Our Writers of Fantasy Interview series continues with David Anthony Durham, best known for the Acacia trilogy and his new book The Risen. We talked about building fantasy cultures, characters, and wider themes of representation and more!
Your books develop and explore numerous political machinations (Acacia especially); what was the development process for building and developing them? What did you enjoy most about the political intrigue?
I think the same thing sort of answers both parts of your question.
What I enjoyed most about the political intrigue was the process of slowly uncovering the secrets that are at the heart of what makes the Acacian world tick. In the first book I introduce the notion that the Acacian empire trades with a distant power that they know little about. They offer slaves; they get drugs to help them sedate their people in return. That’s about as much as the reader knows about things in the first book. Thing is, that was also about as much as I knew as well.
All the power players of the novel have secrets, things they keep hidden from others to give themselves advantages. They tried pretty hard to keep them hidden from me, too! I mostly had to figure things out by writing the story forward, following the characters, and every now and then going, “Oh… so that’s what these guys are up to…” And a little later, “And that’s what these other guys are up to…” And, “Wait… so these guys over here are actually doing this because of…” And so on.
That was fun. It kept things interesting and, hopefully, unpredictable.
With a number of cultures represented in your books what was the most interesting part of making new cultures and countries for your worlds?
I enjoyed being able to take bits and pieces of cultures from our world, pluck them out of their entrenched context, and splice them together with things that wouldn’t be possible in historical fiction.
The culture of the island power of Vumu, for example, is a real mixture of influences. Racially, I picture the people as looking like Sri Lankans. But the culture that took shape in my mind wasn’t particularly Sri Lankan. The mythology is more influenced by The Epic of Gilgamesh, which came from an entire different part of the world. I loved the racy bombast of the story, the epic conflicts and deceptions and the strange turns of events.
The people of Vumu take my variations on those types of stories and bring them to life with a visual religious display and ceremonies that seem to me to be sort of Polynesian. And I took the historical tidbit that there were once eagles in New Zealand that were large enough to snatch people into the air. I gifted that particular problem on Vumu. It became a physical danger on the islands, and it wove into their mythology and religion as well. The result, I hope, is fun and interesting and not quite like anything on earth.
Diversity is at the heart of my books. All of them, really. I’m interested in representing an array of peoples and cultures in my stories. Looking at all the things that make us different is part of that, but equally I’m interested in highlighting the things we have in common despite those differences.
(related) is this something you think the industry as a whole is getting better at?
Well, there are lots of different worlds within “the industry”, and I’m sure some areas are making more progress than others. From a personal perspective I can see a lot of growth within the science fiction and fantasy community. When I joined it about ten years ago, there were a handful of writers of color who had made a name for themselves in the genre, but that was about it.
There was a vibrant group of aspiring writers of color, though, all of them aware of diversity and representation issues and wanting to bring their particular worldviews and insights into the genre. In the decade since, they have, gaining large audiences and winning awards in the process. That’s real change.
And what underlines this like nothing else? The fact that there’s been a backlash against that change, as seen in the shenanigans with Hugo ballots recently. Some people feel threatened when strong new voices get heard. It makes for challenging times, but ultimately it’s a sign that progress is being made and the thing to do is to push it forward.
When you look back at some of your earlier writings, short stories (some going as far back as 1992, or so I believe), how have you changed as a writer? How has your process developed?
In many ways I don’t feel like I have changed. I can pick up a story I wrote early in college and recognize the words as my own, the approach and description and the purpose of it as things that still feel part of me.
That said, one of the most obvious changes is that as a young undergrad I had no idea how much I was missing by not reading genre fiction. It wasn’t until after grad school that I gradually began reading genre writing. It was Westerns as I researched my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, and then it was crime, which was quite an influence on my second book, Walk Through Darkness. I read heroic ancient war epics as I wrote Pride of Carthage, and then jumped into science fiction and fantasy of all types, remembering suddenly that it was SFF that I’d loved as a kid. It was the reason I became a writer! I think my life is richer for having lots of different genres on my bookshelves, and I think I’ve learned a lot by looking at what different types of writers provide for their audiences.
How do you usually create your characters, and do you build a story around them, or them around the story?
Both. For there to be a story at all there has to be some idea that sparks it, something I want to write about for some reason. To enter that – whatever it is – I need to hitch a ride with a character.
I create him or her, try to figure out what they’re about, and let them loose into the story I have in mind. Invariably, the characters are more complex than I imagined at the start. There’s always more to them than I knew, and the things I learn about the affects how they respond to the world I let them loose in. And that can’t help but change the story, the world, the themes, everything. So the process is partially a matter of shaping the story and partially a matter of letting the story shape itself. It can be a tricky balance, but it works.
Having been a writer for both magazines and book publishers, what do you see as being the big differences in those industries?
I’ve no idea how to answer that! I know a lot more about book publishing than magazines. Though, I also feel like I’m always surprised by book publishing and often confounded. It’s complicated.
A really good book. Can I say that?
The thing about The Risen is that it was a hell of a thing to write. I proposed it to my publisher confident that writing it would be similar to writing Pride of Carthage. That one worked easily for me, so I figured this one would too. But it wasn’t so easy. The source material wasn’t as complete. I didn’t find my take on it as readily. I tried lots of different approaches before finally finding the stories I really wanted to tell. It was really a process of figuring out whose individual stories I was going to tell within the larger frame of the rebellion. It’s not just about Spartacus and his gladiators, or about Crassus and his Roman officers. It features a host of other characters – male and female, young and old, warriors and noncombatants. When I realized how much the book was about these otherwise anonymous characters I found the heart of things. The writing flowed from there.
(Bonus question: what can you tell us about what you’re working on next?)
Nothing much – because I’m not sure. I’ve just come through an international full family and all our stuff and dog move, from the UK back to the US. It was months in the making, really stressful, and the landing has been fine, but it’s been a long unsettled period. Throughout this I thought of all sorts of next novels in all sorts of genres. I mean… really I’ve been all over the place.
As of today, right now, this past week, I think I’ve figured it out. It’s partly an idea I’ve had for a long time, but with a new spin that kind of explodes things in a way that I’m loving imagining. That’s where I am, but… I’ll have to keep it a secret until I know it’s the real deal. Thanks for asking, though. And I hope to be able to reveal it soon.