Our Writers of Fantasy Interview series continues with David Anthony Durham, best known for the Acacia trilogy and his new book The Risen. We talked about building fantasy cultures, characters, and wider themes of representation and more!
Your books develop and explore numerous political machinations (Acacia especially); what was the development process for building and developing them? What did you enjoy most about the political intrigue?
I think the same thing sort of answers both parts of your question.
What I enjoyed most about the political intrigue was the process of slowly uncovering the secrets that are at the heart of what makes the Acacian world tick. In the first book I introduce the notion that the Acacian empire trades with a distant power that they know little about. They offer slaves; they get drugs to help them sedate their people in return. That’s about as much as the reader knows about things in the first book. Thing is, that was also about as much as I knew as well.
All the power players of the novel have secrets, things they keep hidden from others to give themselves advantages. They tried pretty hard to keep them hidden from me, too! I mostly had to figure things out by writing the story forward, following the characters, and every now and then going, “Oh… so that’s what these guys are up to…” And a little later, “And that’s what these other guys are up to…” And, “Wait… so these guys over here are actually doing this because of…” And so on.
That was fun. It kept things interesting and, hopefully, unpredictable.
With a number of cultures represented in your books what was the most interesting part of making new cultures and countries for your worlds?
I enjoyed being able to take bits and pieces of cultures from our world, pluck them out of their entrenched context, and splice them together with things that wouldn’t be possible in historical fiction.
The culture of the island power of Vumu, for example, is a real mixture of influences. Racially, I picture the people as looking like Sri Lankans. But the culture that took shape in my mind wasn’t particularly Sri Lankan. The mythology is more influenced by The Epic of Gilgamesh, which came from an entire different part of the world. I loved the racy bombast of the story, the epic conflicts and deceptions and the strange turns of events.
The people of Vumu take my variations on those types of stories and bring them to life with a visual religious display and ceremonies that seem to me to be sort of Polynesian. And I took the historical tidbit that there were once eagles in New Zealand that were large enough to snatch people into the air. I gifted that particular problem on Vumu. It became a physical danger on the islands, and it wove into their mythology and religion as well. The result, I hope, is fun and interesting and not quite like anything on earth.