The OF Blog: Interview with David Anthony Durham, Part I

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Interview with David Anthony Durham, Part I

Due to the growing length of this interview, David and I decided it would be best to divide it into two parts, with the second part appearing in the next few days.  

A couple of years ago, you were interviewed by several bloggers at Pat's site, including myself.  What important things have happened in your professional and personal life between the publication of Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands?

Lots of stuff, mostly good. Acacia: The War With The Mein performed rather nicely. I was very happy with the reviews it received and with the overseas attention and publications. It got me nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer twice, and the second time I won it!

As important as any of that is that I’ve been overwhelmingly pleased by my acceptance into the community of science fiction and fantasy writers. When I walk into a convention now I know I’m among friends. Also, I’m part of a group of sff writers from around the world that daily shares information and exchanges ideas and stories about publishing. I’ve been asked to do several anthologies and collaborations – most of which I’ve had to turn down – and I’ve had the pleasure of accepting George RR Martin’s invitation to write for his Wild Cards series, which I’m doing right now.

All things considered, it’s been a good couple of years professionally.

Very cool news!  I’m curious about this group of sff writers of which you are a member.  Can you divulge any information on what that group does - is it more of an informal manuscript peer review, support group, or all that and a bag of chips more?

Oh, the group isn’t exactly a secret, but we don’t really advertize ourselves either. It’s sort of quiet, self-regulating group. Every now and then we invite new folks in, not as if we’re trying to be elite or something, but just with an eye toward keeping the group supportive and diverse and low-key. Once in, we’re just sort of an extended group of friends and peers to call on when we need to. We talk publishing biz stuff. We ask questions as we make publishing decisions or just want to get other perspectives. It’s great to see what other writer’s experiences are, and to have folks to talk to other than our editors and agents. For me in particular it’s eye opening in terms of issues specific to sf genres. It’s a good group.

Interesting.  So this is as much of a social support group as it is a writing workshop one?  Also, have you been involved in such groups for all of your professional writing career or have there been shifts in how you approach the writing craft and the sharing of written material with other writers?

It's not really a writing workshop group at all. I'd say social support group describes it.

I've not been involved in anything remotely like it before. This genre nurtures more networking and interaction than the "literary" genre does. There's certainly plenty of friction between factions in sf, but there's supportive communication too.

In terms of sharing work with other writers… I still don't do that much. I had a few people read Acacia: The War With The Mein during the revision period, and a few read The Other Lands. Mostly I work alone, and then bring my wife, agent and editor in.

That said, I have floated my stories for Wild Cards out to a few of the other people working on the series, and I've read pieces from others as well. And one prominent author recently asked me to read an early draft of the first novel of in a new series. So I guess sharing is becoming more and more a part of my writing life.

Whenever I read your blog, one of the things I notice most is how close-knit your family is.  How much of an influence has your family been on the characters and settings of your novels?

Quite a bit, actually. It would be hard for me to explain just how, though, since they get into my writing in bits and pieces, in fragments that probably only make sense to me. For example, the Akaran children are based on the template of my wife’s family, but once the template was set the characters began to evolve different. Sometimes Mena is my wife; sometimes she’s more inspired by my daughter; much of the time she’s neither. A character like Melio is named after one of our cats, a fact that brings my kids fits of laughter every time I mention something heroic the character did.

Other things I only understand afterwards, like that in writing about the relationship between Mena and Elya in the second book I was sort of writing about the relationship between my daughter and another one of our cats, Dolphin. Go figure.

My family affects everything I write. How could they not?

Since your family takes such an active role in influencing the characters, have there ever been times that one of them has been tempted to throw something at you because they saw themselves reflected in one of the characters?

For a while I lived in fear of that. It’s most obvious with the Akarans. Aliver was based on my brother in law, and look what happened to him! And Corinn began as my sister in law, and you know how she turned out… I’m happy to say they took it all in good humor, though. The truth is that from the moment the characters first open their mouths and start moving around the Acacia stage they become something different than any of the real life people that inspired them. My family understands that. Lucky for me.

Every now and then, there's some comment or assertion on some blog or article about how there's some discernable difference between "mainstream," "literary," or "mimetic" fiction and "speculative" or "SF/Fantasy" fiction.  As an author who has had stories marketed in both categories, what differences, if any, do you believe exist between these perceived narrative modes?

There are differences. Sure. There are commonalities too. I tend to think we make too big a fuss over differences, though. People stake out their turf and take too much self-righteous glee in lobbing insults onto other people’s turf. To me this is kinda silly. Kinda childish.

Here’s what I believe about “literary” and “mainstream” fiction – just today’s selection of thoughts.

I believe that there is value in writing and reading purely for entertainment, but I also believe fiction can offer more than that and that when it does it’s often harder to access without effort.

I believe that literary fiction by its nature intends to speak meaningfully about the human experience, but I also believe literary writers have no monopoly on this and that they often wear blinders that stop them from seeing quality work in other genres.

I believe that genre fiction has its roots deeply in long-standing traditions of storytelling, sometimes reaching right back to the classics, but I also believe a lot genre writing is uninventive and boring.

I believe that literary fiction’s goals are admirable, but that it’s often… uninventive, boring, safe and lacking ambition.

Looking at my own work, I’ve heard many responses that make it clear genre readers have appreciated my literary attention to character psychology, language, complexity of detail in social and political landscape, but I’m also aware that my writing seems to short circus some readers that don’t connect with any of those things at all.

Some genre readers seem to choose not to like a book when the book fails to be what they expected it to be, when the story or characters aren’t just like the last book that they really loved. That’s a perfectly valid reaction, but I don’t think it should necessarily lead one to conclude that a book is bad – or that literary is just boring. That book may just be different. The author’s interests may be different. Not all readers may share those interests, but some readers give up before they’ve engaged enough to know.

And that’s where I think there is a difference between mainstream and literary that matters. Mainstream writing by its very nature should be easy to swallow. It should go down smooth, without challenging a reader too much – or by challenging them in the ways they expect to be challenged. To take another example, McDonald’s isn’t a massive chain because they make the best tasting hamburgers in the world. They’re massive because they’ve managed to find the right formula for delivering consistently familiar food, food that never surprises and… never fails to be what you expect when you walk in the door. That’s a rather remarkable achievement, and I do think similar impulses drive book buying in the genres as well. Why not return to authors, stories, plot twists that have worked before, rendered in language that doesn’t get in the way?

Literary fiction often begins with a different premise. It may require that a reader learn to read it. Even if you’ve bought a hamburger of a novel, it’s hopefully a different cut of meat. Your first bite isn’t just like the first bite of every Big Mac you’ve ever tasted. You might have to chew for a while to know what it actually tastes like – and then to figure out if you like it.

That’s probably a lot easier an experience to go through with a hamburger than with a novel, but I think there’s a parallel. Some genre readers are turned off by literary fiction before they’ve chewed on it long enough. And, to be fair, I think that many literary readers ignore that the genres do have lots of complexity within them, many titles that they’d love if only they had the sense to give them a try. I’d say one has to learn to read Octavia Butler or Neil Gaiman or Kelly Lynch. They’re literary. They’re also fun to read regardless, but I think they get better the more you digest them.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book! He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.

Nice presentation of the literary/genre presumed divide there.  You raise an interesting point about how your first novel was received.  Would it be fair to say that for those who read Acacia: The War with the Mein and struggled with the first section before finding themselves enjoying the rest of the book might have had a similar experience to that review of Gabriel’s Story?

Before I delve into that, I should make it clear that I don’t believe a writer has an elevated authority in terms of judging how readers respond to them. We think about it and can have opinions, but I don’t think we can determine exactly what any reader is or isn’t experiencing. The whole process is about offering stories to people. It’s the offering that counts, and once you do that you loose control over how others interact with your stories. That’s the way it should be.

With that caveat out there, do I imagine that some Acacia readers had the same experience as that Gabriel’s Story reviewer? Sure. And I thank them for sticking with it! I hope my novels are enjoyable to many people, but they do require some effort on the reader’s part. Most of the people that read Acacia were new to my work. It makes sense that some would need to get used to my approach. I’m just thankful they did.

When someone comes up to me and says they were hooked right from page one I’m always a little surprised. Really? From page one, huh? I’m proud of everything I’ve written, but I don’t think that hooking readers quickly is one of my strengths. I try to get readers chewing on an entire mouthful of baited hooks without really feeling any of those hooks too obviously. I don’t rush to yank too soon, either. I’d like to think it happens gradually, that it grows on readers so that they never know the exact moment when the hooks start sinking in.

Anyway, that’s my approach. It must be natural to me because even in novels that begin in mid-action, like Walk Through Darkness, I still don’t reveal the main hooks controlling the story until near the end.

Have there ever been times that a reader or reviewer comment has led you to reevaluate your approach, perhaps even add an element or two in order to “clarify” a point that may have been more confusing for readers (I’m particularly thinking of Acacia here) who were not used to your narrative approach?

Things that readers/reviewers say may plant seeds that effect decisions I make in the next book, but I’m not sure I’d be able to pinpoint what comment effected things I did a year later. It just gets in the mix somehow. On one hand, I make decisions consciously and I believe in them, but I also know that the whole thing is about communicating stories and ideas with people. I'd be a fool if I didn't keep an ear open and stay willing to respond to readers.

Multiculturalism in literature of all sorts has become more prevalent in the past two decades.  However, in certain fields, epic fantasy being one of them, there seems to be some controversy over how certain characters are portrayed and if the imagined secondary worlds are a bit too homogenous.  What is your take on the arguments on this issue, including the so-called “Racefail ‘09" debates online?

I can’t speak about Racefail ’09 specifically. I didn’t participate in it, and, though I know some of the details, I’m no expert on what went on. What’s my take on this issue in general? Again, I offer the thoughts as I have them today…

I think it’s part of the record that a lot of fantasy and sf has been laughably white.

I think it’s a bit silly when depictions of humanity in the future 1) are basically white, or 2) are diverse in ways that mirror our contemporary notions of what diversity is. The first is embarrassing because the majority of the human population isn’t white (not even right now), and unless all these folks have been killed off in some way they’re going to be in the future in ever larger numbers. The second is embarrassing because it’s so limited and shortsighted. I think it’s much more reasonable to imagine a browning of humanity that means it will be harder and harder to find people that have kept the bloodlines undiluted (and lacking the benefits of genetic diversity).

I believe that in fantasy there is something insidious about creating an entire world peopled only with variations of white people: humans, elves, dwarves, etc. I’m not moaning about it. I’m just saying that intentionally or not writers that have done that are revealing things about they way the perceive – or don’t perceive – people of color.

But I also see growing diversity in fantasy. I think it’s always been there in the readership – although not necessarily visible in the folks that make up fandom – and I see it in people’s work and in the small, growing population of writers of color that are striving to get into the field. That’s progress. It should be acknowledged and encouraged – partially because it’s just a good thing, and partially because it can only make the genre more interesting. It doesn’t mean the issue is resolved, though.

There are layers upon layers of issues built into our racial perceptions and interactions. This is one thing I think white people often view differently than people of color. (I’m very aware that I’m speaking in generalities. Such things aren’t perfect, I know.) I think it’s easier for a white person to point at a few authors or books and say, “Look, there’s proof that there’s diversity. Case closed. Can we please stop talking about it?” Whereas a person of color is more likely to say, “Yeah, you can name five black sf authors now, but let’s look at what they’ve written, how they’ve been marketed and received, how that compares to how white writers of similar material were treated, etc. And, yes, there may be other races in lots of new fantasy series, but let’s look at how they’re depicted, how central their roles are, how much they embody earthly stereotypes, and let’s consider that there’s something wrong when the people in the book are all brown and the people on the cover are all white, etc. And perhaps you can stop talking about it, but that’s because it doesn’t matter to you the same way it does to me. I have no choice but to keep talking, because stopping would mean I was failing to acknowledge and express things that I think, feel, experience every day.”

As with everything to do with race and culture and social history, there aren’t any easy answers. And when there are advances it doesn’t close the matter; it just opens up further avenues that need exploring/debating. I do wish the debating didn’t get so hostile so quickly, though. From a distance, that’s one of the things that seem problematic with episodes like Racefail ’09.

In general, we can all do better. I had a friend over from Scotland a few weeks back. White guy. He’d been talking about how much he liked District 9, which I haven’t seen. As I looked up stuff about it online I came across Tananarive Due and some other writers of color talking about depictions of race in it. Some were highly critical; others supportive of the film, etc. I showed them to my friend. He came away from reading them and said, “Well, I don’t exactly agree that it’s racist in the ways some of these authors think it is, but, still, it does get me thinking about some things I hadn’t before.”

To me, that’s perfect. Couldn’t ask for more. I wish more folks could listen to people they don’t agree with like that – with a mind open enough so that the dialogue broadens their perspective in some way, even if it’s in ways lateral to the point being argued. 

Good points.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t part of the problem many PoC writers and readers have is with “diversity” in writing that consists of having a shallow, token non-caucasian appear in a limited, or rather limiting roles?  In what ways have your stories shown a substantive difference in approach toward addressing the issue of representing PoC characters, concerns, and situations that might differ from how a caucasian writer might represent them?

Yes to the first question. Often when white writers included PoC they're there as part of the gang around the main characters, in support roles. I'm sure those writers feel that they've been inclusive by doing that, but being on the margins of the story doesn't help if the PoC characters are always at the margins. That's not true engagement.

White writers having true engagement with non-white protagonists is rare. Richard K Morgan does it. I love it that Neil Gaiman has had lots of diverse characters in supporting roles in his books and stories, and that he made a black Caribbean character the primary in Anansi Boys. Neil delivers. He also made the decision to have Lenny Henry read the audio version of that book. You could say that's just because the main character has a different personality than Neil, but that's only part of it. We all know Neil's an awesome reader. I'm sure he chose Lenny because he wanted a black voice narrating his story about a black character. If he'd tried that with his own voice the identity would've blended with Neil's, and that would be diluting the effect of his narrative choices.

And that happens a lot too. Writers like Ursula K LeGuin have explicitly written about worlds filled with brown skinned characters, only to then see their publishers or filmmakers present those characters as white on the covers of their books. This is partially a subconscious thing – the ones making the artistic decisions kinda forget that the characters were described as brown-skinned. And I know it's partially intentional – that publishers believe they're more likely to sell less books with a PoC on the cover.

Readers may scoff at that. "I don't think about the color of the person on the book!" I can't argue with an individual on what they do or don’t consider. I'll just say that it's a fact that publishers consider race and prejudice as they make marketing decisions in which race and prejudice may play a part. You may not think you think about it; they're sure that at some level – even subconscious – you do.

In terms of my own writing, the most direct ways I've approached race differently can be seen in my earlier novels. Gabriel’s Story was a response to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I loved that book, but I hated the way the one black character in it was called "the nigger". He was as much a part of the group as any of them, but his marginalization had it's own nasty character to it. So I wrote a Western that began with a solid historical fact – that there were many black settlers in the West, especially after the Civil War – and ran with it. I made the black characters the central focus. I’m not aware of a white writer ever having done that.

Walk Through Darkness is as a runaway slave story, but an entire half of the book is focused on a white character, the one who I'd argue is the real main character of the book. It was an exploration of how intermingled the American bloodline is, how much that's been subverted, and how freeing it can/could be to acknowledge it more directly. I choose to include it because I think it's an important aspect of the American experience and because the story is in my blood, in my family history.

In my Hannibal novel, Pride of Carthage, I wanted to translate what ancient sources and what modern historians tell us about the Second Punic War into fiction. That meant making decisions, choosing between alternative possibilities, condensing and splicing things, but it was all in an effort to get that epic conflict on the page. I also wanted to pay tribute to the diversity that was the ancient Mediterranean. That's part of why there was such a wide cast of characters: Carthaginians and Romans, Greeks and Macedonians, Gauls and Celts, and Libyans and Numidian. They all featured in the war; they all feature in my novel – not just as walk on characters in the background, but with devoted scenes specifically telling their stories. I’ve read a few fictional takes on the Second Punic War, but none of them made central characters out of North Africans other than the Carthaginians. I did. It felt important – and natural – to do that.

With Acacia: The War With The Mein I just wanted to write a large fantasy story set in a racially diverse world. I didn't center the story around Northern European-like cultures or around sub-Saharan African ones. I went for placing it in between, and then casting a wide net around that. Once that was in place I just proceeded with the story I wanted to tell.

 How have reader reactions been to your decisions in your novels, especially in Acacia: The War with the Mein, to include so many different ethnic groups that have their traditions and which aren’t shallow riffs on the dwarves/elves/orcs that you noted above?

Nobody's complained about it. Nobody’s said, “I’m so disappointed. Where are the elves?”

Readers of color and folks interested in PoC have quite welcomed it, who seem to feel that the combination of a writer of color creating a multi-cultural world is a very good thing. I’m happy about that. On the other hand other readers have said, "What's the big deal? It doesn't feel that different." Different readers; different reactions.

I believe that only part of the way an individual perceives a story is shaped by the written words themselves. Those words mix with whatever perceptions/perspectives/prejudices the reader carries with them. That’s the magic of it, but it means that not everyone reads the same thing the same way, especially when ethnicity is one of the issues at hand. When I read Earthsea I’m jolted each time Ged and most other people are physically described as dark, coppered, brown. Each time that rings in my head like a little bell, reminding me that this is a world of PoC characters. It’s so very there in the text, and I think readers who match those descriptions themselves latch on to the ethnicity of the characters – as LeGuin wants us to do. But I’ve also spoken with a lot of white readers that look at me funny when I point this out. They don’t notice it the same way. To them those descriptions don’t stick, or don’t seem to mean the same things.

The same is true in Acacia. Again and again, I mention that the Acacian’s are of a light brown complexion, that they tend to have brown eyes and dark hair, that feminine beauty is typically round featured in the face. By contrast, the Meins are the ones that have really blond hair and fair skin and sharp features. The Talayans are very dark-skinned.

Still, though, a lot of readers sort of slide the Acacians to the European realm. I’ve seen this in the artwork for some of my European covers. I’ve certainly seen it in the names of actors people come up with to fit roles in the film. I think the tricky thing is that secondary world fantasy has been Euro-centric for so long that it’s become the default picture people have in their minds. Subtle changes to that template don’t always register.

On the other hand, complete shifts, like what Charles R. Saunders attempted with Imaro, truly resets the template. He wrote African-based sword and sorcery. No mistaken that. Problem is that few people read it. Sales dove. The series got cancelled. They tried this twice, by the way, and the same thing happened both times.


RobB said...

Great interview on both participant's ends. David comes across as extremely clear headed, honest and affable. I really need to get THE OTHER LANDS.

Larry Nolen said...

Yes, yes you should, Rob. And I need to get back to submitting more questions to him. This past week (and the two weeks before) have been a real drag on my energy.

Add to Technorati Favorites