INTERVIEW: N. K. Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author whose short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula awards, and shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree awards; she has won the Locus Award for Best First Novel and the Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for fantasy. She is also the first winner of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Travel Research Grant, a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and a current member of the Altered Fluid writers’ group. Her epic fantasy novels include The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and the other books in the Inheritance trilogy, as well as the Dreamblood series, which includes the novels The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun. Her story for Epic also takes place in that same milieu.

Tell us a bit about your story, “The Narcomancer.” What’s it about?

“The Narcomancer” is set in the world of the Dreaming Moon–a secondary world blatantly modeled on our own, although this world’s cosmology is heavily influenced by the presence of an enormous, brightly-colored “moon” (really a gas giant) in the sky. The story focuses on the land of Gujaareh, a nation that resembles ancient Egypt in many ways. In Gujaareh, peace is the only law–and anything which disrupts peace (e.g., violence, pain, selfishness, disorderly behavior) is viewed as a sickness that must be healed. There’s a special cadre of priests who deal with every disruption to the peace… sometimes by killing the person causing it.

Cet is one of these priests. When he learns of an unusual band of brigands threatening a small isolated village, he travels there and puts everything–his soul, his body, his sanity–on the line to reestablish the Goddess’ peace.

What was the genesis of the story­ what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I got smacked between the eyes a few years back with a mental image of a man sneaking into someone’s room to kill them–not out of cruelty, and not for money or political gain, but as a solemn religious duty. The Dreamblood, a duology of novels set in this universe (published recently by Orbit Books) grew out of this idea. “The Narcomancer” was a proof-of-concept story for that universe–something I do when I’m working out a new secondary world, trying to figure out how all its parts fit together. I don’t always publish or finish those stories, but I hadn’t expected to have so much fun writing it! So I decided to share Cet and Ginnem and Namsut with the world.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

It kind of wrote itself, actually! I do wish I’d done more research before I wrote Ginnem, the male Sister. I’d intended for Ginnem to be a trans woman, but I worried that it wouldn’t seem plausible for a bronze-age society to so readily accept a person with male organs who identifies as female. But if I’d done my research, I would’ve realized many ancient societies did just fine with transgender issues; it’s our modern society that’s hinky about it. So instead Ginnem is a transvestite–identifying as male, “performing” a female role because that’s what he has to do to belong to the Sisters. Still gotta do some learning in that area.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I did years’ worth of research into ancient Egypt to try and figure out what daily life was like. But since the story wasn’t set on actual Earth, I also just made a lot of stuff up.

What are some of your favorite examples of epic fantasy (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

Offhand:

The Wraeththu series, by Storm Constantine: it’s delightfully weird and hauntingly written, and shows what can happen when a fantasist takes her hand to what is traditionally science fiction material (e.g. the next evolution of humanity, post-apocalypse).

The Coldfire trilogy, by C. S. Friedman: there’s a magnificent buddy story here, sandwiched within some of the most fascinating worldbuilding I’ve ever read. Friedman also plays with science fictional concepts, but at its core this is a quest novel–one of the few that have ever worked for me.

Tales from the Flat Earth, by Tanith Lee: This woman builds myths like an archetypal engineer. So imaginative and beautiful.

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King: I love how he just goes, “Yeah, OK, it’s a fantasy in the most romantic poetic tradition, but why can’t it have psychotic robot bullet trains in it? I’m gonna put in some psychotic robot bullet trains.”

The Dragon Age games, by Bioware: They could’ve just stuck with stock fantasy game material–Europeanish guys with swords killing things. Instead they included women and brown people with swords, and they made killing things a side note. The core story is politics: building coalitions or failing to do so, and the consequences.

The Digital Devil Saga games, by Atlus: Atlus is the Stephen King of Japanese RPGs. “Yeah, OK, it’s a story with demons and magic. Why can’t we throw in postapocalyptic Hindu AIs? We’re gonna throw in some post-apocalyptic Hindu AIs.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh, by somebody in ancient Sumeria: It rambles a little, with Gilgamesh having lots of sex and pissing off goddesses and whatnot, but there’s an amazing bildungsroman and buddy story at the core of this that keeps me riveted.

Elfquest, by Wendy and Richard Pini: Beautifully drawn, equal parts uplifting and horrifying, with characters who will remain immortal in your imagination. I also love how it utterly defies the standard fantasy treatment of elves as ethereal, simplistic creatures; Pini’s elves are people, warts and all.