Friday 5 March 2010

N. K. Jemisin - Author Interview


Website: Epiphany 2.0


OK: Imagine if you had four gods as your slaves, to do with as you please. They're not all-powerful, but they can still bring the smite, and they absolutely have to do what you say. What would you do? End hunger? Prevent natural disasters? Would you send your slaves overseas to end some war, or get rid of some threat? What if they did it by wiping out the entire country in question, making the whole world hate you? Would you then use their power to keep yourself safe? And what if you realized that your slaves were just biding their time, waiting for the chance to take their revenge on you?

This is the world of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, where for centuries the Arameri family has used its god-slaves to make the world a better place -- whether it wants to be or not. But the gods have not been idle all this time. They want to be free, and they're going to use one special young woman to achieve this goal. But which is better: a peaceful world under a brutal dictator's thumb, or a free world suffering the gods' wrath unchecked?

> If you could live in your fantasy/sf world, would you? Would you live in somebody else's?

Heck no, I wouldn't live in my fantasy world! I put my worlds through way too much drama. But let's see. Offhand, I would love to live in Naomi Novik's dragon-infested alternate Earth (the Temeraire novels), though not in England during the Napoleonic wars, thanks. And only if I could meet a dragon. I might also like living in Steven Boyett's ARIEL and ELEGY BEACH, which is set on Earth after a change in the laws of physics causes technology to fail and magic to appear. Provided I could learn how to use some pre-gunpowder weapons, master a few basic spells, and scrounge enough modern medicines to not die of a stubbed toe, I think it would be a grand adventure.

> You first wrote the novel that became THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS ten years ago, then rewrote it from scratch. Why?

Because that novel sucked! Seriously, it wasn't bad -- it had the same concept, mostly the same characters, pretty much was the same book down the line. But I was telling the wrong character's story. In that earlier version, the emphasis was on the enslaved gods and their struggle to be free. The story's human protagonist was really just there to tell the gods' story. But what I needed to do was focus on the story of that protagonist, because I think a mortal struggling to deal with angry gods is more interesting than the angry gods themselves. It helped that in the ten years since, I'd gained a lot more skill as a writer, and could employ some techniques that I once would've been afraid to attempt. So I changed a number of specifics about the story -- for example, shifting the voice from third person to first person -- and rewrote it from scratch, this time emphasizing the protagonist's struggles. I'm much happier with the result this time... not the least of which is because it got me a book deal!

> What was the hardest scene for you to write?

A scene in which a character is tortured. There are actually several such scenes in THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS -- consider this fair warning – and I don't stint on describing them because I want to convey just how horrible this act is. But writing those scenes required me to go into a very dark place, and I didn't like being there.

> If you still have one, what's your day job?

At the moment I don't have a day job, though that's temporary. I took a hiatus from my career in order to finish the three books of the Inheritance Trilogy, since I had some short deadlines and didn't think I could handle *two* full time careers at once. But I'm planning to return to my day job, and actually looking forward to it because I love my work -- I'm a career counselor. Basically, I try to help people achieve their dreams (which makes for a weird sort of parallel with writing fantasy).

It's been interesting since the book deal, since becoming a published writer has been *my* dream, but I've come to realize that it's not quite enough for me. I still need to help people to feel fulfilled. So I suppose the ideal balance would be for me to work part-time as a career counselor, and part-time on my writing. We'll see; I'm still working things out.

> What is your university degree in and does it help with your writing?

I have a masters' in counseling psychology, and boy howdy does it help my writing. All my characters have Issues, and trying to resolve them -- or in a few cases, failing utterly -- is usually a key part of their character arc. Also, employing stress reduction techniques when I get close to a deadline helps to keep *me* sane!

> When and where do you write?

I make myself write every day, at least a thousand words a day, preferably two thousand. Generally I work best in midmorning to afternoon (which is one of the reasons why I quit my job), and I work equally well in my home office or in a local coffee shop (though that gets expensive and fattening, since I have to "pay rent" by buying coffee and food). When an idea has really grabbed hold of me, though, I start writing everywhere, anytime. I have often brought my laptop to bed with me; once I typed out a few paragraphs while cooking dinner, with the laptop balanced on top of the microwave. Don't try that at home, kids.

> What's the best/worst thing about writing?

Best: Revising. Because in order to revise, I will have already completed a rough draft -- the story is done, I just need to polish it and prune it into shape. The hardest part of writing, for me, is composing from scratch. It takes me hours to finish my wordcount goal for the day, and I spend a lot of that time staring at the screen, beating my brains for just the right word or phrase, trying this or that combination and discarding it and trying again. I love the finished product, but getting there is seriously hard work.

> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Persistence is the key. If you write a book and it doesn't sell, write another book. If that one doesn't sell, write another. Or do what I did -- go back to an old book and rewrite it from scratch. Then write another. The only way to fail in this game is to stop trying.

> How do you discipline yourself to write?

There was a time, when I was younger, when I waited for "inspiration" to write. I'd skip a few days, then churn out a chapter, then skip some more, and so on. And this was fine -- as long as writing was just a hobby. But when I began to realize that I wanted to write professionally, I needed to start viewing it as a profession. As work. And most people go to work every day, rain or shine, only taking time off for weekends, emergencies, etc. So I decided that I needed to write every day, too, rain or shine. I don't even take time off for weekends; most times I write seven days a week. I have to take myself seriously if I want other people to do the same. Plus -- and maybe more importantly -- I can reasonably expect to finish at least one novel every year at the pace I work. The days when writers could take years to crank out a single book are over; in this competitive market, writers have to produce new work frequently in order to build a brand and encourage readers to follow them.

> How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel or story?

For my first novel, I only got one rejection letter -- but it took two years to come, because I didn't have an agent then and submitted the novel through a publisher's slushpile. This turned out to be a good thing, though, because in the two years I was waiting, I realized that novel was crap. So I set it aside and wrote another, which was the earlier version of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS. Got about twenty rejections on that one, because I sent it to agents, not publishers (having learned my lesson from the last experience), and agents have speedier turnaround times. The rejections were encouraging, though, so I wrote another novel -- and it got me an agent! But it still didn't sell, and I got maybe ten rejections on that one. Then I rewrote THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS -- and didn't get a single rejection on it. In fact, it went to auction; *three* publishers wanted it. That was

But you know -- I keep that first, two-years-waiting rejection letter framed in my office. It's a great motivator, and a constant reminder that being a writer means failing, and trying again, and failing again, and trying again... until you succeed.

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