BHM SFF Interview Series Week Four: David Anthony Durham

Today, on this last day of Black History Month, we have a VERY special treat for you all.  Prepare to have some wisdom dropped on you by a Master Class writer in the field.  None other than David Anthony Durham is joining us today. This man has been a major influence on a number of folks in the FIYAH staff and we were all absolutely thrilled when he agreed to spend some time dropping some of his wisdom on us.  Everyone please take notes!  We know we did! 

FIYAH: So what’s your writing routine like? Do you have any rituals you follow at all?

Durham: Right now I don’t have a writing routine. Sad to say, but I’m still in a long period of disruption, a big international move, teaching, a busy period of events/conferences, and I’ve just concluded a long period on the academic job market. That last thing turned out well, as I’ve just been offered a position in the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno. That’s got me very excited. It’s a new program and one of very few that is open to genre fiction: science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime, historical, YA, etc. I think we can build something special with such a program, and the fact that they hired me speaks to their desire to become a diverse program. I’ve also taught for years at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. I still love that, too. If you know anyone interested in getting an MFA in either forward-thinking program send them my way!

But I haven’t answered your question! When I am in a good writing routine there are definitely rituals. Routine is, for me, important in setting up a structure that helps me get work done. It’s a lot of small things. I get up and immediately have to feed the dog and the cats, get the coffee brewing, make lunches and breakfast for the kids. It’s an hour of scrambling. Once the kids are gone, the dog makes sure I know it’s time for his walk. Once that’s done… More coffee. I check emails. Read news. Try not to be too depressed. All the takes me to about 9am, at which point it’s clear I have to start working.

My writing throughout the work day is still mixed in with other things. Has to be. That’s just life. But I try to keep myself focused on moving whatever I’m working on forward. It’s really a matter of constantly re-focusing. There’s a phone call. There’s a research question I need to find the answer to. There’s no coffee in my cup. That needs to be remedied. All day, things try to get in the way. All day, I keep reminding myself to get back to the page, to my characters, to the story they’re leading me through. That’s the routine: constantly realizing something has pulled me away from the page and then wrenching myself back into it. Until the next distraction…

FIYAH: Has that routine to evolved as you’ve published more books? Because I think distraction is something that we all struggle with as writers.

Durham: I’d say they’ve changed from book to book. Like, in terms of specific rituals… With Pride of Carthage I listened to classical music, especially a cello concerto by Elgar. I don’t know why, but there was something about it that captured the spectacle of Hannibal crossing the snow-covered Alps on elephants. It just kept reminding me of how amazing the whole story was. With the Acacia books I listened to a lot of music from Africa – Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Cheikh Lô, Cesária Évora. It’s like I wanted to remind myself that I was creating a diverse world, like ours, one that was fantasy but that reached into cultures not historically included in fantasy at that point. With The Risen, my novel about the Spartacus rebellion, I didn’t really listen to music. It was a hard novel to write for many reasons. One thing I did do was take very slow walks on this one section of trail behind my house. It was like if I walked really slowly and stared at the ground for long enough I’d figure out whatever it was I needed to figure out. A lot of the time it worked. I can’t really explain it. The rituals don’t always make sense. But if it works…

FIYAH: What do you feel is the hallmark of a David Anthony Durham novel?

Durham: Interesting question. I think there are three things that are near the heart of all my novels: a focus on individual characters struggling amidst big social and political forces and conflicts, an interest in highlighting the things that can (or should) connect people despite all the obvious differences we tend to focus on, and a need to represent for a diverse cast of characters – across race and gender and sexual orientation, young and old, rich and poor, powerful characters and those at the mercy of tnat power. My novels never just focus on one character. They tend to be a chorus of stories that approach things from lots of different perspectives.

FIYAH: How did you initially approach the idea of bringing your blackness to the page when you started writing? Was there hesitation or did you just dive in?

Durham: My very first stories were specifically about growing up black and male in the 1980’s. Those stories became my first two novels. (The two that never got published.) And then my first two novels that did get published were specifically about being black in America – first in the Old West with Gabriel’s Story and then about the fugitive slave experience just before the Civil War in Walk Through Darkness. That’s where I began and things have grown from there.

FIYAH: For someone trying to follow your path as a master class fantasy writer, what advice would you give them?

Durham: I say check out the paths of other writers of color who have been exploding what fantasy and science fiction can and should be. Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Jennifer Brissett, Sofia Samatar, Tobias Buckell, and Daniel José Older, just to name a few. And check out Saladin Ahmed, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, and Cindy Pon, just to name a few more.

Point is, there have been a lot of people bringing more of the real world than ever before into SFF. Make sure to check out what they’ve done, and then find your way to bring even more into the mix.

FIYAH: Queen Corrin is arguably one of the most complex, interesting and nuanced antagonists in fantasy in the last decade. How did you go about building such a flawlessly sculpted character? (sidenote: I still cry in The Sacred Band when she’s at the end with Hanish)

Durham: Thank you. That makes me smile. Sadly, but still.

Corinn was an interesting character. It’s great that you liked her complexity. From my side of things she’s the character that I may have gotten the most criticism for. Some readers seemed to take issue with her suddenly becoming “evil”. And/or thinking she went from trivial to powerful too quickly.

Personally, I don’t see her that way. To me, she was never trivial. She was privileged by status and birth and beauty, with a fixed number of things expected of her. When events strip a lot of that away of course she’s going to emerge more fully as an individual who has to deal with the new situation. And I don’t think of her as “evil” at all. I see the logic behind the things she does, and I get that no matter how cruel some of things she does may be she’s doing them for what she believes are the right reasons – to protected herself, her loved ones, her nation, etc. Her evolution all makes sense to me. I’d just like to think she was never as simple as she may have appeared, and circumstances pushed her to extremes.

FIYAH: In THE OTHER LANDS, you brought back a key character towards the end of it. A risky move in some respects.  How did you get to be fearless in your storytelling?

Durham: I’m not fearless. There’s plenty I’m afraid of as relates to writing. In this particular case, though, I had to weigh up whether bringing this character back was an easy way of bringing back a character who died too soon, or whether it was a reasonable result of the magical power Corinn comes to wield. I felt like it was the latter, that it made sense for her. Also, though, the character comes back, but comes back changed, limited, with a perspective that’s not always aligned with Corinn’s. It complicates things and challenges her. That felt worth including.

FIYAH: Ok so this is more a personal question for me, but I’m sure some other aspiring fantasy writers out there might be struggling with it. What is your process when writing out these epic action scenes where you have armies facing off?

Durham: This is fresh in my mind because I just presented on it at a university event. The first time I had to handle big action/war scenes was with Pride of Carthage. Historical fiction instead of fantasy, but the same things apply. When I began writing that novel I didn’t know how I was going to describe something like the Battle of Cannae – with troops numbering in the hundreds of thousands and with massive death tolls from brutal, hand to hand combat. By the time I reached the battle I’d come to know many point of view characters. Turns out, they were going to be my guides through the battle, giving me – and readers – glimpses of all the crucial parts. Mago is there with the generals watching the two armies converge on each other. Seeing through his eyes, I could present the big picture. Then I shifted to a foot soldier, Imco. With him, it’s all small scale, life and death, him and the men he’s trying to kill. And who are trying to kill him. Next Tusselo, a Numidian horseman, takes up the story. He’s part of the flanking maneuver that’s so crucial to how the battle plays out. And then we get Scipio’s perspective as the Roman army is surrounded and massacred. Lastly, a camp follower, Aradna, stands at the edge of the battlefield as the sun rises the next morning. She looks over the carnage and then she wades into it with the other camp followers to scavenge what they can from the dead. No one character told the whole story. They all showed me their part of it. Collectively, that added up to a bigger story than any one of them could offer.

That’s often how I address epic action scenes. Character by character.

FIYAH: So what’s new on the plate for you project wise? Small hints and winks are acceptable answers!

Durham: I found my next novel shortly after the last presidential election. It involves a slightly exaggerated version of our world, shaped by collapsing economies, increase deportations, rejections of refugees, and a huge expansion of the prison industrial complex. It’s a somewhat dystopian novel, but it’s my own take on a near future that I think will be a bit different than most of what’s out there right now.

FIYAH: Your entire family seems pretty darn talented. How much fun is it living in the Durham household?

Durham: You’re kind. It’s a good thing we’re not competitive with each other! My wife is a popular knitwear designer. My daughter is an amazing visual artist. My son is a great story doctor and character creator. I look to him often when I’m stuck with my writing. He always helps. He’s been a big help creating characters with me for the Wild Cards collaborative novels I contribute to, edited by George R. R. Martin. My first character, Marcus Morgan (aka The Infamous Black Tongue) evolved out of a character of his. I don’t mind admitting it. 😉

Yeah, we’re tight, creatively and as a family. I’m very grateful for that.

You can find our guest’s wonderful books at:

David Anthony Durham

We want to again thank Mr. Durham for taking the time to speak with us. His words have brought a very eventful and prideful Black History Month to a satisfying end for us here at FIYAH.  We are beyond fortunate to have been blessed with his time.

Also, we would like to thank ALL of our other writers who have been a part of this interview series.  Tade Thompson, Nicky Drayden, and Na’amen Tilahun were all phenomenal.  We so look forward to their continued careers. 

And for some of you reading this wondering about your own writing, keep pushing! Your voice is needed.  You are loved and you are wanted.  And we look to the day we can interview someone who read these words and were inspired by then.

Happy Black History Month!  Let’s keep the year moving!

-The FIYAH Team