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Friday, May 11, 2007

Interview with David Anthony Durham

Official David Anthony Durham Website
David Anthony Durham's Blog
Preorder "Acacia" via Doubleday Books HERE
Sample Excerpts from “AcaciaHERE
"Acacia's" Release Date: June 12, 2007 for North America

David Anthony Durham may be a newcomer to speculative fiction, but with a bibliography that includes the multiple award-winning “Gabriel’s Story”, “Walk Through Darkness” and the celebrated “Pride of Carthage”, Mr. Durham brings a certain pedigree and distinctive viewpoint to his fantasy epic that is lacking in the genre today. If you’ve read my REVIEW of “Acacia – Book One: The War With the Mein”, then you know how much I loved the novel and how highly I’m recommending the book to anyone in the mood for meaty, character-driven storytelling. It also gives me great pleasure to present you with this interview where readers will get a chance to learn more about the person behind David Anthony Durham, his influences and goals as a writer, and of course, “Acacia”. I would also highly recommend that you check out the interview that Jay Tomio of FantasyBookSpot did with Mr. Durham HERE, which offers a more comprehensive and mostly spoiler-free look at the themes, characters and story that comprise “Acacia”. Additionally, you can sample excerpts from the book HERE to get a further taste. Finally, I sincerely thank David Anthony Durham for answering my questions and giving me the opportunity to review his wonderful novel, and I hope that readers out there will enjoy the interview and give “Acacia” a chance…

Q: Because of your first three novels, you’re portrayed as a ‘historical novelist’. For readers that may not be familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself as a writer?

David: That’s a long story… I came to writing through an MFA program, which means that to a large extent I was taught to look down on “genre” fiction. I bought into it for a while, and my first two (unpublished) novels were firmly contemporary “literary” fiction. I learned a lot about crafting a novel with those books, but they were difficult reads, not at all plot-driven. They got me some respectful rejections, but not much more than that.

When I began my third novel I’d been away from my MFA for a while and I was starting to find my own interests again. I’d long been fascinated by history – and specifically African-American history – so I thought I’d combine that interest with some of the coming of age material I’d been working with in those first two novels. The result was “Gabriel’s Story”. It’s a Western, and while writing it I read a lot of Westerns. I didn’t love them all by any means – and I rejected a lot of the tropes of the genre – but I did find some real gems. It rekindled my interest in reading novels with plot, with drama and quests and tales of retribution. By the time I finished the novel I realized I’d put all those things into it, ending up with something very different than what I’d thought I was writing. And what do you know, suddenly I was publishable!

I stuck with history for my next novel, “Walk Through Darkness”. It’s about a runaway slave and the man that’s tracking him. Serious stuff in many ways, but again there’s plenty of drama in it – and a few surprises. “Pride of Carthage” was a different sort of historical novel, about a much larger topic, with a much wider cast of characters and a body count that’s off the charts.

Acacia” is yet another change, but I like change. Like those other novels I hope to combine the “literary” qualities of complex characters and carefully crafted prose with the genre elements that so many people love – an imagined world, massive struggles, heroes and villains fighting it out in world touched by magic. I’m hoping that’s a combination that will appeal to a new audience of readers.

Q: Speaking of “Acacia”, which is due for release June 12, 2007 via Doubleday, can you tell readers a bit more about what to expect from it?

David: I’d like to think readers will find a tale they recognize as being in the epic fantasy tradition, while also discovering something a bit different. Already there’s been a fair bit of comparing my work to George R. R. Martin’s, R. Scott Bakker’s and Steven Erikson’s. I don’t mind this in so far as I respect all those writers greatly. It’s good company to be in.

My only problem with those comparisons is that they’re based on the assumption that my work tries to be – or should be – like somebody else’s. That’s not how I approach writing, though. “Acacia” isn’t my version of a George R. R. Martin fantasy. It’s my version of a David Anthony Durham fantasy. It may take a little while for readers to sort out what that means, but that’s okay. I’m ready to work to earn my place in this part of the literary world. I’m confident that as time – and books – go by readers will have more to go on in terms of understanding my work, and a little less need to discuss it in comparative terms.

Q: Your previous novel, 2005’s “Pride of Carthage”, is “an epic retelling of the legendary Carthaginian military leader’s (Hannibal Barca) assault on the Roman Empire ”. It seems that both “Pride of Carthage” & “Acacia” share a lot of similarities, from the political & martial aspects, to the epic nature of the stories balanced by intimate characterization. In what ways did “Pride of Carthage” inspire and prepare you in creating the world of Acacia?

David: When I began writing “Acacia” I approached it in much the same way I would have approached a historical novel. I built the world, documented the history, placed the characters in it, and let them try to live their lives amidst the same sort of push and pull of political and social forces that shape historical fiction. In “Pride of Carthage” I had to research a distant, strange world and put it on the page; for “Acacia” I had to create a distant, strange world and put it on the page. The two have a lot more similarities than one might think.

Q: What about SF/fantasy authors? I know that in a recent interview you mentioned Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, C.S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, George R. R. Martin, Stephen Donaldson and Frank Herbert, among others as some authors that you read & respected in the genres. In what capacity did they or any other writers influence your writing of “Acacia”?

David: Most recently, they’ve influenced my writing by giving me examples of wonderful stories in imaged worlds. Neil Gaiman and Neal Stephenson are in there too, as well as a lot of YA fantasy writers like Garth Nix, Kai Meyers and Jonathan Stroud. It’s not a matter of writing like any of them, but it is very much that the experience of so enjoying fantastic stories stokes me with the desire to tell my own.

Those earlier writers like Tolkien and Alexander helped me learn to love reading as an adolescent. So their influence is immeasurable. And Le Guin gave me the first glimpse of a fantasy world that wasn’t entirely black or white. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who read her years ago without noticing the dark-skinned ethnic diversity of “EarthSea”. But it’s there, and Le Guin made a point of pointing it out again and again. That was something I noticed, and it made the potential of fantasy a whole lot more inclusive.

Q: Themes of family and ethnic diversity seem to play an important role throughout “Acacia”. How much of this do you draw from your own experience as a husband/father and of your racial background?

David: A lot of the diverse world of “Acacia” was inspired by the peculiarities of what I am, and what makes up my extended family. I’m a child of Caribbean parents, of complex ethnicity but raised as an African-American. I’ve lived much of my adult life in Europe, though. I’m married to a Scottish woman from a large family from the Shetland Isles. Because of all of this I have close family members all around the globe, as far away as New Zealand. I have mixed race kids, each with two passports to their names.

What does all that mean? Just that I feel lucky to have been able to experience a lot of different perspectives in terms of ethnicity and culture and nationality. That affects the way I view the world. And that, in turn, affects how I imagine the worlds I write about. I’d like to think that in our increasingly cross-cultural world my fictional creation will ring true – and relevant – to many readers.

Q: Looking at fantasy in general, one of its major criticisms is the supposed lack of originality or overuse of familiar clichés. What are your thoughts on this, and what efforts did you make with your novel “Acacia” to avoid these pitfalls?

David: What interested me was never the clichés of fantasy, never the shortcomings of writers in the genre. It was the potential. That’s always the case; in all my novels I’m drawn to potential for great stories. I saw the ancient war epic as full of potential avenues to explore, and that’s why I wrote “Pride of Carthage”. I felt that a runaway slave narrative could be a great venue for exploring race and identity in American history, and “Walk Through Darkness” came from that. And "Gabriel’s Story" came from feeling that the American West was such a vast panorama for storytelling, one that I wanted to use in my own way.

In each case I knew that I was writing in familiar territory in some ways, but as soon as I went to work my focus was on telling the best story that I could, which usually meant bending some of the norms of those genres a bit to follow where the story and the characters took me. So I have a Western where black characters are the focus, the white characters are often the bad guys, Native American play only small roles, and the Hispanic characters are largely sympathetic/heroic avengers. My slave narrative features a tracker who’s not tracking the runaway in order to entrap him. My ancient war epic is more about the emotional and moral damage of war than it is about the glory of battle. And my fantasy… well, it’s not a fantasy where major characters are safe, nor where destiny is quite what you expect, nor are good and evil drawn with a black and white distinction between the two, nor where a lost magic item will save the day. It wasn’t that I had to make any particular effort to avoid clichés, though. I just wrote what felt right and let the characters grow the same way I would when writing any other novel in any genre.

Q: What are your overall thoughts on how “Acacia” turned out?

David: I’m very happy with it. I still take joy in flipping through it, especially the latter sections when everyone’s fate is kicking in. I accomplished a lot of what I wanted to with the book – at least from my perspective as the writer. If you’re wondering what I might regret or wish I’d done different…

Well, if the book is a big success and readers want more I’ll regret a little bit that I didn’t take twice as many pages to carry this narrative to completion. I wanted the material in this book to maybe be two or three books. This was tough for my publisher, though. They’re a mainstream house, so the whole epic fantasy series thing was new territory for their list. Add that to the fact that this was a big departure for me and they were reluctant to commit to such a multi-book risk. So I felt a lot of pressure to pull off the entire narrative arc in one book. In many ways I’m glad I did. I think “Acacia” delivers an awful lot of story in its pages, and I like it that I closed the main narrative arc at the end. But there are still scenes that live in my head that never got into the book. That’s the way it has to be though.

Q: With that said, what can we expect in the next volume of the series and the series as a whole?

David: “Acacia” tells the story of a world rediscovering its distant past. Part of that is coming to understand the nation’s crimes and the way those still support an unjust system. But another major part is their discovering magic again, learning that mixed in with the lies and myths of their past there is also truth in some of its most fantastic elements. This discovery just gets started in “Acacia”. It affects the later portions of the book considerably, but there’s much of it to come in the next two books. Also, the conflict gets even bigger next time around, and includes the Lothan Aklun, a great nation beyond them, and a whole new threat of war. The canvas widens, the conflict increases, and magic becomes a living force again: expect all these things.

Q: Moving on, your novel “Gabriel’s Story” has been optioned for film and there’s been movie interest with another of your books, “Walk Through Darkness”. Can you give us any details about these potential feature films as well as any interest with your other books?

David: “Gabriel’s Story” has been under option with Uberto Pasolini (the producer of The Full Monty) for a few years now. Alan Taylor (director of a few features like Palookaville and The Emperor’s New Clothes and lots of cable TV: episodes of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Rome, Deadwood, etc.) is attached to direct. He’s written the screenplay and they’re steadily shopping it around to actors and financial backers. It might take awhile, but they’re committed to making it happen.

At this point, it looks like the “Walk Through Darkness” option is going to happen. It’s just a matter of finishing up the paperwork. I probably shouldn’t say who is picking it up until the ink is dry, though. I will say that both producers are shopping them to A-list actors. Both stories have what they believe are juicy roles for good actors, and they’re hoping to hook a big name that wants a really challenging role.

Pride of Carthage” sparked a lot of interest when it came out, but the timing wasn’t good. There were several Hannibal-related projects already in the works. Also, the studios were waiting to see how other epic war films like Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, King Arthur did. As a group they took the shine of sword and sandals epics.

Acacia” has also received some early interest. But, as with “Pride of Carthage”, I won’t be holding my breath. It would have to be such a big film that a whole lot of stars need to line up at just the right time, in just the right order.

Q: What would be your dream adaptation?

David: Well, my notions of dream adaptations have something of a pragmatic quality to them. With “Gabriel’s Story” or “Walk Through Darkness” my dream adaptation would just be to see them made into competent films that honor the lyrical qualities of the writing, but do so in a cinematic way. I think "Pride of Carthage" would be most successful as a mini-series or cable drama. I’d hate to see it cut down to a two hour feature, mainly because my intention with that book was to make it big, with a large cast and lots of details. With “Acacia”… strangely enough, I’d love to see it in a Japanese animated version, Studio Ghibli style. Miyazaki’s work has an ability to be epic and transcendent and surreal in a way that feature films rarely do. This is not to say I wouldn’t want a feature – if Peter Jackson wants it he can most certainly have it – it’s just that rarely do films realize novels as well as The Lord of the Rings.

Honestly, a dream adaptation is any film I don’t want to disown after seeing. A low bar, I know, but that’s the truth.

Q: What about you as a writer? I know that you’ve written short stories, you're labeled as a historical fiction novelist, and you wrote a Western, but are you interested in trying a different medium or genre in the future?

David: I could see having a hand in adapting one of my books into film, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever try being a primary script writer. I’m a novelist, and I think that’s enough of a challenge. Same goes for comic books and videogames; I’d love someone to use something of mine as inspiration, but I’m not up for pushing those types of projects on my own. (My kids really want to play the “Acacia” computer game. I keep telling them not to get their hopes up.)

As for other fictional genres… I’d never say never to any of them, but the most obvious area of fiction that I’m itching to try is YA fantasy. Fantasy was so important to me as a young reader, and I already see how important it is to my kids now. They’re not actually YA yet, but we do read plenty of it with them. I’d love to be able to write directly for them, and directly for other kids like the thirteen year old boy I once was. Maybe even more telling than those desires is the fact that I’ve got an idea for a YA story. If it sticks with me and continues to hang around for a few years… well, I’ll have no choice to but to put on paper.

Q: As someone who loves teaching/mentoring students, what advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

David: Be in it for the long haul. Nothing does – or should – happen over night. You don’t get it right the first time. You probably don’t get it right the second, third or fourth time either. That has to be okay with you. You have to be willing to put in the work day after day, trying to write the very best stuff you can whenever and however you can as you juggle the responsibilities of life. And you have to be resilient enough to go bed every night with the novel still unfinished, the novella still in need of revision, the story still unpublished… If you can do that – and then get up the next morning itching to find the time to keep writing – well then you’ve got a shot at making it in some form or another.

Q: Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about being an African-American author?

David: Of course. The main way I can do that is with my writing, but one thing I want the world to recognize is that African-Americans have just as much right to write about anything in the world that they want to as white writers. That may seem childishly clear. Many of your readers will say, “Of course. That’s obvious.” And it is. But I challenge anybody out there to find one writer of African, Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern descent (just to name a few) that feels they’ve been able to write without preconceived limitations on what they’re allowed to be authorities on. We’re constantly told by publishers and booksellers what we can and can’t write about. And those publishers and booksellers will hold up their hands and say it’s not their fault. It’s the public that defines what they’ll read.

I don’t know what’s true or not in that equation, but I do know that it’s a very rare thing that I’ve been allowed to write about first Ancient Mediterranean history and now in epic fantasy. And I do mean “allowed”. If my publisher hadn’t supported my writing with significant advance payments I wouldn’t have been able to take these projects on. Even if I did choose to write them anyway I’d have had to have done so while working a day job, without professional support and encouragement, without any guarantee that if I ever got to the end I’d find a publisher. That’s a reality for many writers, but it can be a crippling one if you’re a “minority” who thinks outside the excepted norms.

My editor once said to me, after he’d finished “Pride of Carthage” and admitted to being fairly stunned by the whole thing, that I’d just stepped out of any box I might have been trapped in, and it was going to be damn hard for anybody to get back into a box if I didn’t want to go. That liberation was a big deal to me and I’m trying to make the most of it.

Q: Wow, I love your answer. So, what other activities or hobbies do you enjoy?

David: Obviously I read a lot. I also walk a lot. That may seem kinda boring, but it’s an everyday exercise that also provides me a changing landscape to move through as I conjure up stories. I was once an avid whitewater kayaker. I’m still a kayaker, just not quite as avid anymore. But I look forward to a future in which kayaking and hiking, rivers and mountains, being with my family and writing meaningful books that people enjoy is all that my life is about. That’s pretty much what I have already, but there are a few hurdles left to jump yet.

Q: Do you have any last thoughts or comments you’d like to share?

David: Nah. I’ve said more than enough already. The things I really want to say I say in my fiction. I’d love it if your readers would check that out.

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