David Anthony Durham and Robert V.S. Redick became acquainted with each other a few years ago at Readercon. Since then, the two authors have stayed in touch, while reading each other’s work, both critically and enthusiastically. Some time ago, they began a conversation about epic fantasy, writing technique, sources of inspiration, etc., and approached Fantasy Book Critic about sharing the discussion with readers. David Anthony Durham and Robert V.S. Redick are favorites of ours here at FBC, so we immediately agreed. Plus, the timing could not have been better. The River of Shadows—the third volume in Robert V.S. Redick’s The Chathrand Voyage—was recently released in April, while David Anthony Durham’s The Sacred Band, The Acacia Trilogy conclusion, is only months away from publication. In short, FBC is very excited to present FANTASY, HISTORY, HANNIBAL & TALKING RATS, a thought-provoking and engaging discussion/interview between two very talented and intelligent authors in David Anthony Durham and Robert V.S. Redick:
FANTASY, HISTORY, HANNIBAL & TALKING RATS:
David Anthony Durham & Robert V.S. Redick
Robert V.S. Redick: You’re a writer with an established career as an historical novelist prior to your first fantasy novel, Acacia: The War With The Mein. I’m wondering how the move into fantasy struck you at the time: did it feel like a permanent relocation, a detour from which you’d return, a bridge to something you’d been aiming for? And what was it like to encounter a different literary community, if you did?
David Anthony Durham: How about calling it a detour over a bridge that hopefully leads to permanent multiple locations?
It’s permanent in that I can’t take the move back and I don’t want to. I want fantasy to be a part of my work now and in the future. It’s a detour of sorts, one that meant I had to start from scratch in a different genre and with many readers that didn’t know my work at all.
In other ways it wasn’t such a big change. Epic fantasy tales can be a lot like epic historical tales. They both require leaps of the imagination to places that either don’t exist or that don’t exist anymore. They provide opportunities for us to tell stories that connect with our fundamental perceptions of what we value as human beings. Heroism. Self-sacrifice. Perseverance. The bravery to face the unknown. We all do that in our real lives in one way or another. What’s more encouraging than exploring how humans have done the same in history or might do so when faced with imagined struggles?
Other bridges I wanted to build: connections between “literary” prose and high adventure, imagined worlds that include true racial diversity, more acknowledgement that readers can be encouraged to read broadly - which also includes writers writing more broadly. I hoped that I could be a mainstream writer and a genre writer. It shouldn’t be that hard, but not that many writers do it (or are allowed to do it).
Overall, I’ve loved becoming part of the sff community. In the last few years, I’ve been to lots of cons and enjoyed every one. And I’ve been honored with a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in this field. That was huge for me. It’s the award I’m most proud of. I’ve also never had as much interaction with my readers as I do now, and never had as many writer friends as I do now. It’s great.
DAD: Okay, my turn. A lot can happen in four books and the years it takes to write them. Did your series progress as you imagined at the start? What fell into place, and what surprised you?
RR: Everything surprised me. Very little—correction, nothing—went as planned. It may sound odd, but the first and largest spanner in the works was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. No one close to me was directly involved, but the lying and the warmongering beforehand, and the death and waste once it started, were shattering to me. These feelings changed The Red Wolf Conspiracy inasmuch as I found myself imagining larger and more sinister political circumstances in Alifros.
There were characters, too, who just barreled into the story unannounced. Orfuin, the transdimensional tavern-keeper who appears in Book III, was one such. Diadrelu was another. I knew about the ixchel, this tiny species living in the cracks and crevasses of human society, but I didn’t know that one of them would emerge as the moral compass of the whole series—or that her chief antagonists would be her brother and nephew. All of that simply came out of their voices under the dock, when Dri shows sympathy for a human in distress, while her fellow ixchel feel nothing but scorn.
Honestly, though, all my favorite stuff has jumped me by surprise. The infernal forest began as a doodle on a bit of scratch paper. Woken animals entered the story when Mr Bolutu, the veterinarian, needed something to say to Captain Rose. The trick for me was to know which of these ideas really had a home in my story and which were sneaking onto the set from a back alley. The latter I chase away—until the next book at least.
The other surprise was the growth in scale. I imagined I’d be writing three rather simple, average-length books, not four complex giants. I know this happens all the time, but wow. It’s done a number on my life and plans. Right now I’m finishing the fourth and final book in the series, The Night of the Swarm, and I expect I’ll be a bit shell-shocked when it’s over. I’ve been with Pazel and Thasha for so long, as well as Hercól and Neeparvasi and Sandor Ott and twenty others—and now I’m watching the last acts in their fates play out, and resolving this vast existential threat to their world, and recounting the final days of this giant sailing ship that’s been a mainstay of the whole story. All these acts of closure are bringing it home to me just how long a part of me’s been living with them.
RR: So, speaking of warmongering and the like: one of many powerful aspects of the Acacia books for me is your subtle exploration of political power. There’s a lot more going on than the standard clash of dynastic, European-style monarchies. The Mein, for example, is a quite wonderfully imagined large-clan society taking on what at first seems like a much more advanced, centralized empire. And later, in The Other Lands, we encounter a carefully executed peasant insurgency. These are just two examples of something you’re up to a lot, I’d say: the debunking of many lazy ideas about the nature of power. Am I reading this correctly? And if so, where did these interests come from?
DAD: I went right into the Acacian world after writing a novel about Hannibal’s war with Rome, Pride of Carthage. With that book I had lots of historical sources to detail the unfolding events. Polybius or Livy tell us a lot about the things that happened, but they often skimp on ruminating on why things happened. Fortunately, there’s a lot of good secondary research done by modern scholars that provide reasons for the different sides’ decisions. Writing the book introduced me to the economic, cultural, political concerns that shape the decisions people make during war. Those things are way more interesting than any notion of one side being good or bad.
I have some belief in good and evil, but both are diffused into the world through lots factors, so much so that it can be hard to pin down where cause and effect begins or ends. Fundamentally, though, I think the exploitation of self-interest makes the world go round.
Just the other morning I heard an NPR piece about Gulf oil clean up on a beach in Mississippi. They were talking to one of the workers doing the clean up. He said he’d been unemployed for a long time, and called the spill “a blessing”. Even as I cringed, I knew he didn’t mean that it was blessing to destroy the Gulf’s economy, to end generations of family businesses, to again hit a region that has suffered disaster after disaster. He didn’t mean that all of the hardship suffered by millions of people and innumerable wildlife was a blessing. All he meant was that he was thankful for having paid work that day. Is he a villain? No, I don’t think so. Is he happy, though, that this tragedy has unfolded? Yeah, I guess he is. His response is indicative of so much of the human response to things. He may know better—but it’s hard to fight against self-interest.
So, this stuff is part of Acacia. If the Mein are going to invade from exile in the north I want to think a bit about why. How’d they get stuck up there? What’s life been like for them? How can invading their enemy make their lives better? To themselves, they’re not bad guys. And if the Acacians have this rich and prosperous empire… well, they must be exploiting someone. Who is doing all the work? Are they happy about it? Might these peasants themselves want a better life?
RR: Where does magic fit into all of this? Does its presence ever make it harder to sustain the realism of the political narrative?
DAD: I don’t think magic is that different than the way technological advancement changes the playing field in the real world. Military history is filled with moments when conflicts are decided by an uneven level of technology between the two sides. Or new technology—even when shared by both sides—can make things previously unimaginable suddenly all too possible. But no matter what the advancement is, life goes on. We find new ways to kill and manipulate each other. We adapt. We deal.
That’s exactly what happens with sorcery in Acacia. Corinn, when she gets her hands on magical power, uses it like a convenient and powerful tool. She thinks the power is ultimate, and that she holds it completely. Of course, nothing is that easy.
RR: And thank goodness, from a narrative standpoint. Because as a reader I’d say that therein lies our fascination with Corinn: in her struggle, whether it be a struggle with controlling her magic or with any other aspect of her tumultuous life. Any tremendously powerful force that resolves more problems than it creates is terrible for drama: cell phones spring to mind. We lost interest very quickly in any source of power that’s not two-edged, taking something even as it gives.
Still I wonder if there’s not something unique about magic? Its presence is, after all, very nearly required before we call a book a fantasy. And yet its role in many recent fantasies strikes me as…well, quirky. I think you handle magical restraint far better than most fantasists, by the way. But in other books it’s almost as though magic just doesn’t reside comfortably alongside the psychological realism and gritty politics the author’s attempting—that they wish they could just do without it and write battle scenes and backstabbings from cover to cover. And when magic does enter, it often feels like those moments in recent superhero films, when suddenly the all-too-human dude we’ve been following, for no clear reason, is utterly forced to put on a Lycra jumpsuit.
Then again, it’s quite possible I’m the only one who’s bothered by all this.
DAD: You write about power disparities as well. I found the ixchel particularly engaging to read about. What was the genesis of this miniature race of warriors, and what was the process of developing their culture and fierce personalities like?
RR: The ixchel were nearly as early a discovery for me as the great ship Chathrand itself. These tiny humanoids, with their history of both abuse and strained, secretive co-existence with humans, was something I knew I wanted to explore as soon as I found it. I loved imagining what kind of values, skills, and social structure an eight-inch-tall humanoid species would have to develop, in order to survive among almost uniformly hostile human beings. I loved thinking about their dreams, aspirations, collective memories.
On a more thematic level, the ixchel played into one of the enduring fascinations for me as I work on these books: that of asymmetries of power. In these books I’m thinking about many kinds of confrontation: empire vs. colony, theocratic vs. secular world-views, ethnicity vs. ethnicity, human vs. non-human. And of course, large vs. small. The huge size of the Chathrand makes it a big stage even for humans, but for the tiny creatures—the rats and the ixchel and a few others—it’s almost a floating city-state, through which they move in three dimensions, often by paths the humans know nothing about. For a long series where a fair part of action takes place aboard one ship, this scale-bending opened up all kinds of dramatic possibilities.
DAD: Very interesting. Your answer gets at some of the things I love about the ixchel and the rats, too. It feels like I’m reading about fantasy creatures. That’s what catches my attention and amuses me, but behind that are other things going on. Your answer reminds me, for example, of some the dynamics I’ve written historical fiction about. Slaves, for example, often had to move in their own dimension, to take paths and think thoughts and have cultural customs and inner lives that their enslavers knew nothing about. Seems like you’ve got similar themes at play in your own writing—but that you get to have more fun with it than historical fiction usually allows.
RR: That’s a cool reflection: in both cases we’re talking about the creative exploration of interstices: within physical space for the ixchel, within the dominant culture in the case of slaves.
Regarding your second point: yes, it’s fun to be licensed to ignore the constraints of any real-world history—but I like working with such constraints as well. At least I did with Conquistadors, which is set in 1970s Argentina. What happened to thousands during that horrible time is still unclear, and likely to remain so: silence and erasure were deliberate tactics of the junta, after all. Even with that ambiguity, however, I felt a great responsibility to avoid willful, or merely lazy, distortions. A “secondary world” fantasy is your own to sculpt. An historical novel challenges you to attempt a certain fidelity—though how much fidelity will vary from one book to the next. Still, they’re very different kinds of workouts.
And we haven’t even touched on the beast called alternate history.
DAD: I have a soft spot for poor Felthrup, the woken rat. He’s pretty hard done by for most of the first book—maligned, attacked, crippled, abused. I’m not quite sure why I find him endearing, and yet… I do. What’s your relationship like with him? Was he fun to write?
RR: Felthrup has been a scene-stealer from his debut, when he’s nearly assassinated by the ixchel, the very creatures he’s been so desperate to find. He’s also (to me) a testament to what I alluded to before: that the best aspects of a story are often the ones that invade your orderly plan out of the blue. I had no place for Felthrup when I started The Red Wolf Conspiracy. I did HAVE a plan, though, and I knew it involved the creatures that would become known as the Ixchel, and all sorts of life in the depths and dark corners of the Chathrand. So in asking myself what sort of life that could be, I thought naturally of rats. But it’s not easy to dramatize the lives of normal, natural rats, and that in turn led me to a notion of creatures trapped between human intelligence and the hardscrabble life of scavenging rodents. Not an easy place to be, as Felthrup keeps demonstrating. And it all gets a lot more desperate in The Rats and the Ruling Sea and The River of Shadows.
DAD: What about your relationship with an academic/literary approach to writing? You went through an MFA at Warren Wilson College. Did that experience positively inform your fantasy writing, or was it at odds with it?
RR: A bit of both, I’d say. There’s no doubt in my mind that Warren Wilson dramatically strengthened me as a writer. I say this as someone quite skeptical about the marriage of writing and the academy: so much so that I walked out of my first MFA program, after investing two semesters and twenty grand. That program had growing pains, and the chemistry just wasn’t there. Walking away was one of the best choices I’ve ever made for my work. I was then, and remain today, a hell-hound when it comes to guarding my own quirky, unmistakable, non-committee-approved voice.
But at Warren Wilson I didn’t have to guard it. The program—the first low-residency MFA, and the structural model for many that followed—was extremely flexible, and very adept at matching each student with a mentor who was both eager and suitable. I should note that in theory, fantasy and SF were frowned upon. This did not affect me directly, as I was deep in a mainstream novel. And in actual practice I saw a number of writers exploring the fantastic, with mentors who were more than happy to dive in. Nonetheless it was (and may still be) a place where anything that smacked of commercial writing was kept well at bay. I think that’s appropriate for the brief time one’s at school. You learn the practicalities of the writing life (to the extent anything about it is practical any more) by living it. A teaching program is a place to push your craft as far as you can, not to be trained in responding to the market. Alas, neither the “literary” nor the fantasy world is as comfortable with genre-bending as I’d like: a truly literary epic fantasy, as I’ve tried to make The Chathrand Voyage, is still an odd creature.
DAD: I wonder what your take on genre writing in MFA’s would be like if you had gone to a program that truly was supportive of it. I also went to a traditional program at the University of Maryland, one that certainly had no place for genre writing. I was writing straight, depressing, all too realistic literary fiction when I was there. But now I teach at the Stonecoast MFA Program. I teach literary and popular fiction writing. They offer a degree in Popular Fiction. I absolutely love it. I’m there pushing my students to be the best writers and scholars they can be. It just so happens that some of them are writing science fiction, some fantasy, some horror, some crime fiction, etc. I critique them the same way I would if they were writing literary fiction, except that I consider the genre characteristics they’re working with—and I offer what I can in terms of preparing them for a life as publishing (or not) writers. That’s important to me. I left my program pretty good with tossing around metaphors, but without a clue about the business I thought I was prepared to be a professional in. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, but MFA programs generally do exactly that.
So, imagine that you want to write fantasy and you want to earn a graduate degree? How about working with Kelly Link, Cat Valente, Elizabeth Hand, Nancy Holder or James Patrick Kelly? They’ve all taught (or still teach) for the program. They all know a ton about writing in general and a ton about writing sff in particular. I don’t know… I’m fairly convinced that what we provide is a combination of art, craft and business savvy. I’ve taught at a lot of MFA programs, but I feel better about this one than about any other one I’ve taught in.
RR: Stonecoast has intrigued me for a long time, and what you say is very encouraging indeed. While I’d like to see such programs multiply, I also look forward to the day when more of those mainstream MFA workshops live up to their claim that nothing matters save the quality of the work. To my mind such a claim must preclude virtually all filtering by subject matter. To define SF and fantasy as no more than commercial is preposterous. Right now, too many programs make speculative writers unwelcome, and then describe the separateness they’ve insisted on as the natural order: “they’re different, they don’t belong.” This has to end. Someone writing about a centaur or a cyborg should be just as welcome—and held to exactly the same standards of excellence, naturally—as someone writing about their parents’ divorce or kickboxing in Houston.
DAD: It wraps up the trilogy. That’s it, done. By the end readers will know what the Santoth were really all about. They’ll know where the League came from, who the Lothan Aklun are, why the Auldek have multiple souls trapped in them. They’ll watch a few characters die, and see a few others suffer horribly. They’ll see some triumph in ways that aren’t always cut and dry victories. They’ll see how the Auldek invasion shakes out and what the shape of the world looks like by the time it’s over. Most importantly, I guess, they’ll read about how each of the Akarans acts when it matters most.
You’re approaching the conclusion of a four book epic fantasy. You have a historical novel that you worked on prior to that, but haven’t published. When you look beyond the Chathrand what do you see? More multi-book fantasy? Revisiting your historical interests? Something else?
RR: All of the above, if I’m so lucky. I’m pretty certain that I’ll be writing another epic fantasy next—but one that will differ radically from The Chathrand Voyage: to begin with, by being shorter! It’s likely to be a war story centered on a very small number of protagonists in an extremely unusual locale: to be frank I’m not certain yet whether that locale is a part of Alifros or in another world altogether. But I do want to return to Alifros eventually. I have a big story cycle planned out in notes that takes place in the far future of that world. There are many other, different books I want to write as well, though. I have an antebellum Virginia novel in mind, and a Southern gothic fantasy, and a straight-up near-future SF novel, and some short stories. Which of these will come first I just can’t say, but I’m eager to get to them.
And what about you—what’s next? Beyond this series, what are the odds that we’ll get to visit the world of Acacia again? Or have you already begun to sculpt another setting, another world?
DD: What’s next for sure is a return to historical material. I’ve signed with my publisher for a novel about Spartacus’ rebellion against ancient Rome. I know this has gotten some attention recently from the Starz television series. I’m happy to say that… ah, I have a different approach to the material. It’ll be a novel similar in scope to my novel about Hannibal, Pride of Carthage. I’m looking forward to heading back to ancient Rome.
I’m not that interested in creating a new epic fantasy world, but I would like to explore Acacia more. I could see doing so in standalone novels or novellas. I’d like to explore things from the history that I’ve mentioned but don’t really know much about. Things from the Forms, for instance. Who was the Priest of Adaval and what’s up with him fighting the twenty wolf-headed guards of the rebellious cult of Andar? Who was Aliss, and what led to her killing the Madman of Careven with only a short sword? I don’t have a clue, but I’d like to find out. The books are filled with small mentions like that, and I’d love to give detail and character to some of those things.
I’m dabbling in other stuff, too. I’ll probably be contributing more Wild Cards stories for George R.R. Martin’s ongoing series. I’m also writing a middle grade fantasy that’s set in an alternative Ancient Egypt. I’m calling the genre “solarpunk”. I’m not sure if anyone is going to read it but me and my kids, but so far I’m really enjoying writing it.
ABOUT DAVID ANTHONY DURHAM:
David Anthony Durham is the author of such historical fiction novels as Walk Through Darkness, Pride of Carthage, and Gabriel’s Story—winner of two American Library Association awards. He also writes epic fantasy in The Acacia Trilogy, which includes Acacia: The War with the Mein, one of three novels by David that have been optioned for film adaptation. Acacia: The War with the Mein also helped David win the 2009 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He currently teaches Popular Fiction at the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program. For more information, please visit the Official David Anthony Durham Website.
ABOUT ROBERT V.S. REDICK:
Robert V.S. Redick is a writer of fantasy, mainstream fiction, creative nonfiction and criticism. His bibliography includes the unpublished novel Conquistadors, a finalist for the 2002 AWP/Thomas Dunne Novel Award; the memoir Uncrossed River, winner of the 2005 New Millennium Writings Award for nonfiction; “Palpable,” a finalist for the 2003 Glimmer Train Short Story Award; and The Chathrand Voyage epic fantasy series. Robert is also a former theater critic and international development researcher, and currently lives in western Massachusetts. For more information, please visit the Official Robert V.S. Redick Website.