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David Anthony Durham Interview (Part 2)

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

David Anthony Durham Interview (Part 2)

Justin: Some commentators out there, myself not included (obviously), say that War with the Mein didn't do it for them. It wasn't until the second book that the series caught them. I wonder if it's because the first novel is couched in traditional epic high fantasy, where the second and third go to some new places, literally and figuratively. Was starting in the expected and going to the unexpected part of the plan?

Durham: I don’t think that the first book was really couched in traditional epic high fantasy. I do think the first book appeared to be traditional in many aspects. I set up familiar elements in order to subvert them. The benevolent empire of the protagonists isn’t at all benevolent. The invading hordes from the hinterlands are fighting legitimate injustices that pretty much anyone in the empire could agree with. The obvious hero of the book suffers gravely for believing the myth of himself. An apparently shallow character is revealed, eventually, as the most cunning actor in the mix. The triumph of the ending has a lot of menace in it - enough to make it unclear if it really was a triumph. I cast a large cast of ethnically diverse characters - which seemed more unusual when I wrote it than it does now. And the two arguably strongest characters - both in martial matters and in political prowess - are women.

Seems pretty different than the Tolkien template to me.

I did feel that the first book’s pacing wasn’t as quick as it should’ve been. I was working a lot of stuff out about the world as I wrote. Not all of it needed to stay in the finished book. That’s why I made some cuts for the trade paperback edition. No changes in plot or anything. Just a lot of small trims. I think readers will find that the first part moves a bit faster, gets to the good stuff a little sooner.

Justin: I'm intrigued to see how the edits are received. To jump to a wholly different topic, where do you come down on the whole 'magic should be unknowable and mysterious' vs. 'magic should have rules and logic' debate? I would judge your magic in Acacia to be somewhere in the middle.

Durham: I’m not into completely “unknowable and mysterious”. It feels wishy-washy. I’m mostly down with “rules and logic” to it, but I’d say I stand by magic having “costs and consequences”. That’s how it is in Acacia. It’s power, but it’s hard to know how using it is going to come back at you.

Justin: For me, I always feel like magic should serve a purpose beyond the 'that's cool' factor. I think yours does that, but rather than talk about what purpose I think it serves, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

Durham: It’s fun that it’s cool, of course, but in Acacia magic is a bit like nuclear power. A historical game changer. Incredibly useful. So much potential to be used in productive ways, but… It creates a power discrepancy. It’s hard not to misuse. And it leaves a toxic residue that causes lots of problems. This being a fantasy, the residual effects of magic aren’t cancer and birth defects. Instead we get enormous crossbred baboon/gazelles, mountain-sized ravenous fish and dragons, to name a few.

Justin: Speaking of unintended consequences, I'm not sure if you've caught any of the kerfuffle over the Hunger Games and the ethnicity of the kids in the film. I remember back on the Acacia forums you used to run on your website, there was a casting thread where the vast majority of the actors suggested were white. Most of your characters aren't white. Do you just wave your hand at that and move on, or is this a problem we need to get at?

Durham: I mostly wave my hand and move on. It can seem a bit strange to me that some readers don’t picture my characters the way I describe them. It’s an old story, though. Ursula K LeGuin has been dealing with it for decades. Over and over again she describes her characters as “dark” and “brown” and “coppered”. Hollywood (or Japan) hasn’t yet seen fit to respect her descriptions in film, though.

It’s not a fantasy problem, though. We’ve been miscasting characters ethnicity in all sorts of films for a long time. We’ve decided that ancient Greeks or Romans weren’t actually Greek or Italian. They weren’t even olive-skinned. Instead, they’re English or Scottish or Irish - at least in terms of the actors Hollywood picks to play them. It’s ridiculous. I’d love to see an ancient war film where Greek characters are played by Greeks, or Italians play Romans.

Justin: Your historical fiction work tackles race head on. I think Acacia does too, although in a much more roundabout way. Do you agree with that?

Durham: I wanted a world as diverse as ours, familiarly so. On the other hand I wanted to chop up the world map and move things around. I definitely didn't want to replicate the particular racial history of our world. So there are nations that seem pretty African, but that doesn't mean they’re destined to be slaves. There are European-like people that are fiercely proud, but it wouldn't occur to them to feel racially superior. Culturally superior perhaps, but not with the pseudo-science/religious nonsense that justified racial suppression in our world. The races exist, but not necessarily the baggage our history attaches to them.

Justin: There's a lot more non-western fantasy being written now. N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Saladin Ahmed, are three that come to mind off the top of my head. What do you think's driving this?

Durham: It’s wonderful. They’ve added things to the genre that can’t be ignored anymore. I knew Nnedi early in her career, and Nora and Saladin before they were even published. They were hard-core fantasy fans, very active in the community, always at cons, etc. They knew they’re stuff, but as writers they were intent on not just replicating the European stories they’d grown up reading. They wanted to honor their own origins as well - and those of others.

I think they’re succeeding because they’re writing strong, commercially viable books. Publishers may not have seen non-European fantasy as a strong market before, but clearly that’s changed.

I’d like to think I helped with that a little bit. The Acacia Trilogy was published by Doubleday, a mainstream publisher. I’d done three books with them before proposing The War With The Mein. We were on good enough terms that they were willing to shrug and say, “Sure, give it a try.” I’m not sure how readily genre publishers would’ve done that if I’d approached them.

Justin: Now that Acacia is done, I believe you're working on a Spartacus era historical fiction novel. Any plans to come back to fantasy in the future?

Durham: Absolutely. I’ve already written another fantasy novel, though it’s for a different audience. My first middle grade fantasy is called The Shadow Prince. It’s a kids book set in ancient Egypt. It’s full-on fantasy, with lots of demon fighting and shape-shifting gods and kids saving the world from eternal darkness - that sort of stuff. It was great fun to write, and if we get a publisher for it I hope to write a whole series of them!

In terms of grown-up stuff, I’m continuing to write for George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards books. I’d love to return to the world of Acacia as well. There’s a lot more to explore. I’m interested in what the next generation of Acacians make of the world they inherited at the end of The Sacred Band. I’d love to spin the globe a bit more also - to get a look at what’s on the other side.

Justin: Thanks again for doing this and thanks for writing such a great series. Good luck with your next project.

Durham: Thank you.


David Anthony Durham is the author of six novels, all published by Doubleday and/or Anchor Books. 

His first novel, Gabriel's Story, is a historical novel set in the American West, featuring black homesteaders and cowboys. He followed it with Walk Through Darkness, telling the tale of a runaway slave and the Scottish immigrant hired to track him. Continuing with historical fiction, he published his third novel, Pride of Carthage, a fictional exploration of the Second Punic War between Carthage and the early Roman Republic.

More recently, he's published a fantasy trilogy including: Acacia: The War With The MeinThe Other Lands, and The Sacred Band. Three of his novels, including The War With the Mein have been optioned for development as feature films. 

Durham currently teaches Popular Fiction at the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program.

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