When I first interviewed Daniel Abraham in 2007, he was relatively unknown. He’d just published his second novel, A Betrayal in Winter, and his series, The Long Price Quartet, was just beginning to gather some steam among critics and early bloggers. Since then, he’s gone on to become one of the most quietly prolific novelists in the genre (ten novels + myriad short stories in four years) and has been claimed by many (myself included) as being one of the most important young voices writing today.
The Long Price Quartet has always had a small (and dedicated) following, but The Dragon’s Path, the first volume of a new series called The Dagger & The Coin, looks to have the broad appeal to transfer his critical success to a broader audience among fans of George R.R. Martin, Scott Lynch, Terry Brooks and Brandon Sanderson.
He’s one of my favourite authors, so it’s an absolute honour to present Mr. Daniel Abraham.
Daniel! Welcome back to A Dribble of Ink! It’s been a few years since we last worked together on an interview!
It has. Hope the world’s been treating you gently in the meantime.
How’s life as a writer changed since then?
Actually things have shifted around a lot. I’m doing a lot of projects right now. I’ve got an urban fantasy series I’m writing as MLN Hanover and I’ve got a gig co-authoring a space opera series with Ty Frank as James Corey, and there’s the comic book adaptation of A Game of Thrones. So in that sense, everything’s going pretty well.
Also, I think I’ve sort of learned how to write books, which is nice.
One of the aspects I most enjoy about The Long Price Quartet is that though there’s a defined, over-arching plot to the series, each novel is also built to stand on its own, to tell a complete story with just a few overlapping characters.
What drove you away from the more typical Fantasy structure that sees many novelists writing what amounts to one long novel broken into several (dozen) volumes?
Will we see more of this style of storytelling in The Dagger and the Coin
One of the things that drove the Long Price Quartet’s structure was a set of books by Lawrence Durell called the Alexandria Quartet and (probably even more) Robinson Davies’ Deptford Trilogy. Not that they did the same thing with time that the Long Price did, but they both have novels that can be read alone that add up to something. That worked really well for that project.
I’m not aiming for that in the same way with The Dagger and the Coin. The books in this one are more traditional in the Lord of the Rings one-big-story-in-several-volumes way. If things go well, I would like to set other stories in the same world, though. I think Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett were very wise to set things up so that you could have different characters and stories that all touched at the edges. After the Dagger & Coin books, I’d like to keep playing in different parts of this same world.
So eventually we’ll see Marcus Wester, one of the main characters in The Dragon’s Path set sail across the sea and stumble across Khaiem (from The Long Price Quartet)?
Heh. No. The Long Price Quartet was its own world, and I’m never going back there. That story ended.
Okay, Daniel, let’s play a game. It’s called ‘How the heck to you pronounce that!’
We’ll start with ‘Geder’. Hard ‘g’? Soft ‘g’?
I’ve pronounced it with the hard g, and he hasn’t corrected me.
How about ‘Qahaur’?
‘Cithrin’? Like Catharine?
SITH-rin. But really, how I do it doesn’t matter. All those characters will answer equally well to any pronunciation. If it floats your boat to pronounce her name kit-RYNE, I won’t mind, and she won’t either. In fact, it would be kind of cool to have folks take ownership of the characters that way.
Right, Terry Brooks has said something similar about his Shannara series. I remember asking him about a pronunciation at a book signing once and he flat out refused to tell me. Said it didn’t matter. I was saying it right in my head, no matter what.
Names, though, bring up an important aspect of Secondary World Fantasy: World Building. The Dagger and the Coin features a human race that is divided into thirteen distinct sub-species, including the Firstborn, the Tralgu and the Cinnae. How much time did you put into developing each of these races and the differences between their cultures?
I’ve got notes on them all. They’ve been through several changes along the way. The first time out, it was pretty scattershot, then as I wrote the drafts of the book, I got a better feel for them, changed the naming conventions so that it was clearer that some were more closely related than others, and there was a geographic element to them. And some I’ve spent more time with than others.
Racial tensions don’t play a huge part in The Dragon’s Path, but it seems like something the series might tackle in later volumes. One major theme, however, is that we are not always as we seem on the surface. Both Geder and Cithrin show great growth throughout the novel as they throw off the shackles placed on them by society. Why do you think that Fantasy is so effective a frame to tackle the themes such as racism, prejudice or humans’ penchant for predefining other people?
Well the racial tension is still there, though. It’s a pretty tolerant society, but it isn’t colorblind. As far as why fantasy is such a convenient place for issues of race and prejudice is that exoticism is safe there. You can say that the elves hate the goblins or that orcs are the servants of evil or that mankind is the pinnacle of the races. If you were to say the Chicanos hate the Blacks, the Anglos are the servants of evil, and the Chinese are the pinnacle of the races, things get ugly fast. We’re all living in a culture where that kind of difference matters – even if it’s only because so many act like it does. When I start pulling out the differences between the Jasuru and Southlings, it’s like picking up an unloaded gun. You get to look and see how a gun works, but you can’t actually shoot yourself or hurt somebody else.
What’s the story of how you discovered the races while planning The Dagger and the Coin? Why is it important to the series that there be so many different types of humans?
I’m going to answer that two ways. First off, I’m trying to write a series that does what epic fantasy does best. I want to play to the genre’s strengths. And that means I want that sense of fantasy. I want the reader to come into this magical goblin market full of grotesques and exotics. That’s part of what we come here for. But – and I’m moving on to the second answer here – I’m uncomfortable with separate creation. Having all the races come from a common stock gives them an equality in my mind that I would feel uncomfortable without.
Authors tend to draw cultural touchstones from our history and world, as you did in The Long Price Quartet and its obvious connection to Asiatic religions, cultures and idealisms.
Tolkien caught heat for giving the Easterlings, those nasty tribal guys with the Oliphants that show up in the final volume of The Lord of the Rings, dark skin and a culture resembling that of the Huns, or the Mongols. For obvious reasons, some feathers were ruffled by Tolkien’s casting these darker-skinned humans as evil worshippers of Sauron without humanizing them as he did the ‘good’ races of Middle-Earth.
In that sense, does a Fantasy author have to be careful that they don’t step on too many toes when crafting their world and its cultures?
Well, sure. Wherever the story is set, it’s going to be read here, by folks in this era and culture. If you have your made-up magical race have black skin and live in slavery, you’re going to be talking about the history of the American south whether you mean to or not. It doesn’t matter if the perfect thing for the story I’m writing is to have gigantic phoenixes throw themselves into the High Towers of Khathe. It’s going to read like a 9/11 comment. If it isn’t, it’s got to go.
This really plays into gender roles too. That’s amazingly hard.
Can you expand on that last comment? Both The Dragon’s Path and your work as M.L.N. Hanover see you writing from the perspective of female characters. How do you avoid the pitfall of simply writing male characters with vaginas?
I don’t have a magic formula for it, but I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the intellectual company of women my whole life. What I try to do when I’m writing from a female character’s perspective is see things and react to things the way I imagine she would. That’s kind of glib, I guess. I do the best I can, and sometimes it’s good enough.
You were recently smitten by Blake Charlton’s article on strong female characters. Why did it strike such a strong chord with you? What did Charlton get right?
He didn’t for a second equate strength of character with capacity for violence. In the post he wrote about two real women and how knowing them moved him and affected his work. These weren’t kick-ass black belt Buffy-esque tough guys. They were tremendously impressive people. It’s easy to forget that Conan the Barbarian isn’t a strong character, and Blake didn’t.
Let’s switch gears a bit, to the comic book adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, what can you tell us about the project?
We’re going to adapt A Game of Thrones into an almost 700-page comic book series which will eventually be collected in three or four graphic novels. I’m doing the scripts and Tommy Patterson’s doing the art. I’m working on issue 4 right now. We’re taking it straight from the book, not the upcoming HBO series.
Both George and yourself live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Do you guys get together at a local watering hole and talk about the project? Do you know all the secrets of how the series is going to end?
Actually, I’m about an hour south in Albuquerque, but yeah. We get together over lunch sometimes and talk about which scenes and details need to stay in and which ones we can change up. I don’t know all of how the books come down, but I do know enough that if I said it out loud, I’d be killed.
A Song of Ice and Fire is an incredibly complex and dense series with literally hundreds of speaking characters. Comic books seem like a very unwieldy and ill suited medium for such a story. How do you go about adapting it while still staying true to George’s original intent?
Bird by bird, man. Just take it bird by bird.
More seriously, we’re keeping as close as we can to the original text. And yes, that puts a lot of pressure on Tommy to keep the characters visually distinct, and my mandate is to keep enough of the original text that everything Tommy doesn’t cover visually is still there. But if you look at other really epic comic book projects – Sandman, for instance – I don’t think you could count how many different people were in all of those stories once you fold them together.
Can you describe the process of how you do such an adaptation? Do you send Tommy a document with all the dialogue/scenes/panels and he illustrates what you’ve provided?
That’s the first part, yes. But what I’m doing leaves him a lot of room to move. I offer some ideas about which panels should be larger, which should be bleeds, what the images are in each one, but if I tell him something like “Panel Three: Tyrion looking out from the Wall over the wild lands to the north. He is pensive” there’s a billion different ways to do that. I’m not a graphic artist, and so figuring out how to move the reader’s eyes from one place to another on the page is what he does. It’s like he’s playing tennis and I’m providing the net.
What a lot of people might not realize is that you’ve not only written a few novels under the name Daniel Abraham, but also under the name M.L.N. Hanover and (in a few weeks) James S.A. Corey. How the hell do you find the time to support three different pseudonyms and adapt comic books?
Adapting comic books, oddly, is a different part of my head than writing fresh stuff. I can’t explain that, except that when I’m tired doing one, I’m still good doing the other, so that’s pretty easy. The part with the three different ‘nyms? Honestly, if I could, I’d start a fourth. I have three stand-alone crime novels that I would absolutely love to get out in the world. And the MLN Hanover urban fantasies are turning out to be a really fun project. I’m just doing the final read-through of the fourth one, and I feel like it’s really hitting its stride.
So I guess that’s the secret. Everything I do is fun. And there are people working three jobs they hate to keep food on the table for their kids. As long as they can do that, I can’t bitch about getting to do the things I love.
One of my readers wanted me to ask you about your various pseudonyms. Establishing one name as an author is hard enough. Why go for three or four? And why be so open about the pseudonyms, instead of hiding behind them KJ Parker-style?
My take on pseudonyms isn’t, I understand, the usual. I think an author’s name is first and foremost a way to set the reader’s expectations as to what the book they’re picking up is going to be like. I remember Walter Mosely telling a story about telling a bookseller that one of his books was misshelved in mystery when the book was science fiction, and being told that, no, Walter Mosely wrote mystery. The way I look at it, you can fight against that and lose or you can lean into it. I’m working in different genres and subgenres, and I want people to know when they pick up a book what it’s going to be like. MLN Hanover writes urban fantasy. Daniel Abraham writes second-world high fantasy. James S. A. Corey write space opera. When I write my crime novels, they’ll have a different name. If I ever do romance, there’ll be another one. It makes it easy to know what kind of book you’re looking at. Moseley’s science fiction stuff had SF covers, SF cover copy, and SF blurbs, but it got put in mystery.
Also, it firewalls my career. Because of the way the industry works, the sales numbers of one pseudonym don’t reflect on the others. If Daniel Abraham tanks, MLN Hanover doesn’t lose orders from it. In that uneasy gap between when Tor dropped me and Orbit stood up, it was a real source of comfort that MLN Hanover’s sales numbers were good.
And I don’t make it a secret, because I don’t see any reason to. My various names aren’t deep dark secrets, they’re brands. I’ve always said that if the thing that makes a book good is the name on the cover, then it’s not a good book.
Do you work on one project at a time? Or do you juggle your time between the three?
I usually only work on one on a particular day, or in a particular work session, but I’ve got enough going that I can’t really finish one complete draft before I start at least noodling around on the next one.
The Dragon’s Path is more traditional and accessible than The Long Price Quartet. It’s placed in a familiar European-inspired setting, it’s cast with character archetypes that fans of traditional fantasy are used to. In part, you’ve mentioned that this shift is due to wanting to write an ‘adventure’ novel and pay homage to some of your early influences like David Eddings, there is also the perception (whether it’s true or not) that Fantasy, especially Secondary World Fantasy, that strays away from familiar ideas, frames and archetypes has trouble selling. Was there also a commercial motive for writing something more traditional?
You mean did I sell out? (insert grin here) I don’t think you can actually be commercial in the sense of writing what’s going to sell, because no one knows what’s going to sell. I would like Dagger & Coin to get a lot of readers and sales. Not because they’re more commercial, but because they’re more accessible.
This is the next part of my education. I went into the Long Price books with the agenda of writing enough novels to kind of get a handle on how to write a book. I’d done enough short stories, I felt like I sort of groked how they worked, but there are things you just don’t know without doing them and doing them and doing them. I figured once I’d written a bunch of books, I’d start understanding them in a way that I didn’t back then. And it worked out pretty well. So that’s done, right. What’s next?
I’m getting really interested in low prestige stories. Ranting here. Sorry. I understand why people would spend money on something they can proudly display that makes them seem educated or rich or sophisticated. I get the payoff. People think you’re smart. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was a bestseller, remember? And really, what percentage read it?
And then there’s this other beast. Guilty pleasures and things you want to buy just for your kindle so no one sees the cover when you read it on the subway. They’re the roots of my genre, and they’re what makes the commercial engine run. There is something at the base of genre – and it’s commercial and accessible and low-class and embarrassing – that brings people to what we do, and I think writers turn away from that at our peril. Look at the post that spun off from your Dragon’s Path review about whether fantasy readers are dumber than science fiction readers. That’s a conversation about prestige and pecking order and who is better than whom because of what they read. It’s the same conversation that Margaret Atwood had when she said she didn’t write science fiction. It’s the same one that keeps creative writing programs in college from accepting science fiction and fantasy from the students. People who read literary fantasy look down on people who read urban fantasy who look down on people who read Star Wars tie-ins.
It’s posturing, and it obscures what’s really interesting: what makes a good story and good? That’s not a question you can answer with an aphorism. Figuring that out is a life’s work, and what I’m finding – what I think I’m finding – is that when you stop judging books by what they say about the author’s cleverness or the reader’s education (which is a code word for social class) – when you start looking at pleasure as the critical guide – accessibility isn’t a sin.
But seriously, I could go on about this for about a week. I’ll stop while I’m still under a thousand words, right?
You touch on that idea with Geder, one of the three main characters from The Dragon’s Path, who gets a lot of flak from his ‘friends’ (fellow soldiers, really) about his obsession with ‘speculative essays’. Because of his interest in these essays, Geder’s is viewed in a similar way to those who read Fantasy and Science Fiction in the real world; is this simply a nod to your fans, saying ‘Hey, we might all be nerds, but look at what we can become if we pursue our dreams and motivations’ or is there more behind Geder’s obsession with the fantastic and the speculative?
This kind of goes back to what I was saying about low-prestige fiction. I had Geder like reading, and specifically like reading things that other people disdain, because I want you to like him, and if you’re picking up books like mine, you probably know where he’s coming from. So that’s one level. On another level, I gave him that because it was the way that he could find what everyone else was overlooking. He reads speculative essay when no one else – or at least no one else of quality and seriousness – does. And so he can find what’s valuable in it that no one else can.
Writing something commercial implies to me that you’re trying to hit all the buttons that will make someone buy your book. Accessibility has more to do with building a book, whatever it is, so that it takes as little effort to read as possible, and by possible I mean for that project. It’s a min/max thing. You want a book or story to be as clear as it can be. Sometimes that’s still pretty tough. If you took Hoban’s Riddley Walker and made it easier to read, you’d kill it. Or Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Karen Joy Fowler’s The Elizabeth Complex. There are good reasons to intentionally make something difficult, but there’s not a good reason for making it more difficult than necessary. Now accessibility and commercialism aren’t anything like mutually exclusive. They overlap a lot: one way that you can make a book more accessible is start off with something that looks familiar so that people are oriented. The characters and world in Dragon’s Path, for instance, are supposed to remind you of other characters you already know, so that by the time you meet them, you already have a little bit of a relationship with them. I want this to be a book you can fall into effortlessly. And I think – I don’t know this, but it’s the hypothesis I’m working with – I think that the things I learn from doing that here will apply to any other project I take them to. And I also think that doing a common thing uncommonly well is subtler and more difficult than doing an uncommon one.
With The Long Price Quartet, you became known for writing fairly slim Fantasy novels. As you mentioned earlier, you’re also fairly well known for your short fiction. How did writing short fiction affect you as a novelist?
It taught me a lot about how to write a decent sentence, and that’s a critically important skill. What it didn’t teach me was how to structure something big. I think you have to actually write a few books to really start to understand that stuff. I did, at least.
It may have been your first attempt at long fiction, but the Long Price Quartet met with much critical acclaim upon its release, but you seem to suggest that those books helped you learn how to properly structure a novel.
What did you learn from that series that makes The Dragon’s Path a better book and The Dagger and the Coin a better series?
Pacing. Pacing and the confidence to submerge my ego a little more. In the Long Price books, I was playing where I’m most comfortable. Sorrow and intellect. The original title of A Shadow in Summer was The Sad Trade, but we figured no one would want to buy a book with a title like that. The Dagger and the Coin, I have a better feeling for how fast a plot can tick along, and because I feel more confident, I can also go places where I feel less naturally at home. Humor, lightness. Like that. Plus I just have more practice. It helps.
Earlier, you mentioned Kindles and their ability to obscure what we’re reading in public. Do you think something as simple as this could serve to expand the market for Fantasy and Science Fiction?
I think it will expand the market for guilty pleasures, yes. And not just ours.
So you’re saying I should start writing Erotica?
I’m saying you should start writing what people are ashamed to love.
Have you or will you make the leap to eBooks?
Well, I’ve got almost everything I’ve written available in one ebook format or another, so in that sense I’m mostly already there. I’m not sure yet how the business model is going to work with purely electronic publishing, but once I’ve let all the adventurous souls figure out what works, I’ll certainly follow suit. I know Orbit is looking at some pretty nifty things with ebooks and cross-promoting in the digital realm.
What can you tell us about the sequel to The Dragon’s Path? Any potential release date information?
The King’s Blood. I’m turning it in June first, and I expect it’ll be out just about a year after Dragon’s Path hits shelf. It’s the story where all the things that happened in the first book start having consequences, and the real battle lines get drawn.
I always like to wrap up interviews by asking my guests to toss out a few names of authors and novels they feel are criminally under-read. So, shoot: who should I rush out to the bookstore to read?
If you haven’t read Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds, you should. And I don’t know if you enjoy YA at all, but I just read the 2010 Newberry winner, When You Reach Me, and it’s a lovely little book. Especially if you grew up with A Wrinkle in Time. And going back a way, I may have mentioned Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit before, but it’s still one of the best books – especially for someone who’s learning how to write novels.
Thanks for dropping by Daniel! Any parting words?
I think I gave you an Auden quote the last time we talked. Here’s another one I found and liked. “After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.”