A chat with Nnedi Okorafor, author of The Book of Phoenix

The Book of Phoenix, the prequel to Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, just came out this month, and she kindly answered a few of my questions about the book, and more! Please give her a warm welcome!
Will you tell us a bit about your new novel, The Book of Phoenix, and what inspired you to write it?

The Book of Phoenix is a prequel to Who Fears Death and tells the story of how the world became the desert. It’s about the end of the world, and it’s about a woman whose personal need for freedom changes the narrative of humankind.

Phoenix is 2 years old but looks 40. She’s an accelerated human being, an experiment created by a corporation focused on improving humankind. She only knows life in Tower 7 and she’s happy and satisfied. Then one day, the man she loves (also a ward of Tower 7) kills himself and she decides that if he wanted freedom, then she wants freedom, too. The story’s narrator and purpose is Phoenix. She’s angry, loyal, brash and curious.

As far as inspiration for this novel, there’s one line in Who Fears Death that stayed me. In that line, the young Onyesonwu talks about the Great Book. She mentions a man who could walk through walls and another who could eat glass. The mystery and the effects of the Great Book in Who Fears Death stayed with me, too. So did that world and how it came to be- the apocalypse that caused it all. Couple all this with the fury I experienced visiting one of my students in a Chicago Prison and the fact that it was the very evening Who Fears Death won the World Fantasy Award and you have the catalyst for this novel.

Why do you think readers will root for, and identify with, Phoenix? What did you enjoy most about writing her character?

I hope readers will open the book and learn this for themselves.

I know for me, I enjoyed writing her story because she was interesting, driven, full of rage, and adventurous. I
love people who truly live life. I love people who push forth even when they are scared, even when the path leads into the darkness. Plus, Phoenix can fly, haha.

You have a BA in Rhetoric and an MA and PhD in English, but have you wanted to be a writer from a young age?

No. I wanted to be an entomologist until I was about 20. Though I loved reading, I was more into the sciences and math, up to that point in my life. It’s a long story, but something traumatic happened to me that opened my eyes to the world of storytelling. I wrote about it here. I never wrote a creative story, not one, until I was 20.

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?

The first complete story I wrote was in a creative writing class. It was called “The House of Deformities”. It’s published in my short story compilation Kabu Kabu. It’s based on a true story that happened to my sisters and me when we were kids. There are pink ducklings, bull dog puppies, an old woman with a cleaver, vultures and fly covered meat in that tale. Fun stuff.

You’ve undoubtedly influenced many writers with your work, but what authors or novels have influenced you the most, in your writing, and your life?

Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie and countless others. I read a lot and there is much written by others that I love and respect.

If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

What’s next for you, this year, and beyond?

I have a novella coming out in September titled Binti. It’s the first story I’ve ever written that takes place in outer space. I guess it’s a space opera. I’m a Star Wars fan; it was inevitable. I also have my first picture book coming out in September titled, The Chicken in the Kitchen. It’s about a giant magical chicken in a Nigerian girl’s kitchen and the shenanigans that ensue. Then in 2016, Akata Witch Part 2: Breaking Kola will be released and it’s going to be epic. It’s such an adventure. I’m also working on some other top secret projects.

Keep up with Nnedi: Website | Twitter

About The Book of Phoenix:
A fiery spirit dances from the pages of the Great Book. She brings the aroma of scorched sand and ozone. She has a story to tell….

The Book of Phoenix is a unique work of magical futurism. A prequel to the highly acclaimed, World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Who Fears Death, it features the rise of another of Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful, memorable, superhuman women.

Phoenix was grown and raised among other genetic experiments in New York’s Tower 7. She is an “accelerated woman”—only two years old but with the body and mind of an adult, Phoenix’s abilities far exceed those of a normal human. Still innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she is content living in her room speed reading e-books, running on her treadmill, and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human of Tower 7.

Then one evening, Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated by his death and Tower 7’s refusal to answer her questions, Phoenix finally begins to realize that her home is really her prison, and she becomes desperate to escape.

But Phoenix’s escape, and her destruction of Tower 7, is just the beginning of her story. Before her story ends, Phoenix will travel from the United States to Africa and back, changing the entire course of humanity’s future.

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