Reflecting the World as It Really Is: Interview with Na'amen Gobert Tilahun
With his debut novel, The Root. Na'amen Gobert Tilahun took Toni Morrison’s famous dare: “If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
I’ve been a large black man all of my life and I’ve experienced the fear and suspicion that comes along with that, he wrote when asked to comment on John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever, about the big ideas in his story. What if I wrote a black man whose power came from his anger?
The Root is the first in his planned Wrath and Athenaeum trilogy. “The series is a blending of urban fantasy and secondary world fantasy and in many ways I'm trying to capture the feel of a fantasy epic in an urban fantasy environment,” he told me. Of his main character, Erik, Na’amen wrote: What if that angry black man was one of the heroes of the story? What if that angry black man was shown to be so much more than his anger?
In this interview, Na’amen and I discussed the trilogy, his process, and of course, sex.
Kristy Lin Billuni: A novel is a big effort, and a series is so much bigger. Why is the project worthwhile for you?
Na'amen Gobert Tilahun: It’s important to me because in so many ways it's a series I wanted when I was younger and could rarely find books with characters that resembled myself or my friends in any way. I'm invested in diversity in my work, or as I like to call it, reflecting the world as it really is, so there is a range of identities represented.
KLB: And you’re working on the next one already?
NGT: Yes, currently I'm working on the second novel in the Wrath & Athenaeum trilogy, The Tree.
KLB: Anything else?
NGT: I also have a couple of YA novels to work on once I finish this including one: The Red Road Home, about magic and race in a small southern town and The Link Between Water and Sky, which is about a young black girl raised to be a Pirate Queen who just wants to be an astronaut.
KLB: It sounds like your work has a lot of empathy for young people. Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?
NGT: I’m hard pressed to remember a time when I didn't want to tell stories in some way. I think, early on, I wasn't sure what direction that would take, but by the time I was in high school, I was pretty clear that I wanted to write.
KLB: Tell us about how you write. What’s your process?
NGT: I used to hand write everything and then type it up, which I think is excellent in terms of methods, but I just didn't have the time to do that and meet all my deadlines. So now it's all typing it up, although while on vacation, I definitely do the whole notebooks in cafes thing.
KLB: Do you write every day?
NGT: I try to write something every single day, and on great days I do about 2,000 words a day. But I fully admit there are weeks in which my output has been 15 words. In a prefect world, i.e. one where I'm independently wealthy, I would write late at night and early in the morning because that's when my creativity is going strong.
KLB: How many drafts?
NGT: I usually do about 4-5 drafts of something. The first and second drafts are things that only I see, where I go through and smooth out all the kinks and places where I just summarize what needs to go there. Then the third round goes to different readers/writers that I know for feedback and to my editor (if applicable). I take their notes in, and that's the fourth draft, which then goes back to others for more feedback, which leads to my fifth and final draft.
KLB: Feedback is so important. Do you work with a writing group?
NGT: I have a great writers group with Charlie Jane Anders, Claire Light, and Annalee Newitz, and we just merged with another writing group with some very talented people. So I'm thrilled to have more eyes on my work.
KLB: Those are some sexy writers you’re working with! Do you think writing is sexy?
NGT: I think the sexiest part, or at least the part that feels the most like sex to me, is the satisfaction after that first draft is finished, the feeling of a job well done. It's like making love to a new partner. You know there may have been some errors initially, but all in all, you're both satisfied. And you know that in future sessions/drafts, your skill set will only improve because you're more familiar now and know all the spots you have to hit to make the story glow.
I love to talk to writers like Na'amen Gobert Tilahun about the process of writing. Follow Na’amen on Twitter and buy his book, The Root. To meet more writers in social media, follow me, The Sexy Grammarian, on Facebook or Twitter. Follow Charlie Jane Andersand Annalee Newitz too, and check out my recent review of Charlie Jane’s novel on Goodreads. Yearning to jump into the writer’s life yourself? My free ebook, Arouse Your Writer Self, will get you going. Want more? Private sessions with me are more affordable than you think, and the first one’s free.