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Since the publication of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in 2010, N. K. Jemisin has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the most brilliant speculative fiction writers around. Her powerful stories have been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. Although best known for The Inheritance Trilogy (of which The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was the first book), Jemisin released a new series, the Dreamblood duology, to critical acclaim earlier this summer. Jemisin was kind enough to grant Toonari an extensive interview, the first part of which can be found below.
Toonari Post: Could you please tell us a little bit about your background? When did you start writing?
N. K. Jemisin: I most often claim Mobile, Alabama and Brooklyn, New York because I spent the bulk of my childhood in one or the other, which is partly why I don’t have much of an accent. Every time I start to develop a southern accent, I cancel it with a Brooklyn accent.
My first ‘published’ book was a thing with cardboard covers and yarn backing that I was so proud of. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, and I never really thought that I would actually try and get published until I was about 30. But I did it as a hobby for years and years and years, and I’ve never really stopped.
TP: Could you briefly describe the Inheritance Trilogy for those who haven’t read it?
NKJ: Basically, it is set in a world not our own where, through a complicated set of events, the people of this world managed to enslave several of their own creator gods, leaving one of the remaining gods completely and solely in charge. The story follows a series of human characters, and one character who is not human but becomes human by the end of the story, as they try to deal with the fallout from those events, as well as the ongoing conflict between the gods as the ones that were enslaved try to get free. The one who is free tries to keep them enslaved, and tries to deal with why he enslaved them in the first place and so on.
TP: I really loved how you had the macro plot involving the gods that spans the entire trilogy, plus three micro plots focusing on the human protagonists that provided the framework for each individual book. Why did you choose that approach instead of focusing on either the gods or the mortals?
NKJ: Well, I wasn’t all that interested in doing just another epic fantasy story about mortals who are dealing with mortal things while vague and distant gods looked on and maybe egged on their respective teams—you know, Team Mordor, whatever. But it just seemed to me that a lot of epic fantasies did the epic from that perspective. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient epics, and ancient epics are as much about the gods as they are about the human beings dealing with the gods, and I just felt that I hadn’t seen that for a while in a modern fantasy. I was also intrigued by the idea of what does it mean when the gods are really interacting with a human world. They’re clearly there—they’re not just distant, omniscient beings that are hovering overhead and that people know about but never see. I figured they would essentially be another species occupying the same space as humankind, and that would have a huge impact in the way that human beings regarded the world.
TP: It’s funny that you should mention that because, when I was reading The Inheritance Trilogy, I noticed that it had a similar flavor to classic works like The Illiad and The Aeneid.
NKJ: I always thought that’s where all epic fantasies come from. I don’t actually read a lot of epic fantasy. I mean I read Tolkein and lot other works from the start of the modern epic fantasy wave, but after a while, it all started to kind of feel alike, and it started to feel so self-referential. It looked like writers weren’t looking to old epics for inspiration, but instead were looking to other epic fantasies. And I just wasn’t interested in yet another clone of Tolkein, so I decided to try and follow the same path that I thought Tolkein had done, which was to look at ancient epics.
TP: I too have noticed that a lot of the fantasy novels out there share the same five-man band of archetypes, but they all end up running together.
NKJ: I have seen some attempts to subvert that. I started reading Sam Sykes’ Tome of the Undergates. It’s almost more sword and sorcery than epic fantasy, and among other things, the elves are sort of assholes. I think that lately those of us who grew up on the Tolkein clones of the 80s and 90s are now writing ourselves, and we’re like okay, no more elves, no more dwarves, no more halflings; we need to come up with something different.
Stay tuned for more of our exclusive interview with N. K. Jemisin!
Image Courtesy of Cat Sparx