Celebrate Black Literature: A Q&A with Nicky Drayden

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Join us in celebrating Black Literature! We are working to recognize Black History Month by highlighting black Texas authors, readers, and contributors to the literary community in a series of blog posts. Thus far, we’ve had contributions from  TBF Community Ambassador Peggy Terryaward-winning children’s author and illustrator Don TateDr. Rosalind Oliphant Jones, the founder of the Austin African American Book Festival, and the new Austin Public Library director Roosevelt Weeks.

Today, we have an exciting Q&A with Austin resident and 2017 Texas Book Festival author Nicky Drayden! Drayden is a Systems Analyst who dabbles in prose when she’s not buried in code. Her debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa brimming with demigods, robots, and hallucinogenic hijinks. See more of her work on her website,  or catch her on Twitter. Keep an eye out for Drayden’s forthcoming novel Temper, coming out from Harper Voyager on August 7, 2018!

You can also catch Drayden this coming Saturday, on February 24 at the second annual Celebration of Diverse Literary Voices of Texas at the new Central Library (Living Room, 6th floor) from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., presented by the Austin Public Library and KAZI Book Review. We’ll see you there!


Texas Book Festival: What inspired you to write Science Fiction/Fantasy? Similarly, what drew you to setting the book in South Africa?


Nicky Drayden: Science Fiction and Fantasy are in my bones. “E.T.” was the first movie I saw in a theater, so maybe that has something to do with it. I must have watched “Starman” a million times and one of my first memories is of begging my dad to watch “Superman” every single day when I was three years old. But I didn’t have a label for the shows I liked until much, much later. “Small Wonder,” “Mork and Mindy,” “Alf,” “Quantum Leap,” “Buck Rogers.” They just entertained me, and when I started writing, those were the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

South Africa drew me in as a setting because I traveled to Port Elizabeth back when I was in college, and I thought it’d be interesting to imagine how the experiences I had there could translate into a work of speculative fiction. Obviously, I didn’t come across any disenfranchised demigoddesses or sentient robots while there, but many of the highlights from my visit are featured in the book, for example, we toured some of the rural townships where people live in tin shacks, met teenagers who had recently gone through the circumcision rite, and bought hand-carved souvenirs from local artists. And it seemed like everywhere we went, there were these little cute antelopes called dik-diks rummaging around the city, kind of in a similar way some places have deer overpopulation problems, so those things all got worked into the book.

It was a lot of fun to relive my memories through my writing and to project how South Africa’s unique challenges and strengths would intersect with technological and scientific advancements over the next fifty years.


TBF: What kind of research did you do for The Prey of Gods? Was it difficult to write from so many different perspectives, from such different characters?


ND: I read articles and novels by South African authors, and—this one’s a bit odd—I dug into the comment sections of a few South African online magazines. People tend not to filter themselves in the comments section, so you can get an interesting glimpse of the issues people are dealing with. I also enlisted a few South African beta readers, and they helped to hone the story, filling in the gaps in my experience with rich texture and delectable details for readers to savor.

I loved the challenge of weaving the characters’ stories together in a cohesive manner. Most of the characters have never met before the story begins, but they’re all connected in various and multiple ways. For example, in Sydney’s first chapter, she’s giving a magical manicure to a woman who’s attending a fundraiser for Councilman Stoker. In another scene, Rita Natrajan, the pop diva in the story, unknowingly shares a robot taxi with Muzi’s brother-in-law and is secretly romantic with Muzi’s best friend’s cousin. It’s a knotty tangle of threads, but I think a few snags make the tapestry more interesting.


TBF: How do you go about world-building (one of the most important/hardest parts of SFF, but often is “invisible labor”)?


ND: I don’t know if it’s invisible, because readers can tell when you’ve just got a city full of prop buildings. I draw maps with labeled thoroughfares, floorplans of my character’s homes. Figure out their birthdays and zodiac signs. I pick out photographs of what they look like, what clothes they wear, what the buildings look like, and any significant objects mentioned in the book so my descriptions have some grit. Having world-building clear in my mind when I’m writing comes out not necessarily a big info dump, but in telling details. The lapel pin on a character’s jacket, the type of necklace a character wears and why. Details beget details, so the more you know going into the novel, the deeper it will lead you.


TBF: Who are some of your favorite Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers? Who has had an influence on your writing?


ND: Neal Stephenson is my favorite author. I had a writing mentor back in the day, and we were out at Half Price Books, and he pulled Crypotonomicon from the shelf and pretty much forced me to buy it. He was nearly shaking recalling a submarine scene. So I bought it and read it. And from then on, I was hooked. I’d never read anything with so much depth and attention to detail. When I read Stephenson’s Seveneves, I felt like I’d earned an honorary degree in orbital mechanics.

On the fantasy side, I like N. K. Jemisin. I started her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and literally could not putit down. It was a good thing I was on vacation at the time, or I would have had to take a sick day. Her worlds are completely immersive, and the characters are so deep, and she’s not shy about jerking your emotions around.

There are also a ton of up-and-coming authors I’ve got my eye on. I was blown away by Kai Ashante Wilson’s A Taste of Honey. If you’re into generation ships and awesome world-building, Noumenon by Marina J. Lostetter will sweep you away. And Viscera by Gabriel Squailia is both hauntingly dark and delightfully funny.


TBF: What was the best part of writing The Prey of Gods?


ND: I loved creating these characters who are all horribly flawed. Of the six main characters, any of them could be the antagonist of the story, which I think makes them easy for readers to connect to in some ways and challenges them in others. Nomvula, a ten-year-old girl coming to grips with her newfound powers, commits atrocities worse than the villainess of the story. Muzi, a teenager with mind control, makes bad decision after bad decision. Nearly every page you want to shake some sense into him, but you never stop cheering for him. They’re all complicated, frustrating, and relatable.


TBF: What advice would you give to new and/or up and coming black authors in science fiction? 


ND: Guard your writing time. Guard the vision for your story when accepting feedback. It takes quite a while to hone your craft, and it’s all but impossible to do so in a vacuum, so most young black writers will come up against well-meaning critiquers and editors who can do real damage to a manuscript, or worse, to the writer’s sensibilities.

Your story might not always make sense to others, but that doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is wrong. It might be that your craft isn’t fully developed yet, and you need more experience to pull it off. Maybe it just needs to find the right set of eyes. So write more, read more, keep submitting and keep challenging yourself to grow as a writer and a person.


TBF: What are you working on next?


ND: I just finished copyedits on Temper, which is coming out August 7th. I’m really excited about this one, and though it is also set in a (fictionalized) South Africa, it was a whole set of different challenges because I was both building a world from scratch while drawing upon existing cultural references.

It’s about a wayward teenaged boy named Auben Mutze who starts hearing voices that speak to his dangerous side—encouraging him to perform evil deeds that go beyond innocent mischief. Lechery, deceit, and vanity run rampant. And then there are the inexplicable blood cravings…

It’s a mix of science fiction and fantasy like The Prey of Gods, though this one dips a little into horror and dark humor as well.