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.