Tell us your biography in three sentences or fewer.
Nisi Shawl was born and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan and moved to Ann Arbor to drop out of the University of Michigan after learning to roll joints and read their poetry aloud. They got married, started writing prose, got divorced, and made their first story sale. Upon graduating from the Clarion West Writers Workshop they moved to the workshop’s site in Seattle, sold their first novel, and won seven literary awards in one year, bringing their grand total to nine.
How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?
I began writing as soon as I could, which was shortly following learning to read. Mostly it was poems, or lyrics to song parodies, or plays in collaboration with my best friend Karen Smith. When I was 14 I wrote what could be considered my first science fiction story. I don’t remember the title, but I do remember I turned it in to Mrs. Judd, who taught English, or what today in the US would be called Language Arts. It was about a bunch of teenagers on pilgrimage through a postapocalyptic landscape, searching for holy high-tech sites like bridges and supercolliders.
A poem I wrote in second grade (“Springtime”) was recently published for the first time in Climbing Lightly through Forests, a volume of tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin. My first published piece was “Roller,” another poem–my local newspaper printed it. My first piece published for money was another teen-centered short story, “I Was a Teenage Genetic Engineer,” in the Semiotext(e) SF anthology. My first piece published for a professional sum was “The Rainses’.” That story appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1995.
What’s so special about writing speculative fiction?
Science fiction is the only true literature, just as jazz is the only true music. In other words, it’s not.
What life skills and experiences, other than writing, do you bring to your work?
Singing? I sing when I read publicly. So I guess I bring that. But honestly, I bring everything. It’s all material. So I bring ice skating and breaking bones and making truffles and selling structural steel. Lifting tatties. Aborting a child. Dancing drunk on the pier. Speaking French. Singing praise songs for Yoruba deities. Kissing my dying mother goodbye. And, you know, whatever.
Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project
I recently finished a short story set on the Trigonos campus where Milford is held. It’s called “I Being Young and Foolish,” and it will be published in June in the bending-Arthurianism anthology Sword Stone Table. It’s about an albino Ugandan Lady of the Lake and her love for Merlin.
I’m currently writing a sequel to Everfair called Kinning. It’s meant to be sixteen chapters long and I am about 70% done with Chapter Ten, which means I’m 70% through with the book. It begins in Vietnam and Cairo and reaches the country of Everfair via stops in Kuala Lumpur, Sri Lanka, the Seychelles, and Zanzibar. There are only four viewpoint characters in this novel instead of eleven, but there’s lots more in the way of conspiracies and spying. Also these rival super-fungi are racing to inoculate the globe. Good times.
I expect to be doing a lot of editing in the coming year. New Suns 2 is in the works, and I’m just finishing up a very short (six or seven story) anthology for Amazon Original Stories, which may very well be titled Black Stars. I have a story in it, too—they insisted! It’s sort of a mashup of climate change, reparations, and Jimi Hendrix lyrics. I’m also working on another anthology to appear further down the line, in collaboration with A Big Name I can’t yet reveal. Finally, Octavia Butler’s literary executor thinks she and I should do a follow-up anthology to Bloodchildren, the limited edition book of stories by recipients of the Butler Scholarship. Let’s see if I can pull off all four projects. And perhaps win some more awards?
Nisi Shawl is the author of the Nebula Award finalist novel Everfair, an alternate history set in the nineteenth and twentieth century Congo, and of the Tiptree Award-winning collection Filter House, praised by Ursula K. Le Guin as “superbly written” and by Samuel R. Delany as “brilliant.” They’re a co-author of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, an acclaimed text on inclusive representation in imaginative fiction, and editor of the multiple award-winning New Suns anthology. These days they’re busy drafting a sequel to Everfair, writing a story based on a Jimi Hendrix song, and taking their cat for relaxing walks around Lake Washington.