As promised in several posts, my interview with David Anthony Durham is finally live! I’m thrilled to have David Anthony Durham as the first ever interviewee on A Dribble of Ink! I’m currently reading his latest novel, ACACIA: The War with the Mein, and it is every bit as good as the buzz is indicating. Be sure to check back soon for my official review!
Q: David, I would first like to thank you for taking part in this interview! Itâ€™s a great way for me and my readers to kick off the launch of A Dribble of Ink!
A: No problem. Thanks for wanting to talk with me.
Q: First, why donâ€™t you introduce yourself and tell us a little about your latest novel Acacia: The War With the Mein?
A: Ah. Well, let me start with the latter and work backwards. Acacia: The War With the Mein is an epic fantasy. Itâ€™s the story of a long-ruling empire thatâ€™s attacked by a devious foe. The young children of the royal family are thrown out into hiding in the wide world and have to mature with an eye toward reuniting and fighting to gain their empire back. One of the main problems in this, though, is that the benevolent empire the children thought they were part of never existed. Acacian power was won with magical treachery and held in place illicit trades that both exploits the populace and keeps them sedated. So these royal exiles are faced with fighting to create a new empire, one based with the ideals they had as children instead of the hidden realities. Itâ€™s no easy task for many reasons.
Q: The past few years have seen a deluge of great new fantasy authors, from Scott Lynch to Joe Abercrombie to Patrick Rothfuss, how do you feel that Acacia helps you set yourself apart from all the other new fantasy authors out there?
A: Good question. I just gave the basic plot beginning, but I think Acacia is a bit different than most epic fantasy in how Iâ€™ve written it and how things play out on the page. My three previous books were historical novels with a â€œliteraryâ€ flavor. Iâ€™m one of those MFA-educated writer types that spent most of my college years reading literary fiction. (Donâ€™t hold that against me, though. Iâ€™m on your side now.) This does affect my writing style. I know that might not necessarily seem like a good thing to some people, but Iâ€™d like to think it means mainly that readers will find my story complex on many levels, with carefully crafted language and complex characters that donâ€™t act in simple ways. To me this is a literary novel, but itâ€™s a literary novel in which tons of stuff happens, where thereâ€™s throne room treachery and ancient curses, banished sorcerers and fantastic beasts and warrior princesses. It bugs me that literary-types have forgotten that literature was once about such things, but anywayâ€¦
I think the authors you mention are great. Iâ€™ll be very happy if I can shoulder into their company because theyâ€™re doing wonderful work too. I have a different way of working within the genre, though. Iâ€™m partially writing out of respect for it, and partially writing with an eye toward adding things to it that I think have been missing. Iâ€™m also an African-American, and there arenâ€™t many of us in the fantasy genre. Iâ€™ve spent my life balanced between a lot of different perspectives: black and white, American and European and Caribbean. So Iâ€™ve grown up seeing more than one side of any issue. That affects Acacia in that itâ€™s not a story of obvious good and obvious evil. Both sides have valid points. Both sides commit unforgivable crimes. Both sides have characters to love and hate.
And Iâ€™d like to think that my academic education is a good thing for the book. Iâ€™ve studied writing carefully and taught at the graduate level quite a bit and written reviews, etc. All of this has meant that Iâ€™ve spent my adult life thinking about what makes writing really good and trying to write to the highest standard I could. My earlier novels, Gabrielâ€™s Story and Walk Through Darkness, won literary awards and were New York Times Notable Books, etc. My third, Pride of Carthage, still got awards, but it also branched out into lots of foreign markets.
Iâ€™m only mentioning this because a lot of writers with similar successes would have stayed put, writing historical fiction. But my feeling about writing novels is that itâ€™s such an amazing privilege that I have to do the most interesting, most challenging books I can each time out. The idea for Acacia got a hold of me. It felt exciting and important to add what I could to fantasy, and to encourage some â€œliteraryâ€ readers to check out the genre too.
Q: Being an African-American fantasy writer is an unusual situation. How do you feel this has affected your first foray in the fantasy genre?
A: Iâ€™d like to think that I bring an unforced cultural diversity to the novel. Iâ€™m of mixed Caribbean ancestry to start with, but Iâ€™m also married to a Scot and Iâ€™ve lived in Europe quite a bit. My children are mixed-race kids with a handful of passports to their name. When I crafted Acacia it was very natural to me to populate the world with diverse groups of humans. That was so interesting that I didnâ€™t have look to hobbits or trolls for cultural diversity. The Known World of Acacia is a multicultural stew just like our actual world. I think that creates tons of potential story lines and themes, and I hope that readers from any background will like that they can open this book and spot characters and races that look like them. Thatâ€™s not something I had when I was reading fantasy as a youth â€“ with the exception of Ursula K. LeGuin. I still loved Tolkein and Alexander and Lewis, but I was reading of worlds that clearly didnâ€™t include people that looked like me. They included people that looked like many of their readers, but not like me or other people of color. This may seem a small thing, but itâ€™s not.
Q: How did your experience with Historical Fiction benefit your transition into writing a fantasy trilogy?
A: The most direct comparison comes from writing Pride of Carthage. Itâ€™s a novel about the war between Carthage (Hannibal, really) and Rome. Itâ€™s set around 200BC. There was a lot of historical information to work with in terms of the machinations of the war, the switching allegiances and surprise turns of fate. There was also tons of large-scale visual stuff to imagine: elephants crossing the Alps in winter, massive battles between polyglot, multi-ethnic armies, amazing Mediterranean landscapes drenched in bloodâ€¦ That was great to work through. It gave me a lot to examine with as a model for how complicated large scale political and military upheavals are.
On the other hand, thereâ€™s not much information about the social history of a lot of players in the war. Like the North African tribes, for example, that had a role in this. I knew their names and the names of a few of their leaders, but not much else. So I did the best I could to create what felt like a credible version of their cultures.
Many of those cultures are incredibly far removed from us in terms of their world views, religions, and societal norms. Theyâ€™re as different from us as we are from the people of an imagined world. So trying to balance what we knew about them with what I imagined with making them understandable for contemporary readers was really important.
When I began to write Acacia I had all that experience to work with. It helped me to have ideas on just what a world at war might look like, and served as a model for what sort of things I need to include to make the Known World seem real. It was great to be able to make it ALL up in Acacia, but the historian in me felt obligated to deal with all of things in my fantasy that Iâ€™d learned to deal with in my historical material. Acacia wouldnâ€™t have been the same if I hadnâ€™t written Pride of Carthage first.
Q: Why did you decide to change genres?
A: Well, Iâ€™m not necessarily done with historical or literary fiction just yet. Iâ€™m about to start a job as an associate professor of creative writing in the Cal State University system. So in some ways Iâ€™m still the guy Iâ€™d been building toward being for years now. BUT, I didnâ€™t want to forget that writing is important in lots of different ways for lots of different people. If I only wrote for the editors of the NY Times Book Review Iâ€™d be ignoring a whole lot of people, many of whom are just like people who are important to me â€“ family and friends that donâ€™t just read literary fiction.
Simply put, I shifted to fantasy because the idea for Acacia sunk its claws into me and wouldnâ€™t let go until I dealt with it. So it was the story â€“ and my desire to write it â€“ that decided things.
Q: Can you explain how the ideas behind Acacia came together in your head?
A: It began about ten years ago. In a very early form I modeled the Akaran children around my wife and her siblings. They are each distinct personalities, connected to each other but also flung all around the world. Something about that got me thinking of a fictional family in turmoil in an imagined world. The basic plot genesis began with that. Next, of course, came thinking about the kind of world they were going to live in, and then came building the political, social and cultural pressures that were going to drive the plot. I wanted all of these things to feel natural and true to the novelâ€™s world, but they were influenced by my study of history. To some degree, current events and recent history shaped it too. Not in cut and dry ways, but in reminding me how difficult it can be to build alliances, to act with idealism in a cruel world, etc.
Q: The world you have created in Acacia is very culturally diverse, and moves beyond those of most stock fantasy world. Where did your inspiration for â€œThe Known Worldâ€ come from?
A: Earth, the only real model of a world there is.
Q: One of the dangers of the Fantasy Genre is that it is full of clichÃ©s and stereotypes. What did you do to ensure that you did not fall into the same pitfalls that catch so many other authors?
A: I just tried to right my own story in my own way. I do see writers (both published and aspiring) that really just want to write stories like somebody elseâ€™s. Thatâ€™s never interested me. Iâ€™m inspired by other writers, sure, but what gets my interest is when I see cracks and gaps in whatâ€™s out there, storylines and themes that I can sink my teeth into in a manner that nobody Iâ€™ve read has before.
All four of my novels are set in genres with a lot of clichÃ©s. Gabrielâ€™s Story is a Western, but in my case itâ€™s a black Western with a lot of the standard roles reversed. Walk Through Darkness is a fictional runaway slave narrative, but I turn the relationship between hunted and hunter on its head. Pride of Carthage is an ancient war novel full of massive battles, but itâ€™s more about the damage of war than it is about heroism. Acacia is a fantasy, but thereâ€™s not an elf, dwarf or dragon to be seen. I think my approach â€“ and a focus on letting characters create their own identities and actions â€“ means that clichÃ© is easy to avoid.
By the way, all of these genres are enduring for reasons. They connect with something we feel â€“ or want to feel â€“ about ourselves and our world. My attraction to them has to do with getting at that, breaking some the clichÃ©s away and getting at new stories told within old traditions.
Q: Without spoilers (of course!), what can we expect in the future from you?
A: My next book will be a continuation of Acacia. For one thing, know that the story expands from the Known World into the Other Lands. (The Other Lands might be the title, actually, but itâ€™s too early to know for sure.) It deals with the Lothan Aklun and with the race of people beyond them, the Auldek, who are only mentioned briefly in the first novel. Expect to see a ratcheting up of the fantastic elements â€“ more magic, more mythology, more bizarre creatures!
Q: David, I would like to thank you for your time, hopefully it will help satiate those who have already read your works or inspire those who havenâ€™t to go pick up Acacia: The War with the Mein!
A: It was a pleasure, Aidan. Thanks for your interest. And I hope that a few of your readers pick up Acacia also â€“ if for no other reason than that I want to keep writing books like this. I need readers to be able to do so, though. So hereâ€™s to readers!