Saturday, July 19, 2008

An A Project

A couple of months back I got an email from a high school student in Massachusetts. He was doing a project on "local" writers and came across little ole me. He asked if he could interview me. I pointed out that I lived about 3,000 miles away from MA, but also admitted that part of my soul is still rooted in that rich soil... We decided to go ahead and do the interview.

He asked the questions you see below, and I answered them as you see below. I was thrilled to learn later that he received an A on the project. Glad I could help. Here's the Q&A we came up with...

What is life as an author like for you today?

Right now it’s pretty darn good. Acacia is going to come out in paperback later this summer, after a year as a hardcover. It’s also come out in Germany and Britain, and will steadily roll out in a variety of languages and countries throughout the year. That’s thrilling. It’s taken a while to get here, but it does finally feel like new people are being exposed to my books somewhere in the world every day. I like that a lot.

On a daily basis, I’ve just finished up my teaching responsibilities. (I teach creative writing at Cal State University.) That means I’m focusing a lot more on finishing my next novel. It’s the sequel to Acacia, called The Other Lands, and I have to do as much work on it as I can this summer. The pressure is on, really, but that’s a good pressure. I do feel that writing fiction is the main thing I’m supposed to do for a living, so it’s good to be at it again on a daily basis.

Right now I’m in the small room toward the back of my property. It’s my new office. I’d like to think that I’ll spend most of my days in here throughout the summer, writing and reading and slowly moving the book toward the end.

How did your English teachers influence you and help develop your passion for writing?

I need to admit something to you before I answer – I wasn’t a good high school student. Not good at all. There were a lot of reasons for it, surely too many to go into here, but I’d have to say that my love of reading and writing happened largely outside of the classroom – at least, this is true for when I was in high school. I was an avid reader from my early teens, but my recollection of it is that I found my love of literature on my own.

Frankly, I wish that wasn’t the case. If you’re lucky enough to teachers that are encouraging your passion for literature – as I assume they are since you’re talking with me and since you asked that question – you’re lucky. Enjoy it. Make use of it. If you do you’ll be heading forward ahead of where I was when I stumbled out of high school with very little idea what I was going to do next.

You have written both historical fiction and other novels like Acacia: What has drawn you to these two genres?


Although I wasn’t a good high school student, I did become a very good college student. I loved the challenges thrown at me in college, and I responded to them by becoming a better and better student. One of the areas I excelled in was writing, but the second area was history. I absolutely loved learning about the gritty details of the past, the amazing stories, the dirty secrets, the inspiring characters that have actually lived before us.

My first two novels (I mean the unpublished novels I wrote in college and graduate school) were contemporary, but those were really just the books I had to write to grow into being a writer. When things really took off for me was when I combined the coming of age stories I’d been working on with historical eras that interested me.

At it’s heart, my first published novel, Gabriel’s Story, is a coming of age tale. It’s about a young man that moves with his mother to a place that’s foreign to him. He mourns his dead father and doesn’t like his well-meaning stepfather. Well, that’s exactly what one of my unpublished novels was about. But when I combined that story with history that I was interested in – that of the old American West – the story got a lot more exciting. I had learned that African-Americans moved into the West just as white settlers did. We don’t tend to learn as much about that, though, and black characters certainly weren’t a very big part of old Western films. So it was also exciting to be able to write about that aspect of history, but do it by telling an adventure story focused on a few characters.

When writing, do you find similarities between the personalities of your characters and people you know in your own life?

You bet. I also find bits and pieces of myself in all my characters. I think that’s the way it has to be. If I couldn’t identify with something in each of my characters I don’t think I could write them well. Good guys. Bad guys. White. Black. Male. Female. Whatever – there’s always some of me - and part of people I know - in them somewhere.

I’ve never modeled a character completely after a real person, though. That’s where it gets confusing. The character of Gabriel from Gabriel’s Story, for example, was inspired by someone I new in childhood. He was a bully. A mean kid, full of anger. That’s where Gabriel began, but Gabriel is also me, and he’s also a fictional character. It’s kinda weird. Gabriel in the novel isn’t even a bully. His character changed that much from when I began to write it until when I finished, but if you ask me I know exactly what Gabriel looks like because I remember what a bully named Tony looked like. Oh, and I should note that my middle name is Tony (Anthony), as is my son’s, and my stepfather’s. Even more telling – my father’s first name is Tony. Ah, you say, but the character is your book isn’t named Tony. He’s Gabriel! You’re right. But to me his also Tony, and he embodies an incredible host of connections with real life for me.

Welcome to fiction writer weirdness.

For a historical fiction book like Pride of Carthage, how did you decide on such a specific time and place in history to write about?


Oh, in the case of Pride of Carthage it was the main character, Hannibal Barca, that drew me in. I first learned about him in college, and I still remember the exact day in a big lecture hall when my professor told us about this guy from North Africa that defeated Romans in battle after battle, so much so that the Romans spent several years refusing to fight him anymore. They would just shut the gates and say, “No thanks,” and would hold out until he went off somewhere else. This a guy that rode up to the gates of Rome on an elephant, munching on dates or figs and just sort of hung out, daring Rome to risk everything by fighting him. Pretty amazing character, and it only gets better when you know the details of how it all came to be. That’s I really wanted to write about.

Also, I loved it that the world of the Second Punic War (Hannibal’s War) was so ethnically diverse. This wasn’t just Brad Pitt fighting Eric Bana (as in the movie Troy). It was so much more multi-hued than that. It features many North African tribes, and Celt-Iberian Tribes from Spain, Gauls from Southern France and Northern Italy, Macedonians and other Greeks… It really was an incredible conflict.

Don’t get me wrong; it was also a horrible conflict with an endless death toll and all sorts of rape and misery. But that’s often what history is about. I hadn’t read what I thought was a good novel about Hannibal and his war, so I decided to write the novel that I wished I could have read. That’s what Pride of Carthage is.

How was it different for you writing Acacia after writing a lot of historical fiction?

This may seem weird, but it wasn’t that different at all. I kinda felt like I was writing an historical novel. It’s just that it was an historical novel of a world that doesn’t exist!

My approach was the same in many ways. Consider that when writing about historical events that happened two thousand years ago I did have to describe a pretty strange world. Religious ideas, science, race and gender roles, morality – not to mention that vast array of different customs and cultures: all of that meant that I was writing about a world that is quite alien to a modern reader. So it wasn’t too big a jump to start writing about a world that I’d made up. I had to cover the same bases. I wanted the cultures to feel authentic, for the history to be detailed, for the conflicts to be deep-rooted and for the characters to really come alive. Added to all, though, I got to add some magic, some strange creatures, and I got to mix everything up to make sure it stayed interesting.

Neal Stephenson, a very popular science fiction writer (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Cryptomonicon), who has also written historical novels (The Baroque Trilogy), said that he didn’t think that writing sci-fi was very different than writing about the distant past. He’s a smart guy. I agree with him.

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10 Comments:

Blogger paranoyd said...

Nice interview. Good job on getting that kid an "A". He'll probably become famous now - you've influenced a person!

So, I finished Acacia and, well, the author photo is nice.

HA! Just kidding.

I thought it was very interesting, and reading issues aside, was a deep, compelling world that felt like it existed prior to you writing about it. I liked where each of the kids went and how it made them who they were. I thought that you did a good job detailing how Hanish changed after book one. I believe The Who said it best "Here is the new boss, same as the old boss."

Now, I do have a couple of specific criticisms, but they are probably just because of the type of reader I am. I thought it was a little short - I would have liked to seen more on the battles, the actual Meinish people and how they were coping with their new place in the world (you touched on it briefly, I just wanted more). I thought the book could have been expanded to two or three books all on its own - but that may have been too large. It just seemed very abbreviated. I got a lot on all the relationships, and that was mostly interesting enough to keep me reading, but I like the action and that was something I missed.

I really wanted to know what the Prince and the Hanishs' brother were "discussing" in that last fight. Seeing it from the outside, while it was a fine choice for certain readers, did not appeal to me. I felt a bit distanced by that.

So, all that said, I still would give it an A-, and recommend it to many fantasy readers I know. I will also be reading the next book, now that understand your style a bit more, and will probably enjoy it a bit more than Acacia. How many books do you see this series being, anyway? Just curious.

Keep in mind that I am a high level reader who hates literature. I CAN read it - I'm more than halfway through Cold Mountain and I think it is fantastic - but I mainly enjoy horror and action-y novels - I am reading Th1rte3n right now, and loving it. Since you are up for an award with Acacia, and it has many many fans, my opinion is merely the tree falling in the forest alone, unwatched, and unheralded. That's fine, though. That's more or less where I live.

3:11 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd,

No apologies necessary. That’s an astute reading, and I’m glad to note that the things you point out are areas where you wanted MORE. Considering the book is 247,000 words long (802 manuscript pages), that’s a compliment of sorts all by itself!

You picked up on things that were tensions I dealt with during the writing process. I did consider covering the story arc in three different books. I wrangled about the idea with my publisher, but we eventually decided I had to get everything into a single book. In some ways I’d have loved to have the greater length to develop each section and all the characters even more, but I wouldn’t risk going back and changing the decision if I could. I can just as easily see readers finding that three volume work less immediately compelling – I mean in terms of winning over the skeptical readers that had never heard of me. Also, a lot of people have said how much they liked the feeling of closure in the book. I got approached at Readercon about this a few times – several times by writers, actually, that liked how much I got into the single volume.

And, as for having more battles… I did deal with those parts with more brevity than I did in Pride of Carthage, but that’s because I had just written Pride of Carthage. You want battles? Take a look at Pride. That’s got battles a plenty. So coming off that book influenced how I wrote Acacia. In a way I didn’t want to emphasize the massed warfare as much, since I’d just spent 225,000 words describing all the key Punic battles in the detail I thought they deserved. On one hand you could argue that my battle fatigue might have taken away an element that should have been more a part of Acacia. I can see that. My response, though, is that I thought about that carefully. I felt that 1) the battles in which the point of view characters are at hand are pretty developed, and 2) I was aware that some of the readers I want to have for this series in the long run wouldn’t necessarily welcome the extra gore.

But there you have it. A writer makes decisions. Not all of them work for everyone - and some of them don’t work for anyone – but such is the nature of writing fiction. I’m not one that believes any book is perfect. Sometimes a book may seem perfect for a particular reader, but I’m inclined to believe what that really means is that the reader likes such significant things about the book that they’re happy to ignore the areas that might not have quite worked for them. That’s fine. (The flip side – when a reader hates something about a book so much that they refuse to acknowledge anything good about the rest of it – is not so fine, but it’s life.)

That, honestly, is how I read books myself. Was every moment of American Gods or Thirteen or The Terror or Strange and Norrell or The Diamond Age perfect? No way. But they were each bloody good, enough so that I both enjoyed them as a reader and understand the accomplishment as a writer.

3:41 PM  
Anonymous inklings said...

Interesting little discussion. This is something I've thought a lot about as well. I usually frame it like this: You may be the most successful, popular and lauded writer in the world... but huge amounts of people still won't like your work. I mean, J.K. Rowling sold 11 million copies of Deathly Hallows in one day. One day. (Which sort of makes me dizzy just thinking about it, but hey...) Yet, for all that rather scary success, there are hordes of people out there who hate her books and think she's rubbish as a writer. What it comes down to is the subjectivity of the reading experience and of any aesthetic evaluation. Hemingway thought Faulkner was tripe, and Faulkner held the same view of Hemingway (though literary rivalry might have had something to do with that too). You can't please everyone. How could you? The only way everybody would like the same book is if everyone had the same tastes, aesthetic values and needs... and who would want such a homogenized world merely for the sake of success? Well, me, occasionally... Ah, universal acclaim!

But really, I think you first have to write the story that you as the writer want to read. It's the story that's unlike any other you've read: that's what you want, and so you write it. And afterward (or during) maybe you make decisions about trying to take that interior vision that you're shaping into words and make it more accessible to an audience. In some ways, I think you always write who you are. Now, that "who" might be vast and variable and ever changing... but to write well I think you write within that encompassing frame. You can push and extend it, but I don't think it's wise to step outside it. Step outside and you're no longer writing for yourself but some extraneous (and rather amorphous) audience. Rather than pleasing yourself with your story you try to please yourself with accolades and adulation from that audience. And I think that's usually the death of true vision and true story.

I like what you said, David, about a writer making decisions. It's so true that these decisions won't all work for everyone, but they're necessary anyway. It's those decisions that make a story the unique thing that it is. When you brought that up it made me think of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, and his main character's endless novel, a novel in which the writer has abnegated that responsibility for making decisions and shaping the story in a certain direction.

I read a comment by a writer a little while ago (their name escapes me, sadly) who said that by it's very nature a novel is a failure, and that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. This made me start wondering if part of the experience of a novel is its failures, those internal tensions and fractures that in some sense reflect life rather than create a perfect facade. All the worlds we create with words are imperfect (much as our own world is), but what matters is the effect that world has, the impact it has on those it successfully pulls into its pages.

I suppose you just have to write the story and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully they'll fall with Rowlingesque success. We can all keep our fingers crossed on that. Heck, I'd even settle for nine or ten million sales in a day. I'm not greedy that way.

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

11:26 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Thanks Bryan. Well said.

-David.

12:26 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

All good points, both David and Brian.

It is true that no novel is perfect, and I think you are right, being able to overlook its imperfections is directly related to novel enjoyment. I DID enjoy Acacia - I just wanted to enjoy it even more!

That said, I don't mind having some open threads at the end of a book, even as many other threads are tied up, and I thought you did that rather well. I like that the title of the next one is "The Other Lands", which makes me hungry to know who those "other" people are, and what they do with those children! (I like to think they give them all Playstations and have huge multiplayer tournaments while drinking chocolate milk and eating pizza, but I get the feeling that is not going to be the case.)

So, yes. I did enjoy it, and I am glad I finally read it. I liked that everyone was varying shades of black, except the Numrek - that was a nice turnabout. I liked the political issues - I'm big on politics. I liked that there was no definitive "Answer" to who was right or wrong, and that everyone had a valid point. (Although carrying a grudge that long - someone needs a hug and a tall glass of Get Over It. ;) )

And yes, good discussion. I know I can be a bit tough to take sometimes, David, but I really appreciate your responses. You give me things to think about that go beyond your own work - which is something else I took away from Acacia (as I'm sure you were intending).

And you were worried (?) I'd stop posting here!

4:02 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Paranoyd wrote:

"I like to think they give them all Playstations and have huge multiplayer tournaments while drinking chocolate milk and eating pizza, but I get the feeling that is not going to be the case."

Trust that feeling. Unfortunately, I'm too far in with the current plotline to turn around. Maybe next series I'll look to the Playstation option. I quite like it.

-David.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous inklings said...

Hey, David, Paranoyd may be on to something... you've already conquered lit and historical fiction, and now fantasy... so how about some sci-fi? Virtual reality game players anyone? (And obviously we can't forget the chocolate milk and pizza - otherwise, what would be the point?)

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

11:04 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I'd love to write some sci-fi. I'm not going to rush it, though. I'll need to have the right idea - one that won't let me go. I've been reading a lot of sci-fi lately. Just turning the soil...

But that's out there in the distance. Need to finish things Acacian, probably write something big and historical, and also dabble in YA fantasy. I've got an idea in mind on the latter...

12:09 PM  
Anonymous inklings said...

Lol, that's a lot of pans in the fire... I think it's great, though. As someone who likes to dabble in various genres and styles (and blends thereof) it's nice to see someone else willing to take that risk.

It reminds me a bit of your comment on Lethem, and how some people distrust him and think he's somehow betrayed his SF roots. I can never really understand such viewpoints. They make it seem like writing stories is a much more rational process than it's ever been for me. I don't decide that I'm a such-and-such genre writer, and then lay out a bunch of stories in that genre. Things percolate and come together and grow on their own. Stories, rather organically, come to take over the mind. I write the stories that come to me, that in some sense demand to be written. Those are the ones with true vision, backed by the passion to make them something vivid and real. It's not necessarily easy to just fix yourself into a box that says "SF writer" or "Fantasy Writer" or "Historical Writer". There's just stories.

What comes to you? What story makes you put the pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, etc.)? That's what you write. So Lethem being trashed on for moving from weird SF to a Tourrettes crime novel and then literary superheroes... well, that just seems silly to me. He wasn't consciously rejecting a genre or its fans, I'm guessing, but rather those are just the stories that came to him, the ones with enough force to possess him for a time. And if you try and write a story that doesn't have that force or passion... well, that's usually a pretty long slog. And what's the point? (Unless you need the money to put food on the table - necessity is the mother of invention and glaringly turgid sequels).

It reminds me of music fans, ones who seemingly want their favourite bands to write albums exactly the same each time. They loved the first one so much they want something exactly like it, only different. But as a musician, as an artist, maybe you don't want to to do something exactly the same. You already did that. Maybe you want to do something new and different, maybe you want to push and challenge yourself...

So kudos to you for having the brass to write what you want. Nice to see. In the end it's about good writing, hopefully. I read Lethem not because he writes SF or Crime or Lit novels... but because he writes great stories.

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

12:48 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Again... Well said. :)

12:56 PM  

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