Rebecca Roanhorse Talks Mythology, Alternate Endings, and the Future of the Sixth World

Navajo mythology drives the intense post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller Trail of Lightning, one of the best debut novels of 2018. Mags Hoskie is a supernaturally gifted monster slayer—but this time, her mission will force her to re-examine everything she holds dear. The setting is dynamic despite its bleakness, powered by Rebecca Roanhorse’s electric prose. The Hugo- and Nebula-winning author has written a gripping first novel, and there is much more to come.

I recently spoke to Rebecca Roanhorse about her inspirations—mythological and literary; the alternate ending that almost was, and more.

The mythological elements in Trail of Lightning are fascinating. Can you talk a bit about the particular myths and concepts that inspired you?
Well, Trail of Lightning was specifically inspired by the Hero Twins in Navajo traditional stories. A lot of great Navajo creatives have engaged that story in popular works, including a short film called Monster Slayer screened at Indigenous Comic Con in 2015, comic books by Shaun Beyale and Dale DeForest Ray, and others. I wanted the explore my own take on the story in a futuristic post-apocalyptic setting with a decidedly urban fantasy setup. It is an exciting story of gods and heroes and monsters that people outside of Navajo country are probably not familiar with, and that’s a shame. I hope my take piques their interest. I also wove in stories of Coyote and other Navajo beings to fill out the world. I wanted the world I created to feel alive and vibrant and immediate so that the stories are not simply “myth” in Western sense, but can be seen playing out in people’s lives in the here and now, and most importantly, the future. 

The setting of post-apocalyptic America seems to provide an opportunity for long-suppressed Navajo narratives and societal traditions to find a resurgence, perhaps even a renaissance, in this work. Does that sound accurate, and can you talk a bit about that?
That’s definitely accurate. Natives so often get portrayed in the past, circa late 1800s. Rarely are we seen as a vital and inseparable part of the future. In fact, I saw a recent study that said that 53% of Americans surveyed think Natives are all dead. It’s shocking, and ultimately dangerous to our health and well-being. I want to make sure that when people contemplate a future on this continent, they cannot do it without us. We are living, breathing, growing and changing Indigenous cultures now and into the future. We’ve been here for thousands of years and we’re not going away.

Are there particular authors or works that have inspired you?
Many, for various reasons. Ursula K. LeGuin for her insight, Octavia Butler for her craft, but many women of color writing in romance and fantasy who dared to write the stories they wanted to read, to write themselves and people who looked and sounded and thought like them into their narratives. It is powerful stuff, and I am inspired by them every day.

I am really, really curious about Sad Island (mentioned in the acknowledgments).
Ha! *no spoilers* I had originally written a very different ending to Trail of Lightning, starting at the end of the fight at the Shalimar. In this earlier ending, there was a lengthier reunion with Maggie Hoskie and her mentor at an isolated location, aka Sad Island. There, she was tasked with an impossibly difficult decision to make. My beta readers thought it was too depressing (I never claimed to be sweetness and light) but even worse, they said it dragged the book down, pacing-wise. So, I took their wise assessment into consideration and rewrote the ending. No more Sad Island, but we still may end up there in a later book. We’ll see.

Trail of Lightning ends on an intriguing cliffhanger. What are your plans for this world, and these characters?
In the next book, Storm of Locusts, Maggie and company travel outside the walls of Dinétah and see the larger world. I call Storm of Locusts my girl-gang road trip down a post-apocalyptic Route 66. I think it’s a bit lighter, a bit funnier, and more hopeful than Trail of Lightning, and it plays on more of the common tropes of post-apocalyptic stories, but with a decidedly Indigenous flavor. Book 3 will take the reader to the Burque and explore the world of Hispanic land-grant city-state water baronies. Book 4, I don’t want to comment on, since it’s the last book in the series—but it will tie everything together in epic fashion.

I want to really give the readers a tour of my vision of this post-apocalyptic Southwest with all the different societies and communities I see every day, just writ larger and deadlier. As for the characters, they’ll each have to discover who they are and where their place in this world is. Readers will just have to keep reading to see where they end up.

Trail of Lightning is available now. Storm of Locusts will be released in April 2019.

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