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Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tade Thompson and Rosewater

I was so happy to have Tade Thompson come on the show! Rosewater is a book with a very interesting history. It was first published by small press Apex in 2016, and was a finalist for the Joseph W. Campbell award, and took first place in the NOMA awards for African works of speculative fiction. Tade said his initial plan was "I will  just make stuff and publish it wherever" but then he found he needed an agent because it was too much. He got an agent and sold the book to Orbit, which is why it's out again now.

Tade says he's not a big plotter. "I'm a pantser. I launch myself off into space and hope something will catch." At the same time, he says, "I rewrite really seriously."

I asked him about the genesis of the Rosewater concept, and he said he had the telepathy idea in 2011 after reading an article about conjoined twins who shared a brain and could hear each other's thoughts. He didn't want the telepathy in Rosewater to be hand-wavy, tough. He wanted an actual explanation, a conduit. When he asked himself why such a conduit would exist, the answer came out thusly:

"It was aliens."

Rosewater is an invasion story.

Tade told us that ideas on their own are not enough. He has to find the character. He said he wrote fifty thousand words before he realized he was writing in the wrong point of view. Some characters and events from this 50K words have survived in the final book, as backstory.

The character of Kaaro was based on 3 people Tade used to know. He's the right point of view to use because he can explore the entire idea.

Cliff asked if the 50K was canon. Tade said it was. None of the worldbuilding in it was discarded.

Tade gave us perspective on his view of himself as a pantser. "I don't dive in until I have thoughts for a long period of time." He says he doesn't start until he's already sure of where he's going, and the rules of the world. Generally, he says, he gets a character first and then builds the world around them. In The Murders of Molly Southbourne, he got the character first. In this book only, he got the wolrd first and then the characters. Any story must have both.

He describes himself as having a "video game mentality" in world creation. Not everything is rendered immediately. He follows the character and renders what is necessary. Once a character has seen it, it becomes real. Wherever the character goes, they are a kind of god, creating the world as they go.

I asked Tade why he felt Kaaro was uniquely appropriate as a point of view character for this story. He explained that Kaaro can be followed in first person, but because he can read minds, he makes us omniscient.

Other characters in the book were not Sensitive. In a book not about psychics this would be head-hopping.

Tade said that by making this choice "I made the reader also a mind reader." Kaaro himself is an unsavory character, and by following him, the reader is complicit. You have a bit of sympathy for him as he is affected by what goes on.

After drafting the book he made a network diagram of character links, showing who is connected to whom and why. The main character must have a link to most other characters.

Tade said, "My writing is exploratory." He wrote almost the whole thing before asking if he was in the right point of view.

I asked him how the telepathy works (SPOILERS!). Aliens have manufactured a fungi-like microorganism and seeded Earth with it over millions of years. This creates a network of organisms that connect to sense organs on the skin, and deliver the thoughts in the brain via the nerves into the air. This was how the aliens learned about Earth in preparation to invade. A side effect was that 1% of humans could access these data and extract data from people around them. Kaaro is the absolute best at it.

Rosewater is the name of a city that sprang up surrounding an alien biodome near Lagos, Nigeria.

Tade said the casual reader wouldn't notice, but he couldn't set a story "bang in the middle of Nigeria" because it would be too easy to create offense. Therefore he created a new city just outside Lagos. He restricted the language to Yoruba because "that's the language that I speak - I can make fun of my people if I want to." It's not just language, of course, but also culture.

Paul asked Tade how he acclimated readers to the environment. Tade explained, "I didn't want to acclimate them to it. I wanted to alienate them." Apparently this led to a massive fight with his editor. Tade doesn't think every aspect of the narrative should be understood. "If you're going to read a story about aliens... you cant understand everything."

I asked him if he knew the answers to things that readers would not be expected to understand. He said "I am God; I know everything. I know the color of their underwear..."

Characters, though, don't need to know everything. Tade leaves room for the reader to extrapolate because he says the best worldbuilding is in the reader's head. The writer must access that by giving hints for the reader to work with. "I will not put signs to everything." He wants to give just enough clues, and not talk down to the reader. That's the one thing that will make him throw a book across a room.

Kat asked, "Do you feel your own experience [as Nigerian, as POC] has colored the book?"

"It matters, definitely," Tade said. "I don't think a white person could write a book like this. My relation to aliens is completely different from what a white Englishman may have." The colonized people of our world are the only ones who have actually had contact with aliens in history - abducting them, experimenting on them, and taking their resources.

How a writer treats aliens reveals a lot about that person's subconscious. If you think alien hordes must be pacified, or if you think of them as not individuals, that shows what you think about people who are not like you. Even a "romp about aliens and space without politics" is political, because it shows that the author believes politics can be removed from a story, when it can't. Oppressed people acknowledge that politics is inextricable.

He said an annotated version of Rosewater would be larger than the book itself. All of us wanted to see it anyway!

Kat asked about the response Tade got from African readers. He explained that the African Speculative Fiction Society voted it for a best novel award. No one has written a negative review from an African perspective. Tade said he suspected it was possible that people might want to challenge him but have insufficient facts to do so, and so had chosen not to.

Tade told us he doesn't identify as a member of a particular group, and thus doesn't consider himself part of the Afrofuturist group. He says he's proud of being Black African, but "I don't see the idea of me being black as linked to being a writer." People are still finding the way to understand the word "Afrofuturist" and what it means. Meanings change over time. "I won't say my work isn't Afrofuturist." Tade is savvy about the history of the term, and thinks it helps critics put works in context, but wants to ask "Who does this definition serve?" He says he's not convinced it's a useful category for him and his work.

I asked Tade whether there was special research he had to do for this book. For most of the book, his life of experience was enough, but he said he did have to look up photosynthesis because our understanding of how it works had changed. He had already been following mycology because he's a doctor, and has to know how fungal infections work. He did use a book on caving and spelunking because some people explored in the alien.

Tade told us that his earliest career choice was that he wanted to be Spiderman. He prayed to God when he was little that he could grow up to be Spiderman, but explained that when he realized that wasn't possible, he figured the next best choice would be to draw him, and wanted to be a comic artist. But, he said, "You don't tell African parents you want to be a comic artist." He was interested in bodies and other things, so he went to medical school, but came out of medical school not knowing what to do. He used the throw a dart at a map method to decide what to do, and ended up going to Samoa. He was the only doctor on one of the four islands, and worked there between 1998 and 1999.

He says he has a feeling he will still write a graphic novel if he can find the right one to do, but he wants to give it the respect it deserves, and suspects he won't be able to do it without gutting one aspect of his current career.

Book 2 in the Rosewater series will come out in March. He has had all of it planned for quite some time, and gave outlines of his plans to Orbit all the way to the end of Book 3, but explains that this isn't the end of the Rosewater story, only a convenient stopping point. "I will never be a Robert Jordan," he says, because he can't write the same thing again and again or he gets bored. All three Rosewater books are done. He may come back to this storyline but he'll have to do something else first. "I will do it as long as I am interested." He says the writing will reflect the boredom of the writer. "We'll know when you phone it in."

Thank you so much, Tade, for coming on the show! Rosewater is a fascinating book, and I hope you will all have a chance to enjoy it.


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