“One of my biggest challenges was to see how far I could push that morally gray area, how uncomfortable I could make the reader feel without having them bail on the book.”
The protagonist of Temper, Auben Mtuze, is literally an evil twin. His brother Kasim was born with six out of seven possible virtues, and only one of the seven vices. Which means Auben has six vices, an almost-unheard-of number that marks him for poverty and disdain in a world where the good and the bad are neatly separated by walls between their respective neighborhoods.
With this striking premise, author Nicky Drayden launches fearlessly into questions of morality, religion and marginalization, following Auben as he struggles to come to terms with his identity, and also maybe exorcize a demon that’s taken up residence in his body. We talked to Drayden about taking the reader into uncomfortable places, creating a visually rich Afrofuturist world and why science is deemed lecherous in her society.
Temper has such an interesting and unique premise. What was the spark of that idea for you?
Well, two main concepts sparked this story. The first was reimagining an African continent that had escaped the ills of colonization. Through examining the “could-have-beens” in this not-quite alternate history, I wanted to open a door to a world where anything was possible. The second concept came to me after reading about how some parts of Nigeria have very high rates of twinning, like nearly one in 10 people are a twin. That left me wondering, “What if we took it further? What if 80 or 90 or 99 percent of people were twins?” And from that, this story was born.
So often in genre fiction, the protagonist of a novel is the moral center, and the supporting characters are the ones who are free to be more morally gray. Did you find that writing from Auben’s perspective opened up new possibilities for the story?
Starting out, I very much wanted to write a “good twin/bad twin” story from the bad twin’s point of view. One of my biggest challenges was to see how far I could push that morally gray area, how uncomfortable I could make the reader feel without having them bail on the book. By exposing that raw, uncomfortable feeling, I’m hoping readers will be willing to look deeper into themselves and see things from different perspectives.
Without giving too much away, Temper explores how a society constructs and legislates morality, and the pitfalls of strictly adhering to either end of a good/evil spectrum. What do you think compels you to pose questions like this?
In Temper, people are dealing with lots of issues, prejudices and discrimination brought into play by fantastical societal constructs. In this story, twins are divided into groups based on the number of vices they are assigned as children. There are seven vices: Vainglory, Envy, Duplicity, Doubt, Lechery, Greed and Temper. The twin with the least number of vices is deemed the “greater twin” and has better opportunities in life. The other is the lesser twin, pretty much destined for a life of poverty.
I think this structure, with its clear and visual recognition of the ways we divide people, magnifies the divisions laid upon us in the real world. How do these divisions give power to some, while taking it from others? What happens when a person from one marginalization refuses to open their mind to the struggles of other marginalizations? And who gets to define what constitutes good and evil to begin with? I don’t have all the answers (or maybe any of them), but I do enjoy chewing on the questions.
Your previous novel, The Prey of the Gods, was set in a futuristic South Africa. Temper is set in a fantastical world inspired by many African cultures, but still shares quite a few similarities with South Africa. Why is that country such a rich source of inspiration for you?
I visited South Africa as a college student, and the experience challenged me and changed me well before I became a writer. I’m excited to see more genre fiction coming out of the country, because there are infinite stories to share from a place brimming with so many cultures, languages, accomplishments and struggles. In the way that The Prey of the Gods was a near-utopia, I wanted Temper to tell a story that was the opposite . . . something dark, gritty and stifling, but also something hopeful and even humorous at times.
A detail I thought was particularly inspired was how the society in Temper characterizes science and a desire for scientific knowledge as lecherous. Was this inspired by the ways in which many religions have demonized sexuality and science throughout history?
There is definitely precedent for religion looking down upon those things, and one of my favorite themes is how religion and science don’t have to always be at odds. Deeming science lecherous in this book made sense to me. . . . It’s a sort of self-flagellation of the mind, often consuming all other thought, taking pleasure in logic and the underlying structures of nature, exploring wild theories, experimenting with risky ideas . . . until that moment of “Ah-ha!” when all the world suddenly bursts into absolute clarity. How could science not be seen as lecherous?
The plot of Temper constantly kept me on my toes—what did structuring this novel look like on your end? Did you always know that the story would go to so many different places?
Well, I had to rewrite the last quarter of the book twice, so there’s that. My outline was very thin, maybe a half a page of notes. Structuring this novel involved a lot of touch-and-feel, making sure I was taking care of the reader, reassuring them when needed before pressing them and challenging them to go to new (and often darker) places. There’s just so much to this world, and I had very few opportunities where I could ground the reader using clues from our own world. With a young protagonist possessing a limited worldview and a hunger to learn more, I had a great vehicle to ease both the reader and myself into this very layered story.
As someone who completely geeks out over costuming and fashion, I adored the attention you paid to clothing in Temper. Were there any real-world inspirations you pulled from? If not, how did you establish the look of the book in your head?
Ah, thank you! That was a big part of the world building for me. My inspiration came from South African Fashion Week, which is an amazing display of artistry! I wanted a world where fashion consciousness is a way of life, even for those without means. Each character’s dress and look comes from one of the runway models, and it was totally fun to describe them all. Here’s a peek at the current season.
Would you ever set another story in the world of Temper? And if so, what would it be?
I’m not big on writing sequels, but I’d never say never. My next book is shifting away from South Africa, shifting away from Earth altogether, in fact. I’m working on a space opera about the unlikely heir to the command of a biological, city-size starship carved up from the insides of a spacefaring beast. “Space politics and family drama with a heaping side of tentacles” sums it up nicely.