Nebula Awards 2009 Interview: N.K. Jemisin

by Larry Nolen

N.K. Jemisin was nominated for her short story “Non-Zero Probabilities” in the 2009 Nebula Awards.

Looking at the stories linked to on your site, you’ve had several stories published since 2004.  For how long were you writing and submitting stories to editors before your first story was published?

I didn’t start out with short stories, actually; since childhood I’ve been writing novels, most of which were pretty awful.  But I got brave and submitted my first novel to a publisher in maybe 1995?  It sat in their slushpile for 2 years before being rejected, and I didn’t submit anything else for several years after that.  I wasn’t idle during this time; I was in grad school, which kind of put a damper on my writing, though when I had time I spent it working on the next book (the one that eventually became The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was recently published by Orbit).

I didn’t start writing short stories until after I attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop in 2002.  I’d thought of myself as a pure novelist up to then, but the instructors at the workshop — who were phenomenal, BTW — suggested that learning to write shorts would improve my novel-writing, so I decided to try it.  It took me a year or so to learn the craft, which basically consisted of me getting a subscription to F&SF, joining a writing group, and churning out a whole lot of crap.  But I finally made my first sale –  actually in 2003, but to a small-press anthology that held onto it for awhile and went kaput before it was ever published. I resold that one later, and had a cluster of other sales around the same time.

So to make a long story short (too late!), I spent maybe six months seriously submitting stories before my first one was published.

Many authors have kept copies of their rejection letters as a means of motivation.  Have you ever done so?

Yep.  That first novel rejection letter — the one I waited two years for — is framed and sitting in my office right now.  I also keep all my short story and novel rejections in a box, for the day when I own a house.  I intend to wallpaper my bathroom with them.

Several of the short stories of yours that I’ve read so far are set in either New Orleans or New York City.  What influences have these cities had on influencing your choice of story and setting?

Well, I lived in both cities for several years.  I’ve lived elsewhere too — DC, Boston, Mobile, Iowa City — but NOLA and NYC are definitely my favorites.  I think all cities are inherently magical places, but the magic in those two seems especially powerful somehow.  It’s not really something I can explain.

I have another New Orleans story coming out soon, actually — it will be published in Postscripts, a UK science fiction/fantasy anthology, this coming summer.  That one’s called “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters,” and is set in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  It’s a heartwarming fantasy about a boy and his dragon — the boy is a drug dealer and the dragon caused the hurricane.  There’s a monster too.

Very curious to read this story, especially since it touches upon a very real tragedy.  Speaking of real-life pain and suffering, you recently  posted a novelette, “The Effluent Engine”, on your website as part of the internet outreach to benefit those devastated by the January Haitian earthquakes, A Story for Haiti.  What feedback did you receive from readers and fellow writers about this outreach program?

You can see all the comments I’ve received on the story on my blog, actually.  A few responses from readers, generally positive — and better still, a few donations.  No comments from writers that I know of, though in all several dozen writers participated in the “A Story for Haiti” benefit themselves, and there were quite a lot of fantastic stories posted thereby. Go check them out!  And donate!  Haiti still needs help.

Your Nebula-nominated short story, “Non-Zero Probabilities,” deals with  luck run amok, with derailing rains to improbable lottery runs, to all sorts of things in-between.  How much credence do you give to the notion of “luck” being a prime mover and shaker of human interrelationships and destinies?

I don’t give any credence to it, actually.  I believe in probability, which most of us refer to as luck, mostly because that word is easier to say than “outlier” or “likelihood as n approaches infinity.”  (Statistics and probability are pretty much the only maths that I actually enjoy.)  But I’ve always found it fascinating how so many people ascribe real, personal meaning to what is essentially chance.  I spent 8 years living in Boston, and “the curse of the Bambino” was broken by the 2004 World Series win while I lived there.  The entire city was obsessed with this curse; it was hilarious.  It was also beautiful.  There was a real, palpable sense of relief and joy throughout the city when the curse was broken; I don’t think it was just because of the Series win.  Everyone in the city – even skeptical, baseball-hating me — bonded over this sense of relief.  So maybe there’s a whiff of Boston in “Non-Zero Probabilities” too.

Superstitions really aren’t more than old religious beliefs downgraded to suit the newer, dominant religious beliefs, huh?  I have noticed that in several of your stories, including your debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,that syncretic religious beliefs are brought up.  Have personal influences shaped your approach toward examining religious belief in fiction, or is something else at play?

Er — no, I don’t at all agree that superstitions are old religious beliefs downgraded to suit newer, dominant religious beliefs.  Superstition can have nothing to do with religion, as I noted with my Red Sox example.  Rather, I think superstitions, and religions too, are simply human nature.  We’re a species that ascribes meaning to everything around it — life and death, the position of the stars, observed patterns, random events.  Sometimes the meanings we ascribe have empirical value, sometimes intrinsic value, and sometimes they’re complete BS.  None of that will ever stop us from seeking meaning, though — or at least, I hope not.  Because I think the same human impulse that generates superstition also generates fiction and other forms of creativity.  Without meaning we can’t have stories, and stories are what fantasy is all about.

The only personal influences that have shaped my approach toward religion are human history.  Every belief system on this planet is syncretic to some degree.  Even modern atheism didn’t appear as a burning bush, or spring fully-formed from somebody’s forehead; it’s the logical consequence of rationalism and historical analysis.  Maybe the first religion ever created was pure, but everything since then’s been a moocher.  All of them incorporate previous belief systems, or common understandings of the world that are treated as gospel truth — science, sexism, sociology – whether they admit it or not.  So if I wanted to depict a “created” religion plausibly, as I did in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it was going to have to be syncretic.  Or if I want to depict the religion of a woman who’s trying to reconcile her heritage with her own (admittedly amateur) understanding of cause and effect and probability, that would naturally be syncretic  too.  That’s what I tried to show in “Non-Zero Probabilities.”

Interesting.  Would you agree that in part people read (and write) what we nowadays call “fantasy” because of a desire to reorder occurrences and perhaps also because of some desire to fiddle around with elements that are somewhat akin to religious beliefs?

Nope.  I think people read and write fantasy because it’s fun!  At least, that’s why I read and write it.

Fair enough.  One thing that struck me about “Non-Zero Probabilities” is the hint of a mostly-hidden backstory to Adele, brought up in the first paragraph.  In conceiving her character, what type of woman did you envision Adele being?

Exactly the woman described in the story: a typical young city-dweller, working a typical 9 to 5 and enduring the typical tribulations of life in the city — balancing safety with freedom, battling loneliness among millions of strangers, paying the rent.  Typical stuff.  Her backstory is typical too: she’s a New York transplant (like half the city), coming from some smaller place but adapting wholly; she’s got parents, friends, some ex-boyfriends.  The usual. I wrote her as a very ordinary woman, to deal with the story’s extraordinary events.

Interspersed among Adele’s recounting of her experiences are short, vividly drawn scenes of New York City, including street corner ministers and dice-rolling neighbors.  How many of the interactions depicted in the story are events that a visitor or new resident to the city might expect to encounter?  Are these encounters with the religious and the secular zealots just one more example of non-zero probabilities?

A visitor might see some of these things, I suppose — I don’t spend a lot of time in the tourist areas of the city, but I’ve seen preachers in Times Square and so on. But note the story takes place not just in New York, but specifically in Brooklyn, which (to my enduring surprise) tourists rarely visit and newcomers frequently avoid.  Too many “Death Wish” movies, maybe. Brooklyn, far more than Manhattan, is a city of open (rather than concealed) faith.  It’s not as pushy about that faith as I made out in the story, though — the story takes place during a time of crisis, much like the weeks after 9/11, so it’s kind of atypical of life in the city.  My day job is in downtown Brooklyn, for example, and while I’ve never seen an evangelical proselytizer there, you can find adherents of various faiths all along Court Street on any given day.  Black Israelites selling incense, Hasidim guys cruising in little trucks with speakers pumping Yiddish music, Catholic nuns walking for exercise, whatever.  Most of them don’t preach, though – they just go on about the business of being who they are.  Nobody bothers them, and they don’t bother anybody — but they don’t hide who the are, either, the way they might have to do in some smaller town.  Here it’s all cool.

The story’s not really about religion, though, so there was no need to exaggerate the other events that take place in the story — I just borrowed small mundane scenarios from my everyday life, and “speculatized” them.  I visit the farmers’ market at Grand Army plaza on most Saturdays.  Anybody walking through Prospect Park will see the Long Meadow, where the projectile Italian ice scene took place.  I tried to grow a garden on my balcony last year, to varying degrees of success:  the collards grew beautifully until aphids got them, and the eggplants remained stunted and never flowered. So I didn’t get to romance a hot neighbor with an eggplant, alas. (Container gardening advice would be welcome, BTW, if readers want to offer it.)

Some writers like to recycle certain characters, place them in new roles or situations, to see if anything else can be wrung out of them.  Have you given any thought to utilizing Adele in another story, perhaps under very different circumstances?

Nope.  I’ve never done that, and I don’t think it would ever occur to me.

Adele in “Non-Zero Probabilities” and Yeine in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, are described as being biracial/bicultural.  In Yeine’s case in particular, she appears to stand in the middle of several conflicts, those between mortals and those between the gods of the story.  How important are these characters’ backgrounds to shaping the plot elements of their respective stories?

As important as any character’s background is, I guess.
Adele’s not biracial, note — she’s multiracial and multiethnic, a typical American.  She acknowledges her European and African components because they’re the ones she knows something about, and because I wanted to show how a typical American might react to the situation that occurs in the story. It’s the sort of thing any of us might have to consider, if belief suddenly became a necessity of survival.  Beliefs are culture-specific, so multicultural people can either take multiple sets of beliefs into account, or pick one.  Adele chose multiples.

Yeine is biracial, but not bicultural, which is important to the story in that otherwise she wouldn’t be such a fish out of water among her mother’s people.  She speaks the language and has some basic knowledge of the customs, but that doesn’t make her “culturally fluent” — she doesn’t understand them, doesn’t think like them, and she’ll never be one of them, in part because their culture values racial purity.  This makes her a handy viewpoint character through which to introduce the reader to the world of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms… but it’s also the thing that might get her killed, as the story progresses.

Some readers have interpreted Yeine’s precarious situation among the Arameri as being a concrete metaphor for what bi/multi-racial peoples experience.  Was there a conscious attempt to convey this in the writing, or are there other elements to consider when interpreting Yeine as a character?

It’s not possible to use a single person’s experiences as a metaphor or symbol for millions of people.  That wouldn’t be a metaphor, it would be a gross overgeneralization.  And while I know that kind of essentialism is common in epic fantasy, particularly with non-human races (e.g. “Orcs are inherently evil” or “Half-Elves are always bitter and unstable because nobody accepts them”), I think that’s a simplistic and unrealistic way to handle groups.  Not to mention offensive, when this kind of thinking is applied to human beings.

So I wrote Yeine the way I write all my characters:  as an individual for whom the various aspects of her identity (e.g., race, gender, religion, class) are important.  This isn’t exactly new or unique, though — it’s something most pro writers do, because that’s what good characterization requires.  It’s certainly common in epic fantasy to see that the hero’s race impacts the plot in some way; it’s just that usually this gets done with made-up fantasy races.  Aragorn’s Numenorean heritage in LotR, for example, or Vin’s status as a halfbreed Skaa/Noble in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. But some authors acknowledge the existence of real-world racial designations — for example, C. S. Friedman did it in her Coldfire trilogy (the people of the other continent were brown-skinned, while Damien Vryce’s people were white, which implies there was a racial division among the colonists when the planet was settled).  Pretty much the only thing I’ve done different is make the brown person the protagonist.

I read somewhere that when you originally wrote the story that became The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, that you had envisioned Yeine as male rather than female.  Why the shift?

Experimentation.  I knew the story didn’t work in its old form — I first wrote it ten years ago and tried to get it published then, to a nice round set of rejections.  When I decided to revisit the story, after writing some other novels and growing as a writer, I couldn’t see what was wrong with it; it still appeared to be well-written enough for publication.  So I changed a number of random things just to see if mixing it up would make the story better.  That’s a trick I learned from writing short stories, actually – if one character’s viewpoint doesn’t feel quite right, I might try rewriting it from a different viewpoint, and so on.  In this case I had nothing to lose, so I just decided everything but the core concept and plot were fair game.  I removed the prologue, got rid of some subplots, changed the story from third person to first, told the story from one viewpoint instead of several, changed the style from didactic to something more literary, changed several characters’ gender including the protagonist, and shortened the whole book by about a third overall.  A gut renovation, as we say in New York.  But as I did this, I finally realized the problem — I’d been trying too hard to make it a traditional epic fantasy.  This wasn’t a “hero’s journey” kind of tale.  It was more a fusion of several genres, with epic fantasy simply the most prominent of them.  So I borrowed techniques from those genres — gothic mystery, New Weird, the literary field — wrote a test chapter or two, and was mostly pleased with the results.  Then, since it’s pointless to try and revise something once those many changes have been made, I wrote the whole thing over from scratch.  Scrapped the old file entirely.

Yeine’s gender swap wasn’t the most profound of the changes.  (I would say the third- to first-person switch was that, along with the narrowing of viewpoints.)  It did have a pretty significant effect on the story, though. All the characters’ interactions developed different sexual politics – for example, Yeine’s relationship with Sieh, the child god.  In the earlier version Sieh was simply an untrustworthy advisor to the protagonist, but now there were obvious reasons to add a mother-child element.  (A little stereotypical, yes, but it worked, so I went with it.)  Also, the story pretty much requires a romantic element, since like the Greek gods, the gods in my book’s world are family, lovers, and enemies.  Their relationships are the basis of the whole trilogy.  With a male protagonist I’d felt constrained to keep things G-rated — openly homoerotic and with some implied transgender issues, but not explicit.  I was afraid I couldn’t get it published unless I kept things fade-to-black, given how weirdly adolescent the SF/F audience is toward romance or anything that might have “girl cooties” attached.  (See Debra Doyle’s great essay on girl cooties — specific to science fiction, but applies to certain subsets of fantasy, and extrapolates to “gay cooties” as well.)  I didn’t like giving up that piece of the old story, because I think SF/F needs to get over its aversion to alternative sexualities… but SF/F needs to get over its aversion to women, too.  (And people of color, and people with disabilities, and so on.) And with a female protagonist I felt more free to play with the sexual element in a way the story really needed.  I could cootie it up!  So I wrote it, and crossed my fingers to see if it would sell.  Lo and behold, it did.

You bring up the issue of sexuality and transgender issues.  What have been some of the reactions, both from the early readers of your manuscript and later from reviewers, about the sexual relationships found in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms?

I’ve seen wholly positive reactions to the sexuality built into the cosmology — namely the fact that the gods in my story happily fornicate with their siblings, their children, their creations (mortals), and their kitchen sinks.  My gods are actually a bit more selective than the Greek gods — no cows were schtupped in the making of the Inheritance Trilogy — so I’m not surprised at the positive response to this. I’ve also seen very positive squeeage over the fact that the gods are essentially omnisexual. They don’t care about their partner’s (or partners’, since the Three are a poly relationship) gender, and their own gender is (if they choose) a flexible thing.  This isn’t surprising either; they’re not human, and nobody seems to expect typical human behavior from them.

I’ve seen mostly positive reactions to the the sex scenes.  There aren’t really enough negative reactions to characterize the dissenters, and note my earlier point about generalizations, but I’ll mention where I’ve seen “non-zero” negative responses:  young readers (teenagers); readers who mistakenly think the book is YA because the protagonist is 19, or want the book to be YA because the protagonist is 19; readers who hate Twilight and paranormal romance; and readers who are very wedded to the forms (and flaws) of traditional epic fantasy.  I’m not sure what’s up with the young readers.  When I was a teenager I loved to read books with “hot parts” and share them with my friends, but then we didn’t have the internet back then; these days “hot parts” are thick on the ground in the form of fanfic and porn on demand.  So maybe they’re more jaded than my generation (wow, I feel old now). The YA readers are more understandable; YA has changed since I was young, and nowadays anything goes, but not too long ago YA  meant “sex-free”.  (I remember the uproar over Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and all that book really did was mention menstruation and breasts.  The protagonist thought about sex and that got the book banned in dozens of school systems.  I had to get my mom’s permission to read it for class.  Amazing.)  So some of those attitudes linger.  The people who are backlashing against Twilight and paranormal are understandable too, even though my book doesn’t really have anything to do with either — most likely anything with even a superficial resemblance is getting a negative reaction from these folks right now.  Also, I think some people don’t expect to see explicit sex in a fantasy that borrows tropes from mythology or fairy tales — especially if they’re used to the sanitized, Disneyfied myths and tales that are common currency in Western culture now.  Nothing wrong with that.  But since I’ve been reading unadulterated myths and fairy tales for years now — e.g., Isis’ magic dildo and necrophilia, Zeus’ pederastic rape of Ganymede, the real version of Sleeping Beauty in which the prince doesn’t kiss her to wake her up — well, I’m not writing Disney.  I guess that’s a shock.

I’m completely unsurprised by the negative reactions from traditional epic fantasy fans, however, because I’ve been one of them for years and I know how they think.  Frankly, I’m amazed so many of them seem to actually like the sex, given how epic fantasy usually treats issues of sex and gender.  For example, typical epic fantasy features almost exclusively male protagonists, and female characters who are objectified and lack agency (among many other problems).  In these fantasies it’s common for the kind of sex that’s part of normal, everyday life — healthy, consensual sex between grownups who know what they want and ask for it, in other words — to take place offscreen or by implication only (“fade to black”).  Readers just don’t get to see that much, probably because of that girl cooties phenomenon I mentioned earlier.  But sex that’s used as a cheap way to define or create conflict for the male protagonists — e.g., rapes that show just how eeeeeevil a villain is, or motivate the hero to act; women who tempt the hero with their “wiles” as a distraction — gets shown much more often.  The result of this pattern is that a lot of epic fantasy readers have gotten used to seeing sex only under totally pathological circumstances.  =) So when they see normal sex, it seems gratuitous. Often they’ll declare that it “has no purpose” — i.e., it doesn’t fit the pattern of male-fantasy melodrama that they’re used to.  At that point it doesn’t matter how well the scene is written, or whether it fits the character, or whatever; they’ll dismiss it as crap regardless.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Yeine has what is essentially normal sex. By that I mean:  there’s no rape involved; it doesn’t motivate her to fight harder; it doesn’t cure some deep psychological trauma she’s been nursing; it doesn’t do anything to help the male characters.  She’s just lonely and wants comfort, plain and simple, and since there are some willing folks around, she asks for their help.  I’ve seen some readers label her way of thinking as “masculine”, but I think of her behavior as simply “unrepressed”, because she didn’t grow up in a patriarchial culture.  She behaves like a woman, but one who hasn’t had her self-worth bludgeoned into nonsense by virginity pledges, or songs telling her to Shake It Like A Saltshaker, or laws labeling breastfeeding obscene because some guy nearby might get an embarrassing woody, or swimsuit issues with Photoshopped cover models.  This kind of woman isn’t something epic fantasy readers see often, so I’m not surprised there are some negative reactions.

Plus I think the language just doesn’t fit some people’s tastes.  I actually use the word “penis” at one point; I saw one review that completely lost it over that.  Hilarious.

Besides finishing your epic fantasy trilogy, what are some of your other writing projects that you are hoping to have published in the near future?

Well, I mentioned the Postscripts story.  Aside from that I don’t have any other short stories forthcoming; I’ve been so busy working on the trilogy that I haven’t written short fiction in ages.  When book 3 is done I’ll get back to that.  I’d also like to start work on a YA science fiction novel that’s been on the back burner since the Inheritance Trilogy sold.  That one is currently called Archetype and involves a young woman who discovers she’s part of an elaborate conspiracy to keep a group of AIs safe from humans who are paranoid about the Singularity. We’ll see how that one goes.

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N. K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY.  In addition to writing, she is a counseling psychologist (currently specializing in career counseling), a sometime hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger.

Her short fiction has been published in pro markets such as Clarkesworld, Postscripts, Strange Horizons, and Baen’s Universe; podcast markets and print anthologies; and has received Honorable Mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and The Year’s Best Science Fiction.  Her short story “Non-Zero Probabilities” is on the Final Ballot for the 2009 Nebula and Hugo Awards.

Her first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is out from Orbit Books as of February 2010.  It is the first book of the Inheritance Trilogy (book 2 is forthcoming in November 2010), and has thus far received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, and a “Top Pick” from Romantic Times.

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Larry Nolen is a history and English teacher who has taught for most of the past ten years in Tennessee and Florida, in both public and private school settings.  Fascinated with languages from an early age, he devotes much of his spare time to reading and translating interviews and articles from Spanish into English. Larry also has an unhealthy fascination with squirrels and dreams to one day edit an anthology of squirrel SF. His blog can be found at ofblog.blogspot.com.