Beyond the Canvas: Making the Music
How the protests in Ferguson helped inspire this fantasy novel
Our June pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is N.K. Jemisin’s “The Fifth Season.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Submit your questions for Jemisin on our Google form. Learn more about the book club here.
In N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo Award-winning fantasy novel “The Fifth Season,” the Earth is beset by disastrous climactic events, and individuals with special powers who are called orogenes are the only ones who have the power to stop them. They also face brutal, systemic oppression at every turn.
Jemisin says that as she began to write the book, the protests began in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. More deaths of unarmed black men and women by police followed.
“My frustration and anger over this shaped the story, widened the scope,” Jemisin wrote. And yet she kept the focus on the main character: Essun. “I knew it was over when her story was done, two books later,” she added. All three books in the trilogy won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the first time in history.
Below, Jemisin shares her daily writing routine (she doesn’t get up til 10, but her daily word count is high), her best writing advice (persist, and then persist some more), and how “The Fifth Season” came together (some of it happened at NASA). In her words:
1. What is your daily writing routine?
That depends on whether I’ve got an approaching deadline. Ordinarily I get up late-ish — 10 or 11 in the morning now that I no longer have a day job — and have breakfast while answering business emails. Three days a week I exercise first, then write. The other days of the week, I do errands or other business-y stuff (interviews, phone calls, photo shoots). Then I try to bang out the bulk of my word count while my head is fresh, though I’ll continue until dinnertime if that’s what it takes to hit the mark. I take a break then. If I’m on deadline, I resume writing after dinner. I stay up pretty late. My word count minimum ordinarily is 1,500 words per day. While I’m on deadline, it’s 3,000.
2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?
I didn’t have a single favorite childhood book. I read for escape, so they were all favorites because they all took me elsewhere. I also don’t believe in something like “one book everyone should read.” There is no universally ideal book. Everyone should read books they like.
3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
The United States Constitution. Lots of people think they know what’s in it, and everybody’s got their favorite amendments, but most folks haven’t done a good thorough read of that thing since elementary school civics class, if they were lucky enough to have a civics class. Seems like a good time to bone up on that and other actual, factual elements of American history, rather than repeating what we think we know, or what others have told us.
4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?
Persist. If you want to break in and it seems hopeless, keep trying. If you can’t break in with what you’ve written, keep writing and get better. If you’ve broken in and are struggling, keep at it, and write the book that will make you famous. Then keep going.
5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?
The base elements of “The Fifth Season” came together over many years. A fascination with volcanoes, and Extinction Level Events. A lot of self-education on social justice and the mechanics of oppression. A conversation on orbital mechanics while I was at a NASA-sponsored astronomy workshop called Launch Pad. But the trigger event was finding my character, via a dream.
In the dream, I saw a woman walking toward me, with a furious look on her face, and a mountain floating behind her. I woke up needing to know her story. As I started to write it, the protests in Ferguson started over Michael Brown’s murder, and there was a period in which it felt as if a black person was getting extrajudicially killed by police every day. That’s always happened in this country, but we were talking about it, and so many racists were coming out of the woodwork to basically say that they liked living in a world so filled with injustice and wrongness, and that they didn’t want it to change. My frustration and anger over this shaped the story, widened the scope. But it remained a character-focused story; Essun’s story. I knew it was over when her story was done, two books later.