David Anthony Durham
Acacia, Book One: The War With the Mein
Interview by Ed Robertson
David Anthony Durham is the author of the earlier novels Pride of Carthage, Walk Through Darkness, and Gabriel's Story. His work has been translated into German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.
He is currently an Associate Professor in California, and his latest novel, Acacia came out in June of 2007.
Ed Robertson: Rather than being driven by simple ideas of good and evil, Acacia's characters are motivated by history and personal goals that makes their morality very complex and often murky. Did your previous work in historical fiction help build that perspective? Or was it that perspective that drew you to historical fiction in the first place?
David Anthony Durham: Interesting question. My answer might be a bit murky and rambling, but bear with me a moment…
I was a terrible student in high school. I almost didn’t get out, honestly. A big part of why – it seems to me now – was that I’ve always disdained simplification. And simplification was (is) so much a part of secondary education. Instead of being interesting, the history I was presented with was dead boring. It was all a list of noble deeds done against evil foes, wrongs corrected by higher ideals, etc. It seemed too neat. It never made sense compared to the messy, complex world all around me. I felt like I was being fed the party line, and that lead me to turn off.
BUT, what joy when I stumbled my way into a few college classes! Finally, I was being asked to think, to have opinions, and I was turned on to a whole new world of historical perspectives. Suddenly it seemed like academia acknowledged that the world really was as messy as I thought. It went a bit further than that; the world was a lot messier. That’s when I fell in love with history – when it was confirmed that the past was just as complex and multi-faceted and confusing as the present. So in many ways my interest in the past came out of desire to make better sense of the present.
That’s what I love exploring in my historical fiction. And that’s what inevitably worms its way into my fantasy. Acacia isn’t an escapist fantasy. It’s not about fleeing the problems of this world to find a happy place. Instead it’s about a world with amazing possibilities and with amazing problems. It’s a lot like ours, but different. I still think it can be enjoyed as an adventure saga, but I hope readers will also enjoy the complexity of characterization, politics, social and economic forces.
Ed: Lots of Acacia's rulers try to do good things, but often get mired up in the world's messiness. Is understanding its complexity necessary for making positive change?
David Anthony Durham: Absolutely. It’s true in our world; it’s true in the Known World of Acacia. Actually, I think every leader – Acacian, Meinish, Talayan, Vumuan, etc – tries to do good things for his/her people. Good is relative, though. What Hanish Mein believes is good for his people is invariably bad from the Akaran perspective. That sort of dynamic is a starting point. Beyond that everything gets further complicated, so that even one’s best intentions are skewed.
Hanish, on gaining a new level of power, finds that a whole host of the ideals he’d held to in his fight are no longer possible. Idealism of a sort gains him power; but to hold that power that idealism has to whither. Can he regain it? (Answer is in the book, of course.) If he doesn’t, will he become victim to the same sort of righteous overthrow? And, if so, how can his victors hold on to their ideals when nobody else seems to have managed it so far?
It’s tricky, and the questions can go on indefinitely. It’s my hope that this makes good reading and provides a good bit of food for thought mixed in with the adventure and intrigue.
Ed: Of which there's plenty, especially in the latter two-thirds. How did you decide to make that shift from the more deliberate, character-based first section to the more action-heavy second part?
David Anthony Durham: I always wanted to get to the action. Action is great! But for me the action only really has substance if a reader is invested in the characters and the situations they face. In the first part of the book I keep a few threads of action in play – the Numrek invasion, the assassination plot, Hanish’s surprise attack – while using other scenes to intimately introduce all the main characters. It was especially important to me that readers know King Leodan and his children well, since the novels are ultimately all about what they do with the challenges the world throws at them.
By the time we get to Part Two everything is in play and characters – whom readers know well now – can really get on with the struggle at hand. Also, in Part One the Akaran children are… well, children. It’s not until the second section - which jumps forward a few years – that they can start to play a real part in shaping their world.
So, part of it’s a necessity, but also it’s a feature of all my novels that the drama builds as it progresses. I want people to like a book early, but I want them to really like it in the middle, and love it at the end. And I want the action to build right up to the very last pages, so that major plot points are still falling in to place ten pages or so from the end. That happened in Gabriel’s Story, Walk Through Darkness and also happens in Acacia. It’s sort of feature of my writing.
Ed: The politics, history, and economy of the Known World are incredibly detailed. Do you prefer to work out all those plot points ahead of time, or are a lot of them fleshed out in revision?
David Anthony Durham: I certainly worked out a lot ahead of time, but some things didn’t really make sense until I struggled with them in revision. In the first draft I put a lot on the table. By the end some of the things that I’d begun were still affecting the outcome. Other things had sort of died while I wasn’t looking. And there were a couple extra layers of secret societies, etc, that I realized at the end I just didn’t need. They were complicating the plot without adding to it.
If I relied on an outline of the plot points made before I began writing I’d be hamstringed. I simply can’t know everything ahead of time. I much prefer using the outline as a starting point and basic framework, while still knowing that the more I live with the story the more I’ll understand the world and the characters. That’s the only way it can work for me.
Ed: What's your writing process like in general?
David Anthony Durham: I believe in the “by any means necessary” school of writing. (I’m not sure if anybody else is in this school. It might just be me. One room schoolhouse sort of thing.) That is, I get up and gear all my efforts toward carrying my novel forward. There are tons of disruptions, sure, but again and again I refocus on the work, on pushing through a new scene, on really hearing that bit of dialogue, on juggling scenes around to better effect. It’s chaotic. There are just so many different things that need to come together to make a story work. I can’t write via a checklist. I can’t map it all out ahead of time. Even just thinking about it does my head in…
Hence my reliance on any and all devices/techniques/incentives to keep the hammer down. It also means I try to loop whatever I’m doing in my non-writing life back into my writing life. So I’m taking a bike ride to stay fit – and I’m thinking about the book. I’m cooking dinner – and I’m thinking about the book. I’m at the grocery store shopping – and I’m thinking about the book. TV, music, news, other books, conversations, interactions with my children and wife – it all weaves into the book. It’s a pretty weird way to live when I think about it.
I know that answer doesn’t have much structure to it, but neither does the process, really.
Ed: What was the first idea that sparked the writing of this one?
David Anthony Durham: I don’t think of it so much as a spark. It’s not like it happened one day. No eureka! moment. I see it as happening slowly, in four parts…
First, I met my wife and her family. I thought how interesting it would be to write something with her and her siblings as the inspiration. Like the Akarans, they were raised by a kind, caring and idealistic father. And like the Akarans they left their island home and are now flung far around the globe. They are four in number, and have the same age distribution and – in some way or another – they all have characteristics that inspired their Acacian counterparts.
Second, I had kids. As they grew we began to read a lot of fantasy to them. It was a little bit of rediscovery of the genre for me. I was reminded how important it had been in my young life and it got me hankering to read some on my own.
Third, I started reading – and loving – good genre writing. Some of this was from the crime/mystery side of things – getting into James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos. But also I pushed the fantasy/sci-fi geek knob as well – Octavia Butler, Orson Scott Card, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, Ursula K Le Guin, Neal Stephenson. (I didn’t read George R.R. Martin until I’d finished Acacia, but he’s a favorite now – and in some ways more like my writing than any of these folks.) I started having fun again, enjoying reading in a way I’d forgotten about in grad school.
Fourth – and this might by the spark part – I watched and loved the Lord of the Rings movies. It reminded me how much I wanted to craft my own epic fantasy, and how I wanted to do it in an ethnically diverse world that would represent the many different colors of our world’s people.
How did the specifics of the story and plot emerge? Oh, I don’t know. That stuff just sort of creeps up on me.
Ed: Though rarely addressed head on, race relations seems to be one of the book's concerns. When it comes to prickly subjects like race, do you think working in a fantasy setting is an advantage over a real-world setting?
David Anthony Durham: I do, although I don’t think writers have taken advantage of it.
I like the way you frame the question. I rarely address race “head on” because I’m not interested in superimposing our racial issues onto a fictional world. I’m not sure what the point of that would be, especially as the white (good) and black (evil) scenario is already so much a part of fantasy. I’ve looked into a lot of eyes in my life and it wasn’t only the blue ones that were beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of evil done and by no means did most of the people doing it have dark faces veiled by black cloaks. It’s frustrating that this rather racist framework is such a part of fantasy. It doesn’t have to be, and as far as I’m concerned we should move beyond it.
For context… I view the state of race relations in our world as having been the result of a combination of circumstances that effect different groups of humans in various way. Things happened in a certain way in our history (due often to circumstances of geography, resources, climate, vegetation, and how all these shape human behavior and culture) but who’s to say they’d happen in the same way in an imagined world?
That’s why in Acacia I’d like to challenge readers to spend some time in a world just as culturally diverse as our own, but without all the old, familiar paradigms. It’s a world a lot like ours, but they don’t necessarily share the same notions that we unfortunately do about what color defines virtue, beauty, nobility or evil, ugliness, savagery. Dark-skinned Talayans have a history and culture that’s near the heart of world’s history. The blond, Nordic Meins enter the story as the villains, but they too have a long and often noble history behind them. The Acacians – right between the two – claim supremacy over both of them, but they don’t do so because the think they’re racially superior. They may feel culturally superior, but that’s not the same thing. The Talayans have no problem whatsoever with their self-image. And the Meins, who protect their bloodline fiercely (with a notable exception), don’t do it because they think other races are inferior. They do it because of a shared sense of pride at the insults they alone among all the races of the Known World have experienced.
There is definitely a clan culture and lots of cultural discord, sure. Thing is, in the Known World there was no Atlantic Slave trade to define and institutionalize a race-based system of exploiting labor. Instead, in the Known World they know that anybody’s child can be sold into slavery. They’re all equally fair game. For me, that’s a much more exciting fictional possibility. One that’s only available in fantasy of some sort.
Ed: With exceptions, genre fiction's seen as less important than literary fiction, though, especially in academia. Have you seen many of your students writing genre pieces? Do you think people are starting to take things like sci-fi and fantasy more seriously?
David Anthony Durham: The lack of respect for genre fiction is certainly well-entrenched. It’s often merited, too. Or, more specifically, there’s plenty of fiction in all the genres that’s really not very good. And a lot of what I’d say wasn’t good still sells well. This is what confuses the “literary” folks – and, yes, I do think they’re often bewildered and on unsteady ground in terms of their loathing for genre writing. Instead of sorting out for themselves where the quality is – or understanding why stuff appeals to people - they tar the entire genre with the same brush. It’s easier that way. This, in my opinion, is just as criticism-worthy as the bad writing that genre novels often are.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by academics that like my work that it’s not genre. Gabriel’s Story wasn’t really a Western. Walk Through Darkness wasn’t just a slave narrative. Pride of Carthage wasn’t an ancient war epic. Acacia isn’t exactly a fantasy… They’re well-meaning when they say this. It’s intended as a compliment, and I understand where they’re coming from. What they’re actually saying, though, is that my work can’t be genre because they like and respect it – and they don’t like and respect genre. The possibility that it’s genre and good is a bit too troubling to take on board.
Is this changing? I think it must be. For one thing, the Stonecoast MFA Program, for which I’ve taught, has a “Popular Fiction” focus. It’s uneasily set apart from the regular “Fiction” side of things, but there’s plenty of overlap. Bottom line, though, is that students are earning MFA’s based on their work in fantasy, crime, sci-fi or historical fiction. As far as I know this is a new development, and it appears to be one that’ll grow in the coming years.
Also, many established literary writers just can’t help but slipping into fantasy and sci-fi, even when they’re really reluctant to attach themselves to those labels. Pen Faulkner Award winner TC Boyle wrote a partially futuristic novel, A Friend of the Earth, and a bit of a crime novel, Talk, Talk. Booker Prize Winner Margaret Atwood wrote two futuristic novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake. National Book Award Winner Cormac McCarthy wrote a crime novel, No Country for Old Men, followed by a post-apocalyptic work, The Road; and he grabbed a Pulitzer for the latter. Certainly Michael Chabon, another Pulitzer winner, is outspoken in advocating a wider view of what can be important writing. And, of course, Susanna Clarke got an awful lot of adult literary-types to dabble in a bit of magic. Beyond that I think a great many titles that are sold as literary increasingly have genre elements in them. It’s likely because of this that many of these titles stand out in what’s often a pretty drab market of literary fiction.
So, yeah, there may be some change in the air. I’d like to think I’ll help that a little, too. Acacia is my first novel NOT to get reviewed by The New York Times, but on the other hand it was reviewed enthusiastically by The Washington Post, USA Today and Entertainment Weekly, to name a few mainstream publications that rarely review fantasy. The reviewers in those papers – and in the sci-fi/fantasy press also – generally seem to agree that the novel is both firmly in the genre and also very much a novel of ideas, themes and metaphors. That’s highly gratifying, and proves to me that given material that bridges boundaries readers can also bridge those boundaries. I’m all for that, and I believe that the more we embrace it the stronger both our genre and our literary fiction will be.
Ed: Chabon thinks part of the problem is in the way genre fiction is marketed so nakedly as genre work, from the cover on up, but surely it's useful for publishers to be able to point at a new fantasy novel and say "Fantasy fans, you might like this." Is the marketing of genre fiction generally handled well, or can it do more harm than good?
David Anthony Durham: Actually, I’d be just as interested in your answer to that question. I’m only the writer, and I’m daily reminded that I don’t know nearly as much about the business of writing and connecting with readers as I’d like to…
A lot of very genre-ish covers seem to be relatively fair portrayals of what’s inside them. And it does seem that when the material has a more literary flavor in some way many of the covers suggest that. I think that Garth Nix’s Abhorsen novels look lovely. Same for some Ursula K. Le Guin covers and some Guy Gavriel Kay covers. And then sometimes simplicity seems to be the ticket with titles that can sell big, like George R.R. Martin’s recent hardbacks, and Susanna Clarke’s. Even some of the hardcore genre covers can be great. R.A. Salvatore’s recent ones, for example. They’re full-on, but I think they’re wonderful advertisements for the books inside them.
Clearly Doubleday wanted Acacia’s cover to appeal to readers outside of the genre. I’ve heard some people say they like it that they can carry it around without feeling embarrassed when co-workers see them with it. But I’ve also heard people complain that it’s not clearly enough a fantasy novel. As much as some folks want to get away from shirtless guys with sculpted abs and big swords many others seem to think that’s exactly what a fantasy cover should look like. My personal preference? Well, for Acacia I’m happy with what they came up with, and very happy with the cover my German publisher will be using.
I just think it’s hard to market for both. It seems like some of the fantasy titles that most work for mainstream readers are fantasies that aren’t marketed as fantasies at all (I’m thinking time traveling husbands, ghost-child narrators and girls in flammable skirts). Many of the readers that love these books don’t seem to know they’re reading fantasy, and don’t readily seek out other titles in fantasy that may tickle them the same way.
I think getting past this problem is more than about marketing. I’d offer that education has something to do with it too. I’m an academic, but I think it’s a shame that students come through university and grad school being taught that there’s nothing of any worth in the genres. So much so, they’re told, that reading it or having it on your bookshelf tarnishes your credentials. These same folks head out into the world as writers, teachers, reviewers, radio hosts and producers, and they perpetuate what they’ve been taught.
That’s a form of ignorance, in my opinion. I’d much rather we encourage readers to seek out meaning in the very best works they can find – regardless of what genre they find them in. That’s what I try to do in my classes. It seems to make sense to most of my students. It even makes sense to my colleagues when we talk it through enough. It’s an uphill battle, but one that I’m happy to help wage, both in the classroom and with words on the page.