Please welcome Na'amen Gobert Tilahun to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Root was published on June 7th by Night Shade Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Na'amen: Thanks for inviting me! I started writing pretty young, just little things here and there. Not to toot my own horn but my self-made book (more short story) did get an honorable mention in my seventh grade literature contest. Try not to be too jealous. (P.S. My mom still has that book somewhere and really wants me to be famous so she can sell it on eBay.) I didn't get really serious about writing until college though.
As for why, well, I've always had stories in my head that I would tell, even just to myself. For example when I would walk home from night classes I would hear a noise and freak out over the normal things (like serial killers or clowns) but I would also wonder if maybe it was a newly turned werewolf that was going to maul me and then I would end up turned and the pack would take me away to some compound in Texas to train me in the ways of the wolf (this is an actual thought chain that resulted from one of those night walks). I figured if I was always going to e coming up with stories I should share them.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Na'amen: I'm definitely a hybrid. I'd say 25% plotter & 75% pantser. I generally know where my characters are going to end up, and some of the scenes that I want to happen along the way but their journey to the end happens organically as I write. I feel like I learn more about my characters and the story as I write it which is part of the fun for me. Then I lean back and look at the big picture and try to make notes about the connections and themes I want to highlight in the first rewrite/edit session.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Na'amen: Distractions. I am a total information nerd who is easily distracted which is an amazing/horrible combination. I'll start out working on the book and then click over to the internet to do a little bit of necessary research and then that triggers a thought and I’m researching an actor who played a bit part on some 80s sitcom for ten minutes and then there’s an article on women vikings and down the internet rabbit hole I go. I have a few tricks for motivating myself, mostly a reward system where for every 90 minutes of writing I get to either watch an episode of a show I’m currently hooked on (right now it’s Grace & Frankie or Veep) or read a chapter in the books I’m currently reading (right now it’s The Devourers by Indra Das or Golden Girls Forever by Jim Colucci).
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Na'amen: Stories. I love stories, fiction or not, that’s where most of my influences come from. I have some favorite authors but more often you’ll hear me talking about favorite books or series because that’s what moved me, whatever was written on the page. It also doesn’t much matter to me the medium - books, graphic novels, TV, movies, music, plays, poetry - they all have positives and negatives but all of them can convey a wonderful story. Anything that affects me, influences me, because that’s what I want to do to my readers. I want to make them feel, I want them to care and I want them to be moved.
Some of the storytellers whose works have/do influence me are Octavia Butler, Rebecca Sugar, Sophie Campbell, Joanna Russ, Ntozake Shange, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Afua Richardson, Julie Taymor, Marjorie Liu, Ursula Vernon, Beyoncé and a whole lot more.
TQ: Describe The Root in 140 characters or less.
Na'amen: In The Root, urban and epic fantasy meet, a darkness devours worlds and our best hope are two damaged teenagers. We might be fucked.
TQ: Tell us something about The Root that is not found in the book description.
Na'amen: I try to play a lot with mythology and religion in the book. I identify as an atheist but I've always been fascinated by world religions. It was something I studied in college and since then on my own and so there's a lot merging of mythologies but also an attempt to keep things vague and shrouded in conflicting stories as the origins of most older religions tend to be. Plus the angels are biblical style, you know - balls of fire, goat-heads, mounds of eyes - none of the pretty Hollywood style angels here.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Root? What appeals to you about writing Urban Fantasy?
Na'amen: I've loved Urban Fantasy ever since I read Bordertown years ago. I love the idea of the mix of our world and magic, the ways this can be combined or go wrong is almost infinite. However I dislike Urban Fantasy that doesn’t actually feel urban. A lot of books are set in diverse cities but the only people we run into are straight white people, that was never my experience in a city and I wanted an Urban Fantasy that reflected my own lived experience. Also I wanted to explore/mess with the stereotype of the overly aggressive/violent black man and expand that simplistic idea into a three dimensional character and one of the heroes of the text.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Root? Why did you set the novel in San Francisco?
Na'amen: Most of my research focused on my knowledge on religion and mythology. I read a lot of books on symbols and mystery cults and religious wars.
Growing up I spent my summers in San Francisco and I loved it so much when it was time to go to college I decided on SF State. While I'm sad and angry about the gentrification and other entitlement that has become so much a part of San Francisco in the last ten years I still love what it used to be and remember it fondly.
The first novel is establishing a lot and so doesn't tie into San Francisco as much and neither does the second novel because the majority of it takes place in an alternate dimension (though there are chapters that take place in San Francisco and other cities in our dimension). The third novel The Fruit is heavily San Francisco focused and I'm hoping to bring in a lot of the quirky, dark, interesting and fucked up local history that I know about the city into the work.
TQ: In The Root who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Na'amen: Lil was easiest for me to write because there was a lot more distance between myself and her character. I was able to get a broader perspective on her wants and her choices. She’s a character I adore but our personalities are very different.
As for Erik, I wouldn’t say he’s me (I’m not 18 or a former TV star for two things) but I have more traits in common with Erik than any other character in the book and that made it more difficult to gain some perspective on him as a character. I would slip into having Erik do things that I would do in the situation rather than what Erik, with his completely different history, would do.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Root?
Na'amen: My characters are definitely aware of social issues and acknowledge them. Erik especially is very aware of race and sexuality and how the attitudes of others has shaped his world. I didn’t want the focus of the story to be on his sexuality or race but leaving him ignorant of how these things affect him everyday would have just felt false and like I was pandering. I’m a queer black man in the western world and not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m not “normal” and while I didn’t want to delve into that too deeply in this trilogy. I wanted to show how their identities affect each character, in fact there’s a scene towards the end where all the women and people of color in the room react to something that’s said about people’s places in the world & hierarchy but it’s subtle and most readers probably won’t notice it or tie it into identity if they haven’t experienced that.
That being said the story doesn’t deal with their identities directly very much because I wanted more of a story where the characters happen to be people of color and women and queer because that’s the real world. I wanted the story to be about people like me and my friends having a messed up, dark adventure.
TQ: Which question about The Root do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Na'amen: Why name it The Root?
-There’s a spoilery plot reason I won’t go into.
-The tree imagery ties into a lot of religions’ important stories.
-The phrase “put a root on someone”.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Root.
“It’s a real world explanation. The real world is messy. What some people think of as truth isn’t necessarily true and sometimes there’s no objective truth at all.”
TQ: What's next?
Na'amen: I'm working on the sequel for The Root, and second in the Wrath & Athenaeum trilogy, The Tree. It will be out June of next year. I'm also hard at work on two YA novels, one is a more contemporary supernatural story about family, black women ancestors and history called The Red Road Home. The other is a high fantasy about a young black girl raised by pirates who fights to be an astronaut called The Link Between Water and Sky.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Na'amen: Thank you so much for having me!
A Novel of the Wrath & Athenaeum 1
Night Shade Books, June 7, 2016
Trade Paperback and eBook, 420 pages
A dark, gritty urban fantasy debut set in modern-day San Francisco, filled with gods, sinister government agencies, and worlds of dark magic hidden just below the surface.
When a secret government agency trying to enslave you isn’t the biggest problem you’re facing, you’re in trouble.
Erik, a former teen star living in San Francisco, thought his life was complicated; having his ex-boyfriend in jail because of the scandal that destroyed his career seemed overwhelming. Then Erik learned he was Blooded: descended from the Gods.
Struggling with a power he doesn’t understand and can barely control, Erik discovers that a secret government agency is selling off Blooded like lab rats to a rival branch of preternatural beings in ’Zebub—San Francisco’s mirror city in an alternate dimension.
Lil, a timid apprentice in ’Zebub, is searching for answers to her parents’ sudden and mysterious deaths. Surrounded by those who wish her harm and view her as a lesser being, Lil delves into a forgotten history that those in power will go to dangerous lengths to keep buried.
What neither Erik nor Lil realize is that a darkness is coming, something none have faced in living memory. It eats. It hunts. And it knows them. In The Root, the dark and surging urban fantasy debut from Na’amen Tilahun, two worlds must come together if even a remnant of one is to survive.
Na’amen Tilahun is a bookseller and freelance writer who split his early years between Los Angeles and San Francisco. His fiction, poetry, and critical writing are published across the web at io9.com, The Big Click, Full of Crows, Stone Telling and more. He is the cocreator and cohost of the geek podcast, The Adventures of Yellow Peril + Magical Negro. Follow him on Twitter at Naamenism (the name of the cult he one day hopes to start).