Friday, September 09, 2016

Interview with Nisi Shawl

Please welcome Nisi Shawl to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Everfair, a thought-provoking debut, was published on September 6th by Tor Books.

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Nisi:  I’ve been writing since I could read. And I wanted to read long before I learned how. I wrote poetry in second grade which rather puzzled my teachers. Here’s one I memorized:

It’s Spring:
The crows are singing
And the old ladies are wearing new hats.

I’ve been getting paid for what I wrote since 1993. And I’ve made my living primarily as a writer--if you count teaching about writing--since 2001.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Nisi:  I can pretend to be a plotter when the need arises. But I pretty much write things and then act like a cat about them. You know, like, “I meant to do that.”

Cory Doctorow talks about “backshadowing,” that is, revising a story so the elements that you realize you need when you’ve reached the end are present for the reader all along. I do a fair bit of backshadowing.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Nisi:  So much. Everything. I’ve talked elsewhere about literary influences: Delany, Chandler, Colette, and so on. Music, though, is also an incredibly huge influence on my work. Music is so powerful, especially at an emotional level. I listen to all kinds of music. Really all kinds: even opera, country, and hip hop, the kinds usually excluded when people only *say* they listen to all kinds. Part of my writing process is figuring out what background music I need for a particular piece I’m working on; part of reading a story publicly is picking out the song I’ll sing to accompany it. A story I just sold, “Luisah’s Church,” is a tribute to a song Laura Nyro wrote.

Shall I name more names? I’m completely pwned by the Blue Note jazz recordings of Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, and many other geniuses; I’m an ardent fan of Michael Jackson’s work, both early and late; Julian Bream, Andre Segovia, Pepe Romero and a whole host of classical guitarists have made my writing life more easeful; and I’ve been on a huge Steely Dan kick for the last year. I yearn to edit a Dan-themed anthology. I’d call it Any World that We’re Welcome To, and the intro’s title would be “Only a Fool Would Say That.” They’re such an sfnal band. Other inspirational bands and solo artists in my collection: Royksopp, Orbital, David Bowie, Ray Charles, The Yoshida Brothers, Miriam Makeba, The Clash, The Ventures (I hear CJ Cherryh sometimes listens to them while writing), Angelique Kidjo, Erykah Badu, Sandy Denny, Karen Carpenter….OK, I’ll stop, but you get the idea. My tastes are eclectic.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing in general? Does being a journalist affect or not your fiction writing?

Nisi:  For me, the most challenging thing about writing is collecting the money I’m owed. I once waited two years for a check from a major SF market. That check was payment for a story I was supposed to have been paid for on acceptance. Not on publication. Which had happened long before I finally received my check. That’s an extreme example, but there are far too many others.

Yes, I do think being a journalist has affected my fiction writing, in that I’ve learned to pay close attention to wordcounts and deadlines. Journalism has taught me to cut embellishments, as well, and how to tell embellishments from essence, though they may resemble each other on their surfaces.

TQEverfair is your first published novel. What are the challenges in writing in the short form as opposed to the novel length and vice versa?

Nisi:  I know this is counterintuitive, and it’s not the common way of looking at these things, but I think that the plots of short stories tend to be quite complicated, and the plots of novels to be quite simple. I say that because novel plots are the armature for all sorts of other literary elements and excursions, themes and subplots and such. Novels are simple skeletons to which many other structures are attached. Short story plots, on the other hand, are designed to be freestanding. They need to support themselves in at least three dimensions. They need to do it all on their own. So they must necessarily be more multiplex.

In my opinion, the challenge of writing is one of continuity. I’ve written dozens of short stories. Everfair is only the fourth novel I’ve written, and I didn’t start writing novels till I was 45 years old. I began with poetry, expanded to short story length in my thirties, and then, when I felt I was the same person long enough to write at book length in the same voice, included novel-writing in my literary practice.

TQDescribe Everfair in 140 characters or less.

Nisi:  #Everfair premise: 19th century Britons and African American missionaries buy land in King Leopold II's Congo to create a socialist Utopia.

TQTell us something about Everfair that is not found in the book description.

Nisi:  Many of the characters are based on literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw, Zora Neale Hurston, and J.M. Barrie. Why? Because I love them.

TQWhat inspired you to write Everfair? What appealed to you about writing a Steampunk, Neo-Victorian and Alternate History novel?

Nisi:  I was inspired to write Everfair by my dislike of a genre I should have been completely crushed out on.

TQWhat is Neo-Victorian?

Nisi:  Well, it’s not what I call Everfair. My term for what I’ve done is “AfroRetroFuturist,” a portmanteau of Afrofutrism and Retrofuturism. Afrofuturism is a movement focused on African contributions to, perspectives on, and presence in the future. Retrofuturism is what most steampunks call what they’re interested in: a re-visioning of the past including elements of its future and sometimes elements of our own future as well. AfroRetroFuturism is a combination of these attitudes and concerns.

The term “neo-Victorian,” to me, is a much more limited one in that it’s apparently just about alternate versions of the Victorian empire.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for Everfair?

Nisi:  Tons. But probably not enough. I talked to people, I looked at photographs, I read books, I surfed the net. I pored over maps and tried out recipes. I listened to music. I sang. I prayed.

TQIn Everfair who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Nisi:  The easiest, no doubt at all, was Lisette Toutournier. That’s probably because I’ve long adored the writer I modeled her on, Colette. I’d already practiced emulating her literary style, and I had learned much of her fascinating history before I ever dreamed of writing her into Everfair.

The hardest? So many of the characters belonged to demographic groups whose histories have vanished. Alla them were hard: Fwendi, Mkoi, and other native Central Africans for sure. Tink was most likely the most difficult, because he differed from me in so many ways: his age at the time he appears in this book, his gender, his sexuality, his race, his career. Plus he was, as I discovered, so proud and so reticent. I hope my representation of him didn’t suffer because of these differences and how I dealt with them.

TQWhich question about Everfair do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Nisi:  Oh, that’s so hard! All the questions I’m thinking of are ones I’m glad no one has thought of.

Maybe I wish someone would ask me about the Peter Pan references. “What are the Easter Eggs you’ve included in Everfair that relate to Peter Pan?” this hypothetical interviewer would wonder. And I would say, “Chiefly they’re names. ‘Fwendi’ is a tribute to a little girl who played with J.M. Barrie in Kensington Gardens and called him her ‘fwendy’ or friend. ‘Tink’ is a nod to Tinkerbell’s engineering roots. ‘Wendi-la’ is the play that would have been written rather than Peter Pan had the timeline I created been substituted for the real one, and as the title indicates, it focuses on a female protagonist. Everfair itself is named, in part, as a response to Neverland.

“Apart from the names there’s the fact that Matty Jamison was to a large extent inspired by J.M. Barrie.”

As for *why* I put in those Easter Eggs? That’s a second question, and it’s even less likely to be asked than the first.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Everfair.


“Not far off a redwing sang, cold water trickling uphill.”

“Cats and moonlight poured into the abandoned office.”

“Rima pressed herself against those fat thighs and darling buttocks, that dimpled, curving back. She ran her nose down from Lisette’s kitchen along her neck to where her spine sunk to dip between mounds of flesh firm as living bread. Lifted the cloth of her lover’s shirt and licked the salt gathering there.”

TQWhat's next?

Nisi:  I’ve still been writing lots of short stories. Some of them are in series with one another, and I want to gather those into books, a separate book for each series. Making Amends is my interstellar penal colony series, for instance: I project an eight-story arc for that one, and I’ve finished five so far: “Deep End,” “In Colors Everywhere,” “The Mighty Phin,” “Like the Deadly Hands,” and “The Best Friend We Never Had.” There are three other series in similar states of incompletion.

And I want to write a book called The Five Petals of Thought, a faux pop-psych text based on an imaginary activist movement. And I want to put out a collection of nonfiction. And I want to publish the three other novels I’ve written. And I want to write a sequel to Everfair--I’ve just finished one short story that I’m hoping will serve as a sort of pilot for the project, and I’ll finish another in about six weeks that may do the same thing.

Not to mention all the anthologies I’m itching to edit. I better get back to work.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Tor Books, September 6, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages

Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium's disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo's "owner," King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Nisi Shawl's speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

About Nisi

Photo by Caren Corley
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov's SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies. Her story collection Filter House co-won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2009 and her stories have been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award. To learn more about Nisi Shawl, visit

Twitter @NisiShawl  ~  Facebook


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