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David Anthony Durham répond à nos questions

Par Neramith, le lundi 17 décembre 2007 à 23:39:25

Interview with David Anthony Durham, english version

Your previous books were written outside of the fantasy genre. Did you feel a need to justify yourself about this change of course ?

No, but I needed to explain the decision, mainly to my publisher. When I first proposed a fantasy to them they were surprised. There was no reason – from their standpoint – to expect me to go in that direction. Doubleday first signed me for an historical novel, Gabriel’s Story, about African-Americans on the Western frontier. My second novel with them, Walk Through Darkness, was about a runaway slave and the white man that is hired to track him. They were surprised when my third novel, Pride of Carthage, jumped back two thousand years to focus on Hannibal’s war with Rome, but at least that was still a historical novel.

Fantasy was a whole different concept! When I first mentioned it to them they must have thought I was going a little crazy. So I had to explain…

First, fantasy was terribly important to me as a young reader. I grew up reading Tolkein and CS Lewis and Ursula LeGuin and many others. It was fantasy that made me a reader, and I never forget how special that was.

Also, the fantasy world I wanted to write about was not really escapist. It is a world plagued with problems: slavery, global trade monopolies, state sponsored drug addiction, issues of racial diversity, large-scale warfare. These are many of the issues Doubleday would expect me to address.

Thing is, Acacia is also a world of intricate mythologies, of sorcery, imaginary creatures and all sorts of creative potential. I wanted to be able to address all the real-world topics that seem important to me, but to do so as part of an epic adventure in an imaginary world. And I wanted that world to be just as ethnically and culturally diverse as this world, just as full of complicated history!

All I had to do was explain these things to them – and later to readers when they asked – and they understood. Oh… also, I said that if I could only write one more novel before I died I wanted it to be this one. I think that convinced my editor I was serious!

How well have you been received by fantasy fans so far?

Oh, I have been very happy with the reception. You can never please everyone, of course, but I could not have been happier with the general response. All of the early reviews, and some important later ones like in The Washington Post, Locus, Realms of Fantasy and Entertainment Weekly understood that I was both serious about writing a fantasy and serious about doing it my own way. The sales have been strong…

But what is most satisfying is hearing from fantasy fans that understand and appreciate what I am trying to do. Having a website, blog and forum has made it much easier for readers to contact me directly. Every time I get an email from someone thanking me for the novel and saying they are waiting for the next one… well, every time that happens I am reminded of exactly why I write. I write for that person, and for all the other people like them, readers that can interact with my words and bring them to life. It is magical to be able to connect with people that way.

Doubleday is not known for publishing fantasy novels. It’s a real mark of confidence on Gerald Howard’s part !

Yes, that is true. I believe Doubleday did science fiction years ago, but certainly not in the last few decades. They are more famous now for publishing literary stars like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, and also bestsellers like John Grisham and Dan Brown. But I am very happy to say that my editor, Gerry Howard, has a lot of faith in me. After Pride of Carthage he said that I had written myself out of any simple category or box that anyone might want to put me in. He would not have predicted I would choose fantasy, but when he read the novel he saw that it was still my work, still my vision and writing style and thematic focus.

So, yes, he has shown confidence in me. I also think he has a lot of confidence in his own judgment, too. He has edited a lot of books by a lot of prominent writers in his career. None of it was fantasy, but he figured if I could hook a skeptic like him in to a fantasy world I was probably going to be able to hook others in too!

You are a diligent blogger : you post about the current situation with Acacia 2, you debate… Is the web an important tool in terms of communicating with your readers, do some research, etc?

Yes, absolutely. A few years ago I knew nothing of networking on the Internet. Fortunately, a friend bought my domain name for me as a birthday present a few years ago. He designed my first website and really shoved me into cyber space. I am glad he did!

Now I get emails and interact on my blog and forum with people from all around the world. I correspond with people in the UK, in Germany and Italy and the Netherlands and New Zealand – and with a few in France, too. (Hopefully, more soon.) I love that, and I very much like to be able to present myself directly to readers and to have them speak directly to me. That is what my blog is all about. It is a method to overcome all the barriers that were once between writers and readers. Not all writers like having those barriers removed, but I do. It is the way of the future, yes?

And, yes, it is valuable for research. I did not use the Internet much at all while writing my first three novels. Now, though, it is the first place I go when I have a question.

How does it feel to learn that French fantasy fans are eagerly awaiting the French edition of Acacia ?

Is that true? If it is I am thrilled!

I have wanted to be published in France since my very first book. I actually wrote most of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in France. My wife (who is from Scotland) and I lived in Albertville for six months in 1999. She was working as a telephone receptionist for a French ski company that catered to British tourists. She was also pregnant, so we got out early pre-natal care in France. She supported me while I made one last attempt at writing a publishable novel. (I had already written two that have never been published.) While I was living in a small apartment in Albertville I was dreaming up a novel set in the rugged American West more than a hundred years earlier. I do know how it worked, but it did.

So France has always been a part of my publishing story. I did not know I would have to wait four books before I got one published in France, but I am glad that it is fantasy that has finally allowed me to break in.

Could you elaborate on the negotiations that saw Acacia be picked up by a French publisher ? By the way, will you be consulted about the French translation of your work? Would you like it?

Doubleday handles the foreign sales for me. I do not really get involved until they have an offer that they think is a good one. I know that three French publishing houses were bidding on Acacia. Hors Collections came out on top.

It is not just a matter of money, though. My understanding is that the publisher at Hors Collections, Jean Arcache, was passionate about the book and felt strongly about the quality of my writing. They will be promoting it as their featured debut series of the year, which also makes me feel very good about the deal.

As for the translation, I will just have to trust Hors Collections to do it well.

Acacia contains some classical fantasy elements, yet it also explores themes that are seldom seen in this genre (slavery, drugs, etc). How did you manage that balance ?
I cannot imagine writing about powerful nations and ambitious leaders without dealing with those sort of issues. Unfortunately, such realities have always been part of how the world works. In Acacia – as in America, yes – the ruling class has created a grand mythology of their own goodness and benevolence. It is their way of feeling good about themselves and comforting their children, even though the realities hidden behind the face of things is much darker.

In the novel, I wanted to work on several levels. Part of it is a fantastical battle between forces, each which considers themselves to be good fighting evil. I also wanted it to be a tale of several characters adventuring and growing to maturity within the swirl of large, earth-changing events. And I wanted these characters to discover that the evils they need to face are not monsters and invading hordes. Even harder to overcome for the Akaran children is the legacy of political and economic exploitation their empire was built on.

Do you consider yourself as a committed writer ? It’s not really common in the fantasy realm.

I have always felt compelled to write about issues that I believe are of moral importance. In my first two novels America’s legacy of slavery loams large, as does our continuing failure to really come to terms with the multi-cultural reality of our country. My novel about Hannibal is filled with enormous battles and heroic figures and ambitious leaders – but it is, ultimately, an anti-war novel. Considering the climate in America when it came out I would probably have sold more copies if it had been a thinly disguised patriotic pro-war novel. I could never write something like that, though. It is important to me that my writing be intellectually challenging in addition to being entertaining. I believe that the best writing is both.

The same is true with Acacia. I think that taking an issue out of its normal position in people’s minds came allow readers to see it with new eyes. For example, my novel Walk Through Darkness was about a runaway slave that is trying to find his pregnant wife. He is desperate to be with her once he learns that he is to be a father. That makes his life as a slave unbearable, so he risks everything to be a husband and a father and to find some sort of freedom. Those that read it responded very positively, but the people that read it were people that were already interested in such issues. I am happy to write for them, but I also want to reach some readers that do not think such crimes have anything to do with their lives.

In Acacia, readers who would never read a novel about American slavery are presented with a different variation of it. In this case it is something that touches all the peoples of the Known World. Everyone’s children are in danger. Anyone’s love ones could be sent across an ocean into the unknown… I hope that looking at the issue that way adds a personal connection for people that would not have felt a personal connection to it.

So, yes, at some level I do take my writing quite seriously. I want it be literature that reflects back on our world and that challenges readers to actively think about complex issues. But… I also believe readers can enjoy the adventure and suspense and plot of it. I believe that is part of what makes literature accessible and relevant.

Your characters are vivid, deep, and very human, in epic scenes as well as in more intimate chapters. Is this something you strive for?

Yes. I think for a reader to be truly engaged with characters they have to be complex. They must be conflicted at times. They must be noble in some ways and petty in others. They must have fears and flaws that balance their strengths and virtues. I believe that is how we are in real life, so why should characters be any different in fiction?

With Acacia you established yourself as one of the best epic fantasy authors in the genre. Does that add any pressure as far as writing the sequels is concerned?

You are too kind! Am I one of the best epic fantasy authors? I would love to be, but at this early point I just hope that people read and enjoy what I do!

I feel pressure on the sequels, yes, but it is also exciting to think of the places I am going and the things I am looking to do with the sequels. I hope that readers will come to understand my addition to fantasy much more with the coming books.

By the way, when can we expect « The Other Lands » ?

I am working hard on it now. I plan to deliver it to my publisher sometime in 2008, which would mean publication in 2009.

What is your take on the fantasy genre these days? Do you think that your past as a non-fantasy author alters your perception of the genre?

I see a lot of potential in the genre, but in ways I think it has stayed too long in the shadow of Tolkien. He was such an enormous influence that other writers have been imitating him ever sense. I would like to think that we are on the verge of hearing from a lot of new voices in fantasy – authors from outside of the Tolkien tradition. For me, that is most exciting.

Yes, I have definitely entered the genre with a different perspective. I studied literature in university and have a Masters Degree in creative writing. Certainly, that education was good in terms of learning to carefully read literature, but I was never encouraged to read fantasy or other genre fiction. It was not until after university that I began to read more broadly again. It was good to read fantasy and science fiction and crime writing from a literary perspective. Much of it does not meet a high standard in terms of character development, originality, theme and substance. But when it does – and when that is combined with great storytelling and drama – it is wonderful! That is what I want to write. And, I think, it is what many people want to read.

Have you sold the rights to your other novels (Pride of Carthage, for example) to French publishers?

No. I would love to publish more books in France, but it has not happened yet. As I mentioned, I will always think of France as being connected to my writing since I wrote my first novel in France. I feel very proud of those novels, and I do think French audiences would find them interesting. The first two are very American stories, yes, but I believe they provide a unique view into the African-American historical experience. They are a little subversive, I think. They take familiar material – like the genre Western – and spin it in different directions, with different main characters, a different lens through which that world is viewed.

While writing Pride of Carthage, I traveled across Southern France – as Hannibal did. Also, I was very influenced by Flaubert. I had his novel, Salammbo, by my side I as I worked. It was definitely an influence.

But the answer to your question, sadly, is no. Perhaps that will change before long.

Do you have any book recommendations for our readers, fantasy or otherwise?

Anything by Octavia Butler, but especially Kindred, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. She was a wonderful, complex writer, brave and insightful. Her writing is full of pain and hope at the same time. Remarkable.

Last but not least, is there anything you wish to share with French fans?

Thank you for your interest. As I said, I feel honored to be published in French. I hope it is the start of a long relationship.

  1. Entretien avec David Anthony Durham, version française
  2. Interview with David Anthony Durham, english version

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