On Family

I’ve been dealing with an unpleasant family issue lately in my personal life. Not anything I intend to talk about here, and I’ve found a good therapist so don’t worry, but thinking about these things triggered some thoughts about family in The Fifth Season that I wanted to share.

Now, As You Know Bob, I am not a perfect writer. It’s entirely possible that I did a poor job of trying to depict the relationships in this story, which are admittedly complex. But here’s what was in my head: the black family. Really, any families formed under oppressive conditions — but obviously black families are what I know best. Now please note: I am not talking about The Black Family ™, which I’m labeling this way because it has been pathologized, idealized, fetishized, stereotyped, and essentialized to such a ridiculous degree that it bears no resemblance to the actual, wildly varied, humanly complicated families that make up any group of people. I’m talking about real families: how people grow and protect and survive together when their very personhood is in question. How love camouflages itself when it’s under constant threat.

There were three families in TFS, roughly matching each of the three protagonists. Spoilers, obvs.

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Monday Crankiness

I am cranky this morning. Which is probably why I’m more irked than usual about a couple of reviews I saw over the weekend which included lines like (paraphrasing) “I bet this author thinks…” and “This is obviously Jemisin’s kink…” and so on.

Okay. The author is dead, right, yes, I have to take responsibility for my own part in dancing along the edges of readers’ expectations, and sometimes I screw up. Sometimes, when I try to play with a common trope, I don’t do as good a job as I think of subverting it. That said, how a reader chooses to read something is entirely different from what is actually in my head, and trying to read my mind crosses the line from critical analysis into projection. (Also: rude.) Thing is, I am all over social media. I’m right here on this blog. If you want to know what’s in my head, seriously, just ask. Absent that, your speculations are almost sure to be wrong.

Case in point: over the years I’ve seen a number of comments speculating on why the books of the Inheritance Trilogy feature explicitly sexual relationships between humans and gods. Some folks figure I’m just following stock romance tropes (particularly in the first two books), pairing a woman with a powerful “bad boy” character a la Twilight, maybe trying to capitalize on the erotica market (this one usually comes from people who clearly have never read erotica). Or something. Superficially the books do read like a collection of commonly-used tropes, and that’s intentional. Heck, I’m emulating some of the most ancient storytelling forms in human existence; of course a lot of what I’m doing is going to feel familiar. But there’s more to this than a superficial reading will show you.

First, I’ve said in many interviews that the Inheritance Trilogy was my attempt to write epic fantasy in emulation of ancient epics. Ancient epics were chock full of explicitly sexual godly relations, frequently between gods and humans and most frequently between male gods and human women. In quite a few cases these romantic and/or sexual encounters literally changed the world. So given that focus, it was always going to be a story about love and sex. Second, in the Inheritance Trilogy, I devote a lot of page space to describing the abject horror of living in a world of godly shenanigans: nations wiped out overnight, environmental catastrophes, totalitarian theocracies. Pages and pages of magical mutilation, torture, and violence on a global scale. Nobody bats an eyelash at this sort of thing when it appears in fantasy; it’s normal. But I wanted to devote equal space to describing the wonders that such a world might also offer: castles that float through the air, godlings slinging drugs on streetcorners and selling happiness in whorehouses, a universe-spanning revolution packed into in one woman’s heart (literally). I didn’t quite manage to make it equal; if you do a point-by-point comparison, there’s substantially more pain depicted in the books than pleasure. But I tried… and apparently, that much pleasure is “gratuitous” to some readers. It’s traditional to delicately elide such things, see, and tiptoe around moments of pleasure as if they are somehow indulgent. But I don’t delicately elide anything.

I have a lot more thoughts about the inherent gratuitousness of healthy relationships, whole people, and pleasure, but I’ll save those for another blog post.

Third, look at who is involved in these relationships. How often do you see a woman of color being treated as a romantic object in fantasy? What might be an overdone trope for white women isn’t, for the rest of us — quite the opposite. A story in which a powerful god wants to earn the affections of a brown-skinned woman, or one in which the world nearly ended because of a polyamorous breakup, or one in which a man must compete against his more powerful sister for the affections of an Asian-looking male god… These “cheesy romances” are my challenge to white supremacy, sexism, and heteronormativity. And I suspect that one of the reasons some readers are so quick to disdain these challenges is because that’s how people in our society are trained to react to violations of the status quo.

And no, I’m not usually thinking of all this as I write. Usually, I’m just trying to write something I’ll enjoy. But that’s the kind of thing I enjoy, see: stories that look like X and are actually Y, stories in which Y has multiple layers of meaning. If you can reasonably infer anything about my personality from reading my work, it’s the following: I get bored easily. I despise tradition just for tradition’s sake. And if I’m doing something that looks superficially traditional? Look deeper. Ask yourself why.

Or if that doesn’t work, ask me. ::grumble::

Itchy fingers

I took a break from writing this month, in part because I’m dealing with a lot of stress from some family issues, in part to recover from the breakneck pace I poured into the end of The Obelisk Gate and launching The Fifth Season, and in part to cleanse my mental “editing palate” for when the edit notes come back on TOG and I need to start revising. I’m working on another project right now — a mental palate-cleanser, just as I needed to write “The Awakened Kingdom” after finishing The Fifth Season — but I’m still at the brainstorming and outlining stage, not writing yet.

And… my fingertips itch.

It’s weird. I am not a “write every day” kind of writer. I write most days, and blow it off when I’m so tired that I’m just going to write crap anyway. But it’s rare that I’m completely without something to write when I want to write, and I’m finding the frustration manifesting in some truly weird physiological ways. Itchy fingertips. A weird need to sit at my computer every day even when I have nothing in particular to do. Disinterest in social media. Daydreaming, to the point that I think, “I should probably stop staring at this cloud/blade of grass/random object” and then I literally can’t look away from it. Restlessness, even when I’m physically and emotionally exhausted.

Most of this is normal for me; I always got dinged for daydreaming when I was a child, until I learned to channel that wild creative energy into writing. But the itchy fingertips are new. ::looks suspiciously at fingers::

I’ll talk about the new project — pardon, projects — shortly; just waiting for some paperwork and an OK from Various People. One of them is something I’m stupidly, fangirlishly excited about, is all I’ll say for now. But until then… writerly folk among my readers, so what kind of weird symptoms do you get when you need to write?

The Obelisk Gate cover reveal!

If you haven’t seen it yet via Twitter or Facebook, the Mary Sue is today featuring an exclusive (well, except for here) reveal of Book 2 in The Broken Earth trilogy: The Obelisk Gate. Of which I just finished the raw “zeroeth” draft about two weeks ago. Should be turning in the first draft today or Monday. After that it’s anyone’s guess as to the release date, but considering I’m turning it in literally a year after the publication of the first book, my guess is roughly a year before Book 2 actually comes out. I’ll tell you when I know more.

So… behold! Click to enlarge. Lovely, isn’t it? This one was done by Wendy Chan, a senior designer at Orbit.

Cover shows a stone floral motif embossed into a stone wall.

Descriptive copy uh doesn’t exist yet, but I can cautiously tell you that Essun’s story will of course continue; you’ll find out what happened to Alabaster and why he Did The Thing; and you’ll find out what’s happened to Nassun, Essun’s daughter.

Tricking readers into acceptance

OK, to start this post off, I have to say that it is only for people who have already read The Fifth Season. Haven’t read it yet? This post is not for you.

No, seriously. If you haven’t read TFS, scram.

Clip of Bruce Lee glaring at people

Oh, so you wanna be hard headed.

clip of the olsen twins as small children asking ARE YOU SURE?

OK. But I am not responsible for any damage done to your reading experience, if you continue. And if I may say, TFS is a lot more fun with its surprises unspoiled. But from here forth I’m going to assume you’ve read it.

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Midnight in Karachi interview

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately, and it’s been hard to keep track of them. I post them on Twitter or FB usually, but I wanted to point to this one in particular since it contains a lot of behind-the-scenes info on The Fifth Season and the Broken Earth trilogy. MASSIVE SPOILERS HEREIN, and I strongly do NOT recommend you listen to it if you haven’t read TFS. But for those of you who’ve read the book, you might find it interesting. A great Skype-based interview with Mahvesh Murad of Midnight in Karachi.

Creating races

So, now that The Fifth Season is out, I can finally talk more about the making of. Over at Scalzi’s I blogged a bit about why and how I chose to use second person, among other things. Now I’m going to talk about creating the Sanzeds, the orogenes, and the stone eaters.

BTW, after further thought on this topic, I’m going to use the words “race” or “people” rather than “species” in talking about these groups because all three are obviously people. It used to bug me to see “race” used in lieu of species, particularly when the human race is depicted as consisting of a single race (nearly always white people). That approach seemed to encourage treating orcs, demons, etc., as substitutes for human non-white races, which is super-problematic. But I think using “species” may feed into the tendency of fantasy to treat groups that are equally sapient as somehow lesser because they’re different. “Race” emphasizes personhood, IMO, where “species” emphasizes inhumanity. And in the case of the Broken Earth trilogy, personhood matters. (Also, I’ve played a lot of Mass Effect, and once you’ve romanced Garrus someone of a different species, you start rethinking words like “dehumanize” and how they apply within a secondary or far-future world. But I’ll save those thoughts for another post. Also, Garrus is the best space dinosaur boyfriend ever.)

Anyway. Let’s get to it.
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The Stillness, in all its glory

So, I still don’t like the idea of maps in fantasy novels in general. But I needed one as I wrote The Fifth Season, so after I scrawled something hideous in a Microsoft Word file and sent that to Orbit, and the collective screams of horror died down, they worked with artist Tim Paul to create something much better (click to embiggen):

Map of a continent designed by Tim Paul

Yeah, OK, I could get to like maps a little now. Maybe.

Seriously, Tim did an awesome job, especially considering he got a lot of vague guidance from me like, “I can’t remember if those pokey things are mountains or canyons,” and “Can you make the tundra more tundra-y?” (I’m not kidding when I say I don’t do maps. Just not a very visual person; I have trouble transforming what’s in my head into a two-dimensional maybe-to-scale unavoidably distorted rendering.) I love the end result.

ETA Paul’s actual maps site, instead of his illo blog!

It’s a(nother) book!

So strange and amazing to be here at the publication of my sixth novel.

cover of The Fifth Season, a novel by N. K. Jemisin, shows a stone wall and decoration embossed with flaking gold

I remember being a newbie writer and struggling just to imagine myself publishing one book. That was only… hmm, eight years ago? I got my agent in 2007, as I recall. I remember despairing, as it became clear that my first book wasn’t going to sell first, and giving serious consideration to quitting all this shit. Wow.

Confession: I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere. Fortunately, Devi had the sense to tell me to calm down and go think about it first, which I did. And more fortunately, friends helped talk me back from the (artistic) cliff. Now as the positive reviews roll in, all of them are giving me “I told you so” attitude, and that’s okay. They were right. I’m glad I listened. Thanks, guys.

Well, enough maundering. I’m currently about 90,000 words into the second book of the trilogy, which means it’s just about on schedule to be turned in at the end of this month. Going to be tough to make good progress this week, though, because I’ve got a crapton of Launch Week activities lined up — like a launch party tonight, if you happen to be in the Brooklyn area and want to drop by. The next sample chapter of The Fifth Season is up, if you needed another taste to help you decide. If not, and you’re sold, then links are in the sidebar. I can’t promise you’ll like it, but I can say we’re all in for a wild ride.

ETA: Yes, I’ve given up my foolish resistance to maps. Here is the Stillness, rendered beautifully by artist Tim Paul.

Worldbuilding 101

I did a recent talk for the Writers’ Digest Online Workshop and Annual Conference on worldbuilding, in which I basically explained how I do what I do, and led participants through an exercise in creating their own world. I’d hoped to actually do the exercise in realtime, using some poster paper and audience participation, but alas, ran out of time. There’s a good example in the Powerpoint, though. Note that if this doesn’t make sense in places, remember that it was meant to be shown alongside me talking and filling in conceptual gaps. But hopefully you can figure it out. PDF file for download.