Meet The Afrofuturist Sci-Fi Writer Changing Indianapolis
It’s Friday in Fountain Square, and Maurice Broaddus is creating another new world.
This one’s not the world he needs to create as part of the $175,000, three-novel deal he just landed with Tor Books, the country’s top publisher of original science fiction and fantasy. That will have to wait. So will the worlds required to spring from his imagination for the two short stories he has due next week. All of those have been put aside for the weekend so that Broaddus can focus on creating a more temporal world—one populated with about 80 writers, editors, agents, and friends from around the country.
He calls it MoCon—and, yes, it’s a self-named convention. But there’s no dealer hall. No cosplaying. No autographing-for-a-nominal-fee. This iconoclastic con occupies one room of The Switchboard, a former church turned coworking site, and it’s primarily about conversation and connections. A group around one table debates the differences between horror and thriller. In the line at the restroom, they’re talking about industry pressures and entertainment-media bias. Speculation in another corner concerns how the success of the recent Black Panther movie will impact efforts to diversify mass pop culture.
Sporting a bright dashiki and a blissful air, Broaddus, 49, weaves in and out of the conversations, putting aside thoughts of the money he’s losing on this shindig. (Participants pay $100 to attend, a fraction of what it costs to feed and entertain everyone for three days.) Instead, he seems focused on the connections he’s helping forge. “I know a lot of cool people, and I want to introduce them to other cool people,” he says.
A self-proclaimed “nerd’s nerd,” Broaddus was born in London to a military father and a nurse mother. They moved to Franklin (“the black side of Franklin—all eight houses”) when he was 6, then to Indianapolis. One of only two African-American kids in his high school, Broaddus was teased, accused of thinking he was white because his few friends were. “And it’s not like I was accepted by most of the white folks either,” he says. “They called me ‘Crunch,’ a nickname that started in fifth grade because they said I looked like a Crunch bar.”
He conceived a small business to support his hobby. Each day, he would take his dollar-a-day lunch allotment, stop at Kroger for an eight-pack of gum, sell each piece from each pack for a quarter, and make enough profit to buy comic books on the way home. An English teacher noticed his passion for fiction, gave him more challenging writing assignments, and introduced him to the work of Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. His early stories, he says, were imitation Poe.
But something was missing. A role model. With few black authors or even characters in the speculative fiction he loved, Broaddus saw writing as an avocation, doubting it could ever be a job. So did his family. His mother wanted him to do something practical—specifically, to become a nurse like her.
“I told her, ‘I’m a daydreamer,’” Broaddus says. “‘If I’m a nurse, people are gonna die.’”
But he took her advice—up to a point—halting the writing for two years to study biology at IUPUI. The self-imposed ban didn’t last long. Creative-writing electives found their way into his schedule and, during his senior year, he took an independent writing class with a teacher who had written his dissertation on the work of horror masters Stephen King and Clive Barker. The professor encouraged him to enter a contest through Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Broaddus’s story “Kali’s Danse Macabre,” about a man who goes insane after falling in love with an incarnation of the Hindu goddess, earned an honorable mention. With a taste of success, he was hooked.
In 1996, he reconnected with Sally Smith, a girl he had known in middle school. The two began dating, and married a few years later. From the beginning, Sally was supportive of Broaddus’s writing. Which was lucky, because it didn’t go well in those early years. He set to work writing his first novel—about a town haunted by the ghosts of slaves and bounty hunters—a draft that took seven years. He finished it on May 13, 2001. “I remember the date because my wife was in labor and I was trying to get the last chapter revised,” he says. “We ended up not making it in time for the epidural, so she had to have a natural childbirth—which I have not heard the end of.”
Fiction wasn’t his only interest. Once he had a few published stories under his belt, Broaddus increasingly felt called to a higher puprose. “I became convinced that my spiritual walk should produce tangible results in the world,” he says.
A devout Christian, Broaddus was well aware that his faith was just one more thing that made him an outlier among science-fiction readers and writers, who are stereotypically atheist or agnostic. When he launched MoCon in 2006—and located it in a church—he knew there would be some skepticism. “People were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for a bait and switch,” he says. “But I don’t proselytize. The whole point of my faith is making the world a better place in my wake. My faith is for me to work out.”
“I remember the date because my wife was in labor and I was trying to get the last chapter revised,” he says. “We ended up not making it in time for the epidural, so she had to have a natural childbirth—which I have not heard the end of.”
That first convention certainly was unconventional. While it’s strange enough for a science-fiction/fantasy writer to launch a self-named event, it’s even stranger for one to launch a convention when he only has a few published short stories to his credit.
When Jason Sizemore, owner of Apex Publications, met Broaddus at a more traditional science-fiction gathering soon after, Broaddus says the publisher was both impressed and flummoxed. He recalls Sizemore’s reaction: Let me get this straight. You threw a convention, named after yourself, you didn’t have a dozen credits, and people showed up? Yeah, we’re getting into business with you.
With very little money but plenty of time, Broaddus began volunteering at Indy’s Outreach Inc. in 2005, mentoring and providing transportation for homeless teens. The gritty world he encountered there inspired a weird idea: using the drug-ridden streets of Indianapolis as a setting for an update of the Arthurian legend. He began writing what would become King Maker, the first novel in a series called Knights of Breton Court.
“The more I did writing based on my community work, the more it focused who I was as an artist,” he says. “And the more authentic my work became.”
What Broaddus faced as an author, though, was often resistance, couched in coded language, to black writers and characters. When he approached potential publishers and editors, it was common to hear “I couldn’t connect with the story” or “the names of the characters distracted me.”
Even once Apex published his work, the biases weren’t always subtle. “Several reviewers talked about how King Maker was ‘too ghetto,’ and that they felt ‘locked out’ by the language,” he says. “I felt like saying, ‘Some of you people learned Klingon, but black vernacular is throwing you off?’”
But Broaddus was tenacious, and the stories continued to sell. In addition to King Maker, Apex published Dark Faith, an anthology that was conceived at MoCon 4 and featured writers exploring spirituality through science fiction and fantasy. For a small press, moving a few hundred copies can be considered a success. Dark Faith sold thousands and became Apex’s best-selling book at the time.
Broaddus also picked up side work writing for role-playing games. That industry proved to have the same racial dynamics as book publishing. “Other than me, it was an all-white writing team,” he says. “I was waiting for them to say it, and they did: ‘We need to make sure we get the black character right.’”
The gaming world helped his career by forcing him to work fast, though. “They would give me an assignment and want it turned around in two days,” he says. “It gave me confidence that I could hit tight deadlines if pushed.”
“I felt like saying, ‘Some of you people learned Klingon, but black vernacular is throwing you off?’”
As his paid-writing universe expanded, so did his social work. Broaddus began volunteering at The Learning Tree, for which he would interview residents in Indy’s poorest neighborhoods and write profiles highlighting their gifts and talents. At the Kheprw Institute in the Crown Hill neighborhood, he mentored young men interested in creative work. At The Oaks Academy in the Brookside Park area, he began as a substitute teacher and would go on to run its resource room, providing small-group support for the Christian students there.
Imhotep Adisa, executive director and cofounder of the Kheprw Institute, describes Broaddus both as “a very quiet person” and “a diva.” On the one hand, he’s “very reflective, constantly taking notes, always producing the next story out of the materials of life and living.” On the other, “He’s a performer. When he gets the mic, he’s going to do his thing.”
Regardless of the mode he’s in, Adisa says Broaddus is key to Kheprw’s efforts to “focus on how black speculative fiction and Afrofuturism can assist in creating the future we’d like to see.”
At The Oaks Academy, Broaddus’s student Bella Faidley asked him to lead a writing workshop for her and her friends after school. He not only complied—free of charge—but then helped her get an essay published, and co-wrote a short story with her. At this year’s MoCon, Faidley marveled at the diverse collection of writers gathered there. “I’m just realizing now,” she says, “that he’s trying to make this the norm.”
After a long, slow ascent, Broaddus’s writing career finally reached the stratosphere this year. In May, HarperCollins published The Usual Suspects, a young-adult book by Broaddus about an Indianapolis school where a pair of creative troublemaking kids are among the suspects when a gun is found nearby. Kirkus Reviews, one of the most important book industry reads, raved about the story. “Broaddus spins a hilarious, honest tale … Readers will love watching these two uniquely gifted black boys explore the complicated tensions between impulses and choices, independence and support, turnin’ up and getting through.”
“It was an attempt to write something my oldest son would read,” Broaddus says. “My sons are bright, but they bore quickly. And they always find unique ways to amuse themselves.”
After years of rejections, Broaddus assumed the publishing industry wouldn’t have a place for “a story about two black boys who get into trouble at school and solve a crime.” But he wrote it anyway, thinking it would join the other novels he wrote on spec that are still sitting in his desk drawer. When his agent asked about unpublished projects of his, Broaddus reluctantly mentioned The Usual Suspects draft. She knew that there was a push for more diversity in teen and pre-teen lit, and the book sold quickly.
May also saw the Apex release of his steampunk novel Pimp My Airship. The New York Times best-selling author Matt Forbeck loved it enough to write one of the blurbs on the back: “Pimp My Airship doesn’t just examine those genre assumptions. It chops them up, grinds them into a fine powder, rolls them into some quality paper, and then smokes them for fun. It simultaneously dismantles the genre and slaps it back together into something newer, fresher, and—dammit—more interesting than the original.”
The life-changing big break, though, came from Tor Books this spring. For fiction, a full manuscript submission is the norm for all but the most established writers. The work is usually done on spec in hopes of an eventual sale. But with his recent success and the popularity of Afrofuturism in comic books and film, Broaddus decided to make a long-shot pitch of an idea that had been developing in his head throughout the winter. The proposal amounted to six words: “It’s The Expanse meets Black Panther,” referring to the Syfy channel’s space colony drama and the Marvel comic book/movie about a black superhero.
After Broaddus wrote three chapters, his agent sent the book out on a Friday to potential publishers. They got word that an offer would be coming in that Monday. Instead of waiting, though, he took his agent’s advice and let her put it up for auction. “They’re jumping,” she said. “Let them jump.” An offer of $175,000 came in from Tor. Y’all realize this isn’t even outlined, Broaddus thought.
Tentatively titled All the Stars, the three books will concern members of an intergalactic empire stretching from Earth to Saturn’s moon, Titan, facing threats from within and without. Want more details? That will have to wait until Broaddus actually writes it. The first book is due to the publisher this fall, with publication slated for 2021.
“Once the deal went public, it took five minutes for someone to crawl into my inbox to tell me I’m rich. Twenty minutes for someone to hit me up for a favor. Twenty-three hours for someone to hit me up for money.”
So has Broaddus finally found his voice or is the world finally ready to hear him?
“People shouldn’t assume that because of Black Panther and a few smash hits that the whole culture has finally changed,” says Diana Pho, an editor at Tor involved in signing Broaddus. “But readers are clamoring for stories that represent themselves and their neighborhoods. I think some of the most successful people are those who give back to the community they’re from. Bringing artists together at events like MoCon creates opportunities. When people get together, when they recognize it’s not just them who experience what they experience, it’s a tool for change. That’s why I really admire Maurice’s work as a writer and a community organizer. Lifting up as he climbs is part of his modus operandi.”
Nearly $60,000 per book may seem like a lot to a struggling writer, but Broaddus’s Tor deal barely hits minimum wage when you consider all the work it took him to get to this point—and all the time it will take to actually write the books. Nonetheless, it’s a landmark moment. “This is a whole new thing for us,” Broaddus says. “We’re used to being broke and now we have this money coming in and people pulling us in a thousand different directions. Once the deal went public, it took five minutes for someone to crawl into my inbox to tell me I’m rich. Twenty minutes for someone to hit me up for a favor. Twenty-three hours for someone to hit me up for money.”
At the very least, it will be easier to cover the $2,300 deficit from this year’s MoCon. As he addressed the multicultural crowd there in May, he assured them that his win will be their win in the coming years. “For me, it looks like this,” he said. “You came to MoCon. I’m in your community now. We’re an email away. I could show up at your house. You don’t know. It’s all about the community. I want family out of this. I want my family to support me, and I support my family.”