Sunday, January 28, 2007

David, why fantasy?

I get asked that quite a bit. (I got asked "Why Hannibal?" quite a bit also, by the way.) Inherent in the question is the suggestion that my time could be better spent elsewhere, in some more serious pursuit, with something tougher and of greater import. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that nothing I could have chosen to write at this point would have been more serious, or tougher, or more completely engaging. As far as the import goes - well, I think there's plenty to be found in my imagined world that reflects directly back on ours. Acacia is a novel about the myths empires create to explain away their crimes. It's about how difficult it is to join idealism with action. It's about ambition and hope and dealing with the disappointments inflicted by a callous world. It's about family legacy, sibling rivalry, enduring guilt and striving to correct past wrongs. All of these themes and more occupied me in this novel, just as much as they would in a contemporary or historical novel.

Having said that, I guess I still haven't answered the fundamental question, though. Why fantasy? Part of it had to do with paying homage to a genre that was important to me as a young reader. Nothing captured my interest and completely enraptured me and drove me to read like fantasy did. I ate up CS Lewis, Tolkein, and Lloyd Alexander. Ursula LeGuin was challenging and exciting for reasons I didn't even completely understand at the time. I read Lord of the Rings in middle school, at a time when my reading level still hadn't risen from the slow start I got in elementary school. (I was always in the lowest reading group throughout elementary school. I lived all those years under the widely acknowledged belief that I wasn't that bright and was never going to be anything other than a mediocre student. Go figure. This stuff is probably the subject of a different post entirely...) I remember that my teacher initially cautioned against my reading The Rings. It was above my reading level, she said, and I'd probably find it too difficult. Believe that? If I hadn't wanted so badly to fall into this imagined world I'd probably have accepted that. But I had to read that book. It wasn't easy, but I loved the experience, and pushing through such novels improved my reading by bounds, improved my self-image, stimulated my imagination and, in a great many ways, set me on the path to being a writer.

And I'm not alone in this. Many of the people who ask that why fantasy question eventually admit that fantasy was important to them too. And they admit that it's what they enjoy reading with their kids now. And they can end up spending quite a while talking about how those complex, epic stories entertained them in a way that nothing has since. And there's the cheese. I'm sure that some of the lackluster impact of adult reading has to do with the fact that rarely can stories blow our minds like when we're kids. Also, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that most fantasy writers don't strive to up their game that much - not when they've found a formula that consistently sells them millions. This, I think, is why so many people turn away from fantasy; it doesn't necessarily grow and become more complex as they do. I think this is also why many of the people who do continue to read fantasy as adults consistently complain about the quality, even while they keep reading, keep hoping their once favorite writer is going to get good again. They always do buy the new Robert Jordan and the new Terry Goodkind, even though they complain vociferously about issues with the books that have bothered them for the last four or five volumes. They're loyal, but there not entirely satisfied. (Check Amazon reviews if you don't believe me.) They want the authors to recapture that old magic. Thing is, I think those authors are doing what they've always done; it's the readers who've changed over the 10 or 15 or 20 years since they read those authors for the first time.

So here's what I got to thinking... What if I could recapture the wonder of exploring a completely imagined world, but do so in a way that's challenging and complex, that's "literary" but also exciting, a quest, an adventure, a saga, something that could entertain and challenge at the same time? (By the way, I'm not saying I'm the only one that's striving for this. In the last few years I've greatly enjoyed discovering Frank Herbert, George RR Martin, Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Orson Scott Card, just to name a few. There's some very good writing to be found in the fantasy and sci-fi genre, not to mention ideas and philosophical musings that I find quite engaging. And every so often a "literary" writer gets pulled over to the dark side, although they often have a hard time admitting that they're dabbling in a genre: think TC Boyle and Margaret Atwood, for instance.) And what if I could do it with a truly multiracial cast of characters that includes and represents for our actual cultural diversity? I found that a very exciting idea. That's why I choose to write Acacia.

Believe me, it's riskier than if I'd stayed on familiar territory. There's no guarantee that fantasy readers are going to like my take on the epic; nor will the literary audience necessarily embrace it as I hope they do. My publisher and agent both talked that through with me. They love what I've done and what I'm proposing to do, but they admit it's still a tricky proposition. But don't you get a bit tired of authors not taking risks? We should do so more often, I think. In the academy people complain about genre writing being formulaic. It usually is, but a lot of "literary" writers stay on safe ground from book to book also. That gets less attention, but I think it's no less an issue to be critical of.

So there you have it. Those are some of the things that drove this project. There's more, I'm sure, and I'll rant a little more at some other point. But that's what comes to mind during this sitting. Let me know what you think, if you'd like to.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read your work yet, but a friend gave me Pride of Carthage and said it was good. I'll try it, but honestly I'm more interested in fantasy one. If it's as good as you say I'll be your number one fan. If it's not I'll track you down and... well, complain about it. Deal?

1:31 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Um... Okay, I guess. That's slightly scary, but if all you're going to do is complain I'm okay with taking that gamble. I hope it doesn't come to that, though.

And, by the way, you don't mean "number one fan" in a Stephen King Misery way, do you?


2:36 PM  

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