Soon after moving to California to accept a position as an Associate Professor in the Cal State Fresno MFA program, award-winning novelist David Anthony Durham sat down with RevolutionSF editor-at-large Rick Klaw to discuss fantastic fiction, why stories occur in trilogies, summers in Trinidad, the nature of sf fandom, as well as Durham's latest fantasy epic Acacia.
Your previous three novels (Gabriel's Story, Walk Through Darkness, Pride of Carthage) were all award-winning, well-reviewed historical novels. Why the seemingly radical switch to epic fantasy with Acacia?
It didn't feel radical to me. In many ways Pride of Carthage was such a fantastic story that it could barely be contained in historical fiction. It was about sweeping events, death on a massive scale, with incredible turns of fate, with powerful families and charismatic leaders, love stories and personal vendettas, myth and legend, etc. Hannibal's elephants weren't exactly oliphants, but they were just as spectacular as they churned through terrified troops that had seen nothing like them before.
Parts of it were so unbelievable, and the main characters actions so bold, that the entire Second Punic War seemed one of those rare instances when actual life was grander than anything you'd imagine.
Coming off of that I wasn't sure just where to turn in history for another story so grand. I knew they were there, but I'd already had this idea for a fantasy on a back burner. Turning my attention to it, I found it had simmered away into something that could be a logical step, in terms of storytelling scale, themes, imagination, after Pride of Carthage. Many of the other ideas I had felt like safer moves, not really steps forward at all.
Also, I'd been constrained to working with a historical framework for several years. Sure, I made some changes to details to make Pride of Carthage work as a novel, but in general I had to always refer to the record and to try to tell my story inside a framework I hadn't designed. It was very exciting to imagine writing something that felt like an historical novel, but to do so in a completely imagined world.
I got to create the world and the geography and the cultures, and then I got to place them on the board in a way that brought the main conflicts right to the surface. I loved that.
Of course, almost immediately the characters set about hiding things, lying, building mythologies and national myths and disguising crimes and twisting noble intentions. So a lot of the stuff that might have been right on the surface became entangled within a web of conflicting motives. Fantasy, yes, but a bit like our world, too.
After previously producing three historical novels, what was the reaction from Doubleday when you turned in Acacia, which is the first fantasy novel from Doubleday in some twenty years?
First in twenty years? Really? I knew it was no specialty of theirs, but twenty years? It's probably good that I didn't know that earlier.
Doubleday's reaction . . . Well, ever since my first novel, Gabriel's Story, I've always sold my books to them based on proposals. So it was the proposal for Acacia that I had to get past them, not even the real thing. My editor, Gerry Howard, is quite a veteran in the publishing business, with lots of different books and authors in his history. I'm happy to say he trusts me quite a bit, and after Pride of Carthage said I could write whatever I wanted. Of course, he didn't expect me to want to write a fantasy.
When I first suggested it, I also had a few historical novel ideas. They were receptive to all of those, but when they asked what I really wanted to write next they were surprised to hear that it was Acacia. I presented it to the like this: if I could only write one more novel before I kicked it that novel would be Acacia.
This got their attention. They asked for details. I gave them. They said, "What the hell, let him try it." Or some publishing equivalent of that.
The fight scenes in Acacia are extremely well crafted. What influenced your portrayals?
I had to write a ton of battle stuff for Pride of Carthage. In that case I struggled with keeping it fresh, showing the scenes from different perspectives and in different ways. I learned from that, but I actually didn't want Acacia to be as dependent on the violence, so a lot of how I dealt with fighting came out as a way of character development.
The one, Akaran, who is a particularly apt pupil of sword craft, for example, has a razor sharp ability to concentrate and perform physically, but also has an anger that flares in deadly, barely controllable ways. This character doesn't exactly like that, but there it is. Hanish Mein, with his skill at the Maseret "dance", shows the qualities that make him so successful: complete calm when in danger, focus, timing, the ability to measure his opponent's weaknesses and the instincts to always be surprising. So a lot of how the characters fight comes out of who they are.
Same goes on a large scale. The "Forms" that the Acacians use for military training is a direct result of their culture of propaganda. They've created a massive myth of themselves, and weaving those myths into the military is crucial for their continued denial of a lot of the real truths behind their prosperity. With the Maseret the Meins reinforce their collective identity. They want strong leaders, yes, but the leaders are always available to be challenged, and there's always the possibility any of them with the heart for it can become chieftain. That's important to them.
As for what happens on the battlefield, there are lots of different influences. There's some of The Iliad in there. Memories of Tolstoy's battle scenes in War and Peace. Plenty of The Lord of the Rings. There's Bernard Cornwell, Cormac McCarthy, George Pelecanos, Steven Pressfield. Does that seem random? There's a bit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a touch of Kill Bill, a little Princess Mononoke. It's a hodgepodge of influences from all sorts of places.
Assuming you are a fantastic fiction fan, who are some of your favorite writers and who influenced your fantasy work?
I grew up reading fantasy. Lloyd Alexander, Stephen R Donaldson, CS Lewis, Ursula K LeGuin, Fred Saberhagen and Tolkein were fundamental to my learning to love reading and storytelling. I wouldn't be here without them, at least not as you now see me.
My relationship with contemporary fantasy is a bit trickier. I didn't read any genre fiction in college and grad school, unless you consider literary fiction to be a genre, which isn't an entirely unreasonable idea. When I did begin to read genre fiction it was first Westerns when I was researching Gabriel's Story and then crime fiction, which influenced my early novels in many ways.
I turned to sci-fi as I was writing Acacia: Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson. I tried a few of the big named epic fantasy authors as I was writing, but I'm a picky reader and most of them didn't hold my attention enough. So I wrote the novel I had in mind the way I had it in mind.
The main contemporary fantasy writer that I really admire, George RR Martin, I didn't read until I'd finished Acacia. He's become a big favorite since, though. I know I get compared to him a lot now, but the similarities between us came from someplace more organic than direct influence. His impulses to have complicated characters with conflicting desires, to have no easy good or bad guys, to kill off even main characters at times, to have the best laid plans thwarted mercilessly . . . These are all impulses I have as a writer too. They've been part of my work for four books now.
I know, I know. The Akarans seem a lot like the Starks. Attackers come down from the North. Acacia sort of has five kingdoms too . . . I can't explain the similarities except as coincidental. If I'd read Martin before writing Acacia it would've been pretty easy to change some of these things, but by the time I did read him my world and my novel was what it was. So, I can't really say that Martin was an influence on Acacia, but he's in the mix now and will be an influence in the future.
Oh, and I've been eating up YA (young adult) fiction these days, really loving how imaginative and creative it can be: Kai Meyer, Garth Nix, Jonathon Stroud. I'm going to need some of their type of wacky creativity for the future volumes of Acacia, so I'm really enjoying what they have to offer.
Acacia is labeled as Book One: War With the Mein. How many books will this story be? When you started out, do you always plan on it being more than one volume?
I'm planning three books. That, at least, is what it will take to close out the narrative arc I have in mind now. There may be future volumes, or prequels (I'd love to write about Edifus, Tinhadin, Hauchmeinish and the Santoth in their prime), but I'm not really thinking about that yet.
As for the second question, for a long time I thought of the material of The War With the Mein as taking three books to write. The three parts of the novel would've each been a separate book, each longer and more involved. This, though, was a hard sell to Doubleday. They saw it as way too risky, especially as we had no idea how I was going to be received as a fantasy writer.
Talking through the possibilities with them, I came around to seeing the Mein story as fitting into one book. It was a greater challenge that way, really. There are some scenes in my head that never made it into the book, especially stuff about how the Akaran children grew to maturity, but this stuff may find ways to come out in future volumes.
And in a way I like it that what's now going to be the Acacia trilogy is a much larger story than I initially envisioned. That, I think, is a good thing.
Why are fantasy series usually told as trilogies? Tolkien, Kay, and countless others use that format. What makes it so appealing?
Tolkien's influence looms large over everything, even if he didn't mean to write a trilogy. It's hard not to view The Lord of the Rings as a template for how to approach epic fantasy. If they'd published the Rings as four books maybe we'd all be writing tetralogies.
Other than that, I imagine it has something to do with how many extra things we as fantasy writers have to do to make our stories work at all. All the world building, for example.
It means that 1) the page count grows naturally and 2) the author is likely going to want to live in that newly minted world longer than one book. Three volumes, for me, seemed a reasonable choice. I can see the entire arc of the narrative. I know exactly where it ends, but the three books allows me lots of room to let the story, and the characters, breathe. (I can juggle three balls pretty well, but toss a fourth at me and they all go flying in different directions.)
So it's large, but graspable. Hopefully, the same is true from the reader's end of the deal. They're investing their time also, so I want that investment to pay off in a well-developed journey, but one that does have an end in sight. I wouldn't want it to be any less, but neither can I imagine planning a heptalogy.
The story in Acacia centers around four royal children bent on revenge for their father's death. How was your relationship with your own father? Did it influence the events in Acacia?
My mother and father split up when I was quite young. I've known him mainly from a distance, with a few summers spent with him in Trinidad, where he lived when I was a boy. I wouldn't say that influenced Acacia except that it made me highly aware of how intact my wife's family was. She and her siblings were the initial template for the Akaran children, and her father the inspiration for Leodan. I hasten to add that all the characters became characters as soon as I began writing, but there was something of the real family in them at the beginning.
I was unaware you spent time in Trinidad as a child. How do you feel that time influenced your work and worldview?
I knew from age seven or so that the world was a big, funky, complex place. That's effected me ever since. Stateside I grew up in typical American suburbs, surrounded by typical American sights. There's a lot of privilege in that, but there's a flatness to it also, a flatness you might never notice until stepping out of it into other settings. Going to Trinidad to stay with my dad (flying there by myself, by the way) was a full-fledged emersion into the other. The heat in airport is something I'll never forget.
The smell of the air. The differentness of everything. Being surrounded suddenly by people of so many dark shades, speaking a variety of accents, eating different foods, driving on the wrong side of the road, seeing dead dogs in the streets, poverty all around, smells both wonderful and rather horrific: I took it all in like a sponge.
I woke up one night with this enormous lizard clinging to the wall across from me, checking me out with a cockeyed expression. It was par for the course there, but when you've been raised in Maryland it's not the type of thing you're ready for. You can't have experiences like that without returning home a little different.
Thing is, I always did eventually returned to the States, to an environment that hadn't changed the same way. I lived in a predominantly white suburb, and my friends had no connection whatsoever to the side of my life that was Trinidadian. It was one of many ways I was aware of myself as different. That difference, recognized young, has always been with me as I walk this world. I know that affects my writing, although I don't quite know how to put in words all the ways it does.
The reviews for Acacia have been stunning. Where there any reviews that really surprised you?
It's early days yet. The book isn't even out yet, but, you're right, it does feel like it's been reviewed a ton already. I've been very happy with the reviews, grateful for each and every one. I guess the one that stands out to me most right now is the one I read for the first time this morning, Nick Gevers writing in Locus. Man, that was a great review! It's the first one so far that looks at the thematic underpinnings of the novel. It read like a preface to a research paper, and I mean that in a good way.
Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy if readers enjoy the story of Acacia and if that's enough for them. There's something gratifying at being deemed good fantasy in a traditional sense. But I do put more into my novels than that. Nick Gevers seemed to see it all with clear eyes and wrote positively about it. That's very gratifying. Doesn't have to happen every time and for every reader, but still it's gratifying when it does.
Was Locus and Nick Gevers your first contact with sf/fantasy fandom? How does the experience differ from the reviewer/public responses to your previous titles?
Nick's Locus review was the first in the print sf/fantasy press, but there's been a lot of encouragement coming out in the blogger world as well. I love it. It's been refreshing, and very different, to have direct and/or semi-direct contact with fantasy fans. I get more e-mails than ever before, and that's great. I love hearing that my work connected with a reader. That's what it's all about.
In literary publishing there are more boundaries between writer and reader. You may get fans at readings, sure, and a letter every now and then, but literary readers tend to keep a polite distance. And literary writers tend to like it that way.
There's certainly a rawness to some of the blogger reviews. I think my book sets out to do some things just like regular fantasy. And it aims to do some things a bit differently. It's only natural that it'll take a while for readers to get a grip on who I am and what my books are really about. Thing is, reviews like Nick Gevers are very gratifying. And I don't mean that because he's composed it up to some "literary" standard. I'd say the review is better, more thoughtful, more carefully crafted, more insightful, than many a New York Times review. I'm really happy about that, and it is a clear confirmation of what I've always believed, no genre has a monopoly on the good minds.
Race has played a significant role in your previous books. What role does it have in a fantasy setting such as Acacia?
I wanted the Known World to be as culturally diverse as I could make it. This wasn't hard to do, didn't require great leaps of imagination. I just had to people a world with a variation of the real diversity we have on earth. So that's what I did.
I don't believe, though, that if we translate our cultural diversity to an imagined world that we also have to translate our paradigms. There are very specific, historical reasons, accidents and circumstances included, for why we've ended up with Western European-dominated notions on race. They have to do with finite aspects of our world.
In Acacia's world the history is very different. There is tension between different peoples, but it's not based on notions of racial superiority. Talayans aren't more or less respected based on the darkness of their skin, for example.
Hanish Mein, blond and lean, featured from the North – doesn't think he's inherently superior to Acacians or anybody else. He may feel morally superior, culturally more righteous, enough so that he encourages his people to stay pure and true to the clan: that's all true. But he'd never imagine his brain to be larger than any other races'. He'd never argue that Vumuans should be valued at 2/3rds of a person, or that Bethunis have a more bestial sexuality because of their physiology. Those sorts of notions are products of the market forces of our slave trading past. In the Known World, however, the economics of slavery makes it an equal-opportunity suppressor. The Lothan Aklun trade in children of all races. In that they're painfully equal. Perhaps that's the role race has in Acacia.
With the rise in popularity of epic fantasy movies, has there been any film interest? Would you like to see Acacia shot as a movie? If so, by whom?
I'd love to see Acacia on the big screen. You kidding me? My kids are on me all the time about when the movie is coming out. I try to explain that it's not exactly something I have a lot of control over.
I'm happy say that there has been film interest. Over the last few days, I've spent a good three or four hours on the phone with a very prominent producer that loves the book and is doing what he can to stir up some early financial backing. (I don't want to say who because it's all so early in the process, but this guy definitely makes films, and big ones at that.) I hope he can do the same for Acacia, especially because he seems to know the book, its characters and themes really well. But it's early days yet, and it's quite possible they'll be more interest in the coming weeks from more people. We'll see.
I'm going to resist the temptation to name directors or actors I'd like to see do it for the main reason that I feel completely inept at such things. That would be making assumptions based on what they'd done in the past. But I think it's potentially more interesting to find the right person just at the right moment to do something unexpected. What I'm hoping for is someone coming to me, whether he/she is a name I know or somebody new to me, who has a passion to make it that goes beyond just wanting the cash in on fantasy's popularity. Honestly, though, I'm all for being surprised by who that person is.
After the conclusion of the Acacia series do you plan on writing other fantasies or to return to more literary type fiction?
I'd love to be able to do both. Years ago I told my agent that I wanted to have a career that balanced literary novels and a fantasy series. He warned me it would be hard to bridge the genres and keep a foot in both, especially in an industry that wants to know how to package an author for a particular audience.
But that's what I'm trying to do, and the same guy is still my agent. After three fantasy books, I can't guarantee that the literary folks will welcome me back. For that matter, I don't know if I'll really want to go back to "literary" if this fantasy thing turns out to be as fun as it seems it might be! We'll just have to wait and see.
Here's an exclusive inside look at Acacia: the complete Chapter 5.