Daily Archives: September 17, 2009

The Big Idea: David Anthony Durham

David Anthony Durham is one of my favorite new fantasy writers, and I’m not alone in having this opinion; Durham this year found himself in possession of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, taking the tiara from an exceptionally competitive field. Durham nabbed that award on the strength of his acclaimed debut fantasy novel Acacia: The War With the Mein, and this week expands on that world with the long-anticipated sequel, The Other Lands.

As Durham expands this world for his readers, he’s also doing something else — building his confidence in building that world. What does this mean, exactly? Durham explains below.

DAVID ANTHONY DURHAM:

Where to begin? At the beginning, I think. So…

The big idea in Acacia: The War With The Mein was that I wanted to explore the intersection of personal responsibility and inherited national history. What do you do (young prince or princess that you are) when you discover that the benevolent empire you’ve been raised to take pride in isn’t… ah… benevolent? When you discover that in many ways, and for many people, YOU are the bad guy, the evildoer, the Evil Empire? How do you face the fact that dad never told you some really important stuff about the family history before he kicked the bucket – like that for hundreds of years the family “business” has centered around a global trade in enslaved children and drugs?

The Other Lands is built on the same history, but it takes things a step further. So now you know about the family business, and about how hard it is to get out of it without bringing the entire empire crashing down around you. Fine. You tried. Let’s call it a mixed success. But there are some things you don’t yet know. For instance, you don’t know what happens to those enslaved children when they reach that distant land. A third party has handled all the details of the exchange, a commercial interest that profits from it while conveniently keeping the unpleasant specifics to themselves.

So what (young prince or princess) happens when you finally voyage to that other continent, meet your previously unknown trading partners and come face to face with the adults those child slaves have become? How do you explain yourself to them? How do they challenge your loyalty to your people or your vision of yourself? Do you accept responsibility for the crimes that led to your prosperity, or do you throw up your hands and claim it wasn’t your fault? Or… do you grasp the opportunity to make the best of a horrible situation?

These are some of the thematic questions facing my main characters this time around. The way I tell the story has a lot to do with sea journeys and quests, political treachery and sorcery and mutated monstrosities… Oh, that puts me in mind of a secondary “Big Idea” area – a writing process one.

For me as a writer this series is a chronicle of my transitioning from a “realistic” to a “fantastic” author. I didn’t arrive in Acacia: The War With The Mein fully formed, and I’m not done morphing yet. Folks that read the first book will have found, I hope, an imagined secondary world that’s relatively low on magic, beasts and some of those other obvious components of classic fantasy. That’s because I entered publishing as a writer of literary and historical fiction. I’d been itching to try fantasy for a while, but even as I began to develop Acacia many of my real world impulses were still in place. So one of my early ideas was that the series would become more and more fantastically set as it progressed.

In the first book I worked in the new (to me) genre elements gradually, building the details of the world with an eye toward historical credibility, introducing individuals that blundered through the challenges thrown at them as imperfect people, and developing a logic to the magic system that only slowly brought it to the center of the story.

That’s still true in many ways with The Other Lands, but I also took great joy in loosening up and creating monsters and horrific beasts this time around. I turned to my characters to help me through the tough spots, the scenes or ideas I didn’t know quite how to get to by myself. Thank the gods for characters! With them, I got to set my eyes on sea wolves, kwedeirs, freketes and various Foulthings. Doing it with them – and doing it safely in the pages of a book – is rather a nice way to go about it.

I’m hoping that they’ll be my guides in to the third book in the series also. If things go as I have them planned, by the end of the series my nearly-realistic secondary world will be rife with the weird and wild and magical. In a way, the series isn’t just about writing in a fantastical world; it’s about watching its creation.

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The Other Lands: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of The Other Lands (pdf link). Visit Durham’s blog.

Favors Followup

A couple of thoughts in follow-up to the “Asking Favors of Established Writers” piece:

* Some people are concluding based on the piece that I think a) one should never ask favors of writers and b) writers should never say yes to favors when asked for them. In fact, neither is true. Writers get asked for favors all the time, and from time to time we do say yes — if we have the time, interest and inclination. The problem isn’t really asking of favors, it’s people being offended when, after asking for a favor, they are told “no.”

That said, I do think it’s useful for people to think about the appropriateness of the favor they are asking for, particularly if the person being asked is a stranger to them. I mean, think how you would respond if a stranger came up to you, claimed some random commonality between you and then asked for a significant imposition on your time or professional standing, an imposition designed to benefit them greatly and you not at all, save for a bit of karma. Chances are good you’d pass. Same thing with writers.

* As for me in particular, sure, I occasionally have done favors for writers, both newer and established, and probably will do in the future. But it’s my call which favors to consider, and I have categories of things that I don’t do, or do only under specific conditions. One of the reasons I write about them in detail here is so when people ask, I can point them to the document, which shows that I have a policy of long standing regarding what they’re asking, and it’s not personal when I turn them down.

Of course, even then it sometimes backfires. I have a policy of not accepting blurb requests directly from authors, because it’s awkward to say to a fellow writer “dude, I don’t like your book enough to have my name on your cover.” Occasionally a writer will still ask, and I forward them the link above. Most understand; a couple have been madly offended. My response to that is also uniform: Oh, well.

Be that as it may, again, the point is not in the asking; the point is how people respond to being told “no.” Most people do not have a problem with “no,” but some really do. Those people need to get over themselves.

* To the people who have responded that I could have just said “no,” rather than writing 2,000 words on why I say “no,” well, no. First: duh, I’m a writer, writing to length is what I do. Second: it’s worth taking a bit of time to help people understand that the “no” they get is rooted in something other than writerly arrogance, and that the people angry at being told “no” are usually a bit jackassed. Context is important.

* Bear in mind that the sort of person who will get angry at being told “no” is often unreachable; the entry is addressed to them but I’m not under the impression they will understand it, even if they read it. But other novice writers who are not dicks but are wondering about the etiquette of asking for a favor from an established author might read it and learn there are often reasons behind the “no,” so that if they ask, they will understand if the favor is turned down.

* People from other fields have noted that they could swap out the word “writer” with the name of their profession and have the screed work for them as well. I say: of course. Any profession or trade has the same basic dynamic going on. And in every situation, the real issue once again isn’t whether the favor is asked; it’s how people respond to not having that favor granted.

* Some people still think I’m a dick, regardless. See the point two asterisks up. Beyond that, you know what, I’ll live.

Beyond Awards

By now the whole Kayne West/Taylor Swift moment at the MTV Video Music Awards has reached its equilibrium, so there’s nothing really much to say about that hasn’t been said by everyone else, up to and including the president. But I would like to point out something that’s been overlooked in this whole silly thing, which is that Beyoncé Knowles, in the gracious act of ceding her spotlight to Swift after winning the Video of the Year award, also brought home a point regarding the value and purpose of awards in general (and certainly, of the VMAs in particular).

Bluntly put, Beyoncé, with seven Grammys, nine VMAs and (currently) seventy other awards of various stripes (not counting the ones she was given as part of Destiny’s Child), is largely beyond most awards at this point; that VMA is just another piece of hardware to stack somewhere. It’s not to say she probably doesn’t enjoy winning, because it’s always nice to win something. But I bet you that had the award gone elsewhere, she’d have spent about a tenth of a second lamenting the fact, if that. Swift, on the other hand, is near the beginning of her career and outside of genre of country music hasn’t gotten many awards; this was her first VMA. It’s important, at this point, in the mainstreaming of her professional career, and in personal terms, it was probably pretty cool to a nineteen-year-old girl.

Beyoncé’s ceding of her award time to Swift wasn’t only a nice thing to do, it was also a recognition that the award means more, and is more important, to someone like Swift than someone like her. So not only did Beyoncé do the right thing — allow Swift the moment she had been deprived by a jackass — she also rather accurately established her place in the food chain (i.e., way up at the top) and did it in the savviest, least diva-like way possible.

Not in a calculated way, to be sure; I think she felt bad for Swift and genuinely wanted to give her the moment that was taken from her. But it’s also true Beyoncé’s actions at the moment were far more memorable than either the award she won or any acceptance speech she could have made. For Beyoncé, being seen as gracious and giving is in fact the actual prize for her. She’s smart to recognize the fact.

Extended For Your Pleasure

Over at AMC, I’m asking reader opinion on which version of a film is the “definitive” version: The original version of the film that came out in the theaters, or the extended/director’s/special editions that come out later. I ask because sometimes it’s hard for me to choose (although not in the case of whether Han shot first, mind you). So come on over, read the whole column, and let me know your thoughts.