On August 21–22, Penguin Random House hosted Book Your Summer Live, a free virtual literary festival featuring both children’s and adult authors. A.J. Hackwith (The Archive of the Forgotten, Ace), Sarah Kuhn (Heroine Complex series, DAW), Naomi Novik (A Deadly Education, Del Rey), Nnedi Okorafor (Ikenga, Viking), and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (The Big Book of Science Fiction, Vintage) were the featured guests on the SFF Authors in Conversation panel, which took place via Zoom on August 22 and centered speculative fiction narratives for adult and younger readers. Brian Truitt served as ASL interpreter, and the event was recorded and later made available on YouTube.
Moderator Constance Summar, bookseller and event director of Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego, Calif., kicked off the panel by introducing each panelist and their respective works. Next, she asked each panelist to discuss the cultures that have influenced the ones within those tomes.
Hackwith’s first novel in the A Novel from Hell’s Library series, The Library of the Unwritten, is set in modern-day America, but she specified that she was “very careful to approach afterlife realms,” as she took care in distinguishing “those realms from religious beliefs of active practitioners today.” Hackwith acknowledged the importance of doing the research and speaking from a place of authenticity, but she said she does not want to speak for groups she is not a part of; “if you’re putting a spin [on something], make sure it’s obviously a fantasy spin, and not Fantasy Culture X.”
Kuhn speculated that her books don’t really feature fantastical cultures, since she writes urban fantasy mostly set in San Francisco. Instead, her characters are inspired by her own Asian American culture; those “big, messy, very diaspora” elements come through in the lives of the main characters.
Okorafor’s personal Nigerian American culture, which is Igbo, “not only influenced what I write but it is the reason that I write,” Okorafor said. Since both of her parents immigrated from Nigeria, they took Okorafor and her siblings back to their home country for visits starting when the children were young, which allowed Okorafor to “[take] things in through a strange, different lens.”
Cultural influences vary from book to book for Jeff VanderMeer, who grew up in the Fiji Islands. When his family returned to America, he did not feel American; he even had a British accent since Fiji was in the British Commonwealth. Even as a teenage writer, however, VanderMeer understood he should not write characters from the perspective of a Fijian insider, which made him consider things like distance, restraint, space, and overstepping boundaries.
Novik stated that fantasy gives authors “more control over the stage you’re setting.” Her parents were first-generation immigrants “completely severed from their roots,” as her father did not want connection to Eastern Europe, and her mother had to defect because of communism. Because of that, Novik shared, her parents couldn’t give her English-language culture, but she also could not access her Polish and Russian family culture. “As a writer, always, I’m trying to create a book that feels true, that’s emotionally true,” Novik mused. “I think there are stories you can tell about other cultures, even, and people from other cultures, as long as you can find the emotional connection between your own emotional cultural experiences.”
Summar next asked how the authors’ fictional magic or science systems integrate into their worlds.
“Even though I’m 18 books into my career, I’m still filling in blanks that I want to see,” Okorafor responded. “A lot of the cosmologies I’m writing about are rooted in things people actually believe in, so it’s not so much that I have to put things together than I’m having to get the facts that are out there right, interpret correctly, and make sure the things that I add fit.”
Ann VanderMeer said that she works at a teen writing camp called Shared Worlds every summer, in which high school students work to create worlds, negotiate rules for them together, and come together to interrogate those worlds.
A combination of research and extensive travel mashed up well for Jeff VanderMeer in his YA debut, A Particular Peril. Settings were grounded in actual places that the VanderMeers visited; to Jeff, “knowing the granularity and texture of a place” allows the magic to be wild. “I didn’t really think very much about systems,” he confessed. “I just had fun with it and tried to capture the spirit of something while I was [writing].”
Hackwith shared that the magic system arose organically in The Library of the Unwritten, but it required more development in the second and third installments. However, she said, she didn’t try to write a magic “system,” per se, because she believes it’s not possible to create one that every reader will accept. She considered who the book was for first, and wrote the magic for that audience.
Novik described The Scholomance series as “school of magic books,” which combine the Scholomance legend with Harry Potter. Novik asks herself questions and comes up with constraints and limits, necessary for creating what she calls “a functioning economy of magic.” You don’t make the system of a novel like you might for a game system, in which rules arbitrate players’ experiences, Novik observed. For novels, stories matter more than the rules; you need to let the worlds flow.
Kuhn admitted that she is a character-driven writer who writes for herself as the intended audience. For the Heroine Complex books, she conjures the most ridiculous concepts she can think of and then retroactively figures out how they work, a technique she does not recommend. It doesn’t matter if these concepts work or are logical in the real world, Kuhn said, emphasizing her attraction to weird, shiny concepts; what matters is they work in the worlds you’ve created.
The panel closed with audience questions, including what insight alternate worlds offer us about our own and which fantasy authors and creations the authors found inspirational, and a speed round, in which the panelists briefly described their current projects and what readers can expect from them next.