After David Anthony Durham had graciously agreed to this interview, I thought that I would be able to use the same kind of questions I had used in Peter Brett’s interview, but as I progressed through Acacia I began to realize that the book brought up different questions, so I decided to suit each interview to the book and the author (I’ve seen some interviews in which this doesn’t happen). Some of the questions will necessarily be the same (I had to say that before I got quoted or something.), but without any further a-do, here’s the interview:
First off, welcome to the South African fantasy-reading public, David, and thank you for doing this interview! :-)
My pleasure, Dave. Thanks very much for asking me.
Would you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hmmm… How about if I avoid a straight biographical answer to that one? The details are out there already, and on my website, etc. So, some other random things about myself…
I’m married to a woman from the Shetland Isles, Gudrun. I have two kids. My daughter, Maya, is eight and an awesome writer. She’s penned several novels already, and they’re actually pretty good. Her artwork is tops, too. My son, Sage, is seven and has an encyclopedic Star Wars memory. He’s especially good with obscure Jedi’s and with identifying alien wildlife…
Me? Well… I tend to put ground hot peppers on just about anything I eat.
I spent four days naked and fasting in the Arizona desert in 1987.
I was once a whitewater raft guide, Outward Bound instructor, rock climber and a pretty keen kayaker as well. I’ve slowed down considerably, but I still get out hiking and camping as often as I can with my family. Actually, as I’m typing this interview we have the car packed up for trip we’ll be taking to Big Sur tomorrow. Camping. Swimming. Cycling. Stories in the tent. Should be good fun.
I used to work in sushi restaurant. My nickname in Japanese translated to “Octopus Head”.
The most important pieces of furniture in my house are my bookshelves (and the books on them).
I should probably mention that I’ve written books before Acacia, three of them, actually: Pride of Carthage, Walk Through Darkness, and Gabriel’s Story. They’re historical, but don’t hold that against them. They’re pretty good, too.
Can you please give us a small taster of what readers can expect from Acacia?
I hope they’ll find it to be a grown-up fantasy, one that acknowledges the joys of grand adventures in foreign and fantastic lands, while also being about complex characters and nuanced political and social situations. It’s a novel of big power struggles, war and empire and all that, but it’s not the sort of good versus evil story that is a feature of so much fantasy. My bad guys have some very credible grievances; my good guys have centuries worth of blood on their hands. I approached Acacia as if I was writing an historical novel like my third one, Pride of Carthage, with the added fun that it’s an imagined world that includes bizarre beasts and banished sorcerers, ancient curses and warrior princesses, etc.
‘The Known World’ is a vast and beautiful fantasy world; how did you approach the worldbuilding process? Was every region and landscape already clear in your mind’s eye before you began writing?
The details weren’t clear, of course, but the basic layout of the world was. I’d had it in mind for a few years before I began writing it. It was a matter of taking many influences from our own world’s cultures – European, African and Asian, in particular – that I shuffled around and recast. Some of the pieces fell into similar places. Some things took on very different forms.
For example, the Vumu people that live far out on an island archipelago are ethnically kinda like Sri Lankans, but they’re religious practices combine Epic of Gilgamesh-type tales with a certain amount of animal worship, with a bit of West Indian stick fighting as a local custom and a clam farming style from Japan. Oh, and they have problems with giant birds that was inspired by New Zealand’s Haast eagles…
I took a lot of pleasure out of pulling from disparate sources and blending together a world that won’t be entirely alien to readers, but which also provides possibilities different than good old Earth.
Without spoiling anything, can you tell us a bit about the themes you wanted to explore and the concepts (such as good & evil) that you blurred?
I’m not very interested in lily-white good versus night-black evil. I’ve rarely seen the world to work that way, so I’m not inclined to go that direction with my fiction. Instead, I’m all for combining the storytelling tradition of epic fantasy with themes that reflect on very real problems. The plot description of Acacia is that it’s about a four royal siblings who have to rush into hiding when their father’s empire is overthrown. When they mature, they set out to win back the throne and make a better world than either their enemy or their father had made.
That’s the plot. But thematically I’d say Acacia is about questioning the notion of whether benevolent empires are possible. It’s about looking at the ways nations use mythology and selective history to explain away crimes. It’s about a culture that uses a nationally distributed drug to dull the minds of the masses, so they won’t notice that their children are being sent into slavery in foreign lands. It’s about a world in which a few trading conglomerates control just about everything…
Lest that all sound too depressing, it’s also a novel in which idealism does move millions to positive action. It’s very much about recognizing those ills and trying to do something about it.
Oh, did I mention it features mass battlefield nudity? There’s a “theme” in that, too.
Were there times that you had to take a break, such as after some of the more intense scenes in the book, and clear your mind a bit?
Not as much as you might think. In terms of specific scenes, actually writing the “intense” ones doesn’t feel much different than writing quieter scenes. I have to focus on the details, on vibrant descriptions and complex characters and in putting on the page the things I see in my head. That – the craft of it – is where my attention is when I’m writing. But I’m not usually emotionally involved while I’m in the process. That comes later, when I have distance from it.
If there was one character from Acacia that you would not like to run into in a dark alley, who would that be?
Interesting question… It gives me pause because the badass guys in this, guys like Hanish, Maeander, Thasren or Larken know a lot of ways to kill you and they’re not too troubled about doing it. Thing is, there are generally a reason for the things they do, objectives. So if I just ran into one of them in a dark alley it might be no big deal, unless they believed that my ancestors had put that horrible curse on their ancestors, the one that could only be reversed with a certain blood ritual…
Honestly, the scariest person in this book is the one that’s in power at the end. That’s who I wouldn’t want to have any sort of run in with!
Was the character of Igguldan a nod at a certain other writer of historical fiction?
I’d be lying if I said the name wasn’t a variation on Conn Iggulden. I just dug that name, and it felt right as the template for how Aushenian names should sound. On the other, there’s no message or symbolism or anything in the choice. It was just a small moment of petty thievery.
What, if anything, from the writing of your previous novels helped in the writing of Acacia?
Everything. They all build on each other.
Gabriel’s Story was very much about learning to write with landscape as a character. That’s was important in Acacia also, and I certainly used muscles in describing the various landscapes that I first worked out in that first novel.
Walk Through Darkness was about characters trying to live their lives – to love and raise children and dream – in a time when the world is throwing up so many barriers and hurdles. In that novel it was important that I not loose sight of the small desires we all share as humans, even while the characters were racing through dangers pressed upon them by the world. I wanted to do the same in Acacia. My Akaran siblings may be out to capture an empire, but they also have the same sort of internal doubts, memories, insecurities, hopes that we all do. I didn’t want to loose that side of them as characters, even when the world is blowing up around them.
And Pride of Carthage was my big battle novel. Over and over again, I had to find fresh ways to show people dying by the tens of thousands in hand to hand combat. When I began the novel, I wasn’t sure just how I was going to accomplish that. By the end, I realized I’d relied on the characters to see my through it. Lots of different perspectives, lots of different eyes seeing the carnage. That reliance on characters and multiple points of view was something I used in Acacia.
What can we expect from Book 2, The Other Lands?
It obviously includes some sort of voyage to the Other Lands. The League and the Empire’s leadership has an ambitious plan for striking a new trading deal with them, but nothing goes as they intended. Before long there’s a great threat to Acacia awakened than anything Hanish Mein could have thought up. In general… more drama, more adventures, more development of all the main characters, more magic and a lot more strange beasts!
You’ve recently announced that Acacia may be in line to get big-screen treatment; should this happen (and we hope that it does!) what are your hopes for it, and would you like to be involved in the process of getting it made?
Relativity Media and Michael DeLuca Productions acquired it. I’m very happy about that. We did have another offer at the same time, but DeLuca’s people really got the book and were passionate about it. And Relativity Media doesn’t just snatch up rights because they can (some of the bigger name companies do that, by the way). They buy rights when they believe their going to make the movie. So, all good there. Still a longshot, but a pretty good start, I think.
My hopes for it are that it’ll be huge and awesome and announce an entirely new type for 21st Century epic fantasy film! Do I expect that to happen? Well, no, not really. One can dream, though.
Hey, I’ll be happy if it gets made at all. And I’ll be really happy if it doesn’t suck. As for being involved, I’d rather keep writing my novels. There’s way too much Hollywood voodoo out there. It’s not really a language I speak, and that’s fine with me.
By the way, both Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness are optioned too. Much more modest hopes for them, but there are good people out there working to get them to the screen, too.
If you could have given yourself one piece of advice with regards to learning the craft of writing back when you were writing your first novel, what would that be?
It’s not exactly a craft thing, but if I could have said something to myself back then I’d have warned myself that everything in publishing takes longer than it should and that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I wrote two novels before Gabriel’s Story. I had an agent for them and they got shopped around and rejected all over the place. At the time that was hard to deal with. I so badly wanted to be published, and I thought those books deserved to be. Now, though, looking back, I know that I’m much better off for having begun my career with my third novel. It meant I started with a major publisher, with a top team on my side, and with a book that received great review and award attention. So, those years of early rejection were a blessing, even though I didn’t see that at the time.
Finally, out of all the covers (those that you’ve seen) that have been commissioned for the various editions, is there any one that you think represents your novel better than the others? Were you able to offer any input in the selection of the covers?
About the only input I had is that I mentioned that the Akaran royal flag included a silhouette of an acacia tree. There you go. That’s the extent of it. The reality of being with a publisher as big as Doubleday (Random House) is that they’re professionals and have many, many professionals working for them in all categories. I may be a professional writer, but I’m not a professional artist or designer. So I’m pretty happy to let them take care of that.
To answer your question…
Well, I can’t. There are things in all of them that capture different aspects of the book. The French cover may be the most on topic; it has the acacia tree and the looming signs of armies massed for battle. But the German cover has such a magnificent sense of awe and exoticness to it; I want to go to that city and walk those streets! The Italian cover is totally different yet again, but it suggests an old, dark, tragic and kinda classic story. I love that about it. I like the crisp images on the UK cover, and the wacky feel of the Numreks marching on the Swedish cover… I know some hard core fantasy fans didn’t think the US cover was “fantasy” enough, but I’ve always liked it. In particular, I like the feel of the book when you actually have it in your hand, and can touch the raised lettering and shiny bits, etc.
I guess I’m easy to please.
Thank you, David, for a wonderful book! Now go and finish Book 2! :-)
Okay. I will.