Interview: Kai Ashante Wilson, author of The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

wildeeps

Earlier this week I ran a review of the first, extraordinarily good, novella in Tor’s new novella line, The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. I’ll be running reviews of the entire line with the authors, starting today with Kai Ashante Wilson.

 

How did you find working to novella length? What are the challenges and benefits of it?

Before starting The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps in the spring of 2011, I’d bogged down six or seven times through my 20s and 30s in the fourth or fifth chapters of various novels. I was desperate to finish a much heftier piece of fiction than the couple of short stories I’d managed to complete up to that point. But I also felt there wasn’t any point in setting out on yet another 500-page expedition, given my track record of washing out around page 75. So I decided to attempt a piece of writing far lengthier than a short story, but far more manageable than a doorstop novel… Was there a name for such a thing?

Ah ha—a novella!

It wasn’t easy writing, though. Ideas come at me in 500-page chunks, which required arduously winnowing away two-thirds of the originally conceived story. Even so, I cut as much as I kept. Now, however, I’ve built up 75 pages of writerly muscle into 200 pages’ worth, and feel much more prepared for the big leap.

 

Did the story evolve as it was written?

So much!

Early on, for instance, I was using various narrative strategies in the attempt to help readers connect the fantastical situations with the real-life conditions of African Americans that inspired me. By later drafts, though, it became clear I was losing too much immersiveness to the distance that allegory creates, and so I committed fully to the secondary world.

 

What kind of narrative strategies did you try? Do you think you’ll reuse any of them down the line?

Some these strategies reappeared in “The Devil in America”: the historiographic sketches, metafictional inserts, quotes and comments from people I know in real life, and so forth. In TDIA, these were crucial to the story I had to tell, and my failure to make such techniques work in the earlier novella taught me lessons I applied to writing the later story.

super bass

(Illustration for Super Bass by Kai Ashante Wilson, art by Wesley Allsbrook. Read the story at Tor.com)

There’s an incredible sense of depth and coherency to the world you decribe. How much research went into it?

Well, sure, I’d say a fair amount of research went into it: going through stacks of library books for the useful tidbits, watching Texas hunters on Youtube kill wild pigs with spears, and constantly pestering a friend of mine with an OED subscription to email me etymologies and tertiary meanings of obscure words, etc., etc, etc. But infinitely more than the research, any sense of depth and coherency in the story-world must owe to the long process of thinking and re-thinking everything through. Asking myself over and over for years: But wait, how was it really?

 

Tell us a little about the novella.

The author Stephen Carter uses a phrase in one of his books, “African America”—note the missing final n—to signify the collective knowledge and opinions of black America; for example, “African America took a dim view of the new president’s policies…” Ever since I first read that phrase it’s fermented in my imagination. I kept picturing a literal continent, some mythological homeland where all the various and fraught streams of African American heritage were intrinsic and accounted for. My first novel(la)—obviously!—would have to be set there. And naturally this African America would be a place where all our many varieties of English could be heard everyday, all smashed together side-by-side: the exquisitely formal, the ludic and colorfully hood, the South American and Carribean inflections…

At the time of writing, I was going through a period of tremendous loss, including, it seemed, of my own life soon: not the state of mind, in other words, for writing some soft, gentle tale. I decided that my protagonist was getting put through the wringer backwards, sideways, upside down, just as I was. But at the same time, I had plenty awful grinding grimdark in real life, thanks, so no need to go there in the fiction too. The novella, then, should be … unforgivingly harsh, with death around every corner, , but also shot through with tenderness, loyalty and humor; full of—to use a couple terms having a particular and piquant valence in my dialect of English —“messiness” and “ignorance,”

 

I’m really sorry the book was born from a difficult time. For what it’s worth I think the ‘messiness’ you talk about is one of its strongest features. It’s a hugely compassionate, humane story and vast part of that is the mercenary unit at its heart. Were they inspired by anyone in particular or did you find them to be aspects of your own mindset when writing the novella.

I’ve met most of the people in the novella at one time or another, and a couple I’ve loved dearly, while one or two were the bane of my existence while I knew them. I think most writers “store up” the characters they meet, and when writing The Sorcerer I just about emptied my warehouse of wastrels and fuck-ups. One insidious idea that holds true for African Americans especially is that only sweet and unblemished innocence has any worth, and that any flaw or instance of wrong-doing merits all the hardship and retribution that ever comes your way. In the Hollywood version of my story, the opening sequence of the movie would consist of fresh-faced, strawberry-cheeked young men writing home to the folks, being kind to children and small animals, and perhaps a little gentle joshing around. In this way, the audience would understand that the characters deserve the devotion and sacrifices the hero(es) will make on their behalf. My thinking was, Fuck that noise. Guys who are ‘no angel’ deserve heroes looking out for them too.

The Devil in America

(Illustration for The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson, art by Richie Pope. Read the story at Tor.com)

You use speech patterns to define character in a way that’s incredibly elegant, and again, speaks to a lot of under the hood design work. What was your thought process behind how each soldier talks.

To a degree probably amazing to anyone who isn’t, African Americans of different classes tend to intermingle, and oftentimes this can be true even within the same family—my own, for example. I live precariously in the Bronx, with most of those closest to me in space and affections coming from the margins of society. Another of my siblings is quite thoroughly upper middle class, having mostly shed the same African American Vernacular that I’ve mostly retained. There are seven people in my immediate family, and we all have dramatically different ways of talking: country, urban, hipster, middle class new age, Obamaish code-switching, bourgie over-enunciating… I tried hard to reflect this everyday heterogeneity of speech in the novella.

 

Is it a world you’ll be returning to? I’d love to see other stories set there.

I’ve written some already! The novelette “Légendaire,” in the recent anthology Stories for Chip, and the story “Super Bass,” which can be found at Tor.com, are both set in the same world. I also have a second novella which even as we speak the powers-that-be are mulling over for publication. Hopefully there’ll be happy news on that front soon.

 

One of the things I loved the most about the story was how fascinated it is with stepping outside boundaries. Demane’s presence as a perceived outsider both in the caravan and among the other soldiers, as well as the relationship he has with Captain both cross boundaries society has set for them. Likewise the novella gleefully subverts what genre you think it is at least once. How did that motif evolve over the course of writing it?

Inevitably there are patterns readers discern in a story that the author didn’t necessarily set down consciously. Although an enormous amount of intentionality went into my writing the novella, the particular motif you refer to wasn’t part of it. I just did what I do naturally—wrote what I know best—and the theme of boundary-crossing emerged.

 

As you say, readers discern patterns in stories that authors don’t consciously lay in. Are there any patterns or motifs in particular you’d want readers to consciously look for when they begin the story?

Your question gets right at the heart of the irreconcilability of the writer’s and readers’ experiences of a book. As the author, who spent four years trying to get it right, there’s almost no end to what I fervently hope readers will spot, understand and appreciate. But the catch is that I will have utterly failed as a writer if I need to point out all these things in order for them to be seen, grasped, and enjoyed. It only matters—it only counts—if I wrote well enough that readers can discover what I laid down without my gloss after the fact.

(That said, there are clues for each chapter in the preceding epigraph, which, if the epigraphs seem opaque at first-read, might wonderfully clarify when looked at after reading each chapter…)

 

What’s next from you? And what are you working on right now?

A new short story of mine, “Kaiju maximus®,” will appear in the December issue of Lightspeed. And I’ve got half a novel written: In the Country of Superwomen. Hopefully this winter will be productive!

 

Thank you so much to Kai for taking the time to talk to me. The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is an amazing piece of work and is available now. Here’s the Amazon US link too.

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