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David Anthony Durham Interview (Part 1)

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

David Anthony Durham Interview (Part 1)

I first read David Anthony Durham back in 2007 when I came across his novel Pride of Carthage. After finishing it, I felt compelled to peruse his other work and I came across Acacia: The War With the Mein. I was quickly ensnared and I've anxiously awaited every novel he's published since. I read the series conclusion, The Sacred Band, earlier this year and immediately reached out to Durham to see if he'd be interested in coming on to the blog to talk with me. He kindly agreed. Once the interview was done, I realized how much material I had. I decided to make a week of it. Yesterday, I posted my review of the entire series. Today is part one of my interview.


Justin: Thanks for doing this. I've been a big fan of the series since 2007 when Acacia: The War With the Mein was first released. I credit it as the novel that first got me back into fantasy.

Durham: Thank you for saying the book had that effect on you. That’s huge. I’m very pleased if I played a part in your reconnection with fantasy. 

Justin: I'm a giver. You're a guy whose written extensively outside of the genre. What does fantasy do for you as a writer (and reader) that historical fiction or mainstream fiction doesn't do?

Durham: In a lot of ways historical fiction and fantasy do the same things - which is why I like both genres. I love being transported to different times and places, filled with problems and possibilities unique to those settings. It’s seeing people struggle with the things thrown at them - things I don’t quite have to deal with in the same way in current life - that interest me so much.

Historical fiction seems fantastical to me in that it describes a world that no longer exists. Historical settings can seem every bit as foreign as an entirely made up world. The things characters face in the past can be weird and wonderful and terrifying.

That said, there’s nothing like taking the fantastic to a higher level. I’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction dealing with early Arctic exploration, for example. Interesting stuff. But none of them will remain as vividly in my mind as Dan Simmons’ The Terror. All the historical stuff was pretty grim, but introducing a ravenous, mythical polar bear monster into the mix certainly injected something unforgettable into it.

If George R.R. Martin had chosen to write historical fiction set in Europe he’d have done a terrific job of it, but there’s something very cool about going to a land with it’s own geography and history, names and traditions, where real-world realities smack up against dragons and the undead and giants. Works for me.

Justin: What's your background as a fantasy reader? Were you a Tolkein/Donaldson/Brooks reader in your youth?

I was a Tolkein/Lewis/Alexander/Le Guin/Donaldson reader.

Justin: Donaldson seems particularly significant to the genre for me. He wrote a protagonist that readers almost had to loathe -- a rapist. It feels like we took a long break from that kind of character in favor of the farm boy hero, but we're seeing more of it now. In Acacia, Rialus, Heinish, and Corinn, all fit that flawed character model. What makes those kinds of characters interesting?

Durham: For me, it’s that they’re real and complex. People are more than one set of traits, and I enjoy watching them struggle with themselves as they make their way in the world.

Corinn, for example, does some pretty diabolical things throughout the series. She doesn’t do them because she’s evil, though. She wouldn’t see herself that way. The things she does come out of her insecurities, her desire to control as much about her fate as she can. She was betrayed and abandoned enough times that she came to only trust herself. That’s the core of her character. The way that manifests is through the things she does - all the way up until the end.

Justin: Lewis and Alexander are great calls. The Chronicles of Prydain were extremely formative for me, too. So, why come "back" to fantasy after three more mainstream novels?

Durham: Fantasy is the genre that taught me to love reading. I've never forgotten that, and I wanted to acknowledge it by writing in the genre myself. It partially felt like a way of paying respect to where I came from. It’s not entirely conscious decision making, though. I got the idea for the series because it crept up on me and started whispering in my ear. I wanted another big story after Pride of Carthage, but the story that was whispering to me just didn’t really fit on the map of this world. I needed a new map, and a new world.

Justin: As someone who teaches creative writing at the college level, do you earn more street cred for Gabriel's Story and A Walk Through Darkness or Acacia?

Durham: In traditional programs, my credentials are all about my first three books. If I wanted a prestigious job at one of the top MFA programs, I should’ve stopped writing after Pride of Carthage. I’ve sold many more books in many more countries since then, but I certainly got invited to speak at colleges more when I only had a couple of literary/historical novels out than I do now.

I’m not complaining, though. I teach at a low-residency MFA program that has a popular fiction track - the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program. There genre writing is booming. Lot of great students are coming through, writing fantasy and sf and crime and horror and thrillers and romances. Many of them are getting published and building writing careers. There’s so much energy and enthusiasm in the program that I don’t need to look elsewhere anymore.

Justin: Sounds like you're in a good spot that frees you to write what you want. But generally speaking is there any pressure in the academic world to publish "serious" fiction?

Durham: Yep. I can’t get too worried about that, though. Partly that’s because I do write serious fiction. It just happens to feature the fantastical elements that fantasy, sci-fi or historical material offers. Most of it’s not light, though. And partly it’s because a lot of the fiction that “serious” writers produce I find ridiculous. I’ve spent enough time in academia to be critical of it.

Justin: I don't think anyone can read War With the Mein without making some connections to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, particularly with regard to the children and their stories. Mena and Arya. Aliver and Rob. Dariel and Jon. Corrin and Sansa. Bran and Rickon got lost somewhere along the way (I think Martin may have lost them too!). Interestingly, this four character paradigm maybe goes all the way back to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I seem to recall that you hadn't read Martin before writing War With the Mein. What do you think is so attractive to writers about this setup?

Durham: Yeah, I hadn’t read Martin before writing Acacia: The War With The Mein. If I had, I’d have had to make some changes. There are quite a few similarities early on in the first book. If I had read Martin my book would be less like his, definitely not more.

The C. S. Lewis similarities are strange too. What I thought I was creating with the Akaran kids was a family based on my wife’s family. She has three siblings, same ages as the Akarans, each with some trait that inspired them. Oldest brother that had responsibility thrust upon him early - and that he often had to deal with on his own. Eldest sister that had a cosmopolitan streak, an eye toward fashion and a high bar for her potential partner (she got a prince in the end). Mena came as a spin on my wife: a bit tomboyish when she was young, quite a temper… Fortunately, my wife’s got no skills with a sword. And Dariel… well, my brother in law isn’t exactly a pirate, but he made a pretty dashing big water raft guide. There was something in all of them that inspired the book. That’s why one book is dedicated to my in laws, and another is dedicated to my wife and her siblings.

What I had no idea I was doing until later was recreating a four sibling template similar to Lewis’ kids. Maybe that’s subconscious. Maybe I inadvertently found their traits in my wife’s family. Or maybe there’s something fundamental about siblings that Lewis picked up on, and that we’ve been repeating every since.

Justin: You threw the kids into chaos early on in the novel. Some end up with father figures, some don't. Is that a relationship you wanted to explore or did things just fall out that way?

Parental responsibility - specifically fatherly responsibility - is a pretty big theme in the books. It’s a big theme in all my books. I must have issues.

What responsibilities does a father have in educating his kids about the world? What horrors should first be revealed by parents? What things should we try to shield our kids from? How much of fatherhood is a product of genes, and how much of it is determined simply by the quality of the relationships people have with each other - regardless of blood connections? I’ve chewed on a lot of that in my own life. I guess I’ve done the same in my fiction too.

Justin: Are you aware your initials are DAD?

Durham: I’ve heard that mentioned before. ;) My kids, I’m happy to say, call me by that name.

Justin: Who's your favorite character? It's a terribly generic question, but I ask it because mine is Rialus Neptos. He's the most fascinating character in the novel to me by far, so I wonder if you've got a special place for him.

Durham: It’s great to hear you say that. I have a special fondness for poor Rialus. I don’t really know where he came from. He may have begun as purely a comical character, but that didn’t last long. He embodies fears and ambitions and characteristics that are pretty fundamental human flaws. I know I’ve got a little Rialus in me. Can’t deny it. Who doesn’t feel hard done by on occasion? Who doesn’t think their owed more than the world has seen fit to offer? Rialus feels that way pretty much all the time, but I can relate.

The funny thing about him was that even early on - when he was just fumbling his way through the chaos - I had a feeling he was going to be important to the whole series. He was going to have a role right up until the end. And he did.

I don’t really have one favorite, though. I love Mena in all her versions - insightful kid, priestess of the avian cult of Maeben, warrior princess, dragon rider. I had a lot of fun writing her fight sequences. I liked stabbing Dariel again and again. I’m really glad that Elya came to me. I dig Barad’s stone eyes. I had a good time writing the various slimy Sires…

Naw, I can’t pick just one.

Justin: After comparing Mena to your wife I'm pretty surprised you can get away with not saying she's your favorite. Mine would be staring over my shoulder as a I typed my answer to a question like that. I notice an optimism throughout the series. Without giving anything away, although I'm tempted, why did you decide to tell a story that was more in line with the timeless heroic fantasy, than the nihilistic or raw bleeding edge stories that have become so popular? (For context: Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, George R.R. Martin)

Durham: I love those guys, so whatever ways I’m different aren’t a criticism of them. In some ways I feel a slice of their DNA in my writing. I’m glad you find optimism in the series, though. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with the Acacian world - as there’s a lot wrong with ours - but ultimately I can only get invested in characters that aspire to make things better. That can mean a lot of things. Sometimes making it better for one group makes it worse for others. Often the best of intentions are twisted before they even take flight. But still, they’re trying. And every now and then they achieve something.

Click here for part two of my interview with David Anthony Durham, author of The Acacia Trilogy.


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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At June 12, 2012 at 9:43 AM , Blogger Paul Weimer said...

Thanks, Justin.

Acacia is on that mighty Mount Toberead. I'd seen the book in a Borders (sob) a few years ago, and got curious, since I'd never heard of Durham.

I do have Pride of Carthage on Mount Toberead too...naturally :)

At June 12, 2012 at 9:52 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Great interview, guys - thanks for a trip down memory lane. It always fascinates me to see what books inspired an author, and what authors continue to amaze them.

I need to get off my butt and get back into the Acacia series - I actually started it last summer, but was forced to postpone the read after the first book fell into the river and was never seen again. :)

At June 12, 2012 at 9:53 AM , Blogger Justin said...

Congrats on being my 1,000 comment Bob ;)


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