Multi-award-winning author N. K. Jemisin talks about how New York City is the perfect place to set a fantastical novel, even as the Empire State Building is now lit up "like the Eye of Sauron."
Like many people, I had really been looking forward to meeting award-winning author N. K. Jemisin while she was on tour for her new fantasy novel, The City We Became. The Amazon Books editors had picked The City We Became as one of the best books of March, and Jemisin was scheduled to be in Seattle at the end of March.
Unlike her previous novels, The City We Became is set in present-day New York City. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. As Jemisin says in our interview below, “I literally just make explicit the strangeness that is just so normal and natural in New York.”
Coronavirus upended our plans to meet in person, as well as Jemisin’s book tour. But she’s been doing virtual bookstore events in order to be there for her fans, and we had a marvelous conversation over the phone.
Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Unfortunately a global pandemic has overturned all sorts of things planned for The City We Became, including a book tour. In planning for that tour, did you have a synopsis perfected for how to describe the book?
N. K. Jemisin: Oh, you mean the elevator pitch? Not perfected… I will try that right now, though. We’ll see if I can do it off-the-cuff. In the story, New York City comes to life as part of a magical natural process that happens to many cities once they reach a certain point. At that point the city then chooses an avatar to represent its energy and direct its might, and that is a single human being who embodies millions of people. In New York’s case, it actually ends up being six people: five representatives of the individual boroughs plus an overall avatar of the city. And they have to work together—despite the fact that none of them knew that they were going to be tapped for this—because they are up against an existential threat in the form of an interdimensional entity called the woman in white.
That was really good for off-the-cuff.
I need to shorten it up. An elevator pitch is supposed to be 30 seconds or less.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the characters—the main avatar and the people who represent the boroughs?
The main avatar for this book doesn’t have a name yet. (Well, he does have a name; I just haven’t revealed it.) He is a young homeless black man, and queer, who’s been hustling and, you know, doing what he needs to do to get by. He’s also a graffiti artist, and he’s young but he’s cynical as hell because his life has been rough. When the avatar of São Paulo shows up at the very beginning of the book to try and mentor him, he doesn’t really believe that New York is about to come to life. Then when stuff starts happening, he’s willing to believe what he sees. Unfortunately, we don’t spend much time with him because after the prologue he falls into an enchanted slumber for fantasy book reasons. [Laughs.] The avatars of the boroughs then get tapped for the job, and their job is to also find the main avatar in his enchanted slumber and wake him up, because the whole city needs to come together to make this happen.
It is meant to be an ensemble story, but the avatars of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island are the ones that get a special spotlight throughout the book. Manhattan is a newcomer to the city. He’s black but appears so multiracial that he is easily mistaken for any ethnicity. He is very charming, very handsome… and then it turns out that he’s got a distinct violence streak and there’s some unknown shadiness about him—which seems perfectly fitting for Manhattan to me.
The avatar of the Bronx is older than the rest—she is nearly 70—she’s a lesbian and the director of the Bronx Art Center, and she is badass as hell and has a chip on her shoulder the size of the Bronx—understandably, given that the Bronx always has to deal with a lot of crap.
And then there’s the avatar of Staten Island, who is a young Irish American woman who lives at home with her parents, is easily intimidated, and has been kind of browbeaten by her family. But on the other hand, she has the power of a full borough within her. She feels the call of the rest of the city and wants to respond to it, but also has the Staten Islanders’ typical feeling that it’s not quite part of the city. This is a thing that she has to wrestle with over the course of the book.
Of those three characters, was there one whose point of view you always looked forward to writing next?
No, not really. I like all of the characters, or I don’t write them. I like them a lot more when I’m revising the book then when I’m doing the first draft, but I love them all for the period that I’m inside their heads.
You are famous for your world building. What were the challenges and benefits of setting a novel in a very recognizable and modern location?
Thank you. It’s just a different kind of world building. I’ve always said that even mainstream literature writers are doing world building; it’s just a question of what flavor of world building they’ve been doing. People think, “Oh, you just take the world around you and then you just write what you see,” but most writers don’t do that. [If they did] we wouldn’t have quite so many all-white versions of New York out there in the popular zeitgeist—like Friends and Seinfeld and endless iterations of the strange New York that does not look like New York.
I did indeed try to just write the New York that I see—plus, you know, tentacles and magic. Honestly, it wasn’t that much of a step out in a lot of cases. There are aspects of New York that are so dreamlike and unbelievable to people who don’t live here that it seems like magic.
Like, the other night I went up on the roof around 7:00 p.m. There’s this thing that the city has been doing—I understand a lot of cities are doing it—where people will yell at 7:00 as a thank-you to medical professionals, or they’ll start clapping and cheering. I was up on the roof at 7:00, and a bunch of people opened their windows and popped up on the roof and started yelling. And then there were, of course, the inevitable New Yorkers yelling, “Shut the f*ck up,” but that’s just also part of the city. But it all happened under the pink super moon. We were basically howling at the moon. That’s just New York.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures, but they turned on [the Empire State Building] with this red-and-white pulsing light on it to indicate that the city is dealing with an emergency, and also to show respect for emergency responders. And the damn thing looks like the Eye of Sauron. I now live in the city with the Eye of Sauron floating overhead.
When writing, I literally just make explicit the strangeness that is just so normal and natural in New York.
The City We Became is the first book in the Great Cities trilogy—is that right?
Yes, that’s the plan right now.
So how far out have you projected the plot for the books?
I do have a basic overall outline of the entire trilogy laid out. It’s not superdetailed in certain respects, but there are highlights that I need to hit, and then there’s an overall finale that I have in mind. And I do tweak and change those things as I write. But for the most part the overall framing is there which allows me to put in some foreshadowing in book one that I don’t necessarily hit on until book three.
I was hoping to meet you when you were going to be in Seattle on your book tour, but your book landed on shelves the day after Washington State ordered its residents to stay at home. And you’re in New York City and you are staying at home as well. So what’s it been like for you having a book published in the middle of a pandemic?
Well, there’s the natural fear that nobody’s going to read books when they’re stressed about ideas like, “Am I going to live?” But The City We Became hit the New York Times bestseller list for both the hardcover and the hardcover and ebooks combined lists, so people are reading. Clearly it is easy to slip into to thinking, “If we weren’t dealing with a pandemic, could it be even better? Could I have hit higher on the bestseller list?” But that’s armchair quarterbacking. It doesn’t make any sense to do that. The moment is what it is. We don’t live in an alternate reality where we don’t have a pandemic.
It has been strange to do the virtual book tour, but it also seems to have been successful. Instead of going to the bookstores, I have done a Crowdcast event with each of the bookstores willing to still do it. I’ve done eight or ten Crowdcast events over the last two weeks. This would have been [my] first in-person book tour, so I had been looking forward to that. But I’d also been to a little degree dreading it because I am a giant raging introvert, and I don’t like travel. I love talking to people—love interacting with people. But it’s strange to get this interaction but not in person, if that makes sense.
N. K. Jemisin won the Hugo Award three years in a row for the novels in her Broken Earth trilogy. This year, Jemisin has been named a Hugo Award finalist for her novelette “Emergency Skin,” available now for free download to Prime members and Kindle Unlimited members. The Hugo Awards winners will be announced in August at the first virtual WorldCon convention.
Author photo by Laura Hanifin
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