Science Fiction Author Felicity Harley and Hugo Award Winning Author NK Jemisin
As someone who has written comparative critiques of authors and their works, I certainly appreciate the approach you, as an author, have taken here relative to N. K. Jemisin, not only in terms of drawing parallels and distinctions with respect to your mutual background, but also in terms of stating the similarities and contrasts that the reader will find in the fiction you both write.
I’m not familiar with Jemisin’s books, but I’ve read The Burning Years, and found much to be admired in its pages. I highly recommend your book, and look forward to reading the next ones in the series.
Double Dragon Publishing has just published the first book — The Burning Years –in my science fiction Quartet called Until This Last. Since my writing life has been an interesting process I’d like to share it with you, as well as the personal odyssey I’m undertaking to get to know other contemporary writers and thinkers in the field of scientific and speculative ideas.
I started my journey by having an informal conversation with N.K. Jemisin author of The Broken Earth Trilogy. She spoke to me from her apartment in Brooklyn where she lives with her cat Ozy. For some reason none of the pictures of her which are public quite capture the way she really looks, a serious, imposing woman, she leans forward to stare earnestly into the camera as she picks stray bits of Ozy’s hair out of her long braids.
Our discussion covered many subjects including politics, her books, her current favorite writers and where she gets the inspiration to write the secondary worlds which she so brilliantly describes. As we converse, I am able to compare our experiences as writers.
I have always been a writer of fiction. I started writing like Nora (yes that’s her name) when I was quite young. Though unlike Jemisin who has always written speculative fiction, my writing has crossed many genres. These include two novels written when I was in my twenties about how I formed my political self, and an exploration of my relationship with my mother, a subject which Jemisin mentioned she recently has been thinking about as well. In addition I’ve also written short stories (like Jemisin), and unlike her extensively written and published poetry and been a working journalist.
I was curious as to where Jemisin got the inspiration for her very complex characters, plots and worlds, and she told me many of them come from her dreams. She has said that her writing is primarily character focused. Pieces of ideas come to her from things that she does as well, and gel together years later to become something useful. She told me she also studies history because she enjoys it. She doesn’t like speculative science fiction that is medieval in nature, but she does like Game of Thrones which she thinks is morally layered and complex.
The story of how I became a writer is different to Jemisin’s, which began in the public library of Mobile Alabama where as a twelve year old girl she devoured the entire science fiction section. On the other hand I started writing novels between the lines of my Latin textbooks at about the same age. Then I came to this country as a twenty something immigrant to establish one of the first alternative newspapers here. The process of how that happened is the subject of my first novel “A Photograph of Us.” This novel has not yet been published, but I will confess I didn’t try very hard and never submitted it to a publishing house. I did however get a nice letter from an agent who offered to take me on and said I wrote like Anne Tyler.
“I found a photograph of Pete the other day in the back of a drawer. In the photograph, the shadows play on his lips. They make his face expressionless. It’s hard to tell whether he is smiling as he sits in the sun, long-limbed, with an arm slung across his face, eyes hidden from the camera’s indifferent intrusion. What the lens does not see, are my tears falling into the heavy afternoon as mucus clings to the back of my hand where I have wiped it. “
I moved on from journalism as a career, to obtain a degree in social sciences at Berkeley where I studied left and right brain development in children. This lead me to start a project called the Children’s Creative Project, which is still going strong today. This project engaged a series of high profile artists across a wide spectrum of disciplines in an after-school program for disenfranchised and poor children. I was one of those who wanted to get out in the world and help others, and strangely enough Jemisin was the same. As we chatted she briefly mentioned her recent job as a counseling psychologist, which she only just quit last year to become a full-time writer.
Jemisin never lost touch with her writing roots however because besides holding down a full time day job, she was able to continue to write novels undisturbed at night. I on the other hand had to take care of two children, as well as working outside of the home to support our family.
I lead a mother’s life
picking at cracks
in time to write
experiencing everything twice
holding two thoughts together
in my mind,
so that I can balance
them later with words.
Driving in my car,
to pick up a daughter,
I write poetry
on my hands,
on my check book,
on grocery bills.
the two parts of me coming together
in curious juxtaposition
fragments of a reflection,
left and right
mother and poet
wife and lover
In my teens
I wrote poetry about finding love,
in my twenties about social injustice,
in my thirties about poverty and pain.
My forties was a blank page.
Now I am fifty
I have to find out
who I am again.
In order to keep my writing self alive I also joined the board of a small, prestigious and highly political press called Curbstone — the members of which affectionately called each other by the nickname “the Curbstonistas”. In my role on that board, I came across a slew of great authors including Marnie Mueller who has been one of my role models ever since. Marnie Mueller is an extraordinary, full-time professional writer who covers contemporary issues such as the destruction of the rain forests, the World War II internment of the Japanese in concentration camps, and the complicated relationship she had with her Puerto Rican mother, which seems to be a common theme among us writers. She read a fictional biography I wrote recently called My Quantum Life and asked me: “why wouldn’t you write a real biography”? I explained to her that I didn’t think my life was nearly interesting enough.
Jemisin to her credit has always taken being a writer very seriously and as a result, has received a certain degree of fame as a well-published, well respected author in her genre. She got an agent through her Dreamblood books which did not get published right away, so in the meantime she started writing The Inheritance Trilogy. She made the first book in this Trilogy a standalone, and told her agent that she would be willing to write books two and three if it sold. A number of interested publishers jumped on board with it, and this is how a paid writing career started for her. She’s required by her publisher to write a book a year.
I on the other hand intentionally set out to write four books. I was lucky enough to get an agent right away. Orbit, HarperVoyager, Del Ray, and Tor all requested to read the first book in the series, and while they were making up their minds as to whether or not they’d accept it for publication, I received an offer from a small but well-known science fiction e-publisher called Double Dragon Publishing. After some discussion with my agent I decided to go with Double Dragon, withdrew the book and notified the other publishers of my decision.
I’m happy about it because Deron Douglas my publisher has told me that I am my own business, and that the success or failure of my book in today’s publishing environment will depend on my ability to find an audience. I am also older, do not need to make a living anymore from what I write, and most importantly want complete freedom unbound by the restraints of the commercial publishing industry, within which to create my work.
Jemisin says that she writes not to educate or convey her political views but to entertain. I questioned her on her social and political views, and since her books are speculative, I wouldn’t say she deliberately addresses these head on. Rather I think she tends to use allegory and metaphor to introduce them into her stories.
I’m a different kind of writer — I come out of a strong background of political and social activism. For instance, my current book deals specifically with corporate plutocrats and how they are exacerbating climate change, and also some of the moral and ethical dilemmas that we face as we develop highly intelligent, human forms of artificial intelligence. I’m also more of a hard core science writer — I have a three or four page glossary of scientific terms at the back of my book. I’m like an Andy Weir if you like, who I’ll be chatting with later on in this series.
I would say however, after reading her work, that Jemisin is by far the superior artist of the two of us. She writes from her colorful imagination and her Jungian dreams, weaving her political ideas like subtle silver threads throughout her narrative. I think that coming from a journalistic background and revering a Joan Didion style of reportage, my writing intentionally tends to be more on the expository side.
It took me two years to research my book and another year to write it. I specifically wrote it to catalyze my readers to take action around climate change. Jemisin’s issues with our world are more nuanced than mine and much less overt, but she does take on slavery, racism, and gender oppression in her books; all of which comprise many of her underlying themes. I also noted, as I read numerous articles on her in order to prepare for our chat that in real life she’s had some hard-core run-ins with the predominantly white, male bastion of science fiction writers. All of this, whetted my appetite to learn more about her as a person. In fact I can honestly say after talking with her that she seems to very much resemble her central protagonist Essun in The Broken Earth Trilogy, an intelligent, independent black woman who stands her ground fearlessly and adamantly
At the end of our conversation Jemisin and I talked a little bit about the writing techniques she uses, and I told her I admired the way she was able to bring three of her central characters so brilliantly together in the Fifth Season, and catch me completely by surprise at the end of the book. This is a writing technique she told me she has observed being used by others often, and one which she admires.
We also talked about how we develop our protagonists. She struck a cord in me as I recognized how I also like her enjoy becoming each protagonist I write. She of course has her favorites such as Nijiri and Hanani from Dream Blood, Sieh from the Inheritance Trilogy and Nassun from the Broken Earth Trilogy. In my latest book the Burning Years I would say that my favorite protagonist is Inanna.
Jemisin and I discussed what it means to be a good writer and we both agree that one cannot rely on external validation. That as writers and artists of some experience we know ourselves very well, and thus we know immediately when we aren’t producing our best work.
I asked her what it meant to be the first black woman to win a Hugo, and she immediately praised Octavia Butler, implying that it was Butler who paved the way for her success.
We closed our conversation by discussing the advice we would give to young novelists starting off in the field. For myself I would give them the advice which was given to me — simply that if you persist you will improve, and if you continue to work on your craft and become a good writer you will eventually be able to break in and find an audience. She nor I believe there is such thing as pure talent we think it’s just a matter of hard work — although I will personally admit I think some people have an aptitude. But again I would say writing is not an inborn thing, it’s not a matter of a mystical bestowing of power or genes or whatever.
At the end of the day Jemisin and I have both been writing in some form or other since we were children, and hard work and persistence are the only reason why we’re still writing and loving it today. Jemisin’s intense professional focus on her craft is also why she’s been so successful commercially in her genre.
I have also been intrigued by Jemisin’s use of Patreon to get patrons to support her work so that she could quit her day job. She told me that it’s been very successful for her, but that she wouldn’t recommend it to writers who are just starting out — that it’s more for writers who’ve been in the business for five or ten years.
Overall I found NK a fascinating woman, and for those who love speculative fiction she is one of the best contemporary writers in the field and her books are a must read.
In the first book of her trilogy, The Fifth Season, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn at its center by an angry protagonist, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries. In The Obelisk Gate, the second book in the series, the season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Jemisin will finish off her three-part series about the end of civilization in this secondary world she has created with The Stone Sky, to be published in August 2017
Over the course of this personal exploration I’ve undertaken, I’m thrilled to say I’ll be talking later on to John Crowley one of the contemporary giants in the field of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read it yet, and this is your genre, Little Big is a classic that is not to be missed and is a grand concoction. In it Crowley tells us that there is indeed another world that we sometimes glimpse in the twilight of the shadows or just around the corner, populated by beings who are not like us and who have fled from the spread of civilization so their realm is shrinking as ours keep pushing them away. The two realms are, finally irreconcilable; the others can preserve themselves only by keeping their distance from us; which they do, except for rarer and rarer occasions when they target one of us for punishment or enlightenment.
I’ll look forward to talking with you next time and please feel free to comment or ask me any questions you might have that I could be of help with.
Post script. I’m getting lots of reads on this article due to a twitter storm Jemisin has started. I have the original interview verbatim which Jemisin didn’t want published — I honored that and changed it into a conversation between her and I, which did take place for one hour on May 12th. I hope I presented Jemisin in a very positive light — I certainly enjoyed speaking with her and learning about her politics, her views on race, her views on writing and many other things. I’m so glad to say I’m getting a lot of positive support for this article from other writers and so many reads my head is spinning. Thanks to the Writing Cooperative for printing this. Let me stress here Jemisin is a much better fiction writer than I will ever be, and I totally encourage you to read her books if you like fantasy — she is a master at it and many congratulations to her on her success. Can’t wait for the next book!
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