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Interview With an Author: P. Djèlí Clark

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author P. Djeli Clark and his book "The Black God's Drum"

Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, P. Djèlí Clark spent the formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. His writing has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lightspeed, Tor.com, where readers can find his short story, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, and in print anthologies including Griots I & II, Steamfunk, Myriad Lands and Hidden Youth. He is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Connecticut and he discusses issues of diversity in speculative fiction at his blog, The Musings of a Disgruntled Haradrim. He currently resides in a small castle in Hartford, CT with his wife Danielle and a rambunctious Boston Terrier named Beres. His new book is The Black God’s Drums and he recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was the inspiration for The Black God’s Drum?

I wanted to write a steampunk era story set in an alternate world that could bring together various parts of the Black Diaspora—American, Caribbean, Africa. New Orleans seemed the perfect space for it. Everything else fell into place from there.

Are Creeper, Ann-Marie, or any of the other characters, inspired or based on specific individuals?

Yes and no. Creeper is the young heroine I imagine any kid, of any gender or background, wants to be: smart, daring, unafraid, has special powers, talks back to adults. Ann-Marie is in many ways what you’d expect of a captain with the responsibility of running her own airship and crew—confident, competent, brash, take-charge, suffers fools lightly. She’s actually a composite of women in my Afro-Caribbean family, down to the name. But if I had to give her some historical inspiration, I’d say Sanité Bélair: a heroine of the Haitian Revolution who was a co-leader in a military rebellion against occupying French forces in 1802. She was executed along with her husband but remains a folk hero in Haiti, where she’s even featured on a banknote.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

My first stab at this world was actually focused on Ann-Marie. And second-person. Creeper, with a first-person take, arose later, as I wanted to explore the world through fresh eyes. The story was also a short story, that grew into a novelette, and then (through an editor’s urging) morphed into a novella. Would have been longer still. There’s an entire 6000-word scene (with unmentioned characters) I chopped to keep the pacing right. It might eventually see the light of day.

The alternate world in which The Black God’s Drum is set is fascinating! What is/are the key historic moment(s) that would need to be altered to get us from our history to the history of your world?

The point of divergence in this world from our own is wrapped up in the Haitian Revolution. Or, more precisely, what happens when Napoleon Bonaparte sends a fleet in 1801 led by General Charles Leclerc to reestablish control over the colony and arrest/disarm its Black leaders. That effort goes terribly awry in my world. TERRIBLY. I don’t want to give away too much, but it involves a Haitian scientist with a weather-controlling device. Haiti gets its freedom and manages to secure liberation for the rest of the Caribbean. A set of related innovations takes place over the coming century, giving the world steam-powered airships and the like. These new inventions alter the global political landscape, including turning the American Civil War (which still happens) into a stalemate and armistice—if you can imagine that war fought with heavy air power and aerial bombardment. New Orleans escapes a lot of this destruction by becoming a neutral port, its freedom enforced by foreign powers. But this is all a precarious existence that could unravel at any moment. Did I mention that the weather-controlling device has wreaked havoc with the climate? So, this world is also a bit dystopian.

How different would our time, the early 21st Century, be in your timeline?

Oh wow. Can’t say I’ve really thought that far ahead. A lot of things would have to get resolved or play out before we got here. And history is pretty unpredictable. Even alternate ones.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A lamp, my small “Book of Rhymes” (really a journal I jot down story ideas into), some loose change, a Kindle, i-phone, Daniel José Older’s Star Wars: Last Shot: A Han and Lando Novel and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage. My wife really wants me to tidy up this space.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

That’s a tough one. I read a lot as a kid. Okay, I’m going with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door (the follow up to A Wrinkle in Time). Something about the character Proginoskes (a winged cherub of sorts) really stuck with me, especially the ending…and I’m getting choked up just thinking about it.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

When I was very small, I was ridiculously fascinated by dinosaurs. I would have my parents take me to the library and check out every dinosaur book there was. I wouldn’t shut up about dinosaurs. Apparently, this bothered some very respectable people who thought I was developing some kind of addiction. They convinced my parents to maybe ease me out of my dino-fever. So, sometimes I would pretend to read other books but would have dinosaur books hidden between the pages instead. My mom finally decided those respectable people were talking rubbish, and I got to read all the dinosaur books I wanted. But by the next year, I was into mythology. I have, however, in the past two years, rekindled my dinosaur love—on Pinterest.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

How about authors whose books I read and when I was finished I felt like I had to go sit down somewhere and contemplate existence: Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Chinua Achebe, Earl Lovelace, Arundhati Roy.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not really that I’ve “faked reading” it. More like, I’ve read so many treatises on it, I feel like I have read it. But whenever I walk by it on my bookshelf, I can feel it judging me.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Not really. Not distinctly. Unless a book’s been recommended to me by word of mouth or a review, the first thing that draws me is the cover. I give a look over and if the blurb catches me, it’s copped.

Is there a book that changed your life?

No. But I’m open to it still happening.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Not exactly an evangelist, but whenever people say they’re bored with SFF and would like a fresh take, I send them to N.K Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Sitting and talking with my Mom, who passed in 2014, about politics, life, and the world.

What are you working on now?

Editing another novella, set in the same world as my 2016 short Tor.com story A Dead Djinn in Cairo—with an alternate 1912—and featuring agents from the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities.

Thanks for the questions!

The Black God's Drums
Clark, P. Djeli.

A young woman living on the streets and struggling to survive, an airship Captain, and a Haitian scientist who has created a weapon that could destroy them all and the alternate New Orleans in which they find themselves. In his debut, P. Djeli Clark does in a mere 110 pages what other authors struggle to accomplish in several multiples of his page count. The Black God’s Drums has a cast of diverse, intriguing and compelling characters, two of whom are inhabited by living deities; an alternate New Orleans recovering from the Civil War, where tensions are high and the political landscape is not at all how we recall it; a liberal dose of fantasy and magic based on the lore of West Africa. All of this is infused with a strong steampunk aesthetic. The Black God’s Drums is an immersive, unrelenting read that grabs you on the first page and holds on until the end. The only possible complaint imaginable is that the story is so short and leaves the reader wanting more! This is a MUST read for those who enjoy fantasy, alternate history or simply an excellent story expertly told.