Interview with N.K. Jemisin

Posted by Goodreads on August 3, 2015
As a child, N.K. Jemisin built empires. She spent days playing Civilization, a strategy game focused on kingdom creation. But one thing always bothered her about the experience: It was too Earth-like. So she set out to become a fantasy writer.

Now Jemisin is a heralded voice in the genre. Her books break free from the traditional molds. (Looking to read about another farm boy destined for greatness? Look somewhere else.) She raises societies from the ground up and scatters a cast of mixed-race characters across new continents. In her award-winning Inheritance Trilogy she set enslaved gods among mortals, and in The Killing Moon she introduced readers to dream-harvesting priests hungry for magic.

This month she releases her most groundbreaking work yet. The Fifth Season, the first in a planned series, transports readers to a crumbling apocalyptic world where a woman with the power to subdue and summon the powers of the earth searches for her kidnapped daughter. Jemisin talks with Goodreads about her new book, the perils of volcano research, and where the fantasy genre should boldly go next.

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Goodreads: In The Fifth Season the world is at the whim of apocalyptic earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides—and the select few who can control them. What inspired such a natural disaster-focused fantasy?

N.K. Jemisin: I had a dream of a woman doing the "badass power walk" with a mountain falling behind her. And at that point I had to come up with an explanation: Why does this woman have a pet mountain? Why does she look like she's about to throw it at someone? And why do I get the sense that she can throw it at someone?

And I've always been fascinated by seismic stuff in general, probably because I have grown up in parts of the country that had no mountains and no earthquakes. And volcanoes are cool as hell. Geysers are cool as hell. The idea that Yellowstone is this ticking time bomb is fascinating. Horrifying but fascinating! And I'm usually fascinated by horrifying things. It's a wonder I'm not a horror writer.

GR: Seeing that earthquakes and volcanic events are a little difficult to schedule for observation, what kind of research did you do?

NKJ: I went to Hawaii, the Big Island, and I visited four volcanoes in four days. I do not recommend this. I, in particular, do not recommend hiking across volcanoes that are full of volcanic glass. If you slip and fall, you cut your hand to the bone. And I was going to hike across it jet-lagged. Again, don't do that. They were all great ideas on paper, but when you actually do them, you realize, "I could've died."

And, you know, I actually hoped to feel another earthquake at one point, but, alas, I was earthquake deprived. I'll be visiting San Francisco soon, so maybe I'll get lucky—or unlucky, depending on how you look at it.

GR: One of the most unique things about The Fifth Season is the shifting perspective—some chapters are told in third person and some in second. How did that come about?

NKJ: I actually didn't set out to do it that way. But second person is certainly doable. Italo Calvino is one author who's done it. It's not something you see very often in genre fiction, but that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't belong. I've never believed in the whole idea that genre fiction is somehow inherently worse or that literary fiction is somehow inherently better. Fiction is fiction. Good writing is good writing—if you're able to successfully pull it off.

GR: Why did you choose to set your apocalyptic world on a planet that's not Earth?

NKJ: I think the whole "but it was really Earth all along" is overdone. It's something a lot of writers resort to because they think it's such a twist! But no, it's really not.

That's part of it. The other piece of it is that I just really like playing with different permutations of world building. Literally ground up world building. I'm actually doing a workshop at the Writer's Digest conference where we start with, How many continents do you want, where are the air currents blowing, and what does that mean for the climate? And where are the people you want to focus on located on this planet? And then how does the climate impact their culture? I like playing with the idea of how these things informed who these people are and how they interact with their world.

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GR: What are some of your inspirations for world building?

NKJ: I kind of cut my teeth on fantasy that did these kinds of things. Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea is an archipelago. And the fact that it's an archipelago makes such an impact on what that world is like and who those people are. And it's just cool. And my favorite fantasies have always been those that took the basic principles of how a world works and the basic principles of how people work and put them through completely whack-a-doodle situations and shook it up just to see what happened.

GR: Goodreads member Robyn Ryle says, "Most readers assume that characters are white until they're told otherwise. If your characters are people of color, you have to mark that in some way, but that can reinforce the idea that white is normal, unmarked. What do you think are some good strategies for writing about racially diverse characters without falling into these patterns?"

NKJ: One of the things I try to do is, I don't just name the characters of color—I say when the characters are white. I occasionally get readers asking, "Why did you mention they're white? Are they albino?" And I say, "No, I'm just describing them." It doesn't seem to me to be a particularly revolutionary thing to do, but on the other hand, it does seem to make a difference when what you're trying to do is unmark white as the default.

Another thing I often do is, I try very carefully to avoid using food-based metaphors. One of the tendencies for characters of color is to be described in terms of the trade goods that once drove colonialism and slavery. So chocolate and coal and molasses. There's something subconscious and screwed up about that, so I try to be conscious of the terms I use. And I don't like clichés. One of the things I've struggled with is how to describe white without just saying pale because I don't want to get into the slightly creepy fetishization of "peaches and cream" and "milk white" because a lot of those terms are A) only used to describe women, and B) made to project that the characters described are meant to be consumed—which is gross and creepy.

In The Fifth Season skin color has a very different meaning than in our world. The vast majority of the population is multiracial, some flavor or another, and people at the extremes are regarded as backwater or odd, whether they are very dark or very light. So any of these middle-tone people are going to look at someone who is white and think, "That person must burn up in hot sunlight. Like paper shriveled up." So those are some ways I could frame it that got away from both fetishization and boringness.

(I've written a series on my blog about this as well: Describing characters of color in writing.)

GR: What do you hope to see more of from the fantasy genre in the future?

NKJ: I hope we start seeing real history in fantasy because right now we aren't. Some of the permutations we see of western fantasy are so idealized and romanticized—past of yore, the good ol' days, the time when men were men and women were women... And they're not intended to be realistic, and that's fine, but there are so many cool things in real history. And Western Europe is pretty amazing if you look at what it actually went through, but you don't see 99 percent of that in fantasy. You just see simplified versions of it. It's Dungeons & Dragons does history. I'd like to see fantasy stop reinforcing unintentional fantasies, if that make sense—fantasies of white supremacy, of male supremacy, of worlds in which 90 percent of the population is white and farm boys become kings all the damn time. I'm not advocating for realism. It's fantasy! But if I'm going to see some sort of secondary world building being played with, I don't want it to be the obliteration of everyone outside of Western Europe.

GR: Goodreads member Jean asks, "What should be the relationship between social commentary and fantasy?"

NKJ: If you're writing anything about human beings, then you're instantly talking about their sociology, their politics, and so on. Whether people know if it is a different question. People don't notice the status quo related to politics. So if you're writing a story where the vast majority of characters are male, people may not notice because they're used to that. But you're still making a commentary on masculinity, on the importance of woman, on the relative importance of men as greater. It's just in a patriarchal society we don't notice. So it's not a question of whether there should be a relationship, but if you acknowledge the relationship or not.

GR: You've said on your website, "I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren't." Why do you think it's taking so long for fantasy to reflect the diversity of human beings?

NKJ: Our society is taking too long to do the same thing. Fantasy reflects the people who write it. And we live in a society that even though it's 2015, we're only starting to acknowledge that inequalities didn't just vanish with the Civil Rights Act. Or with women getting the vote. We're only starting to acknowledge how systemic these things are.

The core of it is that we all need to get better at this, and I don't know how to do that other than to keep writing as I write.

GR: What can other people do?

NKJ: A lot of people who are at the green-lighting, decision-making stage need to change. Because they're still too wedded to the old ways. Or they're too risk-averse. It's expensive to put out a book. It's expensive to create a movie. And in a lot of cases you get people who are afraid to take risks because they think that their audience can't deal with anything too different. They want a formula that's guaranteed. Featuring all white people or all men or all straight people.

And I think readers are speaking up. They're calling attention to the dearth of diversity. Heck, I take inspiration from them. Readers are demanding better fiction. Not just white male power fantasies all the time. Or strangely white, strangely not connected to the rest of the world. People are saying loudly on social media and elsewhere, "Hey, this is a problem." Or, "Hey, this character who is described as black is white in the movie." And I take heart from that. I don't think I would have a career if not for readers who are actively looking for new and different things—and saying so loudly.

GR: What are you currently reading?

NKJ: Right now I am reading nothing! Well, I'm reading the ARC [Advanced Reader Copy] of The Fifth Season to try and maintain the continuity between it and the second book, which I'm writing right now. So I haven't had time to read something just for fun in a while.

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GR: What books did you enjoy reading as a child?

NKJ: I'm looking at my about-to-become-a-fire-hazard bookshelf, and I'm thinking, How do I just pick a few? I read Octavia Butler when I was like ten. I also liked Mercedes Lackey when I was young. Oh, and Louise Cooper was one of my favorite epic fantasy writers. She liked to play with the concept of good and evil, and light and darkness, and invert and subvert a lot of expectation. Giant fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. And David R. Palmer's Emergence. I'm looking at a tatty copy that I still have on my bookshelf right now that I probably really need to replace. It was about über-smart people dealing with an apocalypse! That's probably one of the first postapocalyptic books I read and loved.

Also, I loved mythology. One of my favorite books is actually a big coffee table book called Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Richard Cavendish. It is not a perfect book. It does the standard bias thing of devoting something like half the book to Greek and Roman stuff and like a page to Western African. But on the other hand, it was enough to get me interested, and then I went looking for stuff I liked better on my own.

And a little bit of poetry. I like Omar Khayyám. My father gave me some of those, and I liked them a lot.

And Frank Herbert's Dune!

GR: Goodreads member Laura asks, "Out of all the fantasy worlds you have created, which one would you want to live in?"

NKJ: Oh, god, none of them. I write horrible places to live! But no, I would go with the world of the Inheritance Trilogy. Because it's not actively in a disaster stage. And in a lot of ways it's better than our world. It's got no starvation. People can be homeless, but they're not allowed to go unsupervised without superbasic necessities like food and stuff like that. They're not allowed to just die. There's magic healing. If you can afford it, true, but there are always godlings hanging out who are willing to do it for free.

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Brianca (new)

Brianca I really enjoyed this interview. Thanks for this. I have expanded my 'Want to Read' list and look forward to it!

message 2: by Crystal (new)

Crystal Cox Great interview! Thank you

message 3: by Job (new)

Job Kakai a such wonderful interview.! congress and thanks alot

message 4: by Jack (last edited Aug 06, 2015 12:49PM) (new)

Jack Thank you for the interview Ms. Jemisin and Goodreads, especially the section about good strategies for writing about racially diverse characters. In addition to the obvious benefits, I believe it deepens the story narrative and clarifies the character descriptions. See Ms. Jemison's blog links for more discussion and examples on writing about racially diverse characters.
- Jack

Here is Ms. Jemisin's blog links on the subject of describing characters of color, the discussion thread is not appropriate for young readers:

message 5: by Kissie (last edited Aug 06, 2015 06:06AM) (new)

Kissie Harris This was one of the best interviews ever! Thank you so much.
Also, the link for the blog: Describing characters of Color is not working. :(

message 6: by Purabi (new)

Purabi Thank you Ms. Jemisin for a wonderful interview and thank you to Goodreads for arranging it. I appreciate the candour that sets this interview apart from a lot of others. I especially agree with Ms. Jemisin's comment - "lot of people who are at the green-lighting, decision-making stage need to change. Because they're still too wedded to the old ways. Or they're too risk-averse....." I have had a number of short stories published, but the one closest to my heart, a fantasy, has yet to find a home. Bravo, Ms. Jemisin. I wish you all the best.

message 7: by Beloved (new)

Beloved Schultz I didn't even know about this author. I am going to try to read some of her books.

message 8: by Tishana (new)

Tishana Trainor Awesome interview! So glad I clicked, and now I'm going to buy her book because it is really intriguing!

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Great interview. I never thought about the associations for describing color such as chocolate and molasses, but I see you're right when I think about it. I've seen those descriptive terms used a lot.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Christin wrote: "Most people don't care if folks are green, purple, or raspberry colored. The folks who obsess with highfalutin nonsense about "stigma pressure" and "stereotype threat" are the ones who perpetuate r..."

This is also true and something that I agree with, even if it's a lesser spoken of thought.

message 11: by Lydia (new)

Lydia Ms. Jemisim will be an addition to my "want to read" list. She appears to have found a way to do fantasy in a new manner that includes how people are not how we wish them to be.

message 12: by Ingrid (new)

Ingrid Anderson So glad this interview popped up in my email! I'd never heard of this author and wanted to find someone who included people who look like me in their work after I finished reading Octavia Butler's books. Not only will Jemisin be added to my "to read" list, but her comments have made me more interested in reading Le Guin, too.

Christin, would that your comment were true! I hope you'll come to appreciate that regardless of whether you think people care about color, those of us who are brown in complexion can immerse ourselves in a story more thoroughly when we see people who are like us in the storyline. If, truly, color doesn't matter to you, it must not matter when a character's color is mentioned.

message 13: by Emma (new)

Emma Great interview thank you so much

message 14: by Sonia (new)

Sonia This interview is wonderful! So inspiring. I had never heard of her books before but will definitely be picking them up.

message 15: by Maritza (last edited Aug 07, 2015 06:05PM) (new)

Maritza Great interview!

message 16: by Day (new)

Day Quaver Thank you Ms. Jemisin, this interview was so refreshing. I never realized what the food stereotypes to describe skin color actually perpetuate... I will start with the Inheritance trilogy!

message 17: by Lissa (new)

Lissa Fox Wow. Just finished reading The Book of the Phoenix, Nnedi Okorafor, and this interview really helped me understand some of th issues presented. Thanks. Also, like other commenters, I was fascinated, and appalled, by the discussion of the use of descriptors that are creepy on so many levels. Looking forward to reading the blog. My favorite way to descibe my skin color is "fish-belly white." Not sure how that fits...

message 18: by Ralph (new)

Ralph Leon I find myself wanting to read it even more

message 19: by Shadowdenizen (new)

Shadowdenizen Wow! What an honest and thought-provoking interview with a supremely talented [and well-spoken] author!

Loved the "Inheritance" trilogy, looking forward to starting the new series in the immediate future.

message 20: by Deborah (new)

Deborah What a great interview!

message 21: by Tyler (new)

Tyler K This was a very interesting and enlightening interview with an author I had never heard of before. Thanks Goodreads!

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