Last weekend at the World Fantasy Convention here in Toronto, I had the opportunity to interview several authors, a couple of those interviews have already been posted over the past few days. Today, I will be sharing my interview with David Anthony Durham, author of several historical fiction novels such as Gabriel’s Story, and author of the epic fantasy series Acacia.
D = David Anthony Durham, and R = Rebecca (myself).
R: What would you say is the main inspiration for your writing?
D: This is going to be kind of vague… Just life in general. I sometimes get surprised by stories, often though, they slowly creep up on me, and are some aspect of things I have observed or am experiencing. Sometimes it’s something that sticks and doesn’t want to go and needs to find a story for me to work through that.
Other times it can be pretty random, an inspirational moment. My son once borrowed a book about Egyptian gods from our next door neighbour and it was on the coffee table. I had just mowed the grass. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was flipping through the book and I just loved it. For the first time these weird, exotic, strange gods jumped off the page and seemed very alive to me. Hours later I was there with a notepad scratching out notes, with a series concept which I’ve been working on since. Of course I’d known about ancient Egypt, and had been interested in it for a very long time… But something happened that day. I just so happened to flip through that book that afternoon and it just clicked. I’m glad it did cause I’m enjoying writing this series very much. Hopefully, it’ll be in print before too long.
R: Is there anything more you can tell us about that book? Any title or release date?
D: Not yet, we’ve had some negotiations with publishers, including an actual offer. It’s sort of been locked up for a while with one publisher, but we didn’t come up with terms that were agreeable to both of us. We’re going out with a wider range of submissions now. Hopefully, in the next couple of months it’ll land someplace else. I can say that the first book is entirely written, and the second book – I see the series as being 6 books – is drafted as well. So when someone does pick it up, things will roll quickly from there.
R: Awesome, and do you have a name for this series?
D: I do! It’s called The Shadow Prince and it is going to be for the middle-grade audience, set in ancient Egypt. Quite fun, I think. Strange gods, demon fighting, magic based on writing spells in hieroglyphs, and a bit of humour woven through it all. I like to think of it as Jonathan Stroud territory. Very different than anything I’ve published, but I really enjoyed writing it. My kids are my primary readers for it. They’re 11 and 13, and it’s been great to finally be writing something that’s completely for them.
R: That kind of leads into my next question.. You’re written historical fiction, like Gabriel’s Story, and Walk Through Darkness, and you’ve also written epic fantasy like Acacia, what were the challenges you faced switching in between the genres like that?
D: There were a lot of them, but I seem to have a hard time sticking to any one thing. Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness were two 19th century African-American historical novels and in a way they were more literary. They were well-received, and I could have stayed in that territory. But it seems to me that each book you write – and get fortunate enough to publish and are going to ask people to read – needs to be something you’re fully invested in and care about.
So when it came time to negotiate a new contract for my third book, I did have some ideas that were similar to the first two, but I thought about what I really wanted to do, and that was to write a novel about Ancient Rome and the war with Hannibal. There was no particular reason for me to think that I could do that well. With the large cast of characters and all the research it was a very different book, but my publisher was behind it, and so we went there.
After that was done, I could’ve done another historical novel like that, but what I really wanted then was take a lot of the largeness of the story like Hannibal’s War with Rome but put it into a fantastical setting. I had been a fantasy reader as a kid. That’s where I learned to love reading. In a way, the idea I had was to write a historical novel for a place that doesn’t exist, and that had a little bit of magic. That helped me quite a bit because some of the things I had learned to do in a historical novel for world building was equally applicable to a fantasy setting. Also, the Acacia books we begin fairly low in magic, and they get more magical as they proceed… In a lot of ways, that paralleled changes in me as well. I knew the books were going to get more fantastical as they went, but it was a way of me working my way into the genre and becoming more at home in it, more comfortable with writing fantastical.
And it also made for a whole new puzzle for my publisher. They did a great job of bringing in a consultant who could help them place the book because they don’t normally do fantasy. It meant meeting an entirely new group of writers and coming to conferences, and meeting the fans in the community of science fiction and fantasy. That was actually all new to me. A lot of fantasy writers came up through that. My first convention was World Fantasy Con in 2007. Acacia: The War With The Mein was already out at that point. Fortunately, getting to know the sff community has been great. I love that I can go into a bookstore and look at the titles and be like, “I know that person. And that person. Oh, isn’t that a great cover for so and so’s book!”
R: And “I wrote that one!”
D: At which point, I turn the book to face out. Every bit helps.
R: Do you ever sneakily sign any while you’re there?
D: Yeah. Normally, I would get them and take them up to the desk and say, “Hi, this is me..” But sometimes I just kind of scribble on them. It does feel a bit stalkerish, like I’m doing something mildly criminal.
R: Going back to the historical fiction and fantasy. Which do you enjoy writing more? Do you think you’ll return to fantasy?
D: It’s a work in progress. The next book I’m contracted for – Doubleday has already bought – is a historical novel about Spartacus. It’s a return to the ancient world and warfare, and I am thoroughly behind doing that novel, but it’s been difficult re-entering purely mainstream storytelling. For a while there, I couldn’t help but want to change it to a werewolf vs. vampire thing… I actually spoke to my publisher about that and they said they were interested, but worried that it could either be really good or really bad. I agreed. So I’m keeping it straight historical.
But it does seem like having opened up the fantastic in my approach to storytelling, it’s not easy to put that back into the bottle and then just be Earth-grounded again. I think where I’m getting traction with the book now is finding the fantastic within the ancient world setting. And it’s there, because they have strange names, worship different gods and believe different things, and in a way it is a world that doesn’t exist now. So it is quite fantastical, in a realistic way – if that makes any sense…
If you were to ask what was the funnest to write so far…
D: Funnest… Is that a word?
R: Nope. Definitely keeping that though.
D: And I’ll say it again. What’s funnest to write has been the ancient Egyptian stuff, because a lot of my writing has been kind of serious, intended for adults. Finally writing stuff for kids – and particularly writing fantasy for kids – has been really engaging.
R: Do you think you’ll ever return to writing epic fantasy?
D: Yes, I would like to. I don’t have a plan exactly for what that is, but there is some talk of revisiting the Acacian world – not in a trilogy or big one again, but in stand alone books. That attracts me. I spent a lot of time creating that world and I’ve only just looked at half or it. I’d like to see more of that world.
R: It is pretty interesting, because the map does even say “Map of the Known World”, and there is a lot you can add to that. So, I’m sure it’s safe to say that myself, and other readers would love to see more of it.
D: Well, thank you. I hope they would! The maps of the three books kind of reflect that. The first one is just the Known World, and then the second one expands and has the edge of the Other Lands across the ocean. The third one expands a bit more and goes a further as the story moves more inland of the Other Lands. At the edge of that map is a mountain range. I’d love to see what’s on the other side of those mountains. I do not know. But it’s something really cool.
R: I think that could be interesting to read.
D: Thank you.
R: Alright… Hm… If you could spend a day with any one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
D: I would hang out with Mena and Elya, and go for a flight. I’d love that. Elya is kind of a dragon-y thing, but she’s feathered and smells citrus-y and is a little bird-like and is very lovely. The notion of flying into the air above the Acacian ocean is pretty exiting. Of course, this is just a pleasure fight. I’ll leave the aerial battles with other winged creatures to Mena. Going across the Grey Slopes seems pretty exciting too, but I guess you can’t just do that on one day…
R: No, probably not. Maybe if you had a weekend or something. Okay, and not to do so much with your books, but you teach creative writing. Are there any points of advice you could give to people who are trying to get into writing?
D: Nothing that doesn’t always get said, the common wisdom of “Read a lot” and “Write a bunch” and know that you can make time to be productive even though it can be a challenge. For me, on a daily basis the hardest part of the day is beginning to write. It’s looking at the blank page and putting something on it. But it seems to be the case that if I can finish the hardest part of it and push through it, then it’s easier once there’s material to work with.
Also, one thing in terms of productivity, Steven Pressfield – a historical fiction writer – has said something about “resistance” that I find quite apt. It’s his way of talking about all the different ways people manage to not do the things they want to do the most. It’s like this nebulous force that takes on all sorts of shapes. You want to be a writer but maybe you drink to much. You don’t get enough writing done at night, and then you’re hung over in the morning… Or you want to write but you have a bad relationship and that throws you off. There can be so many different things that can emerge each and every day, every time you want to achieve what you most want to creatively, that you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. I love the concept that these aren’t all necessarily different things. They’re just different ways of falling prey to resistance.
When I was writing Pride of Carthage, there would be these times that I’d realize I was outside weeding the path in the middle of the afternoon. I’d kind of look up and go, “What the hell? I don’t need to weed this path. I’m supposed to be writing!” Almost without noticing it, I’d managed to go up and outside, and kill an hour. And I found it was really quite helpful to be able to name the thing that wasted that time “resistance”. With a title, I can spot it, and smack it about and then get back to work.
I encourage people to read broadly. That’s something I have always thought, but now I think it even more, with the broadness being across genre as well. Having begun as a literary writer, and then moving into genre, I realize I have learned a great deal from reading commercial fiction, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, and crime. I like to think that mix of reading has made me a better writer at whatever I attempt to do. I would encourage others to read things that aren’t necessarily what they aspire to write yourself. Get outside your box and get exposed to new ideas.
R: Okay, and are there any books that you think everyone should read? Like, ones that you’ve finished and just though “Wow, people have to read this.”
D: I could name a lot of good books, but that doesn’t seem like the right answer… There are books that I think speak to each person at the right moment in their development. I don’t know that there need be one book that can do that for everyone. When I think of some of the books that really hit me, it was really just the right moment for me to be exposed to that, and the books themselves almost seem random. The important thing was that I was reading, and that my growth as a person is bookmarked by great books along the way.
R: Sounds good.. and time for a silly one I think, it’s one that I’ve asked a few people, but if you could be any flavour of ice cream, what would it be?
D: I’m going to answer that with the first thing that came to my mind: Pistachio. But definitely one that is green. If it’s not green.. It’s not me.
R: Alright, and that’s all I have.. So thank you very much.
D: Rebecca, thank you.
It was great meeting David, he was a blast to spend time with and get to know. His books are definitely worth reading, and I’ve (apparently) not posted any reviews of his books, which will have to change — I do recall writing one for the first in the Acacia series, so I’ll be hunting through my binders in search of that. So I’ll hopefully have that review up sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Thank you, David!
Visit David’s website here