The WD Interview: Author N.K. Jemisin on Creating New Worlds and Playing with Imagination

The master fantasy world-builder reveals her secrets to success on Patreon and speculates on how imagination might test-drive our future.
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N.K. Jemisin wants to be a “storyteller of a writer.” It’s an ambition she claims not to have mastered, but many who have lost themselves in Jemisin’s tales of captive gods and stone eaters are sure to disagree.

N.K. Jemisin

Through her three epic fantasy series (the Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood duology and the Broken Earth trilogy) as well as dozens of short stories and a novella, Jemisin has become known as a master world creator, each world brought to life through their detailed histories and unique mythology. And even though Jemisin’s stories are set in universes where magic is commonplace, Jemisin’s writing feels pressingly relevant to our own world. Her stories are based on flawed power structures and deeply held prejudices with devastating consequences, but they’re also filled with diverse characters and hopeful futures. Jemisin’s latest book is How Long ‘til Black Future Month. The short story collection, published in November 2018, imagines futures for people of color like herself.

Storytelling is not just about the tales themselves, but also the connection between the storyteller and their audience. Outside of her work, Jemisin cultivates a bond with her readers through means such as her writing groups and outspoken activism in the fantasy and science fiction communities. This bond has paid off. In 2016, Jemisin quit her day job to focus on writing full-time with the generous support of her fans through the Patreon platform.

Among Jemisin’s accolades, her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, was short-listed for the James Tiptree Jr. Award, earned the Sense of Gender Award from the Japanese Association for Gender, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a Locus Award for Best First Novel. In 2018, when The Stone Sky (the final book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy) won the Best Novel Hugo award, Jemisin became the first author to win three Hugo Best Novel awards in a row. The novel also earned a Nebula Award for Best Novel and a Locus award for Best Fantasy Novel.

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Jemisin spoke to WD about her relationship to her readers and how she creates other worlds.

You were able to move into writing full time thanks to the support of your fans via Patreon. Can you tell us about making that decision?

It was not my decision 100 percent. I liked my day job [as a career counselor and academic advisor], and I really didn’t want to give the job up. But at the time, my mother was ill and deteriorating. And my writing career had become more than full time. TheFifth Season came out and sold like gangbusters, which is great. But it meant that I immediately started getting a deluge of interview requests, and when you have a nine-to-five job, you can only do interviews between 5:30 and seven, and you’ve got to eat somewhere in there, and write on top of that.

Some things had started to give, and the things that had started to give were my health and my sanity. It was to the point where the only reason I hadn't quit already was because I was afraid of the finances of the writer’s life, because I had done that before. Back at the beginning of my career, I had taken about a year-and-a-half off after I got the contract for the Inheritance trilogy. I discovered that I did not function well not having structure, not having people to interact with other than family, not having a purpose or sense of fulfillment. Because the thing about my day job was helping real people in real time and working with marginalized kids.

So given the stress that I was under, either I was going to break or I had to do something. That was when I decided to try Patreon.

 Don't miss N.K. Jemisin's opening keynote at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference, August 23-25, 2019! Register now.

Don't miss N.K. Jemisin's opening keynote at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference, August 23-25, 2019! Register now.

What was that experience like?

Honestly, I didn't think it was going to work. There were some popular authors and artists who were making a great deal of money through Patreon, but I was just a midlist author. At the time, the Dreamblood series was the only thing that I had the royalty statement for, and I knew the sales of the last book of the series were not fantastic. So I was like, If I do this, am I going to end up on the street? That was the fear. I launched it on a Friday afternoon around 5:00 thinking nobody's going to pay any attention and by the end of the weekend, it was fully funded, and I was quitting my job.

Terror was the feeling that I had beforehand going into it and shock afterward. I still am making more than my initial goal of $3,000 a month, which was just enough to cover my rent and health insurance (at least before Trump, that was enough to cover my health insurance).

What advice do you have for other writers considering pursuing fan-based funding?

First and foremost, you do have to be a known person. I've seen friends who were writers that didn't have any books out attempting it, and it doesn't usually go well. The sense that I get from the people who contribute to my Patreon is that they do so out of a sense of personal relationship. They've read my books, and they feel like they know me on some level. And, to a degree, they do, because I put a lot of myself into my books.

They want to contribute to the writer that they’ve seen already and make sure that that writer produces more work. It's not just an altruistic thing on their part; it’s a desire for more of the same.

How to Crowdfund Your Writing With Patreon

So if you are a writer who's got some stuff out there and feel like you've built even a small audience, then it can be useful for you. You're not necessarily going to get rent and insurance money, but you are very likely going to get enough to cover a few utility bills. Even just $200 a month can make difference because everybody's living paycheck to paycheck. People should just manage their expectations going into it.

Make sure your story doesn't get too detailed. When you're explaining to people what you need, you don't want them to start, like, trying to work out your budget for you. I’ve seen mostly women feeling uncomfortable asking about money and so they literally delineate every single line of what they would spend XYZ on, and because they are working in a patriarchal environment, men jump in and start nitpicking how they're spending the money. When you go and look at men’s Patreon [profiles], they're not offering you their life story. They’re literally saying, “I need X for Y,” and that’s all you need to say.

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What do your supporters expect in return?

You owe your readers whatever you've promised them. Once a month, I post an original vignette or a short story based on the world of the books that I've written so far. But you do have to deliver on that.

Now the readers can be reasonable about it; when I tell my readers I am deep in deadline hell and can't produce the thing that I told them I was going to try and produce for a while, for example.

The people I've seen have trouble with it are the ones that are not able to deliver on anything, and people will vote with their dollars for that.

In the introduction to your newest book, How Long ‘til Black Future Month, you explained that you write “proof of concept” stories to “test drive potential novel worlds.” Once the concept seems viable, where do you go from there?

If you read “Stone Hunger,” [from How Long ‘til Black Future Month] and then read the Broken Earth series, you would see where I did not like the way that “Stone Hunger” depicted the magical form orogeny. In that short story, it was very “sense specific.” The character thought of everything in terms of the taste of food, and that wasn't going to work, because I wanted it to be effectively a science that had gone wrong.

Once I finish the proof-of-concept story and have sent it to people and have seen how they react to it, then I decide from there what I need to change or refine in order to make the world-building work for a novel. What that usually means is that I simply start writing. I start doing test chapters to see what voices work best. I tried many voices with the Broken Earth until the second person thing just kind of clicked and seemed like the right voice, and that's a purely instinctual thing.

And, as I went forward, I realized that the concept of the magic from the short story wasn't going work, but the rest of the world was fine.

You took a year off of novel writing to focus on short stories. The process improved your longer fiction by teaching you about the “quick hook and the deep character” and by giving you “space to experiment with unusual plots and story forms.” How did you learn to trust whether your experimental forms were working?

Nearly all of the short stories [in How Long ‘til Black Future Month] were run through one writing group or another. I didn't do a lot of experimental stuff to begin with, because I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and because I didn't even really know how to read experimental stuff at first. That was partly what that year was about. One of the magazines that I read during that year was Strange Horizons, for example, which does a lot of wide-ranging styles, everything from the very didactic to slipstream or interstitial, and a lot of new weird stuff. So that helped me learn how to read it, and then I finally felt more willing to try and write it.

Did any of your beta readers for your novels come out of your writing group?

There are a couple of people in the writing group who … I know their writing styles; I trust their critiquing styles, and they have the time, so they're willing to be beta readers for me. There's my editor and my agent, of course, and a couple of other people that I've run it past.

This latest book, for example, is set in New York. So I guess they're effectively sensitivity readers because I am not originally from New York. I lived in New York for a good chunk of my life, but there are aspects of growing up here that I don't get. For example, there's a character in the story who used to be a rapper back in the ‘80s, and now she has grown up to be a City Council woman. I spent my summers in New York in the ‘80s, but my formative musical years were spent down in New Orleans, which has a completely different music style. It was bounce music versus B-boy hip-hop, which has a completely different structure. So when I try to put in lyrics what this character is throwing, then my musical education is wrong for that, so I found some friends who did have that experience.

Do you consider that a sensitivity reading?

Sensitivity reads are supposed to be about protecting marginalized people, so in that sense, they are not. However, I do think of things like the vagaries and the details and the specificities of black culture as being part of protecting marginalized people. So in that sense it is. Talking about musical forms doesn't necessarily seem like a protective thing, except that there is a nasty tendency in American society to homogenize black music. All hip-hop is just hip-hop: it all sounds the same; it’s all misogynistic; it's all gangsta rap. That’s never been the case. And I, of all people, cannot contribute to that flattening and simplifying of the details and nuances of my culture.

I'm actually going to be meeting with a friend of mine who grew up in Staten Island to talk about the white ethnic cultures of Staten Island which are relevant to understanding this character. Yeah these are white people, but there are layers and power dynamics within each race. For example, Staten Island has the largest population of Italian Americans in a metropolitan area—I think they’re counting Staten Island as its own little city. There's also a substantial Irish American population, and they historically haven't gotten along. So it's important to note that and to understand what that means.

It's also important to also sift the myths from the reality. A lot of New Yorkers think of Staten Island as a place where NYPD cops go to retire. The mythology that I've heard within New York, for example, is that you don't go to Staten Island, because it's full of old bad cops, and that's not actually true. The majority of retired or active cops live in [Queens and] Brooklyn. This is part of the stuff that I needed to understand about the city that is nuanced.

I think of these as sensitivity reads because they are acknowledging the layers and the subtleties of how power dynamics work in American society. They are protecting some groups, and they are simply accurately depicting other groups. I think that's all important.

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In your blog and when you speak publicly, you frequently mention your readers.

Well, we're storytellers. Storytellers work with an audience. That’s normal, isn't it?

I'd hope so. I do think that many writers seem to go off into their own world and are less interested in that dialogue and more interested in just presenting something.

Well, that's their personal choice, and not everybody feels comfortable with it. I get it. To me though, I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller. When I was a teenager, I used to babysit kids, and I would tell them stories to entertain them. I've traveled to lots of different places in the world. I've seen storytellers, and I've always admired the hell out of them. It's a different art form from writing. It is an art form that I have nowhere near mastered, but I try to be a storyteller of a writer and to me that's what it's supposed to be. But everyone's mileage varies, I guess.

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think It Is

I think a lot of writers take the stance that they're not going to interpret their own work for their readers. But in your blog, you frequently answer reader’s questions about your books and characters. Do you consciously think about when you want to get across an author-correct interpretation and when you want to allow for mystery?

I don’t think of those things as author interpretation, because all I'm ever doing in those segments is, to me, summarizing stuff that's written in the books. I get a lot of questions from people that are How did this person do this thing? And I'm like, “Well, in chapter blah, blah blah, they said they were going to do this thing that way.” One thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to not read accurately. People read fast these days, so they don't catch all the details, and I tend to write in a lot of detail.

I also think in terms of, “Look, this is what I had in my head. If it didn't come across, then tell me if I did it wrong.” For me as a writer, I need that feedback. Especially since I don't run my novels through a critique group. I need feedback from somewhere in order to improve as a writer.

You told The Guardian that The Killing Moon, your first novel which landed you an agent, did not initially sell because “a fantasy novel set in something other than medieval Europe featuring an almost entirely black cast, is considered risky.” Is this still a problem in the publishing industry?

We’re now seeing quite a few novels set in places other than the medieval Europe and a few featuring an entirely black cast like Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, and Marlon James is coming out with a fantasy [that ’s being described as] an African Game of Thrones. I don't think that that's a new thing—there have been such books before. For example, the Imaro series by Charles Saunders is considered to be the first black fantasy written back in the ‘70s, and since then we’ve had David Anthony Durham doing something like this set in a vaguely African fantasy setting. What's changed is that before there was a tendency to kind of treat it as a Highlander: There could be only one at any given time. That was the black writer of the moment or black fantasy or black science fiction of the moment. I'm still hearing from other writers that approach a particular publisher, and the publisher is like, “Well, we've already got a black fantasy for the year.” That attitude is still pervasive throughout American society.

The Broken Earth series has sold TV film rights, and one of the studios that we approached about being interested in buying those rights replied with, “No, sorry, we've already got one black fantasy, and we're already working on that.” That attitude still exists all over the place.

Publishing is now willing to allow 10 maybe, but you can tell that there's still a lot of exceptionalism going on because you don't yet see a lot of mediocre, crappy black fantasies. When we start to see more mediocre stuff by marginalized writers writing in non-European setting, then we will have arrived. It's not when the best can get published, it's when the mediocre could get published.

In your acceptance speech for your latest Hugo Award, you explain,As this genre finally, however grudgingly, acknowledges that the dreams of the marginalized matter, and that all of us have a future, so will the world.” Do you believe that speculative fiction has the power to change society?

I didn't used to think so, and then I started to realize, first off that I was underestimating it, and then second of all that other people had already done that calculation and were using it for evil. It sounds kind of corny, but I started to realize it when right-wingers tried to take over fandom. When you started trying to take over every bit of media, and you suddenly see Nazis in video games and comic books trying their damnedest to squish out people who are different from young, straight, white boys, and harassing and trying to dox them, there's a reason for that.

I don't necessarily think it's a one-for-one relationship. I don't think that I'll write a book and it'll change the world. But I do tend to think that the things we are capable of imagining and believing are our future are influenced by all of the media that we consume.

Growing up, I had a really hard time imagining a future for myself and for other black people because when you looked at science fiction, you did not see black people in the future. There had been some kind of unspoken apocalypse that wiped us all out, and Asians, and everybody else too. Certainly that's not what the creators of those works intended to convey, but that was what their work did convey by their exclusion.

People often point out—and I don't know how true this is—but one of the reasons that America became comfortable enough with the idea of a black man and the presidency to elect Obama was because, in TV and film, presidents had been black for quite some time. So we pursue in reality the things that we're capable of imagining, and those of us who are in industries or fields that play with imagination have a responsibility to depict futures that are for everyone. And I think that if we can manage to start doing that, then it makes it easier for people in the present day who are trying to influence policy to say, “Look, this is just like in Star Trek, we can do blah, blah, blah.”

Is there anything else you’d like to convey to other writers?

The industry is changing in some good ways. It’s still got a lot of the old blind spots, and it's still struggling to fully embrace futures and mythologies other than what it's familiar with, and that's not entirely surprising. Business has always been reactive rather than proactive. Artists may sometimes have to go outside of traditional channels in order to get our vision is realized, but I do like the fact that more people now have the ability to get their work out there.

People encouraged you to self-publish after TheKilling Moon didn't find a publisher, but you wanted the book to be in libraries ... Is the only channel other than traditional press self-publishing?

There’s small press publishing, but small press publishing also doesn't get you in the library. But you decide on the publishing method that satisfies what it is that you want. A lot of people simply want to make the maximum amount of money possible. For them self-publishing is perfect because they can control how much they spend on production and marketing. And there's no nobody else kind of like taking chunks out of that profit. They're willing to pay in time for that flexibility. I am not willing to pay in time. Time is my most precious resource, not money.

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