Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark, a supernatural take on the Ku Klux Klan is probably one of the most timely books to be released in 2020. We at Grimdark Magazine had the honour to speak with the Nebula and Locus award-winning (and Hugo-nominated) author about his novella, writing and how fantasy interacts with politics.
He is probably best known for his Ministry of Alchemy sequence, A Dead Djinn in Cairo (short story, Tor.com) and The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (novella, Tor.com) set in an alternate steampunk Egypt. Ring Shout, also a novella is published by Tor.com on 13 October, and he is one of the co-founders of (award-winning, as he points out!) magazine of Black speculative fiction, FIYAH, which we highly recommend you check out after reading this interview! But without further ado, have a read what the man himself has to say!
[FS] Ring Shout was obviously inspired by a long frustration with history, but did you realise at the time you were writing the book just how timely it would be at its release?
[PDC] Not at all. I started thinking up the idea for this story sometime in 2015. It sat with me for a few years, and didn’t really take off until I pitched it as a possible novella in the spring of 2019. So its release at this time is coincidence, or kismet—take your pick. I do, however, welcome the discourse the novella will provoke in the current moment and am fascinated to see what meaning(s) readers might take from it.
[FS] What was your inspiration to separate the Ku Kluxes from the Klans in Ring Shout?
[PDC] While the story didn’t begin to bubble up as an idea until 2015, some of its elements have been with me for a minute. A long while back, I was doing research for a Master’s thesis using the ex-slave narratives of the WPA, taken in the 1930s. There, former slaves who lived through Reconstruction, spoke of the first KKK. They described them dressed at times with horns and other oddities, compared them to haints (restless spirits), and described them carrying out violent and monstrous acts. That was my invitation to imagine over the familiar white sheets and hoods as something more sinister, inhuman: what the characters refer to as Ku Kluxes, as opposed to still human Klans. But I also didn’t want to fall into the trap of ascribing those monstrous acts to just mindless monsters. That would be too easy, evading responsibility for crimes carried out by all-too-human hands. I wanted to convey that to go down that dark road, to become a monster, is in many ways a choice. You don’t just end up there. You always have chances to walk back, before it’s too late.
[FS] In your other life you are an academic historian, how difficult do you find it to switch between the two modes of writing?
[PDC] Not difficult I’d say. Kind of like flicking a switch. But I tend to keep the two separate, as far as writing style. I even have a different laptop for both. How I write creatively, is not how I write as an academic. I’ve tried to blend the two: to make my academic work more literary. Nah. Didn’t like it.
[FS] What books have you read recently that you have absolutely loved and that you think our readers should check out?
[PDC] Rivers Solomon’s The Deep, Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. Not a book, but reading Wendi Dunlap’s very creepy Carnivàle, a serial with Broken Eye Books.
[PDC] The brand new WIP is a secondary world fantasy about an undead assassin, given an impossible task, who risks the wrath of a death-goddess. Still sketching it out.
[FS] You have written award-winning short stories and novellas – what appeals to you about the short form over the full-length novel?
[PDC] Well, I started out many years ago writing novels (all unpublished). When I did try my hand at short stories, my habit for long form left me with novelettes or novellas. Back then though, no one much was publishing that length. I had to teach myself how to write actual short stories, so I could actually get published. Turns out, it was a great way to work on the writing craft. Also introduced me to the short story market for genre, and the works of many very amazing writers. I managed to get published, then managed to get lucky with some nominations. But I still have a habit of creating novelettes and even novellas, with ideas that just won’t fit the short story format. Fortunately, I’ve been afforded some spaces where that sort of stuff can find a home.
[FS] Why do you think fantasy is such an effective genre to write about very real issues affecting our world?
[PDC] I don’t really know. Why does Tolkien find he can better express the hell of WWI through dead marshes and Mordor, or ecological politics through talking trees? Maybe there’s something in the human need to tell and hear stories that are both fantastic and familiar, that makes it easier to wrap real life within myth and folklore.
[FS] You are one of the founding members of FIYAH, a magazine of Black speculative fiction, which I personally think is amazing. How would you pitch the project to our readers of Grimdark so they cannot resist subscribing themselves?
[PDC] Let me amend that just a bit: the award-winning magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH not only boasts a World Fantasy award, it features talented Black writers from across the Diaspora—some your readers might recognize, others they can freshly discover. It’s just solidly good writing that cuts across genres, styles, and themes. Grab you a copy.
[FS] We have just hosted a short story competition for previously unpublished authors at Grimdark Magazine – what advice would you give these authors who are just starting out on their careers?
[PDC] Keep creating. Finished that one story? Start dreaming up the next one. Keep reading. Sampling what’s out there can be food for the muse in unexpected ways. Write what excites you. If you want others to love it, you gotta love it first. Finally, be patient—with the world, and with yourself.
Read Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark