It’s a bright summer Friday, and Rebecca Roanhorse sits out on her balcony overlooking the Sun and Moon Mountains in Santa Fe, N.Mex. The majestic and ancient lands below have become a deep part of the worldbuilding in her latest book, Black Sun (Saga Press, Oct.), which kicks off her new Between the Earth and Sky trilogy. Drawn from the diverse and varied civilizations of the pre-Columbian Americas, her new secondary world fantasy celebrates cultures she was desperate to see on the page as a writer of Black and Native descent.
“Unfortunately, epic fantasy all seems to be set in mythical worlds inspired by Europe,” Roanhorse says. “We’ve read that a million times.” So she makes it her mission to create fantasy landscapes that draw from new and startling creative wells.
Getting publishing to open up to those broadened fantasy horizons hasn’t been easy. “I came to the publishing industry very naively, not understanding anything about the business or what it was like to be a writer,” she says.
A voracious bibliophile since she was a kid, Roanhorse grew up reading the science fiction and fantasy during what she calls a “challenging” childhood in Fort Worth, Tex., and the genre became her happy place. She started drawing acclaim for her writing at a young age, winning her first poetry contest in third grade. She transformed a seventh grade science project on the planets into an emo-tragic short story about an astronaut on a suicide mission into the sun. “I think I got a B+ on that, which was pretty disappointing because I thought it was A+ work. I don’t think I was supposed to turn it into a fictional narrative,” she says with a laugh. “But I’ve been writing ever since.”
She spent her middle and high school years spinning more tales only for herself, while thinking about the fantasy books she was reading.
“It was all white boys on quests,” she muses, recalling the epic fantasies she read during that time. “I’d dropped out of reading it because it stopped speaking to me. There were no people who looked like me, and nothing that I really related to,” she says, adding that she felt “disconnected” from the worlds of these novels. But once she found urban fantasy, she saw a genre where, she felt, there might be space for Native characters.
She encountered many half-Native characters in popular urban fantasy series, but noticed how those characters were divorced from their heritages. “They didn’t interact with the heroes and gods and monsters of Native cultures,” she explains. She says she started thinking: “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a story where a character was very Native? Very attached to her culture and surrounded by brown people, and in a world that I knew?”
She’d been practicing Indian law and living in the Navajo nation with her husband and daughter when she started thinking about writing more seriously. It was at this point that she began working on what would become her debut fantasy, the Locus-winning and Hugo-nominated novel Trail of Lightning (Saga Press), which was published in 2018, when Roanhorse was in her 40s.
“So I just decided to write it. I wrote it purely for myself and for the joy of writing, and to keep myself sane while being a lawyer,” she says. “I didn’t even know people like me could be writers. An editor asked me why I waited so long to start writing, and I said ‘I didn’t know that I could be a science fiction and fantasy writer.’ I didn’t come to see people like Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin until later, so I didn’t see anyone writing this genre that looked like me. So I didn’t even know it was an option.”
It wasn’t until she joined a National Novel Writing Month group that she found the courage to try to get published. A motley crew including a romance novelist, a science writer, and a self-help expert, the group adored her work and encouraged her to get it published, which Roanhorse says was a major motivator.
She entered #DVPit, a biannual Twitter pitching event for authors and illustrators who self-identify as members of historically marginalized groups, but none of the agents who requested her manuscript were a good match. That’s when she started querying, eventually connecting with agent Sara Megibow. “She picked five clients out of the 30,000 queries she gets a year,” Roanhorse says. “And she picked me.”
Barreling through the concrete ceiling of the white-dominated publishing industry, Roanhorse’s debut sold within a week, and it went on to win a Locus and received nominations for several science fiction awards.
In many ways, Roanhorse is carving a path for others while reshaping the canon with her trailblazing stories. In 2018, Roanhorse received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award). Her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™”—published in Apex magazine in 2017—won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2017 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. It also earned her several prestigious nominations for the Locus Award for Best Short Story, the 2018 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.
Her most ambitious work yet, Black Sun is a lush tale about the intertwined fates of a man born to be the vessel of a god, a seafaring outcast, and a powerful priest. It’s set against the backdrop of Tova, a holy city on the planet Meridian. An epic adventure filled with giant crows, assassins, mermaids, astronomer priests, god-made storms, matriarchal clans, and more, it draws from the beauty and complexity of the pre-colonization cultures of the Americas.
It infuriates Roanhorse that these ancient civilizations don’t get acknowledged for their profound accomplishments.“Pre-Columbian cultures, pre-conflict cultures were rich and complex and sophisticated, particularly in their astronomy, architecture, and culture,” she says, as she gazes out at the desert. “There’s a pervasive idea—even to this day—that they were primitive.”
In this new trilogy, Roanhorse seeks to use fantasy landscapes to unearth the beauty of those cultures, from the maritime Mayan ports to the architecture of Machu Picchu to the mound builders of Cahokia. She wanted to put a world on the page that she wanted to see. While not limiting herself to historical or cultural accuracy as a creator of fantasy, she let her imagination unfurl this ancient world’s possibilities of magic and adventure in order to take wonderful storytelling risks.
“I start with character and worldbuild out of necessity,” she says with a laugh, detailing how her books often open with a sliver of violence, like a drop of blood in a glass of champagne, signaling to the reader the trouble yet to come.
“My stories came from a place of urgency and joy,” she says. “Those two things combined made me feel like I’ve got to write what I want to write, what comes to me.”
Knowing that she’s one of the most successful Black and Native science fiction and fantasy writers comes with a lot of responsibility. Roanhorse worked with many sensitivity readers to ensure the series world of Between the Earth and Sky and its characters were depicted with respect and dignity. She aims to tell good stories that celebrate the cultures of her ancestors, build imaginative worlds that invite exploration, and create misfit characters that demand following.
“I’ve always been an outsider. I’m adopted, and Native identity is complicated and political, and I understand why,” she says. “But I know I mean a lot to many young Native writers. The ones who want to write genre and have not had a model, or who have been discouraged or told outright they can’t. And Black readers have always loved and supported me.”
She reflects on the fan mail she’s gotten from readers, then she laughs and smiles. “They keep showing up in my workshops and keep saying things like ‘I would’ve been too scared to do this if I hadn’t known you were writing it and teaching it.’ ”
For Roanhorse, that’s all she needs to keep telling the tales.
Dhonielle Clayton is the bestselling author of the series 'The Belles,' the coauthor of the 'Tiny Pretty Things' series, and the owner of the book packager Cake Literary.