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David Anthony Durham: Imagined World

David Anthony Durham was born in New York, lived in Trinidad when he was a baby, and grew up mostly in Maryland. He attended the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, where he studied English and History, and the University of Maryland – College Park for his MFA in Creative Writing, where he wrote “very depressing literary fiction.” He worked as an Outward Bound instructor, whitewater raft guide, and kayaking teacher, and traveled in Europe after graduating, living in Scotland and France. He taught at Cal State University, the University of Maryland, the University of Massachusetts, and the Stonecoast MFA program, and was the MacLean Distinguished Visiting Writer at The Colorado College. He now teaches at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Gudrun and children, Maya and Sage.

First novel Gabriel’s Story (2001) is a historical about African-American settlers in the old West. His next two novels were also historical, Walk Through Darkness (2002) about a runaway slave just before the Civil War, and Pride of Carthage (2005), set during the Second Punic War. He turned to epic fantasy with Acacia: The War with the Mein (2007), and its sequel The Other Lands (2009). He won the John W. Campbell Award for best New Writer in 2009.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I think I’ll be forever processing my MFA experience. I spent a lot of time being misread and misunderstood in workshop. I was doing character-driven literary fiction — plot not so important, all efforts on language, metaphor. My professors liked my work a lot, even if my peers didn’t always. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the program didn’t give me much preparation for the realities of a publishing life. I certainly left with unrealistic expectations that my genius was going to be quickly rewarded! Writing genre of any kind was far from my mind.

“I spent three or four years revising those novels I wrote in college and sending them out. I did get an agent and lots of ‘respect,’ but I got lots of rejections at the same time. It was while living in France that, with my wife’s prompting, I stopped revising those old books and instead went on to a new one. Gabriel’s Story is set in the American West in the 1850s, and I wrote it when I was separated from the American landscape that’s so important to that novel. I had done a lot of traveling in the West, a lot of hiking and camping and whitewater stuff. It took me to beautiful areas. Writing about that landscape from afar I had to tap into a store of memories and images that I hadn’t found a place to let out before. It focused my attention.”


“The basic set-up in Acacia is simple. It’s an empire that has been in power for a long time, that has a long-standing mythology of itself and of its grand history and benevolent place in the world, and the long peace they’ve reigned over — none of which is exactly true as offered. There are a number of ancient crimes that continue to make that so-called peace possible. The main characters are the four Akaran children. (My wife is one of four siblings, with the same age and sex distribution as these children.) They have a benevolent father who held them together in a way that was quite special, but they are raised in seclusion and do not know the realities of what fuels their empire’s peace.

“I wanted to deal with the ways the real world challenges loving idealism, and that’s the core of the book. When their father is assassinated and the empire is thrown into turmoil as a result of long-standing grievances by many other people of the Known World, they are cast out and sent into hiding, with the hope that they will be raised safely and securely and may at some point return and rule again.”


“All writing is fantasy — it’s all make-believe. And certainly, even in historical fiction, when you’re stepping away from our modern mindset, the further you go, the more it is like writing in another world. I like the things the imagined world allows me to do, but I approach my fantasies and my historical fiction the same way.”


“I could have kept writing little literary books, safe in my tenure-track teaching job. It would have been a good career. But that felt like a cop-out. Because it would have been easy for me to stick with what I knew. I wanted to do something else. A book later, I wanted to do something else again. At least this time around, fantasy seems large enough and with possibilities enough to stick with for more than one book. And I want to do that.”


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