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Here is more from the Toonari Post’s interview with N. K. Jemisin, acclaimed author of the Inheritance Trilogy and the Dreamblood Duology. In this installment, she shares her thoughts about the epic fantasy genre (i.e. fantasy set entirely in a parallel world) and the business of worldbuilding.
Toonari Post (TP): We’ve already touched on this a bit earlier, but why do you write epic fantasy? Have you always written it?
N.K. Jemisin (NKJ): No, actually. I write almost as much science fiction as I write fantasy, to be perfectly honest. You see the science fiction more in my short stories, and I also write other kinds of fantasy. I’ve written a number of short stories that are liminal, for lack of a better description—just strange things happening in our everyday world. I’ve also written some straight up science fiction—you know, first contact with aliens and stuff like that. Not all of it has been published though. Fantasy is something I tend to do at novel-length.
As to why I write it, I guess it’s because there are stories that fit the epic fantasy framework so well. For example, a story about gods that literally spans millennia. You can’t really do that in a short story, and you can’t really do that in other forms of fantasy, in my opinion. Epic fantasy is ideal for a cosmic family drama. But when I first wrote the Inheritance Trilogy, I wasn’t thinking of it as epic fantasy. I didn’t know what it was, to be perfectly honest. I wrote it the way I wanted to write it, and then I sent it to my agent and said “send it to whoever will buy it.”
She sent it to three publishers as I recall, one of whom was actually considering it for urban fantasy. The other two I believe were considering it as epic fantasy, or just generic fantasy. The one that ultimately won was of course Orbit, and they had sort of an epic fantasy idea for it, and it works as epic fantasy. I think it could work as several different genres though.
TP: I’m kind of surprised that someone thought it could be urban fantasy. It’s certainly not like a lot of the other urban fantasies out there.
NKJ: Then again, it’s not like the other epic fantasies either. It’s all in how you market it. If they were marketing it as an urban fantasy, they could have stuck a picture of Yeine with her back to the camera on the cover, wearing tight clothing and looking at the viewer in this sort of badass way.
TP: Would you have been happy with that?
NKJ: If it had sold, sure. I’m not really wedded to what sub-genre it is. I mean I was pretty clear on the fact that it was fantasy, but I’m not all that wedded to the marketing of it. If Orbit buys another work from me and decides that they can market it as ABC instead of XYZ, then fine, whatever. That’s why I don’t publish this stuff myself. That’s why I sought a relationship with a publisher. I’m not a marketer, and I figured that they can identify the best way to position and sell my stuff.
TP: How do you approach worldbuilding? Do you start by working on the big things and then go down to the level of the characters, or do you start with the characters and make the world fit around them?
NKJ: A little bit of both. I’m working on another epic fantasy right now, and one of the first things that popped into my mind was a type of person, a type of magic. And then I started building a world around that type of magic. Then I could adjust the magic to suit the world, and they sort of play off of each other.
The magic that popped into my head was the ability to control seismic activity. I’m sure this sort of thing has been done in comic books, so it’s not anything special or fantastically new. But I asked myself, okay, why would people have the magic ability to do this, and then I thought that it’s because their world is very seismically active. There are lots of earthquakes, lots of volcanoes, and things like that all over the place. So basically people have evolved with the magical ability to sense when an earthquake is coming so they can get out of the house. Naturally, evolution would select people who survive, and they in turn pass on that ability.
And obviously there would be some people in whom this ability is stronger or weaker, and those who are stronger can not just feel it coming, but can actually do something about it. But then I thought, if this world is incredibly seismically active, how would that influence the development of society in this world? This is a world where, every few centuries, there is an extinction-level seismic event. So I had to think about how people deal with this constant fear that the world is going to end, and I started thinking of characters at that point.
Image Courtesy : Cat Sparx