ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In late December, we sometimes talk to people who've had a very big year. Well, science-fiction author N.K. Jemisin has had a very big three years.
In 2016, she became the first African-American writer to win the Hugo Award for best novel. She went on to win the same prize last year, and again this year, making her the only author ever to win the award in three consecutive years - for her trilogy, "Broken Earth."
The books take place in a world where natural disasters are more common and more destructive. And the people with powers to mitigate those disasters are feared and oppressed.
N K JEMISIN: The core of it is that it's a story about a woman. One of her children has been killed, and the other has been kidnapped. And it effectively starts off with multiple kinds of ends of the world. The idea is that it's a story that takes place during the apocalypse, but the world ended when this woman's son was killed.
SHAPIRO: I asked N.K. Jemisin what appealed to her about using an ending as a starting point.
JEMISIN: I didn't think of it as an ending. What I wanted to play with was the concept of, you know, when do we consider an apocalypse to have begun and ended? Because in a lot of cases, you know, what's considered an apocalypse for some people is what other people have been living every day. It's not the apocalypse. It's just, you know, it's an apocalypse for you.
And so when people say, you know, the world has ended, her world has been ending for most of her life. This is nothing new.
SHAPIRO: There's a line from your third book that stood out to me. And the character who says this says it years before the apocalypse that is the central event in the series. And the line is, (reading) they are afraid because we exist. There's nothing we did to provoke their fear other than exist. There's nothing we can do to earn their approval except stop existing. So we can either die like they want or laugh at their cowardice and go on with our lives.
And when I read that, I thought that could have been spoken by black people in 19th century America or Jews in 20th century Europe or Rohingya in Myanmar today.
JEMISIN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it's - a lot of the book is speaking kind of from my personal places of frustration.
You know, I tell people that I wrote the first book of the trilogy, anyway, while watching Ferguson unfold on the Internet during the summer of 2014. And a lot of the anger that you kind of see, and a lot of the questions of our society that you see are me looking at, you know, tanks rolling down the streets of an American city towards an unarmed, peaceful protest and treating them like the enemy. And, you know, why are they being treated like the enemy when literally all they're asking for is to not get shot?
You know, that was it. It was mostly just my frustration kind of coming through in a lot of different ways.
SHAPIRO: The series leads us towards what ultimately becomes, really, kind of a mother-daughter relationship story. And I know that you were writing the third book in the final days of your mother's life. Was this a place that you intended for this story to lead, or was it something that just came out as a reflection of what was happening in your own world?
JEMISIN: I had started to realize that Mom was faltering probably around the time that I started working on this. And I wasn't really ready to admit that to myself. But, you know, in a lot of cases, my fiction has served as a form of therapy.
And, you know, kind of somewhere in the middle of working on the first book was when I began to realize kind of what I was dealing with and why it was coming out this way in my fiction.
And she did pass away while I was working on the third book of the trilogy, and that became, in some ways, my epitaph to her.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You held a day job until you were partway through writing this trilogy. I believe you were working on the third book when you became a full-time writer. You had been a counselor during the day.
When you look back at this three-year journey that you've traveled and where you are now, what do you see?
JEMISIN: Wow. Well, I see myself going through kind of a major life transition, which I don't think I had intended. But, you know, from my counseling work, I know that midlife crises kind of jump you when you're least expecting them.
And, you know, suddenly becoming a successful author after years of being, you know, an author who was doing OK, you don't think of that as a major life transition, but it has been.
SHAPIRO: I'm just struck by the use of your phrase, midlife crisis. Everyone should be so lucky as to have a midlife crisis that catapults them to the top of their field as an award-winning success at the thing they love to do.
JEMISIN: I know, right? But, you know, in the field, we don't actually call it midlife crisis. We call it adult in transition. So it's a transition. It's where I am.
SHAPIRO: Well, N.K. Jemisin, thank you so much for talking with us.
JEMISIN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: She's author of "The Broken Earth" trilogy, and her new collection of short stories is called "How Long 'Til Black Future Month?"