I’d heard a lot of good things about Acacia and its author, so when it came time to select a fantasy book for this month’s BOTMC, I decided to go with David Anthony Durham’s first foray into the genre. Well, I’m pleased to report that not only was Acacia as good as “they” said, but its author was as genial and good-humored as I’d been led to believe. So, if you see David at an upcoming con, be sure to say hi and tell him how much you enjoyed his book. Or, better yet, head on over to his blog and drop him a note at www.davidanthonydurham.com/blog/.
Over to David…
First off, let me say how pleased I am that Joe chose to feature Acacia. It’s an honor, and I appreciate it, and I’ll do my best to write good books in the future so that he doesn’t regret having drawn attention to me. Okay, questions…
Terry writes:Have you been surprised by the community that reads and/or creates Science Fiction/Fantasy?
Not surprised, but generally pleased. In terms of fellow writers… I just got back from the World Fantasy Convention. One night there I’m hanging out in the bar with GRRM, Steven Erikson, Dave Keck, Daniel Abraham. Tad Williams breezes by (although I didn’t talk to him). The artist Todd Lockwood stops in to chat. Garth Nix is happy to report that he read and enjoyed Acacia… And the next night is the same, but with other names thrown in the mix.
I don’t mention these folks just to name drop (a little bit, though). I mention them because there’s no way that in the circles of “literary” fiction I would find myself so quickly welcomed and on a first name basis with comparably famous and respected authors. There are a lot more barriers in literary circles, a lot more emphasis on stature as a segregating force. So, I’ve found that most sci-fi and fantasy authors (not all – but I won’t name names negatively) are welcoming, unpretentious and great fun to drink with.
As for the fan community… I love it that there is a fan community! It’s a great boost each time somebody drops me a complimentary email. I respond to every one. As I do to blog or forum posts. I feel privileged to have readers, and I’ve found science fiction and fantasy readers to be every bit as intelligent as I could hope for. It is a new experience (four books into being an author) to have readers from around the world telling me they’re waiting for my next book – get to work. I love that, and I’m going to do the best I can to make it a lasting relationship.
Do you feel that in order to write in a genre such as fantasy that an author should familiarize himself with other works in the field?
Sure, but I’d like to think that’s a natural part of the process. It would seem pretty weird to me to choose to invest so much time and energy (not to mention taking on considerable risk) in writing a fantasy if I wasn’t interested in reading fantasy too. Granted, I can think of a few prominent literary writers that may have done just that, assuming that their take on… oh, say a post-apocalyptic world is so inherently superior that they need not read other works on the subject… But that’s not cool.
Having said that, I can’t pretend that all fantasy interests me, or even that all epic fantasy interests me. I like to feel challenged by each novel I read. Or at least like they’re teaching me something. For me, that goes hand in hand with being entertained. So I begin a lot more fantasy novels than I finish. Actually, I’d say I read more sci-fi than fantasy these days. The last books I’ve read: In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling, Idlewild by Nick Sagan, Think Like a Dinosaur by James Patrick Kelly. Some of the books on deck: The Dreaming Void by Peter F Hamilton and Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
I understand you are part of an MFA program in Maine. Do you enjoy teaching? Do you see a divide there between ‘literary’ and ‘pop fiction’ authors?
I’m actually up to my ears in teaching right now. I’m on the full-time MFA faculty at Cal State Fresno and, yes, I also teach part-time for the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. At Cal State, the program doesn’t do “genre” at all, but Stonecoast does have a “Popular Fiction” track.
The divide… Well, let me start with the similarities. I’m happy to say that I think the pop-fic student writing is just as strong as the literary folks. I say that with an awareness that crime, fantasy, sci-fi authors may have specific attributes to their work that appeals to their specific readers – as opposed to being there to make the NY Times critics happy. So, the writing may be different, but I’m measuring success in terms of how the two groups craft work for their target audiences.
One of the differences is that the pop-fic students generally have a much clearer understanding of what their objectives are. They know what they’re writing, who they’re writing it for, and they’re working with publication explicitly in mind. The literary students don’t necessarily have those practical things in clear focus.
The divide… Yes, I do see a divide. It comes from both sides. Many of the literary students can’t help but look down on the pop-fic students. They may be vague as to why, but they seem to generally assume that the popular work is of lesser value. On the other hand, the pop-fic students feel they have (ironically in some ways) a better grip on reality. They’re also very aware of the slights coming from the other side, and they’re not above getting snarky about it.
That said, at least programs like Stonecoast let genre writers in the room. Most traditional programs still don’t.
Of the cons that you have attended, which ones have you enjoyed the most?
I have been on an active con schedule the last 18 months or so. My favorite (which I’ve been to twice now) is World Fantasy. There are just so many writers there that I’m constantly getting whiplash as I spot them. And they’re (mostly) completely approachable. The fans are great to, and the emphasis remains on the books and artwork and on lively panel discussions and readings… and on hanging out in the bar. Perfect.
I really enjoyed Readercon in Burlington, MA. Much smaller, but really high quality and well run, with a tiring schedule of good panels. WisCon was good too. And ComicCon was great, but so massive I was always aware of missing much, much more than I ever got to see. I’m going to LosCon at the end of this month. High hopes for that one, but we’ll see. I missed WorldCon, so I can’t comment on that. Maybe next year…
Are there other genres that you may write in? Or is it more that your more interested in telling a story and really don’t pay attention to genre? What other stories do you have on the burner?
I am in a bit of a strange position in that my publisher has been willing to come with me as I move through genres. I began with Doubleday as a writer of historical, literary fiction (Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness). Shifting to ancient war with Pride of Carthage was a big step, and then writing a fantasy series was not what they would have expected when we began. But they seem willing to approach it the same way I am. I don’t think of myself as a genre writer particularly. I just get hooked by certain ideas and go where the inspiration leads me.
There are at least two more Acacia novels. I’ve just finished the second, The Other Lands. After that I’m not sure what happens. I do have some plans to return to large-scale historical fiction, and I could certainly see continuing in the Known World – especially if readers want me to. On a more distant burner I’d like to eventually write a YA series, something in the vein of Garth Nix, Kai Meyer and Phillip Pullman (not that they’re particularly similar writers).
KellyK writes:All of the characters in your novel were well developed and unique. Did you have a favorite? Is there some of you in any character in particular?
Oh, there’s some of me in all my characters. Or, at very least, there are things that I recognize in all of them. That’s just as true of Maeander or Rialus as it is of Aliver or Corinn. None of them do things that I can’t understand at some level. If I couldn’t relate to who they are and what they do I wouldn’t write them as I do.
As for a favorite… Mena. I love it that she’s smart and sensitive, but that she also kicks ass with particular skill. And Dariel is an emotional favorite in some ways. There’s something about a child huddling in a cold, dark barn all alone that I feel at some gut level… Glad his father figure found him. I can’t entirely say that mine did.
The Numrek were a shocking race. They were almost alien-like. What inspired you in creating them?
I don’t have a clue.
When you write, do you work off a plan or do you “make it up as you go along”. If you make it up, were you as shocked as we were by what happened to Aliver?
Oh, yeah… sorry about that. I don’t exactly work off a plan or make it up as I go along. Usually, I know some major plot points at the start, and I tend to know exactly where the book ends. The process of writing the book is discovering all the stuff that connects those plot points and that ultimately leads to that ending.
I think my awareness that Aliver was doomed grew on me slowly. I eventually knew it was on the cards, so I wasn’t shocked when it happened. Saddened, sure, but I knew it was coming.
It’s probably because of my historical background that I came to see his fate as tragic. So often the historical figures that have a lasting effect on the world die in the process, with their work unfinished. (Think of all the assassinations of the sixties – in both the last two centuries.) At some level my reality meter couldn’t shake the fact that our best and brightest have often died on our behalf. That’s what Aliver does.
What made you decide to try your hand at fantasy after achieving so much success writing historical novels?
Acacia just didn’t seem all that different. Pride of Carthage, for example, was about a powerful family caught up in a world in chaos, a struggle in which so much hangs in the balance, in which individual character flaws and strengths changed the lives of millions and shape world history. I loved wrestling that material into a book, and I wanted to do it again.
Three things came together to make me choose Acacia. One is that my wife’s family (four siblings) inserted themselves into my brain as the template for a fictional family. I lived with the idea of the Akaran children raised on the Isle of Acacia for several years. It was a strange alternative version of my wife’s family – they grew up in the Shetland Isles and in the Inner Hebrides.
Two, as I was raising my children I was reminded how very important fantasy had been to me as a young reader. I became a reader because of fantasy. It was fantasy that I was reading in 8th grade when I wrote in a journal that I was going to be a writer. It was a huge influence on me, and I realized I’d forgotten about that for too many years.
Three, my mother died. With that came a full-facial awareness of my own mortality. Not to sound too heavy, but when I was thinking about my fourth book I really did think that I wouldn’t want to die without having written a fantasy novel. I wouldn’t want that to not be part of my body of work. So… I wrote it. Glad to say I’m still here to write more as well!
Do you read fantasy and, if you do, do you have any favorite authors?
Sure I do. Sometimes the line between fantasy and sci-fi blurs for me (and I read a lot of sci-fi), but a hodgepodge of fantasy favorites includes: Neil Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, Kelly Link, George RR Martin, Kai Meyer, Garth Nix, Phillip Pullman, Dan Simmons (if The Terror can be considered fantasy, not sure)… I mention these folks because they’ve each meant something very special to me. There are plenty of other fantasy authors that I like (and am friends with), but these each did something important for me. By the way, the list would be much longer if I included sci-fi authors.
Tim2T writes:According to Acacian tradition, would Dariel be the next in line to succeed Aliver? If that’s the case, will Corinn’s position of power cause problems?
I see the Acacians as having a preference for male heirs, but not as an absolute rule. If Dariel wanted to be king he could make a case for it and Corinn might have to back down. But at the close of the book Corinn is much more likely to want to grasped the reigns. Dariel is just dealing with having survived the conflict with two great losses on his mind (Aliver and Val). Also, the Acacian aristocracy is fragmented and weak, so they can’t assert much influence. When Corinn has children, of course, the preference will again go to a male child ascending.
Was it your intention to keep Hanish’s death open for interpretation? Should we assume he’s dead?
I don’t think I should answer that.
How did Mena master her sword skills so quickly? Was she just a very quick learner?
Ah, yes… I can understand a bit of skepticism about that. My answer isn’t entirely logical, but I think Mena always had her skills within her. It was there in her DNA, and, as Melio said, he wasn’t so much teaching her as reminding her of things she already knew. There’s some sort of higher force – or familial inheritance – at work in her. When I think of her washing up on Vumu, wading in from the reefs with nothing to her name except the sword that’s wrapped itself around her arm… well, it’s sort of like the sword knows it should belong to her, even if she has no idea about that yet.
I was unclear on who manufactured the mist. Was it the Lothan? In that case, Sir Dagon and his seafarers were just middlemen?
Yeah, it takes a while to get at those details. I think they’re in the book, but admittedly the League doesn’t make it clear. Still, I can say that yes, the League are middlemen. Even more they’re trading with other middlemen, the Lothan Aklun, who get their product from the Auldek. This stuff was kept at a distance in The War With The Mein, but it becomes the central dilemma of The Other Lands. So, more to come on that.
Did you find it tough to come up with villains as good as Hanish and Maeander for your second book?
That’s kind of a scary question. Truth is, the second book doesn’t really have villains like Hanish and Maeander. It’s more like the drama is in the breakdown of the existing order and the rising of a variety of new threats. It introduces new villains, but they only start to cause the havoc that will be the big struggles of the third book.
Read1 writes:How did writing Acacia differ from the historical novels you have written? Did you find lack of pre-established frame to be challenging or liberating?
I still began it with a lot of research. It wasn’t specific research, like before, but a more general notion that I needed to know how world history worked and how cultures developed and what sort of things brought them into conflict. For a long time I was researching just as much as before, even though the information was more like forming a foundation instead of providing specifics.
I got beyond that eventually, and the world became mine. At that point, the lack of a “frame” was challenging in liberating ways (if I can put your two options together). I did want to write about a slave trade, but without having to write about our Trans-Atlantic history. I did want to write about mass drug use, but without having to get all the specifics of China’s opium history right. And I did want to write about a world as ethnically diverse as ours, but I didn’t want to be trapped in our geographic realities. The Known World allowed me a setting to present real world issues while also having the freedom to chop and change, push continents around, mix races and cultures.
What has been the response to Acacia among critics who know you first and foremost as a historical novelist?
Um… Well, I’d say the vast majority of critical responses came from reviewers that were reading me for the first time. They all knew my history, yes, but I think for most Acacia was the first book of mine they read.
I can think of two areas where this wasn’t the case. All of the pre-publication reviewers (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist) knew my earlier work. Clearly, those reviewers referenced how my earlier books had been received as they pondered Acacia. Good news is that that all liked the book. Three of them gave it a “starred” review, which is meant to draw particular attention to the book. They seemed to have no problem with the transition.
Also, The Washington Post review was really favorable, and it was definitely written with a perspective on my other novels. So… mostly good news. The New York Times chose not to review it, but I expected that…
Since you’re working on the follow up to Acacia, is it safe to assume that you’ve enjoyed the experience of writing for fantasy? Does this mean you’ll be focusing exclusively on the genre?
I did enjoy the experience. Very much so. It’s opened a new chapter in my career and personal life, and it’s been overwhelming a positive experience. My plans for the future include more Acacia books, but I’m also not done with historical fiction and have aspirations to write some YA stuff. I’d like to be one of those writers that manages to work in different genres but under one name.
Thornyrose writes:When first writing Acacia, did you start with an outline of what you wanted to happen (such as Aliver’s fate), or did you begin writing and allow the story to carry you on?
How did you go about developing your “laws of magic”, and why did you elect to associate the power of magic with speech? I found that one of the more intriguing aspects of the book.
My origin of magic comes right from the Judeo-Christian tradition. What did God do when he wanted to create light? He said, “Let there be light.” He said it. He spoke and things happened. I’m assuming, though, that “Let there be light” is translation of a translation of a translation, etc… that goes all the way back to whatever words he actually spoke. Those words must have had power.
It’s from that idea that magic in Acacia arose. Elenet, a human walking through a world in which the creator god still lived, listened to what he shouldn’t have, learned what he couldn’t properly control. I like that notion. In many ways, I think it’s part of the strange reality of being human. We do, in fact, possess powers now that the vast majority of humans that ever lived would think of as magical. It’s done us a lot of good, but it’s also created weapons of horrible power, left pollutants that are changing the earth, created or spread diseases, etc. And why can we do all these things? Because we can talk. The power of words.
What happens with Elenet and eventually with the Santoth is just a way of fable-lizing this. I don’t have “laws of magic”. Just the opposite. The problem with magic in Acacia is that there aren’t laws that govern it. It is an absolute thing – the language the Giver spoke to create the world. But the absolute ends there. No matter how hard humans try they can never speak that language like a god. It’s always going to be a second tongue to them. At best, the Santoth managed a workable approximation when they could study The Book of Elenet, but once that was taken from them their attempts at magic were doomed to be destructive and chaotic.
In the book, we actually don’t see much of the fighting styles and methods of the armies of Acacia or the Mein. Will the later books delve more into the military differences between the various opposing groups and nations?
Hmmm… Interesting question. Answer: kinda. I have to admit that the military side of Acacia was influenced by the fact that I’d just written a 220 thousand word novel that was all about “military differences between the various opposing groups and nations”. Such things are detailed again and again in Pride of Carthage. I think I was battle fatigued when I began Acacia, and that my interest had shifted from the battles themselves to how and why they were orchestrated and to what happens afterwards.
Thank you for agreeing to appear in Mr. Mallozzi’s blog, and I look forward to the sequels of Acacia.
That’s kind of you. I’m very pleased the Joe chose to feature my book, and thanks to all those that read along and those that had questions for me.
Answer: Not at all. There are great female writers out there and, every season, attempts are made to bring in new talent, but writing for scifi is hard, and writing for a specific scifi show even harder. Often, it doesn’t necessarily come down to whether a writer is talented or not but whether he/she “gets” the show.
Arctic Goddess writes: “My congratulations to Brad Wright for remembering to wear his poppy on such an auspicious occasion. What was the excuse for the rest of the writers?”
Answer: Brad is wearing his jacket. Everyone else isn’t. I told Martin that he should pin his poppy directly to his forehead but for some reason he seemed reluctant. Shameful.
StellaByStargate writes: “Realizing, of course, that Brad and Carl are very busy with the new show, I was just wondering how things were coming on that 3rd SG1 script?”
Answer: It’s coming along. Carl?
Rose writes: “I’m puzzled every time it’s said (and it’s said a lot) that SGU will be more character-centered than SG-1 and Atlantis. The reason I eagerly tuned in to Atlantis every week for over four years is because of the characters. I looked forward to watching Sheppard, McKay, Ronon and Teyla, not the green screen stuff. Can you explain the difference?”
Answer: Don’t get me wrong. SG-1 and Atlantis owe much of their success to great characters like Jack O’Neill, Daniel Jackson, Amanda Tapping, Teal’c, and McKay. However, the premise of SGU is simply more intimate – a limited group of people trapped aboard a space ship hurtling through distant space – and therefore necessitates a more intimate form of storytelling.
Bailey writes: “What if you write a comedic scene and then find out that that particular actor sucks at comedy?”
Answer: Minimize his funny lines or find a different way to make him amusing.
PG-15 writes: “Doc Rush? Is he (like ytimynona said) Eli Hitchcock reimagined, or is he a new character?”
Answer: Eli is still around and Dr. Rush was a character envisioned from the get-go (although I don’t know if Rush was his original name).
For the love of Beckett writes: “ Character-driven, interpersonal relationships, but NO romance in the Universe? Not a smidge?”
Answer: Smidges are certainly possible. I didn’t mean to imply there would be no romance on SGU, only that the main focus of the interpersonal relations would be non-romantic in nature.
Bdash writes: “I really am getting tired of SG:90210 being hyped as the “bestest thing evah!” How about giving us some actual concrete reasons for wanting to watch this show?”
Answer: Here’s an idea. Why don’t you tune in and decide for yourself instead of basing your opinion on any pre-launch discussion.
Disappointed Fan writes: “ You know, I find it highly amusing that you constantly feel the need to tell us how great SGU is going to be. You feeling a little nervous about us hating it? I don’t remember this amount of encouragement being needed before Atlantis….”
Answer: I constantly feel the need to tell you how great SGU is going to be? Based on what? The occasional blog entry I’ve made about a show I happen to be working on? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, here’s an idea: Don’t read my blog. As for you not remembering this amount of encouragement being needed before Atlantis aired…You’re either kidding or may have been on another planet in the lead-up to the Atlantis premiere because there WAS plenty of talk about the new series.
MasterChief writes: “As for Atlantis you recently said there’d be a significant death of a familiar character in the remaining episodes of season 5. Were you referring to Michael in The Prodigal?”
Answer: I was.
Scary writes: “I was wondering when it coming to writing these first few Scripts, do you find it harder, easier or it doesn’t matter, that you don’t have a sense of who the actors are and how they will interpret these characters?”
Answer: As a creator establishing a new show, I think it’s important that the characters form in your head and are realized at the script stage before going out to actors. Then, once the actors take on the characters and make them their own, the scriptwriting process becomes much easier.
Matt S. writes: “ 1) Do you find that, despite the show being different in scope and approach, the lessons learned from the two previous series runs allow you to be a better writer? (as opposed to the early years of SG1 without those lessons to serve you) and 2) Do you think it is a struggle to maintain the connection for this series (not a spinoff like SGA) to the spirit of the first two while also making it distinctly unique?”
Answers: 1) I think that writing and production are a continuous learning process and, yes, there are elements in SG-1 and SGA I wouldn’t want to repeat in SGU. On the other hand, there were many elements from both o SGU’s predecessors that I would love to see recaptured in the new spin-off. 2) I wondered how Brad and Robert would pull it off when they first pitched the new series, but once I read the storylines and the first script, those initial concerns were laid to rest. Yes, it definitely possesses the spirit of both SG-1 and SGA, but also stands alone as a unique entity.
Susan the Tartan Turtle writes: “ Tokyo – have you planned any excursions to fill up the time between meals?”
Answer: I’m putting together a list.