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Micah Yongo on making the shift from journalistic realism to fantasy fiction. Interview

February 1, 2019

Book cover for Pale Kings. Picture of woman holding staff.

I first came into contact with Micah Yongo when he was on a panel of writers at the Edge-lit event in Derby. What impressed me about him was his agility with the English language, and the way he blended sophisticated concepts with everyday relatable situations. So I was pleased when he agreed to talk with me about his experiences leading up to being published and the shift in writing style he had to make from his usual work as a journalist to that of a fantasy writer.

Talk about your journalism first and what the differences are between writing as a journalist and writing fiction.

I think I’ve always found writing as a journalist much easier, primarily because the information, to me, is less personal; you’re reporting on content that doesn’t belong to you, stuff that has come from elsewhere. So, you’re kind of divorced from it because you’re just the middle man, a conduit; the communicator of that story but not the originator of it.

Even so, I still think there was something incredibly compelling about being involved in that process. For me, journalism – or perhaps, more broadly speaking, the media in general – without trying to sound too pretentious about it, provides a framework for culture, for presenting and interpreting the various events, ideas and issues that shape the way in which we think and live. It’s a very cool thing to be able to have the opportunity, however small, to be involved in that.

But no, it doesn’t feel as personal as creating your own story; that, for me, was the main sense of transition I felt between journalism and fiction writing. There was just a greater emotional stake in what I was creating, a thinner skin between me and the work which, in practical terms, slowed the actual process of writing down for me, but in doing so also made the process so much richer and more perilous, if that makes sense. I mean, with fiction it’s my idea on the page, the characters and world are things I’ve created; iterations of my own self to an extent. Which, on the whole, makes the experience simultaneously far more dynamic and vulnerable than doing the alternative.

You talk about fiction writing as being a very personal thing. As a journalist you’re used to people critiquing your writing, so must have acquired a certain resilience to criticism. But because you’re not as emotionally invested in this type of writing in quite the same way as fiction writing, how did you feel when your editor’s comments arrived back asking you to make edits to your work? How different was the editing process of Lost Gods in comparison to the editing you do in journalism?

I found it very exciting to be honest. In practical terms it’s a much longer process of course when compared to an article or press release or whatever, just due to the sheer length of the manuscript. But the editorial process for me didn’t feel like having my teeth pulled or anything. It wasn’t overly painstaking. It just felt more like another opportunity to improve things, to polish and reshape this thing that felt and feels so precious to me. Plus it was really exciting to actually speakwith someone about the story itself.

Up until then I hadn’t had much opportunity to share my writing that widely, so hearing someone else talk about the characters and the world I’d created was a pretty exhilarating trip; made the characters feel more real and vivid than before somehow, because now here they were, taking up space in someone else’s imagination rather than just my own mind. That’s the real magic of it for me, this connection that happens between writer and reader as we collaborate to feel and form characters and world in our heads. So yeah, seeing as I was just very focused in wanting that connection to feel as real and compelling as possible, I found I wasn’t all that sensitive or precious about suggestions and input at that point.

However, I will say there is definitely a learning process with fiction editing. I’ll be going into that process again soon with the sequel, Pale Kings, but now, having been through it before, I feel I’ll be able to better anticipate the priorities of narrative structure and address them in a more fluid way in my writing, rather than trying to retroactively import exposition or historical context or other things into the story later on down the line. It’s much easier to be able to do certain things from the outset and build them into the story from the ground up as it were. I’d say this has probably been the main area of growth for me as an author, and something that has allowed me to translate more smoothly to the page what I have in my imagination and just flow more as I write.

Is the second book also easier to get into because you’ve established the characters and the world they live in?

Yeah absolutely. One of the biggest challenges in fantasy is trying to establish that world in the reader’s mind, without disrupting or compromising on the actual momentum of the story. As a first-time author, trying to find a way through those two competing interests can be a bit of a tricky balancing act. I hadn’t written any short stories or indeed any stories at all before Lost Gods. The novel was my first ever attempt at fiction. And so although the world in Pale Kings has been expanded upon considerably, writing with the knowledge that the reader would have some familiarity with the world already – its politics and customs etc. – meant I didn’t have to be quite as mindful of being sure to establish certain realities in the reader’s thinking as I was being when working on Lost Gods. It freed me to focus much more on pure story, which I enjoyed, and, I think, really shows in Pale Kings.

How did your editing process work?

The first stage is a structural edit, which was basically a Skype conversation with my editor, Phil Jourdan. We sat down for about an hour and talked through the various different elements of the story from a macro perspective, just taking a bird’s eye view of the book, looking at the overarching themes and shape of the narrative. We also looked at the momentum and pacing of the story, and talked about the characters. Then we went into some of the details.

Having taken notes throughout the conversation, I then went away to work on the manuscript and make revisions, which in the case of Lost Gods mostly consisted of adding exposition and details to give the reader a fuller understanding of the world. After that, we had the copy edit, which was much more detailed. This involved going through the book looking at things like syntax, typos and consistencies etc. For example, a detail mentioned on one page of the book needed to tie up with the same detail being referenced further into the book. That kind of thing.

Those were the two main stages of the editing process, which as I say for me involved adding a lot more information about the world. I had been through various iterations of the story before having my novel accepted by the good folks at Angry Robot. Before then, a few publishing houses had expressed interest in my novel and had asked, following on from their feedback, for me to resubmit revised versions. So by the time I’d arrived with Angry Robot, it had become difficult for me to see the wood from the trees in terms of how the story flowed, and what things I’d changed or removed from the manuscript to try to fit with the criteria for previous publishing houses that perhaps now might need adding back.

For me I tend to create the story as I write, so it’s very important for me to feellike the reader as I’m generating the story in order to feel like I can accurately seeit. And so the editorial process with Phil was very important for me in terms of having fresh eyes and a fresh perspective provide input for me to lean on.

But, in terms of what was involved in my conversation with Phil, he really gave me a sense of permission to open up the world more – its history and politics – and to share many of the things I’d already stripped from the manuscript to pare down previous iterations of the story up to that point, particularly across the first half of it. Adding more history, culture, politics etc. in the story’s opening chapters was really a big part of our conversation.

Exposition is an interesting element in a novel. Too much and it slows down the plot, not enough and the reader might not grasp all the elements of the world you have created.

Yeah, this worked across the two stages of the editing process. With now working on the sequel, Pale Kings, having had the previous experience of my book being edited, has meant I have become far more comfortable with how to allow the narrative to flow. It’s just a part of being more experienced as an author, I think. I feel much more in command of what I’m creating, and find I’m thinking in terms of certain thematic elements involved in the story as I am writing, rather than trying to reshape things after the fact. Which is something I think is a real benefit of this genre, how layered you can be.

Why did you choose to write in the fantasy genre?

You know, it never really felt like a choice. I had this kernel of an idea for a story. Something very vague, unplotted… Basically I was just writing, telling the story as I went. The fact I was writing a fantasy novel wasn’t a conversation I was having with myself at all. I wasn’t thinking about genre, I was just thinking about the story I was writing and the character within the story and the challenges he was being confronted with. As the story progressed, I suppose more fantastical elements began to emerge, but it was a very organic thing for me.

Looking back, I’d guess I was being influenced by the books I was reading. I read widely, but the type of books and films I enjoy most are usually speculative or fantastical in some way. But aside from this, there was also the way I had experienced stories as a child.

The stories my mother would tell me and my siblings when we were younger often had deep mythical elements in them, as does much of the West African folklore upon which they were based, and around which so much of my family’s culture is oriented. So when I finally decided to sit down and start writing something, even though I wasn’t consciously trying to create something for this genre, fantasy just became the most natural way to express the story.

Book cover for Lost Gods. Close up of hooded man with sword hilt resting on his chin.

Lost Gods is not a novel steeped in Northern European historical fantasy elements. Your mother’s stories have clearly had an influence. Can you tell me about one of the stories she used to tell you?

Man, there were a number of stories she used to tell, which I only later discovered were part of West African folklore. The one that comes to mind is the story of how the tortoise got its segmented shell. It was a pretty convoluted tale which involved the tortoise going up into the heavens and then falling down from the sky and shattering its shell, before having to put the pieces back together again. Looking back, I think a lot of those stories were similar in that they took what were for its creators everyday parts of the world and sought to explain them in a way that was entertaining and, often, funny. It allowed for so many of those tales to feel both otherworldly and grounded at the same time, because the ideas and challengers were often so familiar. I think there was something about that sensibility that especially engaged me, and that I wanted to make a part of my writing.

Did you begin writing on your own and then got involved with the writer’s group or was it the other way round?

The writer’s group came much later on. When I began, writing was just something I was doing for myself. I sort of stumbled into it and gradually began to find the whole process of it incredibly cathartic and liberating. I was probably about 60,000 words down the line before I showed it to someone, who in turn thought it could be a novel. That was when I first began to think about my fiction writing in those terms, as something someone might want to read. I was pretty much at the end of the journey with the novel before I got involved with a writing community, which was something I wanted to do in order to connect with others who could relate to this kind of work, because writing is such a solitary endeavour. I wanted to talk to other writers about their process, and what they were working on and how they were doing it.

How did these interactions work?

It was a mixed group – everything from genre fiction to flash fiction, literary, and even poetry. So there was a really cool and diverse assortment of perspectives and experiences, which was something I appreciated because it afforded me the chance to take a peek into a variety of different approaches whilst also recognising how individual the journey of writing anything can be. Which is helpful. Doing this still feels so new to me, so I’m eager to just keep growing and learning, and you never stop learning when you’re talking to other writers.

Your experience with your writing group appears to have been very positive because it enabled you to stand back from your writing and see it from another perspective.

For me that’s the thing I find most important, anything that helps me feel like a reader, to occupy that headspace as I write, is really valuable to me. Whether that’s talking to other authors or just reading great books, I need to be taken back to that sensation of being an audience member in order for me to feel how I want to create and tell the story.

Photograph of author Micah Yongo

Micah Yongo

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