An Interview with David Anthony Durham,
author of Acacia: Book 1: The War with the Mein
Doubleday Books: You’re known as a historical novelist; your previous novel was the well-received Pride of Carthage. Was moving into epic fantasy a natural step for you? Certainly the novel reveals a writer with a deep familiarity and affection for the genre.
David Anthony Durham: Thanks for saying that. It did feel very natural to me. I loved fantasy as an adolescent–Tolkein, LeGuin, Lewis, Alexander, Donaldson–and took great joy in rediscovering it as an adult–most notably with George RR Martin’s works. Reading Martin I’m aware I’m in the hands of an intelligent writer with a great grasp of literature and wonderful gifts as a storyteller, someone who is going to take me on a long journey with quite a few surprises along the way. I felt the same reading science fiction writers like Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Herbert. I read Dune for the first time about three years ago. A few chapters in, I realized with glee that I hadn’t enjoyed reading a novel as much since . . . well, since I was young and reading fantasy. That combination of being challenged, being spoken to as a reader with an intellect, but also being sent on a voyage overtly of the imagination was like a reawakening to what storytelling is (and always has been) really about. I knew that’s what I’d been working toward in my historical fiction, but I hungered to be let loose to explore an alternative world. Acacia is that world.
DB: Still, I can imagine that some agents, or even writers, might feel a bit nervous about making this kind of career move. Even today, isn’t there critical and academic prejudice against epic fantasies, a sense that such novels are somehow less “serious” than other forms of fiction? Is that something you encounter as a writer and a teacher of writing?
DAD: Yes to all the above. I do think many writers–especially if they’re wearing the “literary” badge–are scared to death of writing anything somebody might label as having genre elements. That’s part of why literary fiction can seem quite stale. Some of our most famed authors have found a comfortable place in their fiction and rarely venture from it. After my first two novels were modestly well-received, I could’ve stayed on similar territory for a career, writing about the African-American experience in an historical context. But it didn’t make sense to me that something as special as writing and publishing novels should be done on auto-pilot.
When I proposed writing about Hannibal’s war with Rome, my agent and editors were supportive. They hadn’t exactly expected it, but they were as interested as I was in what I’d manage to produce. When I suggested fantasy, they needed a little convincing, but once I laid out what I had in mind they knew I was serious. Among other things, I said–and meant it–that if I could only write one more book before I died, I wanted it to be Acacia.
There is absolutely an academic and critical bias against epic fantasies–against anything that can fit into a genre, for that matter. I think it’s stupid. This is not to pretend I think all fantasy is great, either. I don’t. I’m a picky reader, and a lot of fantasy doesn’t cut it for me. But a lot of highbrow literary fiction doesn’t cut it either. I believe the intelligent way to read–and the way that the academy should be teaching students to read–is to roam widely, exploring different genres and perspectives and narrative styles, focusing a critical eye on all of them and judging them all accordingly. All too often, though, the academy teaches students to wear blinders and to only focus on a narrow sliver of what’s published in the world. As a teacher of writing, I make a case for students seeking out good writing–wherever they can find it–and learning what they can from it.
I’ve just been hired at Cal State Fresno, to teach in their MFA program. During the interview I said that my next novel was a fantasy and that I could only come to the program if that wasn’t go to be a problem for them. Not only wasn’t it a problem, they were so enthusiastic to have me that they made the terms of the position far too good to refuse. I’m proud of that, but I also know I’m lucky. It was a one in a thousand fit, and I’m looking forward to starting in the program in the fall of 2007.
DB: This a very fertile time for heroic fantasy. You’ve mentioned George R.R. Martin; I’d add Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker to the list of writers breaking out from under the stultifying shadow of Tolkien’s influence. These writers and others have brought a renewed focus on realism of character, politics, and history to the genre. Do you see yourself as part of this trend?
DAD:I wasn’t aware of joining a trend, but if a readership is increasingly picking up on fantasy novels with those characteristics, I’m happy to be a part of that. Realism of character, politics, history: those are all fundamental to my writing, regardless of the genre. Bringing it to epic fantasy, though, excites me like nothing has before. There’s so much potential to comment meaningfully on our world and on the human experience, while at the same time sweeping a reader into engaging, complex, dangerous adventures. People want that, don’t they? I think they do, and I hope they do, because those are exactly the type of stories I want to tell.
DB: For many years, African Americans were underrepresented in the field of speculative fiction. Now, thanks to trailblazers like Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and others, more writers of color are embracing the genre. But it’s still rare to see an African American writer tackling epic fantasy. Why is that?
DAD: That’s a complicated question, and I’m not sure I’m up to answering it fully. I’ll tell you what comes to mind, though. One is that African-Americans (or readers from many non-Caucasian ethnic groups) haven’t seen themselves represented in epic fantasy very often. Much of it grew out of a European storytelling ethos that looked back toward a time not nearly as multicultural as contemporary Europe actually is. Having said that, black readers do read fantasy. I did. My friends did. Black viewers were as much a part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings audience as other Americans. But there’s a considerable chasm between appreciating fantasy and committing to write it.
The publishing business is not without its segregationist tendencies. It’s hard for an African-American writer to get acceptance writing about anything other than African-American topics, much less heading into epic fantasy, which will not only be seen as risky, but will also mean an investment of years of work with no guarantee the publishing world will even open the bridge to a possible audience. Writers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler are real exceptions, really unique individuals that did what they did regardless of the hurdles.
As for me, I have a very good relationship with my publisher. They believe I can write whatever I want, and they’re willing to do the work–and I do believe its work–to get reviewers and booksellers to read me without preconceived notions. It helps, also, that Pride of Carthage was successful at finding an audience here and abroad, in the UK and in six foreign language editions so far. If I can make this work, I hope it will inspire other writers of color into the genre. We’d all have richer reading choices with more diverse voices in the mix.
DB: Do you feel, as an African American writer, a special obligation to address the black experience in America in your fiction, or is such an expectation on the part of readers or critics essentially racist?
DAD: My problem with being obligated to address the black experience is that my identity as an African American is only part of who I am. It’s a proud part, but in many ways my life has only a fractured similarity to the larger African American experience. I grew up in America, but my family is from the West Indies on both sides (Trinidad and Barbados). That gave me a different outlook on the world. I’ve lived a good portion of my adult life in Europe. I’m married to a Scottish woman, the father of two very mixed-race children, and part of an extended family that stretches as far around the world as New Zealand. (The phone bills on the holidays are painful!) So I think I have a bit more to speak about than being black in America.
Projects like Pride of Carthage and Acacia are informed by my identity as a multi-cultural member of our wide world. That, I think, is a strength, and I hope it helps my writing to be probing in terms of cultural issues but also accessible–and relevant–to everyone.
DB: Okay, I have to ask: why “Acacia”? Did you always have this in mind for your title and the name of the empire at the heart of the novel, or did you sort of write your way into it as the novel grew?
DAD: It became the title and the central image of the novel early on, but I also grew into it with time. I was looking for a simple name for the empire, one that could have both concrete and symbolic resonance and that suggested the multi-cultural aspects of the world I was creating. I’ve always loved the way the acacia trees look, and the name sounded right. It reminded me of Arcadia, which has its own utopian implications. As I learned more about the trees they seemed an even better fit. Though symbolic of Africa or Australia, acacia trees are widely distributed around the world–like my Acacians. The trees are eloquently beautiful, but also thorny and protective–like Acacians. Their great branches provide homes for all sorts of animals, a structure to some creatures that know no other possibilities–like the Acacian Empire. Because they can be largely burnt to the ground and yet emerge still living much later, they’ve become symbolic of resurrection–which is a theme in a variety of ways in the novel. And, as fundamental as anything else, this is a novel of the legacy of a family tree.
DB: Is your invented empire of Acacia, and the world in which it is set, based on actual history? With the drug Mist, and the mysterious yet seemingly all-powerful Lothan Aklun, I was reminded a bit of China and its relations with the British . . . but the hideous and pernicious Quota system of slave export also put me in mind of African kingdoms along the so-called Slave Coast during the height of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
DAD: Great question, and the answer is yes on all counts. I did an awful lot of reading into actual world history as I wrote Acacia. Part of the joy of writing fantasy was that I could take bits of pieces of history and juxtapose them in ways I couldn’t have if I was writing about our world. The thing is, I’m not sure anymore where the inspiration from our world begins or ends. Those aspects have so blended with the imagined influences that the connections blur and tangle–hopefully in a manner that gives readers lots of food for thought but skews away from being a commentary on any particular historical situation.
DB: It sounds as though your skills as an historical novelist played a big part in the world-building for these books.
DAD: The work I’d done on Pride of Carthage fed directly into world-building in Acacia. I had to create a credible, detailed, but also entirely foreign world for that novel, one that hasn’t existed for 2,000 years. It was a time of very different moral outlooks, different religions, values, fundamental beliefs. A lot of what we think we know about the ancient world is nothing more than informed speculation. Frankly, I had to make up an awful lot to fill in the gaps in the historical record and to make a textured narrative. After that experience, I felt quite at home with the notion of building another speculative world–my own.
DB: Magic is obviously an important part of the world-building in any fantasy, and I think it’s fair to say that the best fantasies also feature the most imaginative and well thought out magical systems. We only see the first glimmerings of your magical system here in the first volume, but it promises to be a doozy. Can you expand a bit on the Santoth, also known as the God-Talkers, and how you developed their magic? Are they the only source of magic in your world?
DAD: I wouldn’t say the Santoth are the only source of magic in this world, but I would say the language that they speak (in corrupted form) is the source of all life, energy, animation in the world. It’s best explained by Acacian mythology. The ancient tale goes that a creator figure called the Giver roamed the early earth, singing it to life. The words of his song had the power to breathe life, to give shape and form and substance to the world and all its creatures. One of his human creations, a young man called Elenet, began to follow him as he walked the earth, entranced by his song. Problem is that Elenet learned the words of the God-Talk and before long began to speak it himself. When the Giver discovered this, he turned angrily away from the world and abandoned it. Elenet, however, coveted his knowledge and continued to use it. He became the first human God-Talker, and his followers became the Santoth magicians. So that’s the tale that explains how magic came into the world and got into human hands. (It may or may not be true, by the way.)
There was a problem with all of this, though. Humans weren’t meant to speak God’s language. They were never quite capable of singing the words purely, and their flawed character always warped their magic, no matter what their intentions were. Acacia’s first undisputed king, Tinhadin, was a Santoth. Once he’d secured his throne, he banished the rest of the Santoth because he feared their power. He kept for himself the Book of Elenet, the dictionary that the first Santoth had kept to preserve the knowledge of God-Talk. And then he stopped using magic himself, hoping it would die from the world since it had always been a source of chaos.
The novel begins many generations after Tinhadin. The Santoth are but a myth, and the Book of Elenet is believed to have been lost long ago. Suffice it to say that during the course of the first novel both the Santoth and the Book are found again. They have a dramatic role in the events toward the end of the novel, but you’re right–they’ll be of even greater import in the coming struggles.
DB: Tell us a bit about the main characters, King Leodan and his four children: Aliver, Corinn, Mena, and Dariel. Do you have a favorite among them? I found myself initially very sympathetic toward Corinn . . . yet by the end of the volume, I was actually kind of terrified of her! And the other children undergo similarly complex changes as they grow up.
DAD: That’s great to hear! Yeah, by the end Corinn terrifies me too. Even as the writer I’m surprised at how she developed, but I also see an inevitable connecting of the dots that shaped her into what she becomes by the end.
I love all my characters for different reasons and in different ways. Leodan is a fine man in many ways, moral and troubled by the inequities the empire is built on. He wants only to raise his children in peace, and because of that he’s torn between allowing the status quo to continue and/or revealing the crimes of the empire and trying to change them. From page one of the book, though, forces are moving against him. Before long the empire is crumbling amidst a multi-pronged attack. He’s forced to send his children into exile. He sends them each in a different direction, hoping they’ll survive to adulthood and learn enough from their host nations to be able to rebuild Acacia on a better model.
Aliver, the oldest son, is sent into a tribal culture from the south, where his insecurities are severely tested. Corinn, the beauty of the family, heads to the north, but has an unexpected turn. Mena finds herself far from the center of the empire, among an island culture in which she becomes a religious figure. And Dariel, the youngest son, winds up in the care of a pirate-culture that he falls into so completely he almost forgets his earlier life as an Akaran prince. Needless to say, being among the people this way provides them firsthand knowledge of how the empire really works, and this knowledge is part of what allows them to realize their potential in ways their father never could.
If I had to pick a favorite Akaran, it would probably be Mena. I love the severe, sword-wielding half-goddess toughness of her, and the way that’s tempered by a quiet intelligence and sensitivity.
DB: One of the things I admired about the novel was how much care you took to make the Mein, the ostensible bad-guys, as complex and, in many ways, worthy of sympathy as the heroes and heroines.
DAD:I’ve written quite a few bad-guys so far, but almost all of them have some trait or characteristic that endears them to me. That’s true of racist cowboy demagogues of Gabriel’s Story and of the slave trackers of Walk Through Darkness. With Acacia, though, I got to have even more fun with them.
Hanish Mein is smart, witty, charismatic. He’s got the best wardrobe–lots of tight-fitting leather, etc. His brothers are, in their own ways, even cooler. Icy, in fact. As a group, they’re tall and lean, fair-skinned and gray-eyed and blond-haired, with braids and golden dreads and bells chiming as they move to sing to their ancestors, of whom they’re fiercely proud. I relished skewing the familiar notions of good and bad, white and black. But complexity is still a must. So I haven’t just made the Nordic types the baddies. It’s more complicated than that.
Is Hanish Mein relentless in the way he prosecutes his war? Yes. Does he orchestrate the death of millions to achieve his goals, even using a form of biological warfare? Yes. Does he strive to unleash a sort of hell on earth in the name of his ancestors? Yes. And were his people gravely, gravely wronged by the Acacians, enough so that all his actions can be seen as a long-delayed retribution for past crimes done to them and to the larger world as well? Yes, that’s true too. For my money, that’s what makes the novel interesting. Conflicts between peoples never line up in terms of absolute good versus absolute evil. There are always shared human impulses on both sides. There are always ways that each side justifies themselves, and almost always there are legitimate grievances that get hijacked by our baser impulses. If that’s true in this world, I knew it had to be true in Acacia as well.
DB: How many books will there be in the series? And can you give us a hint of what lies ahead? I presume, for one, that we’ll learn a lot more about the Lothan Aklun!
DAD: Right now I envision three books in this series. That, at least, is what I think it will take to wrap up the narrative arc begun with The War with the Mein. In terms of what lies ahead . . . There will definitely be more about the Lothan Aklun, and more about the even greater power that lies to the west of them, much more about Corinn and the Santoth, about Mena as a warrior princess and about Dariel’s emergence as a revolutionary. The driving plot point is that the Acacians make the mistake of contacting The Other Lands directly for the first time. It’s a blunder that unleashes a much greater threat than the one posed by Hanish Mein in the first novel. And then a whole lot of stuff happens . . . Just thinking about it starts my fingers itching to get back to work!
DB: A lot of writers, especially those who work across genres, like to keep a couple of irons in the fire at any one time. Are you working on any other projects?
DAD: Nope, just this next volume in the Acacia series. That’s all that’s on my plate right now, other than teaching, writing an occasional review, being a husband and father, and getting back into whitewater kayaking.