Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with David Anthony Durham
TI: Hi David! Thanks for taking the time to talk today. Let’s jump right in—did you know there’s a David Anthony Durham wanted by the FBI? When I first googled you, it was one of the top results. I clicked it, and the photo revealed a white guy with a mullet. You’re not white and you lack hair, so I’m out a $10,000 reward. But let’s pretend you’re a criminal for a second. Where would you hide? Other than invisibility, what ace power do you think would be the most effective in living life as a fugitive?
DAVID: Yeah, that dude. Bane of my life. 😉
Here’s what I’m accused of: Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution – Attempted Aggravated Murder (4 counts), Attempted Murder (10 counts), Assault in the First Degree, Assaulting a Public Safety Officer, Unlawful Use of a Weapon (12 counts), Recklessly Endangering Another (10 counts), Menacing (10 counts), Attempted Assault in the First Degree (9 counts), Assault in the Second Degree (3 counts), Attempted Assault on a Public Safety Officer (3 counts), Fleeing or Attempting to Elude a Police Officer (3 counts), Reckless Driving, Assault in the Third Degree. Also, wearing camo-gear and having a dog named Huckleberry. Considering how frequently race is used in describing crime suspects, I think it would be handy to be able to race-shift. (This is not at all an admission that I already have this power and am currently using it to evade the FBI.)
TI: No, no of course not. You’ve lived all over the world. Maine, Scotland, and now Nevada. Which place has been your favorite?
DAVID: Also Oregon, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, Arizona and France. I mean, being on the run from the FBI means I’ve got to keep moving. I’m hearing Thailand calling just now… I’m absolutely impossible with favorites questions. It’s never that cut and dry. There are always pros and cons. But I can say some favorite places. Edinburgh, Scotland, where I met my wife and spent a couple of years. Also Shetland, where my wife is from. I’ve visited there many times and considered making the move to there each time. The hill towns of Western Massachusetts, near Amherst and Northampton. We’ve left and returned to the area frequently.
Right now, I’m living in Reno teaching in the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno. I quite like the city. It’s modest size. The sun. The climate. Living at altitude. The university community. The quirky/artsy/rough edges of the city. Having the Sierra Nevada mountains literally start outside my back door.
TI: I used to associate Reno with casinos, but now I know better. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Onto Wild Cards! Now that Texas Hold ‘Emis out, we can talk about it, right? In Drop City, Bacho reveals that he is perpetually on-time, and more often early. I’m the same way and hate waiting for others. Do you consider yourself a punctual person?
DAVID: There are still casinos. As a non-gambler there are other ways that they end up being useful. Bowling alleys, for example. And I know I can always catch sports events there. Watched several of the women’s world cup matches there on enormous screens. Re punctuality. Okay. I’ve been warned. Next time we’re scheduled to meet I’ll do my best to be early. I am fairly punctual, yes. I’m jealous of people who are casual about being on time. I get far too wound up about it, even in circumstances where it doesn’t much matter. It’s a personal flaw.
TI: What or who inspired Bacho? Did he surprise you while writing?
DAVID: The details of all this make for quite a long story, but I’ll give an abbreviated version. Once upon a time, I agreed to write an epic historical war novel. About a year in, I realized that what I actually wanted to write was an epic historical vampire/werewolf war novel. My publisher at the time was highly skeptical, so I had to pitch the idea in several different variations, trying to get them to see how my vision could work. Ultimately, they didn’t know what to think and required that I stick to writing the straight historical that I’d been contracted for. So I shelved the vampires and werewolves. I didn’t forget about them, though. When it came time to pitch a new character for Texas Hold’ EmI pulled from one of those shelved ideas and realized it could work in the Wild Cards universe. That’s how Bacho was born. Fortunately, George and Melinda liked it and let me run with it.
TI: What are the most challenging aspects in creating characters for Wild Cards?
DAVID: In the Wild Cards universe, the hardest thing is creating character concepts that aren’t dumb, tired, or already in existence. George shot down a lot of my character proposals for these flaws. Don’t ask me for specifics. It’s too embarrassing.
TI: What was the inspiration behind DJ Tod? Do you or did you frequent dance clubs? What’s your music genre of choice?
DAVID: Oh, yes, I did. Clubbing was sort of my first career from my late teens through early twenties. The odd thing about that is that I could also say that during the same years my second career was as an Outward Bound Instructor and whitewater kayaker and raft guide. Seems improbable that both things are true, but there it is. Genre? Lots of techno, new wave, punk, R&B, house, rap. This is mostly in the late 80’s. I was all over the place. I still am, really. In terms of DJ Tod, I’m not entirely sure what came first – the dance club setting or the ace power that he wields there. I suppose it was a merging of my memories of the euphoria sometimes reached dancing with the ways that could be exaggerated in the Wild Cards world. As much fun as that was to write, I liked that the humor of it had a base of that had thematic weight.
TI: Let’s discuss Marcus Morgan aka Infamous Black Tongue. You’ve blogged about his inception (shout out to your son Sage and daughter Maya), but can you talk a little bit about him post-creation? Fitting him into different books and how it feels to see what other writers have done with him? Can you comment on the way a character’s arc changes in a shared world?
DAVID: The moment you ask that I’m aware that it’s not something I’ve thought about that deeply. But yes, each entry into a book required that I adapt his story to fit into the framework George presented us with, which means that the stories I’ve written for Marcus Morgan (aka the Infamous Black Tongue) only exist within the collaborative nature of the Wild Cards universe.
Fort Freak was a natural entry point for IBT. My story, “Snake Up Above/Snake in the Hole/Snake on Fire,” was his creation story, how he changed after his card turned, how it upset everything about his life. At the start, he’s a middle-class kid from suburban Baltimore, expecting a fairly normal life. When he suddenly becomes a joker, he’s rejected by his family. He has to find a place that he belongs and a life that makes sense. Where is he going to go? Jokertown, obvs. With Lowball (shout out to IBT for getting the cover!) things got a bit more complicated. When George proposed the storyline of jokers being whisked away to fight in some bizarre death match fight club I knew IBT would be a prime contender to get snatched. In my story, “Those About to Die,” he’s thrown into a violent gladiatorial environment, fighting for his life frequently. It’s brutal. It challenges him daily. He has his first love experience in there, and he also sees – and has a hand in – a joker father figure’s final fate. And then there’s High Stakes. So many things happen to IBT in this one! He finds himself adrift in a foreign land that he knows nothing about – Kazakhstan. He has to deal with everything from international gangsters, to violent riots, to numerous monsters of Lovecraftian horror, to the near destruction of the entire world. He interacts on the world stage with famous aces like Midnight Angel, Hoodoo Mama, Bugsy, Tesseract, and Earth Witch. He’s playing in the big leagues, helping to save the world.
It’s a testament to how much I trust the other Wild Cards writers that when they proposed to use IBT other books I said, “Go for it.” And when I read the sections he’s in I said, “Cool.” IBT has a part in Mississippi Roll, helping to save international refugees, and he’ll be in Joker Moon– literally heading into space. I love it. And that, really, gets at the heart of what this Wild Cards journey has been for me. Marcus Morgan, the kid from suburban Baltimore? He’s essentially me. I drew on my own story in creating him (with some amazing help from my then seven-year-old son). To watch that character move from hiding in the sewers of Jokertown to being a player on this imagined world’s stage has been amazing. I guess such personal connections with characters is at the heart of what comics have always done for people – both the creators and the consumers of the form. I get that now in a way I didn’t before.
TI: Let’s talk a little about the craft itself. As a professor at the University of Nevada, what tips do you have for aspiring writers? What common mistakes do new writers often make?
DAVID: I’m sure there are things I say over and over again that qualify as tips, but most of my teaching is more personal than that. I want to engage with each students’ work in terms specific to them – to who they are, what style of writing they’re producing, where they’re trying to go with it, and figuring out how best to push them to getting there. If pressed to come up with one general tip, it’s that they not only read a lot, but that aspiring writers not only read widely, but across genres. You write mostly SF? Okay, that’s fine, but find a good fantasy book to read every once in a while. Try some horror. Heck, read an occasional literary novel. Some thrillers and crime. When I got smart enough to start doing that corresponds exactly with when I began writing publishable material. There’s stuff to be learned outside of one’s comfort zones. I remember reading a scene in an Elmore Leonard western. What happened was so clever that I looked up from book and thought, “Oh, I see what he just did there. That’s fucking smart.” I had a new tool in my toolbox because of it.
One of the main things I think aspiring writers should remember is that chances are they have to write a lot of stuff that isn’t terribly good before they have the tools to write something that is. I’ve noticed that some epic fantasy writers drag along the same novel they began when they were fourteen for decades, unwilling to let it go. Usually, they should let it go. It feels like the DNA of those projects dates all the way back to that young writer. Revising it doesn’t always remedy that. One needs to be writing from where they are now, telling the stories that come to them now.
TI: What are you reading right now?
David: I’ve been reading a lot of African-inspired SF and fantasy lately: Nnedi Okorafor, Tade Thompson, Nicky Drayden, Evan Winters, Karen Lord, to name a few.
TI: How about watching?
David: Watching most recently has been Game of Thrones, Black Mirror, The Chi, Penny Dreadful, Nightflyers, The Haunting of Hill House, The Last Kingdom, Ozark, Designated Survivor, and a Walking Dead binge (seasons 1 through 4).
TI: Do you do any research for your writing?
DAVID: Yes. Always. Whether the project is historical or fantasy or science fiction or contemporary there are always things to look up, questions I need to find answers for, details that I have to consult others to get right.
TI: What’s your day-to-day like?
DAVID: It changes. I’ve been doing more teaching the last couple of years. That’s meant a bit less writing of big projects and the rhythm of an academic calendar. It also means that a lot of my time is spent on my students’ work. On the other hand, last fall I took a leave of absence from the university and spent three months working on a TV show. That was completely different! It was mostly being in a room with six or so people and spending the entire day talking about characters, a world, and plotlines that we were making up together. Throwing out dumb ideas and hoping some of them sparked a good idea. In the past when I’ve been in full time writer mode, days are spent trying to work on the current novel while navigating all the rest of the responsibilities of being a husband and father (and pet owner). There’s no one way I do it. It’s just a matter of dealing with the interruptions, getting some more coffee, and then getting back to the imagined world part of my mind is wrapped up in.
TI: Do you write seven days a week? Do you prefer the morning or evening?
DAVID: That would be highly optimistic. Seven days? The madness!
TI: Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
DAVID: Complicated. Isn’t it always? Through elementary school I lived in a predominantly white suburban Maryland neighborhood. I had good friends there, but in general I was constantly aware of being different, an intruder, the odd one out that frequently made others uncomfortable. At the same time I’d spend weekends and a big chunk of the summer at an all black beach community on the Chesapeake Bay. I’d also go for long stays with my dad in Trinidad, a black and brown country with an entirely different culture than any of my American experiences. In high school, I lived in a much more mixed neighborhood, but that brought a host of complications and challenges. No wonder I was a confused kid! I’m okay with it, though. I think it taught me to be observant, to hold multiple perspectives on things. When I first began to seriously write fiction I wrote about those experiences. I needed to work through them years later. In the process, I became a writer.
TI: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
DAVID: I figured that out in eight grade. Then spent high school trying to forget it in favor of under aged drinking and hallucinogenic drugs. True story.
TI: Were your parents members of the creative class?
DAVID: My mom was a reader, yes, but she saw the way forward as a black person to be getting enough education to land a steady job and build on that. I’m not sure that my father owns any books other than the Bible and a few of mine (that I gave him).
TI: Did they encourage your career choice?
DAVID: My career choice was my own thing. My mother wouldn’t have chosen writing. It was too much of a gamble, thinking I could earn a living making up stories. But she did support me in general though. She was there for all my early successes, and she was proud. That was wonderful.
TI: What books influenced you when you were young?
David: Oh, the usual suspects for a SFF writer. The Lord of the Rings. The Narnia Books. The Chronicles of Prydain. Earthsea.
TI: Did anymovies capture your imagination early on?
DAVID: The Star Wars trilogy was surely the most influential films of my childhood. I’ve still got the action figure collection to prove it.
TI: Have you ever kept a journal? If so, do you believe that it helps in your writing?
DAVID: I kept a journal when I was eighteen to twenty-two. I’ve no doubt it’s an excellent thing to do for many reasons. Alas, writing things down is also dangerous. Things written down can be read by other people. That happened once, with some pretty huge consequences. I’ve not journaled since.
TI: Yikes. The stuff of nightmares, that. What do you listen to when you’re writing?
DAVID: Depends on the project. When writing Pride of Carthage, my novel about Hannibal’s war with Rome, I listened to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. When writing the Acacia books I listened to a lot of contemporary African music: Cheik Lo, Cesaria Evora, Cherif Mbaw, Ali Farka Toure, Youssou N’Dour, to name a few. Writing The Risen, I listened to the sound of my head banging on my desk. (That was a hard book to write.) For my story in Texas Hold ‘Em I tranced out on deep house compilations. That became central to the plot of the story, actually. In a way, I found the story in the music.
TI: Writing question: Do you find that it’s more challenging to create an interesting “good” person vs. an interesting villain?
DAVID: I’d say writing an interesting villain is more challenging. I’ve written plenty of characters who do horrible things, but I never want them to be pure evil. No dark lords for me. I have to understand them to some degree, to get why they’re doing what they’re do, what shaped them, how they justify their actions.
Somebody once asked me why my character, Corinn, in the Acacia Trilogy became evil. I was like, “Oh, ah… no, she didn’t become evil.” She responded to the things the world presented her in ways specific to her. She’d never think of herself as evil, though. She’d see herself as just brave enough to do this that must be done, using all the resources she can draw on.
TI: Have you ever faced writer’s block? If so, please share your secrets in overcoming it.
DAVID: I’m not sure. To some extent writing is a daily struggle to overcome the fear of writing. It’s something I have to win in small ways each time I sit down to write. When I’m well into a novel and at my most productive but then get stuck, I do my best to find something else in the novel to write. As in, I’m stuck at page seventy five, but I have a scene in mind that will come much later in the book. So I jump to that, write it as best I can, even if it’s just a partial. Usually, when I go back to page seventy five I’ve got the energy or inspiration to pick up there and move forward again. Not sure why it works, but it does. There’s also the added treat of eventually writing up to that random scene and going, “Oh, right, I’ve written some of this already!”
TI: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
DAVID: A whitewater kayak instructor.
TI: I watched The River Wildas a kid and have been terrified of whitewater since. Have you ever tipped over or faced a rapid that made you reconsider getting into the water?
DAVID: Tipped over? Hah! I’ve tipped over in every way possible, in rafts, canoes, kayaks, duckies, boogie boards. I’ve tipped over in flat water (practicing that kayak roll) and in some rather scary class V whitewater. A fun thing to do as a raft guide with a newly trained and obedient crew of customers is to get them paddling toward a nice, innocuous eddy line that you cross at the right angle as you simultaneously give the call for them to shift their body weight to one side of the raft. This produces an instant flip that they had no idea was coming. Very safe, of course. Just funny.
TI: Or evil.
DAVID: I’ve absolutely faced rapids that I didn’t want to run. I made a point of never running anything that didn’t feel right, that I couldn’t scout and come up with a plan for. The only rapid that I consistently had to run that I didn’t like was when I was raft guiding on the North Yuba river in Northern California. It’s called Maytag. It’s a big, dumb rapid. There is very little that you can do to run it skillfully. It’s one shoot of a lot water that crashes into a big hydraulic that you come out of and then crash into another hydraulic that at certain levels the raft is pretty much guaranteed to get stuck in, thrashed in, and eventually flipped. And that’s like going through an old industrial washing machine cycle. Hence the name. Thing is, if my customers wanted to run it I pretty much had to run it. I was working as a raft guide in the southeast when The River Wild came out. A bunch of us went to see it together and had a great time. Entertaining movie.
TI: George R. R. Martin has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you attend cons?
DAVID: Absolutely. I’ve been to tons of cons and hope to go to tons more. I actually met George at my first World Fantasy. I had a moment of boldness and sat down next to him for the big author signing event. I didn’t sign many books. (George did.) But I got to hang out with him for a couple of hours. At the moment my new job teaching in the MFA program of the University of Nevada makes this easier. Our program is genre friendly, so I can get funding support for attending SFF cons. Since I started at UNR in 2017 I’ve been to World Fantasy twice, ConFusion twice, and Norwescon and Boskone. I’ll probably be at World Fantasy again in the fall. Just to name a few.
TI: Are there any projects in the pipeline you’d like to talk about?
DAVID: I had the good fortune of getting to work in the writers’ room for a TV show last year. I can’t say anything more about that just yet. It was a great experience, though, and I’ve continued to make connections with TV producers and execs. There are several possible projects, but I won’t jinx them by saying more than that. In terms of fiction, I have a middle grade fantasy project in the works. It’s been a side project for a while, but I’m hopeful it might become more than that soon.
TI: Thanks so much, David. I’m glad you chose the pen over the whitewater.
DAVID: You don’t even know how literally that was true. I was raft guiding in Scotland when my daughter was born. It was also when my first book got accepted for publication. I quit whitewater both because I had a baby I wanted to be around for, and because I had a writing career I wanted to get serious about.
Thank you, Ti. This was fun.