David Anthony Durham has written critically acclaimed historical novels such as Gabriel’s Story and the critically acclaimed heroic fantasy Acacia trilogy. He also writes for George RR Martin’s Wild Cards series of collaborative novels. He is at work on his seventh book, a historical novel on the Spartacus slave rebellion against the Roman Republic. He’s also developing a middle grade fantasy set in a magical ancient Egypt.
This interview differs from some of the rest because it began as an exploration of setting and the contrast between writing historical novels and fantasy novels. A portion of this interview not reproduced here has been used as an author spotlight feature in Wonderbook.
Just to get some context, you came up through the ranks as a mainstream literary writer, correct? And to what extent was there any merging of “literary” and “genre” in your reading as a teenager, beginning writer, up through your first couple of novels being published?
Yes, I did have a mainstream start. My first two novels were historical, with “literary” leanings. My third was the same, except it was history on a large scale – about the war between Hannibal’s Carthage and the Roman Republic. Up to that point, my writing had been entirely realistic. Or, as realistic as made up stories about distant characters can be. I was reading similar stuff at the time, writers like Toni Morrison, Russell Banks, Margaret Atwood, Andrea Barrett, Ben Okri, and T. C. Boyle. Although, looking at that list I should note that Morrison, Atwood, Okri, and Boyle all merge fantastical/futuristic visions into their writing at times. I may have always been interested in the genre, but for a while I chose to read stuff that didn’t label itself as such.
As a young reader, I was all about fantasy. Without a doubt, Tolkien and Lewis and Alexander and Le Guin first captured my imagination. They taught me to love reading and dream of being a writer. I forgot about them during my sojourn in the academy and while I was writing my first books. Fortunately, that phase didn’t last too long.
What drew you to historical fiction?
For about half my time in college I was a history major. I loved history once I discovered it was legitimate to study the gritty underbelly of American history and consciousness shifting stuff from African history and world history in general. It was quite transformative for me. Thing is, I was never going to be a good historian. I had no interest in focusing on one period or topic – which tends to be what scholars do. I didn’t want to be an expert in any one thing. I just loved surfing through the interesting bits.
I kept my fiction separate from this for a while. I actually wrote two unpublished contemporary novels first. I’m not sure why it took me so long to put fiction and history together, but when I did, the fit was natural. I took the basic familial relationship of one of my unpublished novels and recast it on the plains of 1870’s Kansas. Many of the central themes were intact, but the changed landscape and cultural setting freed the story to run in exciting directions. That’s when my publishing career really began.
Did you think that you were creating a world in those historical novels? In other words, do you believe a historical novelist can accurately re-create a time period or setting?
I doubt we can accurately recreate earlier worlds. No matter how hard we try, we’re going to get an awful lot wrong or put our priorities in the wrong places, etc. It’s worth the effort, though. I focus on understanding my characters in the context of their environment. I build that environment on a combination of historical information and imagined details. The peculiar details matter so much, and they aren’t all things that you can find in history books. You have to expand upon the “facts” with fiction that weaves through it. A big part of that, for me, is using small, sensory description to place readers in the setting.
Is historical fiction writing also a matter of texture or style—somehow trying to match the period or…?
Often, but certainly not always.
I quite liked Barry Unsworth’s The Songs of the Kings. The story was set just before the Trojan War. The setting is so distant that it’s potentially mythic material, but Unsworth doesn’t try to make the characters feel archaic. In many ways, he plays up traits that might seem modern: cynicism, duplicity, skillful manipulation of religion for political gain, disguising greedy intentions behind nationalistic platitudes. It works precisely because Unsworth is consciously appealing to a contemporary mindset, and doing so with a wink.
On the other hand, I’ve been wrestling with my next historical novel for a while now. It’s about the Spartacus rebellion against ancient Rome. I tried a multiple third person approach with a big novel in mind, but it didn’t quite feel right. I tried an erudite first person approach, then a lean, visceral take. For a while, I was convinced I should write it as a clash between werewolves (Thracians and Gauls) and vampires (the Roman elite). But that didn’t go anywhere.
At the moment, what’s working is taking inspiration from ancient epic poetry, writing with a somewhat mythic voice, more like an oral bard than a contemporary novelist. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but if it does it’s because of the language helping me to capture the feel and mindset of the period.
If you had to list a few things that are important to historical fiction, what would they be?
I read a novel recently set in the Roman Empire. It was ambitious in scope, but it failed to live up to that because it didn’t provide any new insights – not for this reader, at least. Romans were exactly how we already think of them. Famous figures lived to the letter of the familiar clichés about them. Things happened just the way the historic books say they did. It may sound counterintuitive, but I think historical fiction is best when it makes something new of the old material. I want to close a book understanding history differently than I did before opening it. A great deal of historical fiction does this. When it doesn’t … I’m not sure what the point is.
Some historical fiction writers talk about not letting their research overwhelm the narrative. Was this ever a problem for you, and how did it manifest if so?
Definitely. With Gabriel’s Story, my first novel, I was so enamored of the research material that I often wrote too much of it into the pages. I had to learn which details served the story and which got in the way. I wrote a long section about shoeing horses one time, quite proud of myself. My wife read it and said, “This is a pretty good chapter, but you’ve got to cut the horseshoeing stuff. It’s boring.” She was right. Just because I’d just learned about horse care didn’t mean I needed to inflict it on the reader. By the time I finished that book, I had a file of pages I’d cut out that was as long as the actual finished manuscript.
When you switched over to fantasy, what was utterly familiar to you in writing the novels?
The fascination with imagined worlds. The desire to drop into them and get lost in a place that doesn’t exist – or that doesn’t exist anymore.
I read Frank Herbert’s Dune around the time I made the switch. Part way into that novel, far out in the desert of Arrakis, traveling with Paul Atreides, I was completely gripped. I was engaged intellectually, transported to a fantastic place, filled with mystery, turning the pages like crazy … I thought, “Wow, I remember this feeling.” It had been awhile, but I hadn’t enjoyed reading so much since I was lost in Middle Earth and Narnia and Earthsea as a kid. Getting that back was, in a way, like becoming a kid again.
What felt new and, at times, unfamiliar?
The SF/F fan community. A lot of folks that write in this genre have been actively involved in the community all of their adult lives. I hadn’t. The experience was new to me. My first convention ever was World Fantasy in Albany. I arrived knowing next to nobody. There was a lot to take in. Language and terminology to learn. Politics to get acquainted with. A fair number of quirks to get my head around. I’m a little surprised, looking back, how I jumped in with both feet and how well it worked out.
Also, my relationship with readers feels different than it was with my earlier books. There’s less of a barrier separating writer and reader. I hear from fantasy readers more. They write me directly, talk amongst themselves, get passionate about the books they love in ways literary readers rarely do.
To what extent was your series in conversation with other fantasy and heroic fantasy? And to what extent did you see it, if at all, as a corrective?
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m inclined to shrug and say, “I dunno.” Who am I to be corrective of an entire genre? I could say that I wrote the sort of fantasy I wanted to read, so perhaps the main conversation I was having was with myself.
That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
If Acacia is the type of fantasy that appeals to me, inherently there must be types of fantasy that don’t. True enough. I’m not that engaged by the notion of dark lords and white knights. Good versus evil. Evil minions against “men of the West”. And I don’t think fantasy needs to be nearly as tied to Europe as it has been.
I don’t need to change what other people are doing, or to denigrate their work. It’s not so much a matter of correcting as it of adding to it, expanding, including, and looking at what new things might be found in the genre’s potential. That’s what I’m for, and I’m not alone. The number of new voices and perspectives that are entering the genre excites me.
Coming from a genre in which you had certain constraints of history, what was it like to have the freedom to make it all up? Is calling the ability to make everything up “freedom” an accurate description?
There’s an element of freedom in it, but I’d call it a “responsibility” as well. The responsibility to create the fantastic realistically, to represent the complexity of your world, to do your research so that the stuff you’re making up has real substance, to establish the rules of your world and then live by them. I can decide to plop a desert down here and mountain range over there, but then I – and my characters – have to live with the challenges created by that. I don’t unmake stuff when it posed problems. Just the opposite. Watching how the characters are bound and challenged by the things I created is what it’s all about.
By the way, I think I did just as much research for Acacia as I did for any of my historical novels. It was broad research instead of specific, but I still wanted to make sure I was including as much real world complexity as I could handle.
What remained the same, regardless of genre, either about setting, characterization, or any other element of fiction?
Everything. Fundamentally, I think the same things apply. Different trappings, but similar scaffolding beneath the skin.
Do you feel there were questions you could ask, or ideas you could express, that manifested more fully or more organically in one genre over the other?
Not really. That’s probably why I feel comfortable moving between them.
One thing that I did enjoy about working in a fantasy world was that I could mash together things in one story that I couldn’t credibly do in a realistic setting. There are things in the series inspired by the Atlantic slave trade, and the Chinese opium trade, and nuclear fallout, and climate change, and the age of exploration, and germ warfare and … I could go on for a while. Point is that I saw so many things in our world I wanted to mix and mash. Fantasy made that much easier.
You mentioned having a hard time going back to historical fiction after writing secondary world fantasy. Can you explain why?
I’ve gotten over that now, but it was a problem. It took me forever to get traction on the novel I’m writing about the Spartacus rebellion. That vampires vs. werewolves idea really had its teeth in me. I even talked through some of them with my editor. Saner heads prevailed, and I reckon that’s for the best.
Why was it so hard? I can’t say for sure. I suspect that I’d been exercising different creative muscles with fantasy, and I was still using them on the historical material. But I was only half using them, and I was working against myself at the same time.
Lately, the novel has begun to take shape. What’s working now, I think, is that I’ve reconnected with finding the fantastical within the historical. I’m getting caught up in the very foreign world of ancient Thrace. Bizarre names. Strange gods. Warrior culture. Powerful women functioning within that. Divination and prophecy. Clashing visions of the world … It is a lot of the same stuff that’s so engaging about good epic fantasy. Perhaps it’s flowing easier because I’m finding a current of what’s similar with fantasy in ways that work fine within the real world setting.