Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: N. K. Jemisin interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on February 2, 2010

N(ora). K. Jemisin is a writer of speculative fiction who recently published her first novel. In this interview she discusses The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, how she got it published, what she particularly enjoys about writing, and of course her gaming background.

*   *   *

Could you take a minute and explain what The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is about?

Sure. Basically, it’s an epic fantasy set in a secondary (non-Earth) world in which human beings have, through various circumstances, enslaved several of their own gods. One family in particular controls these gods, using their power to rule the world. The focus of the story is on a young woman who is a member of this family, though she was raised in effective exile; she gets brought back to the family seat and is forced to deal with politics she can barely understand, much less survive.

The book is the start of a trilogy, all set in the same world.

Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting this published?

Well, I originally wrote a version of this novel 10 years ago. It was very different then, but still had the same core ideas. But I wasn’t as good of a writer then, and so it didn’t sell; I couldn’t even get an agent with it.

I trunked it for awhile, wrote a few other books and found an agent in the interim, then decided to take a second look at it. Now, as an older and hopefully wiser writer, I was able to see what was wrong with the original version. I changed a number of things, wrote the whole thing over from scratch, then sent it off to my agent. This time it sold. =)

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

As a kid I was sort of interested in Dungeons and Dragons, but never really found geeky-enough friends to play it with me. In college I did, but we didn’t play D&D — the local campaign was some kind of superhero thing. I don’t remember the publisher or name (that was 15 years ago!). I played a woman with electrical powers named Live Wire… who got killed about six months in, as I recall.

Also in college, I got introduced to the Super Nintendo by a friend, and played Zelda and various games. Didn’t get hooked on anything until…::drumroll:: Final Fantasy 2, which I think was actually FF4 in Japan.  That was the beginning of a very long love affair with Squaresoft (later Square Enix), which continues to this day — I’m still working my way through FFXII. Have promised myself an XBox 360 when I finish Book 3 of the Inheritance Trilogy.

I’m also a big fan of Atlus’ games, in particular the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spinoffs. My current favorite among those is Digital Devil Saga 1 and 2.

In addition to RPGs, I’m a big fan of survival horrors like the Silent Hill series and Resident Evil (though I refuse to play RE 5), and action games like the Devil May Cry series. I’ve also got a taste for “art games”, for lack of a better descriptor — Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, and so on.

Why do you refuse to play Resident Evil 5?

Because games are supposed to be fun, and racism and sexism aren’t.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

Nope. I prefer games with specific plots and established characters. It might have something to do with me being a writer; I spend so much time having to do worldbuilding and character development on my own that when I relax, I prefer to use something already developed!

As someone who obviously appreciates the written word and the art of narrative, do you tend to read the quest text and immerse yourself into the story of the game you are playing?

Yes, definitely. I really don’t have much interest in games without a story. I’m also not fond of games that are badly-written or, in the case of Japanese games, badly-translated. ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US is funny the first time or two, but after awhile incomprehensibility gets old.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

One of my BFFs in college was a guy who loved to talk smack about his gaming skills — with a particularly macho, “you’re just a girl, you can’t relate” undertone. One of the game loves we shared was World Heroes, for the Neo Geo. He challenged me one day, and I mopped the floor with his ass. What’s amusing is that he’s still mad about it even today, 15 years later! Any time I bring it up, he bristles. It’s so cute.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

Yes — I’ve been utterly fascinated by some game worlds to the point of writing fanfiction based on them (yeah, I’m admitting it!). I tend to use fanfic as a practice ground for narrative techniques which I later use in my original fiction, so basically I work out the kinks there first.

Also, I think the kinds of games I’ve loved best have been those which challenged my assumptions on some level. For example, one of my favorite games is an old Japanese survival horror called Galerians. The hero is a drug-addicted anorexic teenage sociopath with psychic powers, who spends most of the game exploding the heads of anybody who gets in his way (think the old Cronenberg movie “Scanners”). I think I spent most of the game with my mouth hanging open, wondering how the heck this got published in the US.  But it really worked, and that made me more willing to write stories about heroes who weren’t very “heroic”, and characters who were overall more complex.

Would you say there is grinding in the writing process?

Of course there is. I usually start out a novel with a very clear idea of its beginning and end, and a few “cool bits” in between. But getting from point A to B to C often involves painstaking outlining and writing and rewriting. There’s nothing to be done for it; just gotta put your head down and keep it going. I try to do at least 1000 words a day, 2000 when I’ve got a looming deadline.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Seeing how people react to my work, even if they don’t like it. Maybe it’s my time served in fanfic, but to me, the worst reaction I can get from a reader is apathy. Anything is better than that.

When do you find time to write?

Well, at the moment I’m a full-time writer, so every day! But back when I was doing a 9 to 5, I generally wrote in the evenings after work, and sometimes on the weekends. It took me a lot longer back then to finish a novel — a year and a half to two years. Working full-time I can finish a book in six months or so.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Writing *is* an escape for me, even though it’s also a job at the moment; I wouldn’t do this stuff if I didn’t love it. But if you mean how do I escape from that, I read a lot, travel, am a “foodie”, and hang out with friends.  I still play video games. At the moment I’m replaying several old favorites.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

Heck, there’s tons of that out there, from people who are more established than me and have a better idea of what they’re doing. Go listen to them. =)

But I guess I’d have to say that the main piece of advice any writer should keep in mind is… write. Don’t say you’re a writer, *be* a writer. If you write, you’re a writer.

You wake up to a world where The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has been made into a video game. Which character would you play and why?

N. K. Jemisin

Oooh, fun. =) Well, I don’t know if this means anything without people having read the book, but I think I would play Sieh. Sieh is the god of childhood — he’s literally aeons old, older than the planet, but he looks like a ten-year-old. His powers derive from his ability to maintain a childish persona at all times; he literally *has* to have fun, or he grows weak. Something about that really appeals to me, as a thirtysomething adult with grownup concerns. I like his attitude.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Blowing up (virtual) stuff is cathartic and good for you, in a psychological sense. Go and be healthy!

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