An Interview With N.K. Jemisin on THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS
Prior to becoming a writer, what other professions did you have?
I’m a counseling psychologist and educator, specializing in career counseling of late adolescents and young adults (though I’ve worked with other demographics). I’ve worked at a number of universities as an administrator and faculty member, and I’ve also done some volunteering with community service organizations and some private career coaching. It’s been weird lately — a lot of my students didn’t realize I was a writer, so when I ran off to write books, they were a little unhappy with me! But many of them say they’re looking forward to reading the books.
When you aren’t writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Watch cheesy movies, including anime and badly-dubbed foreign films; play video games (I would give a body part to write for Squeenix or Atlus); bike and hike, though I haven’t done much of the latter since moving to New York City unless you count subway stairs; and rant against social injustice all over the blogosphere.
Who/what would you consider to be your influences?
Hmm, that’s a complex question. I get ideas from a lot of sources, not all of them literary. Artistically speaking I most admire Storm Constantine, Tanith Lee, Stephen King, Yoshinaga Fumi (a Japanese manga author/artist), John Coltrane (jazz musician), and the Impressionists (visual art). Spiritually — in terms of motivating me to pursue writing as a career and to improve my craft — Octavia Butler, my own personal grandmaster. Intellectually — Sigmund Freud. Yeah, he was way off about a lot of stuff. But I think he got the tripartate nature of human consciousness spot-on, and I like his thoughts on dreams, too.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is an amazingly original tale. How did you derive the idea for this novel?
Wow, thanks! I honestly can’t say — I came up with the l idea over ten years ago, probably during one of my “think about something, anything, to avoid thinking about my unfinished graduate thesis” fugues. It started as just a combination of images in my head: a child playing with planets as toys, a man with stars in his hair and the void of space in his eyes, a palace balanced atop an impossibly thin column of stone. Most of my ideas start that way, as random images that make no sense. So I start thinking up narratives that will fit them together. I was probably a comic book artist in a past life.
The ‘creation myth’ of the Nightlord and Bright Itempas hearkens back to classical mythology, but depicts something wholly unique. Did you conduct a great deal of research in this area?
I did look to existing religions for guidance, since the only religion I was intimately familiar with was Christianity and I wanted to construct something with a very different — but still plausible — feel. The core of the “Earth and Sky” universe is inspired by Hinduism, some schools of which posit the existence of a Creator, a Destroyer, and a Preserver (sometimes combined into a single being, sometimes split among two or three). From there I added psychodynamic concepts, like Jung’s collective unconscious; this was a concept that had fascinated me for years. What would happen if omnipotent gods were shaped and limited by this powerful, quintessentially human force? Well, first and foremost, humans would try to fit them into their understanding of the everyday world, which is divided into the day and night, with a transitional time at dawn and dusk. Of course, this made the gods inherently more complex, because there are so many other concepts which humans associate with day and night and transition — light, darkness, shades of gray; heat, cold, change; order, chaos, life. But then I considered the Christian concept of human beings having been created in God’s image. Taken literally and inverted, that implies (to me) that these gods would end up being pretty darn human, once you get past the cosmic-scale power and whatnot. They love, they hate, they form relationships, they have misunderstandings. But what happens when you do pair cosmic power with the typical emotions — and dysfunctions — of a human family? Things just snowballed from there.
Do you have a favorite character? If so, why?
I have favorite characters of the moment. Originally Nahadoth was my favorite, just because he contained so many contradictions. He was powerful but vulnerable; incomprehensible yet very human; dark but not evil; and so on. Yeah, you can probably guess — all that stuff is pretty much catnip to me. But as I wrote the story, I fell utterly in love with Yeine, who’s sort of “me” taken to an extreme — angrier, colder, more vulnerable, more impulsive. I’m nicer than she is, but sometimes I wish I wasn’t. Also, Sieh ended up being a stealth favorite. I really wasn’t expecting him to charm me as much as he did Yeine, but there you have it. I love that he’s so ancient, yet determined to attack life the way children do. I love that he slips into being an old man sometimes, and then has to get back on the wagon. Of all the characters, he’s the only one I’d actually like to meet (if he were, you know, real).
Now that two of the three gods have been restored, what can we expect in your next novel?
In book 2, you’ll learn what becomes of Itempas after his fall from power — and what caused him to turn on his fellow gods at the start of the Gods’ War. You can also expect a fuller exploration of the world of the Earth and the Sky. In THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS I dealt exclusively with the elite of society, and so necessarily confined the settings to places of power and privilege. In book 2, I want to focus on the ordinary people of this world, and show how they cope when giant trees obscure the sky and the corner grocer might be a godling in disguise. The story will focus on a young blind woman who finds a homeless man in her trash heap one morning — glowing like the rising sun. She takes him in, and this simple act of kindness lands her in the middle of a conspiracy to destroy the gods. Many of the characters from the first book will put in an appearance, but it’s going to be a very different kind of story in some ways. I think it will be equally satisfying.
Finally, as a first-time author, what has been your favorite part of the publishing process?
The day my agent called to tell me the book had sold! But that’s not exactly part of the publishing process, is it? Okay, the first time I met with my editor Devi, and she gushed to me about how much she loved the book. MY book! I kept trying not to erupt into embarrassing squeals, and failing utterly.
But I’m not done with the publishing process yet, so I can only guess at what might end up being the absolute best part of it for me: after publication, seeing readers’ reactions to my work. I’m a little nervous about it, actually, but underneath the nerves? I can’t wait. Speaking of which — if you’re reading this, and you’d like to let me know what you think about THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, click on over to my website at nkjemisin.com. Praise, protests, it’s all grist for the mill, baby. Bring it on.