Chatting Middle Earth & Curry Tinged Trinidadian Breezes w/ David Anthony Durham – Interview
Today I chat with David Anthony Durham. With works of historical fiction already under his belt that include Gabriel’s Story, Walk Through Darkness, and Pride of Carthage, Durham was already an accomplished writer in historical fiction and I remember being able to tell how much more confident it was than many fantasy novel debuts I read that often, even the good ones, feel stunted with this kind of sheen of just happy to be here juvenile male fantasy fulfillment that both comes from good and maybe not so good places.
Durham already had the feel of writer who already had novels with his name on them and his stab at epic fantasy was a fairly unique one for it as he seemed to be going after another layer of storytelling, his character weren’t characters, they were people, of people, and as we went to different areas in his world, the differences were more than just what adjectives and adverbs he decided to use.
Durham’s forthcoming book, Acacia, is a stab at epic fantasy, the first in a series that has been grabbing pre-release accolades from seemingly all corners on its way to its release in June.
Having read it myself, it’s quite clear that Durham’s foray into epic fantasy will be a welcomed one as he easily distinguishes his voice; an addition to the small group of writers who threaten to make the form more than just the production of heavy, empty tomes. He has something to say, something to show us, and a story to tell, so we are going to let him.
Jay — Your fantasy debut Acacia is being released in June. What unique quality do you feel you bring to a competitive epic market that should give cause for a reader to perhaps pass on a title and give this new series a shot?
David Anthony Durham — I’d like to think that readers of fantasy will find they’ve never quite read anything like Acacia. I’ve been very pleased that early reviewers have mentioned writers like George R.R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Ursula LeGuin in talking about the novel. That’s both flattering and humbling. They’re all influences and inspirations, but I’m not quite like any of them.
I came to fantasy as a writer of historical fiction. My approach to storytelling and world building comes from a different base, as does my worldview. I grew up black in America, but my family is from the Caribbean — which means my outlook on many issues was shaped by a different culture. As an adult, I chose to live for years in Europe. I’m married to a Scottish woman (born in Shetland, no less, about as remote as you can get) and part of a multi-racial extended family that stretches as far around the world as New Zealand.
All of this informs my writing. The world of Acacia is multicultural and diverse. Villains and heroes don’t line up in black and white terms. I see the world as much more complicated than that, and I wanted that complexity to fuel the narrative of Acacia. I’ve heard many fantasy readers say that while they love their old favorites and tried and true authors they also want something different. That’s what I’ve tried to provide
Jay — Having read Acacia, and noting the title of the series, is The War with Mein merely a first arc in a grander series of books?
David Anthony Durham — Yes. At the moment I’m excited about a narrative arc that carries through two more books. I wouldn’t want to give away too much — either about what happens in this book or in the next — but I will say that the next two books deal with a much larger struggle and larger cast of nations. It’s about the conflict between the Known World and the Other Lands.
Jay — Your previous published work has been in the historical fiction field. What prompted your desire to write fantasy?
David Anthony Durham — I had been living with the notion of Acacia for about eight years before committing to write it. And that’s just in terms of the particular plotline and conflict of the novel. My love of fantasy goes much further back. I learned to love reading because of fantasy. I was a poor reader when I was young.
It was hard for me, but when I first read fantasy I discovered worlds and characters and tales that were so wonderful I was more than willing to struggle my way into them. I owe a lot to C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Ursula LeGuin, and, of course, to Tolkien. I remember the first time I read forty pages in a day. It was The Hobbit. And I remember the next day, when I read sixty, and the day after that, when I read a mind-blowing ninety pages in a day! I’d never imagined that possible — at least not for me.
By the way, I was in Trinidad during all this, so imagine the combination of being immersed in Middle Earth while surrounded by the baking heat of the tropics, the smell of curry cooking on the breeze, listening to the scurrying of lizards and watching buzzards circle in the air above the hills in the distance, patiently waiting for the wildfires to pass so that they could drop down to feed… It was fortunate for me that imaginative stories could speak across such racial, cultural and geographic divides. I still believe it can do so now, in ever fresh ways.
There were many years between that childhood and now. Along the way I admit I lost fantasy. I studied English and History in college, and then went to graduate school for creative writing. I was indoctrinated into a “literary” world that looks down on anything they deem to be “genre” writing. Many in the academy disdain plot, narrative, adventure, ambition to tell grand stories, and they look down on writers that get read by real people. By the time I escaped, I had forgotten much of why I liked reading in the first place.
It was only after I’d been out of my MFA program for a few years, suffering rejections for my first two, literary (and still unpublished) novels that I slowly began to rediscover a love of reading. My wife’s family reminded me that — contrary to the doctrine of the academy — smart people do read historical fiction, and crime, and sci-fi and fantasy. I remembered that I did like plot, action, adventure, and remembered that substantive issues can also be explored while a reader is being entertained.
That put me back on the track to writing publishable works with tons of plot. Gabriel’s Story is a western. Walk Through Darkness is a chase and pursuit novel. Pride of Carthage is an ancient war epic. The jump to fantasy may seem arbitrary to some, but to me it’s a return to where my love of the written began. I’m proud of that, and I’d like to stay in this part of the literary world for a while.
Jay — Can you comment on the differences in the research process that went into your historical fiction from The War with the Mein?
David Anthony Durham — In many ways it didn’t feel different at all. I recall Neal Stephenson talking about how world building in The Baroque Cycle wasn’t all that different than in more obviously sci-fi work. In either case you have to create a credible, foreign world.
For Pride of Carthage I had to scour historical texts for details of that strange time and place; with Acacia I had to create similar details, ones that felt just as substantial and true. With Pride of Carthage I read specifically about ancient war in the Mediterranean; for Acacia I read widely from world history, mythology, cultural anthropology. It was great to be freed from the limitations of historical fiction.
I could take a little bit of European history, a little bit of tribal Africa, a bit of the Epic of Gilgamesh, a little of Chinese history… and I could toss them all into the pot along with some banished sorcerer’s and an invading race of nomadic warriors. That was fun.
Jay — You have periods in your novel where we jump forward in time, aging the Akaran Royal family’s children from adolescents to adulthood. George R.R. Martin fans knew of his desire to avoid writing about children if possible — wanting at fist to hasten their growth — was this an issue with you and if so, do you find such problematic as a writer?
David Anthony Durham — I don’t mind writing about children. Actually, I look forward to writing some YA material one of these days. The decision to jump forward across those years was a mercenary one. I knew I was going into uncharted territory for my publisher with this whole fantasy venture. I felt a lot of pressure to deliver as much of a story as possible within the confines of one book.
I did propose breaking the story arc of this novel into two or even three books, but I couldn’t come to terms with my publisher on how to do this — or feel sure it was the right thing to do. So I chose to use the break between the first and second parts of the book to move forward in time to get to the meat of the conflict and what the young-adult Akarans are going to do about it.
Jay — Would it be incorrect to say The League becomes the capitalist punching bag in Acacia?
David Anthony Durham — If you mean do I see them as representing my criticism for the type of enormous commercial powers that shape influence national policies and control global supply and demand for their monetary benefit… Well then, yes, they are a bit of a punching bag for that issue. Although for a punching bag they hardly get hit by the world-shaking blows that strike all the other major forces. They float above it all, always turning a profit as nations rise and fall. I kinda respect them for that
Jay — One of the more intriguing elements of the Akaran military tradition/training to me was not the practice, but the strict application of mimicking the combat sequences of past historical and even mythological duels in actual combat. From where did you draw this idea?
David Anthony Durham — The notion of the Forms grew organically — by which I mean I’m not sure when, where or why it came into being. It just did. It felt right. In some ways it’s symbolic of the Akaran view of themselves. Their noble classes look back to an idealized mythic past.
They see themselves as direct descendants of the heroes of old, so what better for their noble young warriors but to follow the example of ancient warriors? I think they understand that it’s unlikely they’ll ever find themselves in just the situation that the Priest of Adaval, for example, had against the twenty wolf-headed guards of the rebellious cult of Andar… but still, there’s a lot to be learned from training ones body through routine. As important as anything, though, I think the Forms training is about indoctrinating a class of youths into ownership of their national myths.
Jay — Who are your literary influences?
David Anthony Durham — There are so many different types of influences, things that struck me at different points in time. As I mentioned, I learned to love reading because of Tolkein and Lewis and Leguin. In college I delved into African-American writers like Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and then into world fiction from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia.
As a historical/literary novelist I look to writers like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, T. C. Boyle, Louise Erdrich, Michael Chabon as influences. I also admire good crime writers like James Lee Burke, George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Dennis Lehane. And most recently I’ve been relearning my love of sci-fi and fantasy writers like Frank Herbert, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, George R. R. Martin. There are many more as well. Ask me this question on a different day and you might get a different answer.
Jay — One of themes you seem to be tackling is the feasibility of the mantle of leadership and the feasibility of benign or altruistic motivations in the role. We see this with both the Akarans and the Mein. Is this an accurate observation, and if so what draws you to the subject?
David Anthony Durham — It is an accurate observation. What draws me to it as much as anything is the modern world and America’s role in it. I lived long enough overseas to know that many, many intelligent people around the world see America’s actions, intentions and effects in a very different light than American’s themselves see them.
I couldn’t just shrug that off, especially as these differing ideas were coming from people I cared greatly about — my new friends and family. I’m still American enough to hope that leadership and altruism can go together. On the other hand, my study of history and my life experiences question that hopeful possibility in major ways.
My characters get to struggle with the issue for me. That’s what interests me about them. Rarely does an obvious “evil-doer” feature as a main character in my work. They may occupy the margins, but my main characters are people trying to do the best they can with what’s been presented to them.
That’s true of Leodan Akaran as he rules an empire he knows is rotten on the inside. It’s true of Hanish Mein as he attempts to conquer that empire and to find a better way to rule in its place. And it’s true of all the Akaran children as they grow to maturity and — sometimes grudgingly — come to accept the roles their birthright has bestowed on them.
Jay — The paths thrust on the Akaran children are diverse. Which did you enjoy seeing grow the most?
David Anthony Durham — I enjoyed writing them all. If I had to pick a favorite, though, it would be Mena. I wouldn’t want to give away the details, but I love the way she grows to balance the intuitive, emphatic nature of her childhood with the sword wielding-eagle headed goddess of rage she becomes later on. I got a kick out what Dariel became too.
Jay — As you plotted the series did any of your characters perhaps surprise you on where their path eventually led at the end or did everything kind of fall in place?
David Anthony Durham — It’s strange — and I’ve heard other writers say it too — but I knew exactly how this volume ended when I began it. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to get to that ending, though, so a lot of the process of the book is coming to an understanding of just how the characters became the people I envisioned them being at the end.
Jay — As noted in my review, my favorite thread to follow in my reading of Acacia was that of Leeka, the Acacian general. The rest of the threads in this book focus almost exclusively with the Mein or the Akaran leading family member. What is the perspective that Leeka brings to Acacia?
David Anthony Durham — I like to cast a wide net of main characters to represent different portions of the society I’m writing about. I did that to a lesser extent in my early novels, and then to a large degree in Pride of Carthage. In Acacia it’s true that most of the narrative threads are on players from the two main families, but there are also scenes following Thaddeus, Rialus and, your favorite, Leeka. They’re all important to me, but Leeka was a favorite for me too.
Right from his very first scene he’s on the ground, in the wilds, fighting for his life. At a time when most of the main characters don’t even know anything is wrong Leeka is going toe to toe with a horde of invaders like nothing the empire has faced before.
I like the juxtaposition of his action-filled scenes next to the quieter ones set in the luxury and apparent safety of the royal precincts. All the other major players inherited their rank and responsibilities. Leeka is just a working man, a career soldier. The role that he carves out in this book — and in the future volumes — he did purely on his own initiative. I respect that about him.
Jay — The role of ‘counselor’ is a fixture in epic fantasy and you have a couple. Is Thaddeus at all supposed to be a foil or study in contrast with Rialus?
David Anthony Durham — They’re conflicted for different reasons — and they have very different personalities — but they both “have issues” in terms of their relationship to the powers they serve. I don’t really think of them as having much to do with other, though. Interesting that you bring it up. I think they both developed without my having a grand idea for them. It’s just that every time I placed a character near power — but not in power — I found them easily compromised.
Jay — I find that you tend to play out your large scale conflicts off-page or with minimal page use, was this a conscious decision on your part?
David Anthony Durham — I don’t think it was conscious at the start. I bet, actually, that it began as a product of just having written Pride of Carthage before Acacia. That novel was so battle heavy that I had to find new way after new way to describe them, or different eyes to see them through. I didn’t want to repeat all that with Acacia.
As I went along, I realized I wanted more of the focus to be on the characters and the emotional struggles they go through to make the decisions that win or lose the big battles. Some other plot points felt natural to have off-stage. Some of the things that Corinn pulls off, for instance, happen at a distance from her. She doesn’t see them, but she creates them and then faces the results. It felt right to me that the reader would have a similar experience.
Jay — You mention a rekindling of love for Fantasy and Science Fiction and that you wouldn’t mind writing a YA title in the future. Is Science Fiction a field you think you will tackle in the future?
David Anthony Durham — I don’t think I’d be any good at science fiction. I do like to read good sci-fi just as much as good fantasy, but I’m not much of a technology/science-oriented person. I’ve no idea what the future holds and no idea which technologies will shape it.
I know that not all sci-fi is about the technology or set in the future or in space, but my attentions tend to get drawn back in time, to the histories or myths that have shaped us. Because of that the themes I’m interested in I can explore for a long time in fantasy and historical fiction. I’m happy leaving science fiction to the writers that are really good at it.
On the other hand, my interest in YA stems both from my experiences as a young reader and from my reading with my kids recently. I’d love to write stories for them, the particular type of imaginative stories that live most vibrantly in young minds. My interest in YA is quite personal, but I also think it’s a wonderful audience to write for. I’d like to write stories for others who are like the thirteen year old boy I once was, combing library shelves for their next adventures.
Jay — The debate between the lines of Science Fiction and Fantasy are an annual debate. From the perspective of a historical fiction writer, who just wrote his first Fantasy, and from a newborn fan, what distinctions do you make if any?
David Anthony Durham — Maybe the longer I’m part of this world, and the more I know about it, the clearer I’ll be on the distinctions. Right now I don’t make those distinctions too sharply. When I think of great writers in either field — Herbert, Stephenson, Card, Gaiman, Martin, LeGuin — I’m drawn to them because of the freshness of their vision, the quality of their writing and their stories.
Those things are always what matter to me most, and I’m happy to cross any genre lines to find the writers that most speak to me. Same goes for writers of literary fiction, or crime, or historical… In a way, I’m not a genre reader. I won’t read anybody just because they’re in a genre that I like; and I won’t not read anybody just because they’re in a genre I’m not familiar with. It’s all about the writing. My inclination is to fight against drawing those lines. I’d like to blur them a bit, actually.
Jay — The saddest moment for me was Hanish’s non-policy on slavery. Until then I found him and his more overt brothers — perhaps even more so — rather heroic. How important was it to give the Mein a face?
David Anthony Durham — It’s of primary importance to me that both my heroes and my villains have real identities, real faces and hearts. Look, I’ll probably watch The Lord of the Rings movies another hundred times in the years ahead. I’m a willing participant in stories about overt good and faceless evil.
For my own work, though, I’m more interested in compromised heroes and complicated villains. That’s the world as I see it, and it’s the world as I see it that drives me to write in the first place. I’ve found that in real life our heroes tend to disappoint us, and that it’s a lot easier to say what you would do if you were in charge than it is to actually do those things once you are in power. But what can you do? We need heroes to keep going. We need to dream
Jay — Conceptually, did this series begin with the Akaran’s or the Mein’s story?
David Anthony Durham — The Akarans. I knew who they were before I knew much of anything else about this novel or this world.
Jay — How significant, either as a representative of an ideal, or directly to other character’s lives do you think Igguldan is?
David Anthony Durham — That’s a hard question to answer without giving a lot away. Actually, I don’t think I can say much of anything about him while avoiding spoilers.
Jay — You mention your unique outlook — an insider and outside looking in perspective — do you consider what you are presenting a different vantage or a more complete one?
David Anthony Durham — I don’t want to claim that my world was more complete than others. Certainly George R.R. Martin and Steven Erikson and others write in enormous, complex worlds. I do feel different, though, so I guess it’s a matter of providing a distinctive perspective. As a person of color I see the world with lenses tinted by my identity in particular ways.
It’s the same world, yes, but different things stand out. I believe it’s valuable — and one of the main things literature can provide — for people to put on different lenses every now and then. Having said all that, I think a lot of what’s unique about my perspective shows itself in subtle ways in Acacia. Some readers will notice; some won’t. That’s how it should be.
Jay — I’m suspecting you have just begun in the promotion of Acacia. I know Colleen is one of the best; setting up interviews, utilizing both print and online in spreading the word — from where you sit is there any difference in the process this time around focusing on a Fantasy fan base than there was with previous books or is it much the same?
David Anthony Durham — It’s very different. For one thing, Colleen trusts fantasy readers to be authorities on what they do and don’t like, and she’s not afraid to give them the chance to voice their opinions. In literary publishing editors and publicists don’t give advanced reading copies to honest-to-goodness readers. Their efforts are aimed at industry professionals: booksellers, reviewers, newspaper editors, noted writers, libraries and book clubs, etc. I don’t think they trust their audiences enough to give them the chance to shape early opinion on title.
We’ve still been doing all the usual stuff in terms of getting that mainstream industry attention. I’m glad to hear that some major papers will be reviewing it, etc, but I know that some mainstream media sources don’t give fantasy much space, if any. So it makes sense to me that we make up for that by taking the book right to devoted readers in the field. And the online community that you’re part of is new to me, but I can see how important it is.
When I think about literary titles that do get a lot of attention it’s often for the wrong reasons, like getting a big advance, or the publisher promising a big budget for promotion, etc. The attention is often on the risks being taken. Will the book earn out? Will it flop and destroy the author’s career? I find it refreshing that the attention I am getting now is mostly from people who actually want to read good books, people who are willing to give me a shot and are hoping that I bring them something good.
Jay — I was going through your site and when answering a question about the useful application of historical fiction, you said this:
“I believe historical fiction can be just as informative as straight historical writing. I’ve never read a history book that wasn’t overtly subjective, that didn’t want you to believe certain things and strive to shape your understanding accordingly.
I have read fictions, however, that — because of my involvement with characters and a connection to an imaginative time and place — have left me pondering historical events well after the reading was complete. Maybe it’s that the best works of historical fiction — Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example — are not so much about providing answers as they are about asking questions. So many positives start with asking questions.”
You moved to even a more stigmatized genre — what is your feeling on any potential usefulness of the literary fantastic, and how has it applied to you?
David Anthony Durham — I’m a firm believer that people crave a mythologized cultural identity. Most enduring stories last because they connect with what a culture wants to believe are its values, its qualities, it’s nobility as documented in some terrible struggle. That’s part of what ancient epic poetry did, and I think that, at its best, contemporary fantasy or sci-fi can do the same.
I remember the effect that Star Wars had on me when I was a boy of seven. Now, amazingly, I’m watching the effect of it on my children. They know more about it than I ever did! They have more action figures and a longer narrative arc and much more background complexity to deal with. The story of Anakin’s rise, fall, and return is important to them in ways that must be defining their early notions of morality.
I think the same can be said for the incredible popularity of The Lord of the Rings, especially as the movies fed into the dark mood and fears of the post-911 world. Thing is, when I read The Hobbit that summer in Trinidad none of the characters in it looked like me. None of them. I still loved it. I still connected with it. I sublimated my ethnic reality in favor of inclusion in someone else’. That was okay… And then again it wasn’t okay, and that’s part of why I wrote Acacia. My hope is that pretty much anyone in the world can pick up Acacia and find characters in it that look like them. It’s an imagined mythology that’s inclusive in a way I’ve rarely experienced (with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series being the exception). That’s something I’m very proud of, something that I believe might affect individual lives in modestly immeasurable ways.