Writer Nicky Drayden describes her work as “speculative fiction, with a twist.”
In Drayden’s first novel, “The Prey of Gods,” disparate characters — a magically gifted child, a demi-god, a teenager figuring out their identity, a pop star, and a politician — collide in a futuristic South Africa. “Temper” follows the saga of two brothers who come of age in a caste system delineated by seven vices. Almost everyone is born as a twin and the vices are split between all pairs providing a careful balance — until Auben begins to fray under his burden of six vices.
In Drayden’s most recent book, “Escaping Exodus,” Seske stumbles upon the truth about the price humans have paid to live inside the enormous beasts that carry them through space. All three books are face-paced and thrilling rides through richly imagined worlds and offer quite perfect escapes from reality.
Drayden lives in Austin where she works as a systems analyst.
Thao Votang: Earlier this year, it seemed like a lot of writers and avid readers could quickly see the different ways this pandemic could play out. Maybe even more so writers and readers of speculative fiction. How do you think COVID-19 will impact your writing or the topics you might use?
Nicky Drayden: Thinking speculatively for a living definitely helped me to prepare for COVID-19. I saw the writing on the wall in early March and was able to start preparing, though honestly, I’ve been slowly gathering up essentials since 2016, so I’ve mostly been topping off as needed. Right now, I’m writing the sequel to “Escaping Exodus,” (“Escaping Exodus: Symbiosis,” which will be out in December) and it’s definitely taken on a different meaning now. In that book, humanity is trying to come to terms with its parasitism of the giant space-breathing creature they’ve settled into and have realized that they have become more like viruses than they’d like to admit. They’ve ended their vicious cycle of infecting one creature after the next as they use up resources, and as their story continues, they set out to build a more self-sustaining relationship with their world, which is of course, more difficult that it seems. Our current situation with COVID-19 is devastating, and I’ll probably continue to write books where people in bad and overwhelming situations seek hope and balance and find ways to reclaim their joy in trying times.
TV: When I finished “The Prey of Gods” a couple of years ago, I felt like it was the book I had been waiting to read for years. The characters were so diverse. Their backgrounds and perspectives were so refreshing to see on the page. How did you start that novel?
ND: I’m a big fan of National Novel Writing Month and am an extreme pantser (writing by the “seat of the pants” instead of outlining). That particular year, I had no idea of what I wanted to write a story about, so the day before the challenge started, I grabbed six random character sketches I had sitting in a file and dropped them into a futuristic South Africa. I’d visited Port Elizabeth, South Africa (the city in which most of the book takes place) when I was in college, and I enjoyed reliving my experiences there in a heavily fictionalized travelogue. There were lots of dik-diks spotted during my visit. Not so many nail tech demigoddesses though.
TV: Are your character files paper or digital? How do you manage it from growing so large it’s hard to remember what you have?
ND: Mostly digital, though usually I save the character development for the second draft, when I’ll find pictures so I can describe them better, draw out maps of the city and floorplans of the buildings they live in. One of my favorite processes is when I give each main character a horoscope using the book “The New Astrology,” by Suzanne White, which combines Eastern and Western horoscopes into 144 possible combinations. It provides tons of character depth with not much work on my part. (And my own horoscope is eerily accurate, in case you’re wondering.)
‘I like to remind myself that no matter what happens out there, we will always need stories.’
TV: It’s really cool that your first two novels came out of NaNoWriMo (taking place in November every year, participants try to write 50K words in a month). Do you commit to it every year? What about it appeals to you?
ND: I usually at least make an attempt every year, though some are more successful than others, word count wise at least. But even the years I’ve gotten only 20,000 words, it’s still 20,000 words I didn’t have when I started. “Escaping Exodus” was a two-time NaNoWriMo “failure”, but it finally got off the ground (and out of orbit) when I revisited it a third time. I love the accountability of NaNoWriMo the most, and the knowledge that hundreds and thousands of other writers are competing at the same time at a usually solitary activity. I’ve gotten to meet so many friends through the event, and even though it’s not for everyone, I encourage everyone to try it at least once if it sounds in the least bit appealing.
TV: All three of your books have incredible world-building. “Escaping Exodus” predominantly takes place inside of a large, living being. You are extremely adept at putting the reader in a new place, give them ground stand, while trusting that they will figure some things out and not overexplaining. And in each book, you have created amazingly different and vast realities. What do you use to help yourself see these spaces? Who or what helps you write your worlds?
ND: I have to give credit to my muse, because she drops a lot of completely random ideas into my lap, and then it’s my turn to figure out what to do with them. One of my favorite pieces of world-building in “Temper” are the “defting sticks”, which originally was just a word that fell onto the page and I had no idea of what they were or what they were used for. I turned them into building sticks, about the size of chopsticks, covered in word snippets that people use to communicate with their god. You stack them into towers, and then when you can build no higher, you use the words found at the indices of the sticks to receive a godly message. The defting sticks ended up being used in my very favorite scene in the book, so I’ve learned over the years to trust my muse no matter what weirdness and nonsense she throws at me.
TV: What was it like to have three books published in such quick succession? What’s next for you?
ND: Well, it was a lot of work for sure! Thankfully, both “The Prey of Gods” and “Temper” were written before I had a publishing contract. I’m a quick writer, but “Escaping Exodus” was really tough because suddenly I had so many other writing-related obligations to juggle while I drafted. There are conventions, interviews, answering emails, social media promo, copyedits from other books, etc. I also started taking on some work-for-hire projects last year, including writing over 60,000 words worth of short stories for Magic the Gathering and a YA novel for Overwatch that will be out this June. It was overwhelming, but I love staying busy and am always keeping my eye out for new projects.
TV: Are you able to write right now or have you had to turn your attention to other things? What is keeping you inspired or simply going through everything?
ND: It was rough going for a month or so, but I was recently able to steady my productivity and I’ve got a couple fun personal projects planned. I’m starting up a Patreon page as well, focusing on prompt-based short stories, which are my favorite type of writing exercise. Despite everything that’s going on in the world, it feels good to sit down and let my thoughts flow onto the page. I like to remind myself that no matter what happens out there, we will always need stories.