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Dispatches From Smaragdine
A column by Jeff VanderMeer
August 2007

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Dispatches From Smaragdine columns.]

Installment #9

Odd Situations in Smaragdine
An Interview with David Anthony Durham
Next Time
Contact Information

Odd Situations in Smaragdine

When it's so hot, and you're so bored, that you find yourself in the mountains in a little cafe at three in the morning saying to your friend Horia, "I'm not putting down the weasel until you put down the iguana" and your friend replies, "The police are coming -- we'll have to go out the back door"... Well, when you reach that point, you know maybe you've had too much to drink or not enough to drink.

Long story short, we had to leave the weasel and the iguana behind, skip town rather suddenly, and then wait for our mutual accomplice, Michael Haulica, by the side of a dirt road until seven the next evening. Only to see him come into view driving a golf cart...

And I haven't even gotten into the situation at the debtors' prison that led to the soldiers being angry with us that led to the chicken farm that led to the whole weasel-iguana incident in the first place.

All by way of saying, I have very good reasons for not turning in a column in July...

David Anthony Durham An Interview with David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham's Acacia has received a lot of well-deserved praise for being "literary quality" heroic fantasy. Now, you do find a lot of literary quality heroic fantasy being written these days, but not as much with as ethnically diverse a cast of characters as one would like. Durham's literary credentials also distinguish him from a few other writers -- not because of the credentials per se, but because his approach and influences are perhaps somewhat different, leading to a book that's both part of the heroic fantasy subgenre and apart from it.

Durham was kind enough to answer some questions via email.

How would you typify your fiction prior to Acacia? Acacia

My first three novels are all historical, but in each one I worked with genre material. Gabriel's Story was Western, Walk Through Darkness was a fugitive slave narrative, and Pride of Carthage was an ancient war novel. I was attracted to each of these by aspects of the genres that I thought made for great storytelling, but also because I wanted to do things different from the norm in each case, to subvert some of those genre clichés. So my Western is focused on black characters, with a lot of standard roles reversed. My fugitive slave narrative is as much about the things that haunt the Scottish-born tracker of the novel as they are about the runaway's quest for freedom. And my ancient war novel isn't really about the glory of men in sandals doing heroic battle. That happens in many, many variations throughout the novel, but in other ways my focus was on the emotional and moral toll war inflicts on everyone -- winners and losers.

What elements would you say Acacia and your non-fantastical work have in common?
Acacia and Pride of Carthage have a lot in common. They're both big books about nations at war. They're about powerful families and individuals seeking to change their worlds and coming face to face with destinies they might not have imagined for themselves. They both feature a large cast of characters from either side of the conflict, and they both attempt to convey large events through the eyes of individual characters. They're both filled with unexpected outcomes and turns of fate, and they're both about the complexities that push and pull on leaders -- not really about easy notions of good and evil. They also both feature culturally diverse peoples living in a time and place far removed from our modern world.

About the only thing different about them is that Pride of Carthage is based on known history and was constrained by that, while Acacia is a completely imagined world. The latter could feature magic and strange creatures and a variety of fantastic elements. Writing in an imagined world meant that I could arrange the world to get right at the conflicts and themes I wanted to -- instead of having to sift through historical information until certain stories jumped out at me. It was nice to have that freedom to really create.

Did you approach this novel any differently than your prior work?
Not really. I mentioned having greater freedom, but my historical-novelist inclination still meant that the world I created had to feel as real as possible. Even though I created it, things still took on their own complications and contradictions and problematic elements -- just like in real life.

Walk Through Darkness I also didn't change my writing style. I might have grown as a writer, sure, but I mean I didn't decide to write any differently specifically because I knew I'd be writing for a lot of new readers. I think it's unfortunate that so many "literary" writers are unwilling to use their craft and artistry to tell big, adventuresome stories. That's what I try to do. My writing isn't exactly escapism. You can't put your brain on check or you'll miss things, and a novel like Acacia requires a little patience as it takes time for the momentum of it to build. But I do hope it is equal parts thoughtful and serious and entertaining and fun.

How familiar are you with the heroic fantasy/swords-and-sorcery genres?
I'm not that well-versed in it, actually. I do think there are elements of both in what I do, but it's not really the segment of fantasy that interests me most.

Actually, it's not like I have a specific area of the genre that I stick to. I'm a picky reader, but what matters are the writers that I really do connect with. I look for stories that speak to me, regardless of where they're to be found. It's the stuff that I think is the best that comes to define fantasy for me: Ursula K. Le Guin, George R.R. Martin (who, by the way, I never read until after I'd finished writing Acacia), Tolkien. Thing is, in entering imaginative fiction I'm just as influenced by sci-fi writers: Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, Octavia Butler, Neal Stephenson. I've been eating up YA fiction these days, really loving how imaginative and creative it can be: Kai Meyer, Garth Nix, Jonathon Stroud. Also, I still live with the memory of the wonderful reading experiences I had when I was young: Lloyd Alexander, Stephen R. Donaldson, C.S. Lewis, Fred Saberhagen.

Do you think of Acacia as fantasy?
You bet. Absolutely. It's a made-up world. I can't pretend it's anything but make-believe. (I'd argue that all fiction is make-believe, actually. It's all just stories. I'm just saying that I can't pretend that Acacia is somehow a deep and meaningful critique of American consumerism/suburban angst, etc -- the stuff of so much literary fiction.) So I'm happy to call it fantasy, even if the label suggests things that aren't exactly part of what I'm doing.

I think fantasy can mean a lot of different things. Acacia doesn't have any elves, dwarves, hobbits or dragons, but it's grounded in a desire to create a fantastic world, one in which stories can roll out unfettered and in surprising ways. That's what defines it for me.

Gabriel's Story

Do you have any concerns about being typecast as a fantasy writer now that you've written a fantasy novel?
Nah, not really. I'll lose some readers that won't want to follow me into fantasy, and I know that some fantasy readers will never have heard of me before. I'll be a fantasy writer first and foremost to them. But in general I've got a pretty firm base in the literary world. Gabriel's Story won a few awards, Walk Through Darkness made a few "best of the year" lists, and Pride of Carthage got translated into six languages. These novels aren't dead yet. The first two have both been optioned for film. Pride of Carthage still gets me invited to things (I did a presentation recently for the Smithsonian, for example.). I write mainstream reviews for newspapers like The Washington Post. I've been a judge for the Pen/Faulkner Awards, and I just got hired to a tenure-track job in an MFA program. My tastes are more literary than many fantasy writers, but my tastes are also more narrative and imagination-driven than many literary writers. I'm a skeptic about a lot of what happens in MFA programs, and yet I'm a product of one and always will be.

So, all things considered, I'd like to think that people can understand that I'm a lot of things, including a fantasy writer. It shouldn't be that hard to occupy a position based on actual substance instead of a quick label, should it?

Have you had much interaction with the SF/F subculture (and fans) yet, and if so, what's your impression of it?
I have. Shawn Speakman revamped my web site and included a Forum. It went live at some point and since then I've been corresponding with a bit of that subculture. I've also been checking out over Forums, and I've been interacting with SF/F bloggers. So far it has been great. It's wonderful to see readers so excited about reading, so looking forward to the next book by a favorite author or to finding a new favorite. That's fantastic. A lot of times in the literary/academic world it seems like people forget about enjoying reading. I certainly did, and I don't mind saying the SF/F was part of what got me loving reading again.

I was also a guest at the Elf Fantasy Fair in the Netherlands recently. It was great to see people having fun with characters inspired by writing, dressing up, goofing around, being unabashedly nerdy about something. I find it all quite refreshing.

Pride of Carthage

What sparked the writing of Acacia?
I had it in me for the last ten years. It's funny the way things start. I don't know exactly when I got the idea, but I do know that it lived inside me for a while, slowly taking shape. The things that "sparked" it aren't always obviously connected. I'd say that living in Europe sparked it. Meeting my wife and her siblings sparked it; early on they became the model for my Akaran family. Reading Dune sparked it. Writing Pride of Carthage sparked it. Watching events play out on the world stage had something to do with it also. There wasn't really a single day or incident that created it. At least not that I can remember.

It's possible that watching Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films was a prod to really get going. I loved (and still love) those movies, but seeing it on the big screen made it painfully obvious that people of color had no real place in Tolkien's world. There were some Arab-looking guys in Sauron's army, but they were just fodder for the good guy's blades. It reminded me that I'd long thought fantasy could do a better job of representing our cultural diversity.

Did you have any particular real-world cultures in mind as ghosts in the text?
Sure. It's quite a hodgepodge, though. Talay is like Africa in many ways. I didn't exactly take individual tribes and model specific Talayans on them, but things I knew about particular tribes were always in the back of my mind. Vumuans are a sort of skewed take on Pacific Island cultures. Aushenians and Meins are variations on Anglo and Scandinavian peoples. Acacians are an olive-skinned people at the center of it all. I think "ghosts" is the right word for it. They're there in the back of my head, influencing things, but the lines are blurry and indistinct. The Vumuans, for example, are little like Maoris, a little like Sri Lankans, with a cult-like religion doesn't have anything to do with either of them, based on a mythology inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh…

Did you face any challenges in integrating your usual depth of character with the need to make your fantasy world realistic?
I don't think so. I'll have to see how readers respond, though. I mentioned earlier that it takes a while for the plot momentum to build. A lot of the reason why is character development. Things are happening right from the start, but in order for things to have real weight at page 526 or so I have to slowly build the characters, not just through telling but through showing them in action and having readers live with them for a while. That's the way I've written all my novels. It's great if readers like it from page one, but more importantly -- so long as you keep reading -- the further one goes the more the wide net of plot and character starts to close in.

Some early bloggers have said that Part One of the book was just all right, but that Part Two was better and Part Three was great! I smile when I hear that, because that's pretty much the exact trajectory I intended. Working backwards, I'd say that if Part Three is great it's because of what came before it in Part Two, and if Part Two is good it's because of the groundwork laid in Part One. I don't see any other way to do it with stories this big.

Oryx and Crake

What inspires you in the fiction you read?
I love it when I read a great, engaging and exciting story that also asks real questions and explores complex issues about being human. It's possible to do both, but often genre writers don't go into the complexity enough and literary writers don't do enough in terms of writing an engaging story. When I read works that do both, however, it is beauty. I'd say I felt that about Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a lot of T.C. Boyle and Cormac McCarthy, all Shakespeare and Homer, and most other stuff that has reached us from ancient mythology and poetry.

What do you find annoying or depressing in the fiction you read?
In literary fiction there are a couple of things. It annoys me when relatively good writers stick to safe turf book after book, retelling the same sorts of stories with slight variations. It annoys when fairly talented writers use tricks like fractured time lines and withheld information to make their writing seem deeper than it is. It depresses me to no end that literary writers wear such blinders in disregarding genre writing, even when they themselves are fumblingly using elements of the genres they despise in their own writing.

I, terms of fantasy, it's disappointing how often the same clichés get regurgitated. I wish the genre got more respect from the mainstream, but I also wish fantasy writers worked harder to indisputably earn it.

American Gods

You're one of the rare African-American authors to have written a fantasy novel. Do you think you bring a unique perspective to fantasy?
Yeah, but not just because I'm African-American. That's part of who I am, but I'm also Caribbean-American, with a Scottish wife and mixed race kids. I've lived years in Europe, and if things were just a little different I'd still be there now. I'm a bit of an outsider wherever I am -- or I feel like one, at least. I think that means I've always been faced with the complexity of situations. I've had to argue a lot of issues from both sides, and I think that helps me do the same with my characters. And, of course, as a person of color I'm always going to imagine fantasy worlds populated by people of various ethnicities. A whole lot of white writers have failed to do that. That's a shame and a bit silly, and it's another thing that needs improvement in the genre.

What is your approach to language in your fiction? To what extent are you committed to your work on the sentence and paragraph level?
Very much so. I think there are lots of different ways to craft good writing. By no means do we all do it the same way. For me, though, I love a poetically written sentence. I love a good metaphor and bit of muscular description and a way of using language that's careful to draw specific, particular images in the reader's mind. I even have a bit of rhythm thing in my sentences, almost as if things have to be timed a certain way to feel right. I don't know how to describe it, but I do know when the words and the rhythm of them works. I'm always looking for that in my writing. I hope that readers appreciate it, while at the same time I try to remember that I'm also telling a story. The balance between the two is important.

Do you plot out your novels ahead of time?
Yes, but that doesn't mean they don't change an awful lot during the writing. At the start, I have lots of ideas of where the novel will go, but once I get to know the characters, things don't always move according to plan. On the other hand, sometimes I know the very end of the book well before getting there. It just becomes a matter of moving forward, destination known, but the route to get there being an act of exploration.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

What are you working on now?
The next Acacia book. It's another big one, of course, that expands a lot of themes started in the first one. It's quite a bit more about the League and the Lothan Aklun and the Auldek, who are just barely mentioned in The War With the Mein. Magic also plays a larger and larger part. And you see the various characters come into their own even more, sometimes fighting side by side, sometimes in opposition to each other. I'm excited about it.

Next Time

Who knows? All mysteries are solved by time.

Contact Information

If you would like to send me things for review, or even complaints, hints, suggestions, or other feedback, please do so via email at vanderworld@hotmail.com or via my U.S. snail mail address:

Jeff VanderMeer
c/o Smaragdine Dispatches
POB 4248
Tallahassee, FL 32315
USA

There will be a delay of about a month from receipt at the post office box to the arrival of your missive in Smaragdine, but to send direct would be folly as my stint at the hostel runs out at the end of the month and I don't know where I will be after that.

Copyright © 2007 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Bookslut.com, and many others. VanderMeer writes the graphic novel/comics summation for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror (St. Martin's Press) and is a guest editor for Best American Fantasy. Monkey Brain Books published his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in 2004.


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