By David Anthony Durham
About a year ago, I pitched a new character to George for an upcoming Wild Cards novel called Texas Hold Em’. I’m very pleased to say that he accepted the character, and I wrote a story about him that will be in the book. That’s the straightforward version of things. The details are a bit more convoluted, though. In many ways the character originated far from the Wild Cards world.
Let me explain.
Back in 2012, I signed a contract for a new novel, my first one after the Acacia Trilogy. It was to be my return to historical fiction, and the project felt like a natural fit. I proposed to write about the Spartacus rebellion against ancient Rome. I’d previously published a novel about Hannibal’s war against Rome, and my publisher had been very happy with how that one did. So, they signed me up. Happy stuff, right?
Thing is, when it came time to write the book, I struggled with how to start. I kept trying different approaches – like every approach, point of view, entry point, style, tense, etc. that I could think of. Each time things started well, but eventually I bogged down and it didn’t feel right. It was maddening. My wife kept telling me, “This version is good. Just keep going!” Good advice, but instead I flailed. This wasn’t supposed to be happening mid-career, on my seventh novel! But there it was. I was stuck. Blocked, I guess.
After months and months of this, I had an idea. I don’t know where it came from or why, but I started to see the Spartacus conflict as a struggle between werewolves (the Thracian and Celtic gladiators) and vampires (the Roman elite). The idea took hold. Everything made sense. I could see the entire arc of the story and think of the ways that this supernatural element allowed me to hit all the plot points. For the first time with this book, I got excited.
When I proposed the idea to my editor he was… well, excited was not the word for it. He was like, “Really David? Spartacus: Vampire Hunter?” He pointed out that the contract I’d signed was for a straight historical novel. That was what they’d agree to and wanted from me. Still, he agreed to let me give the werewolves a try. If I wrote a big chunk of pages he’d take a look at them. If I could convince him with the writing itself, he’d give me the thumbs up.
I dove in. Fangs and claws, jaws and fur. Hyped up violence, sex, gore. I read a ton of werewolf/vampire fiction, researched them, dreamed of them. I began to see werewolves behind everything. In the history. In songs. In myself. Same with vampires. Both creatures evolved out of a mythology I built for them, and both felt unique enough for me to feel confident my take on them was doing a few new things with the old tropes. All my computer desktop images? Big, snarling canine monsters in all their glory.
Sounds good, yeah? With crossed fingers, I eventually sent off a hundred blood-soaked pages to my editor. Then I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
What was worse? Getting the response I finally did.
My editor was perplexed. He admitted that he kinda liked the pages, but he couldn’t decide if he… should like them. He said something along the lines of, “I can’t tell if this is really good or… really bad. It could be a big hit, or it could be a total flop. So…”
Before he could finish that sentence, I scrambled. I came up with different variations on the werewolves, giving them a spectral manifestation that I thought still worked. Basically, I tried to slide a modified werewolf by him.
Nope. Wasn’t happening. The more I tweaked the concept, the more he hardened against it. And that was it. It was a no. My werewolves were not to be. Considering the wording of the contract, and the fact that I’d signed it (and the troubling detail that I’d also already spent the advance money) I had no choice but to get back to writing the novel I’d promised them in the first place.
Fortunately, I found a way to do that, and the novel that resulted is called The Risen. I figured out how to write the straight historical version. Turns out, it wasn’t a matter of just structuring it like Pride of Carthage. It ended up being different than any of my novels. I found other ways to love the characters and the story I wanted to tell about them. From my perspective, the werewolves and vampires are still in the novel – but they’re disguised. If you ever read it, try to spot them. 😉
Thing is, I never fully let go of whatever carnal love it was that brought me to them – especially to the werewolves. They sort of hunkered down, lurked at a distance, howled in the night. They lingered in my imagination, waiting for an opportunity to emerge more completely.
And this brings me back to Wild Cards. When George asked for pitches for Texas Hold ‘Em those lurking werewolves saw their chance. I’d love to tell you all about the character I created! Obviously, George wasn’t going to accept a straight up werewolf story. This is Wild Cards, after all. One has to think a bit out of the box. Alas, I can’t reveal the specifics of my character. The story line is all about the reveal of how the wolf emerges and manifests.
What I will say is that through Wild Cards I’ve finally found a way to get my werewolf into the world. It’s one of the amazing aspects of writing in this universe. Anything is possible.