic.
My favorite authors tend to be other people who do the same thing. Tanith Lee—I fell in love with her Flat Earth books, way back in the day—and Ursula LeGuin, and other writers like that. I’m a big fan of Storm Constantine, who I think is clearly not interested in what is being done elsewhere in literature; she’s very much doing her own thing. She’s written a number of series and standalones that are just mindblowing. She’s probably best known for a series of six or seven books, called Wraeththu. It’s a fascinating fantasy love story set in a far future Earth in which humankind has mutated into a monogendered species (for lack of a better description). Intersex is the more appropriate term. The characters have both female and male organs; they are capable of reproducing amongst themselves, and they use sex magic to do all kinds of miraculous and horrific stuff. The story is all about several characters in this Wraeththu-verse going forth and doing their thing. It turns out belatedly that the story is a post-apocalyptic fantasy but it takes a while to realize that.
I liked Louise Cooper (rest in peace). I like a lot of the fantasy that you see coming out of other cultures. I’m a giant anime and manga fan. An example of the stuff that I’ve loved that has definitely influenced my work is Rig Veda by CLAMP, the all-female manga group. This type of group is not unusual in Japan; there’s quite a few women writing fantasy there. Manga isn’t nearly as male-dominated there. In Japan it’s pretty easy to find stuff from different perspectives, not just the straight guy. I do like the straight-guy stuff too, especially when it’s coming out of a different culture, simply because it brings different perspectives and really just different ways of thinking about things. Rig Veda is particularly interesting because it is a Japanese manga retelling of an Indian myth. Just imagine the core mythos of any religion, retold in manga form, and that’s what you’ve got. Imagine the story of Jesus retold by Japanese manga artists. Some people might find that blasphemous, but it sure as hell would be interesting—it probably exists out there, too.
We hope you are looking forward to the Odyssey Workshop this summer! As a guest lecturer, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important piece of advice you can give to developing writers?
I’m looking forward to the Odyssey Workshop. I always wanted to participate in a six-week workshop, and I always thought Odyssey would be the one, because Odyssey is one of the few workshops willing to accept novel writers, and critique novels. Other workshops only accept short stories—and remember at the time that I was a little snooty toward short stories. I wanted to do Clarion but didn’t have the skills at the time to write short stories.
As for advice, I would say that if you get into a critique group or a workshop, you’ll learn a lot more from watching other people be critiqued than you do from actually getting critiqued yourself. In a lot of cases, people are too close to their own work. It’s hard to hear criticism without having that visceral “You hate my baby!” reaction. “You just said my baby was ugly! I’ve going to kill you!” You’re too busy reacting to really hear what’s being said. But with other people’s work—you’re detached from it because it’s not yours. You’ve read it, you’re thinking about how you interpreting it versus how other people interpret it and that gives you a better sense of what makes a story work.
If you’re using the Milford model critiquing method—the sort of standard workshop critiquing method—you’re also going to hear what the author intended versus what they actually managed to do. That shows you different techniques to use, how effective certain techniques can be or how ineffective they might be. It’s important to remember it’s not about getting about critiqued yourself—that’s important; that helps—but what’s going to teach you the most is watching other people being critiqued. It’s so helpful to listen.
Tell us about your writing schedule—where you like to write, and when. You mention a “business day” in other interviews. Does that have to do with your writing career? Do you have any advice for writers about writing schedules and so forth?
My business day is a thing I’ve had to institute because I’ve become a professional writer. I didn’t have to worry about doing interviews or going to the bank to set up a business account or meeting with my accountant—none of that stuff was an issue before. I do have a full-time day job—my boss and coworkers have been incredibly understanding about me having a secondary career. I work four days a week, ten hours a day, at the day job. Then Fridays I have free, because I needed a day during the week when I could do all these meetings and things like that. That leaves my weekends free for writing.
My writing days include Fridays if I don’t have any business, but it’s rare that I don’t. But on my writing days, I get up around eight, feed the cat. Usually the cat will try to get me up before eight, because he’s annoying—that said, we’ve reached a mutual point of understanding about certain things. I will make breakfast, mess around a little bit, and usually try to keep a nine to five day, because as far as I’m concerned, writing is work.
I do my best writing by day. Different people do different things; some people write at night, but I write by day because that’s how my brain works. I will start writing around nine and try to get in about 1500 words a day. More if I’m in deadline mode, which means 2500-3000 words a day, which is hard on me. But writing at my usual leisurely pace equals about 1500 words a day. And I do the same thing on Sundays. I write till about five p.m. I try to go to the gym afterwards. Exercise is important. But it’s also important to have a life—to have people in your life. To spend time with family and go out with friends and have those experiences.
If I’m on a deadline, I will also write during the week. I come home from work and try to target write a couple of hours before I go to bed—to hit a certain number of words per week so I can stay on track. I don’t like doing that; I’m usually tired after working all day and then come home and do more work, but sometimes it’s necessary. If I can write about 250 words after work I feel like I’ve done something amazing.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon for you?
I have a couple of projects that I’m working on right now. One I can’t actually mention right now; for the first time, I’m doing a media tie-in novel, which I am contractually obligated not to talk about, but I’m doing it, so I can at least acknowledge I AM DOING THE THING. That will be out later this year.
I’m also on Book Three of the Broken Earth trilogy. I’d broken ground on it but I had to put it aside to do the media tie-in. That’s not a bad thing; the Broken Earth books are soul-grinding. The Fifth Season was hard to write. After writing The Fifth Season, I needed a palate cleanser, so I went off and wrote the “Awakened Kingdom” novella (set in the Inheritance trilogy world) which was my attempt at being silly and light-hearted—but even when I’m writing a light-hearted story, I have to change the world in it, and it turned out that after the events in the second Broken Earth book I wanted a palate cleanser there too. I decided to do the media tie in for that. Now I’m raring to go on Book Three. I’m hoping to get that done before August.
I have a short story I wrote last year coming out on Tor.com, but they haven’t given me an ETA on publication for that.
That’s what’s happening right now!