I am so thrilled to have author David Anthony Durham on the blog today. His ACACIA series made me fall in love with the epic fantasy genre: The trilogy’s breathtaking, multi-layered story, innovative take on magic, and daring vision of human frailty meant we had to add it as an epic fantasy Landmark Title on our genre map — next to titles by George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss.
Here David answers questions about craft and genre in the ACACIA series.
NG: In the first ACACIA book we encounter a dynasty that ruled the known world for 22 generations. We’re talking about a large canvas: a complex geography, a slew of different cultures, and quite a bit of history to invent and deploy. It’s a truly “epic” fantasy. How did you manage to keep track of all this information as you were writing? Where do you start when you have such a huge task on your hands?
DAD: I start in several places at once. At the core of it all is the Akaran family, the father and his four children and the reality of the dynasty he’s leaving to them – and the guilt and unease he has about the horrible legacy that their wealth is built on. I knew from the start he was sitting on some major secrets, and what could be worse for a father that loves his children than knowing that his empire sells children – other people’s – into slavery? Once I had that idea I had to figure out who they traded with, and why those people would want an unending supply a child slaves. So, one thing – family dynamics – quickly expanded into larger and larger issues.
Also, there was the map. Wouldn’t be an “epic” fantasy without one, right? Doodling it out was another way the world took shape. Filling in the continents and the climates and features all gave me clues to the types of societies and races that would live there. The more I doodled the larger the map got. I tried to circle the continent with oceans, but then I got to wondering what was beyond those oceans. And so I got the ships out – big ones – and went sailing.
NG: With each consecutive book in the series, you raise the stakes and increase the scale of the conflict—which is what makes reading the series a truly satisfying experience. Will you talk about the ways in which you planned the trajectory of the series to keep readers on their toes but also drive the story forward the story?
DAD: The first book, The War With The Mein, was about introducing a history of secrets. What happens to the children that get sold across the ocean? Who is it that trades this drug – the mist – in return? How did the League come to be the naval power that oversees the trade? (And why are they so weird?) What’s up with the banished magicians – the Santoth? (Are they good guys, or… not?) And if the Numrek are so badass who chased them out of their own land and made them walk across the top of the world to invade a new land? There’s a narrative arc to the book, but at its end a lot of mysteries remain.
With The Other Lands I spin the globe as Dariel sails across the ocean and contacts the culture his people have been trading with all these years. He discovers stuff and so do readers.
And then The Sacred Band is about the ramifications of that contact. It puts all the forces that have shaped this world on a collision course with each other.
That’s what happens, but to be honest it’s not that I planned it all out. The writing process is very much one of discovery for me. I’m along for the ride as well, as surprised as anyone by the jigs and jags that reveal each character’s fate.
NG: Having a large cast of characters is another defining characteristic of epic fantasy. Your series chronicles the lives of the Akaran royal children, who disperse into the different corners of the world in the first book. What was your strategy for maintaining all of these parallel stories in a way that created a delicious amount of tension as they converged?
DAD: I tend to want that wide spectrum of a large story told by a chorus, different points of view, different settings and plotlines. That’s inherently going to mean large chunks when readers are away from specific characters. There’s also the issue of readers connecting with some characters more than others. What I try to do is get readers quickly caught up and grounded in each character’s scene/situation, and then I tend to leave their chapter with – if not a cliffhanger – a revelation/decision that hopefully leaves readers wanting to know what happens next. They have to wait for it, and hopefully that’s the feeling of “delicious tension” that you so kindly mention.
NG: You tackle topics that I typically associate with postcolonial literature: the problems of empire, slavery, cultural identity, and how they’re all imbricated with economic forces. Do you consider the series a postcolonial endeavor, and to what extent does defining your work under a genre or literary movement matter to you as an artist?
DAD: “Imbricated”. There’s a word I don’t hear every day!
Very interesting wording also with – “a postcolonial endeavor”. I’m a postcolonial kid. My family was shaped by Europe’s colonial expansion and the enslavement of certain groups of people in America and in the Caribbean. All the issues that inform that history are part of my view of the world. It’s natural that it has a role in my fantastical histories too.
As for the genre categorization… That’s a tricky one. I have this crazy idea that writers are capable of writing in different genres, for different readers, with different expectations and inclinations. And I have the further crazy idea that readers can do the same, and that they won’t be petrified with confusion when a favorite writer produces something a bit different than his/her last work. Seems reasonable, yes?
Publishing doesn’t always think so. They’d rather authors brand themselves and stick to familiar territory, giving readers variations on the same thing.
I’ve managed not to do that. I’ve jumped genres several times. My first two novels, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness were literary novels based on African-American history. My third, Pride of Carthage, was an epic ancient historical. Four through six were fantasy, of course. At the moment I’m writing urban fantasy mutant weirdness for George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series, and I’m under contract to do another ancient historical – my take on the Spartacus rebellion. On the side I’m working on a middle grade fantasy set in a magical ancient Egypt. It’s all me, even though it’s all different. I want to go where my imagination takes me, and hope that readers will respect that I’m always trying to offer them whatever has me most excited at the time.
NG: Let’s switch gears and talk a little bit about your teaching. You teach Popular Fiction at the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program. Will you tell us about that program and how it differs from a typical MFA program (or another type of formalized writing training program)? Also, how can a fantasy writer benefit from the program?
DAD: So glad you asked about Stonecoast! It differs from typical MFA programs in a couple of big ways.
One is that it’s a low-residency program. That means that we only meet as a group twice a year, for ten-day residencies. Each day is an intense array of workshops, seminars, readings, social gatherings. Repeat. Repeat again. It’s exhausting, but wonderful. When the residency is over, people return to their normal lives, but for the next six months each student corresponds with one mentor, an instructor that gets to know their work and objectives and can tailor their critiques to each particular student’s needs.
The second big difference is that Stonecoast has that Popular Fiction track that you mention. It’s one of very few programs in which you can earn an MFA writing fantasy or science fiction or horror, crime or romance or some fusion. It’s a program that has faculty that not only respects these genres, but that actively publishes in them. Same goes for the students. It’s a close, supportive community of people finding success in their chosen genres. Case in point: one student in the program right now just won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of Science Fiction!
Anyway, it’s a cool program. I’m glad to be a part of it. (And this from a guy that’s walked away from working at four other programs.)
About David Anthony Durham:
David Anthony Durham is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. His novels have twice been New York Times Notable Books, won two awards from the American Library Association, and been translated into eight foreign languages. Gabriel’s Story, Walk Through Darkness and Acacia: The War with the Mein are all in development as feature films. Born to parents of Caribbean ancestry, Durham has lived in Scotland for a number of years. After receiving an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park in 1996, he taught at the University of Maryland and University of Massachusetts Amherst. He won the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award in 1992, the 2002 Legacy Award for Debut Fiction and was a Finalist for the 2006 Legacy Award for Fiction. In 2009, he won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He currently teaches for the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. Like him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/davidanthonydurham.
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