Interview with Daniel Abraham
[Daniel Abraham is a science fiction and fantasy author who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He will be presenting at Mythcon 42 in Albuquerque, New Mexico (July 15-18) as part of the Writers' Track.]
Zach Watkins: Daniel, we are tickled that you will be attending Mythcon 42 in Albuquerque as part of our Writers’ Track series. Most of the attending authors are from this region, though all of you are published nationally. So it’s nice to get some people who’ve made it in a very real sense.
Daniel Abraham: God it’s weird to be in that group! It doesn’t feel like it, that’s all.
ZW: Have you experienced yet what it’s like to be recognized as “Daniel Abraham,” the name on the book cover?
DA: I’ve had a couple times where people acknowledged that I exist and it was weird, it was very strange. The tiny, little, small pathetic drop of fame that I have gotten is still pretty surreal.
ZW: When we set up this interview, you said you wanted to talk about “low-status” literature and its role. So what have you been thinking on that subject?
DA: I have this kink about economics. One of the things that I get out of it is that you don’t judge people by what they say, you judge people by where they spend their money. So, for example, if I say that by god I’m a leftist Democrat and I spend all of my money supporting right-wing Republicans, I’m a right-wing Republican. When you have somebody who’s doing one thing and saying another, you judge them by what they do, not what they say. So I take that and look at what books people are buying. I understand there’s one class of very high status books. A Brief History of Time. Tremendous best seller. I’m not sure anybody read it. I think we mostly got it to put on our coffee tables to show that we’re very smart.
ZW: This is the Stephen Hawking book?
DA: Yes. Nothing against Stephen Hawking, I’m sure it’s a fine book. I have it. I haven’t read it. Abstract cosmology is not something that actually, I think, speaks to the American soul in the way that seeming smarter than the guy next to you really does. So I think there is this class of books that you buy in order to look clever. And that’s cool. I understand why you do that. But then there’s a whole bunch of books, like the majority of publishing, that are guilty pleasures. And they’re the kind of places I play. They are the fantasy, and the science fiction and the mystery and romance—romance is still the one that everybody, I think, looks down on intellectually. I mean, folks writing space opera sneer at romance. And romance has I think the largest and most powerful following. So something interesting is happening there. This goes back to judging things by what you put your money on. They put their money on romance, and they put their money on genre, on these things that don’t lend social status. So they must be doing something else. I think it’s clear that romance is sitting on a huge discomfort that we have as a culture, as a nation, about whether we individually are lovable or if we’re going to die alone and rejected. It’s a huge seller because we are all suffering that. I think when we see this huge popular upwelling in some genre, in some group of related literary projects that aren’t respectable, that they’re offering comfort to things that need to be comforted. I think that urban fantasy is sitting on a real discomfort about women and power. When I say that it sounds like this is some sort of necessarily progressive feminist thoughtful literature. I’m not saying that. I’m saying it’s feeding off of and lending comfort to a real confusion and a real discomfort. Not that it’s offering solutions to it. People confuse that. Urban fantasy isn’t about reconciling our feelings with women and power any more than romance is about how to build a healthy relationship. They’re not didactic, they’re not there to improve you. They’re there to offer you comfort. Genres are where fears pool. So you see genres that have gone away—Westerns are gone. They were huge, and they’re gone. Whatever they were answering, people stopped needing it. I don’t know what it was. And I don’t know that all of the genres we have now will survive forever, I don’t expect they will. But right now I think those literary projects, those low-status things, are really the best barometer of what’s bothering us.
ZW: You called these the guilty pleasures and very much separated them from how-the-universe-works books. Why do you think that, when we feel the need to address something, we want to ensconce ourselves into it, make contact with it, but not necessarily figure it out? Why romance books instead of how-to-be-happy-in-a-relationship books?
DA: I don’t think those are antithetical. I don’t think you can’t do both, but I don’t think that what you come for is a how-to book. It’s the same reason you don’t always eat granola for breakfast. We do things that are pleasurable and comforting because we are creatures of pleasure and comfort. And solving problems realistically kind of makes for lousy stories. Having a really sane, balanced, centered life means you’re low drama. That’s not what fiction does.
ZW: If as you say this low status literature addresses something in our societies that makes it popular, what is it about fantasy literature in general, or yours specifically, that makes people crave it?
DA: Epic fantasy—think J.R.R. Tolkien, even Stephen Donaldson—is about war, and we are in America right now really confused about war because we’ve got like two and a half of them going on right now, and we don’t talk about it and we don’t really admit to our sacrifices about it and there’s this weariness about war. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a story about the futility of war, it’s a story about the morality of disarmament, about the actions of individuals being the only force of salvation. That’s a real criticism of war. If you look at Martin and A Game of Thrones, what you have is this fantasy that’s very reminiscent of the Wars of the Roses in which there are no good guys, there aren’t many bad guys, there is this tremendous multivalent ambition and it’s a bleak, bleak world. Now why does that speak to us? Because we’re reading The Economist, and it’s there.
What I see in people’s reactions to me is that people who like my stuff like it because I love all my characters. I love my bad guys, too. I want to see my villains forgiven. I want to see them understood. I think that may be the literary project I’m working on. I didn’t mean it that way, but when people read my epic fantasy, I can get them to root for whoever’s point of view the chapter is written in. Even when the characters are going to kill each other. And it’s not ambivalent so much as multivalent.
ZW: It’s interesting that you’re talking about war when at least the beginning of The Long Price Quartet has this threat of war lingering, depending on the outcomes of these few individuals we see in the narrative. But there is no war.
DA: Not in that one. Book three is called An Autumn War because there’s this war. But I don’t like battles. I don’t like battle scenes. I don’t like fight choreography very much.
I’m going to give you two scenes. There’s the battle scene, where you have the great armies arrayed against each other, and the tactics of the battle, and the blood and the screaming and the destruction and the courage. There’s another scene after the battle, we have three soldiers walking down the street one way, and a woman and her child walking the other. Everybody knows that the woman’s husband probably died in the battle that the other three soldiers just won, and one of the soldiers gives the kid a piece of candy. One of those tells me more, one of those is more interesting to me. And it’s the one where you’re thinking, “OK, if that kid takes the piece of candy, if he doesn’t take it, what does that mean? What does it mean that it was offered?” It seems to me the violence is actually pretty simple, and the things that surround violence are more interesting.
ZW: Have you read Tolkien’s “Homecoming of Beorthnoth?” It’s his piece set on the field of “The Battle of Maldon” after the battle has ended. To me, that’s the same sort of thing where you have the battle and then that moment afterward that says much more.
DA: And who we are, and what the consequences are.
ZW: I have seen similar discussion going on just this week with the Osama bin Laden assassination, where people are saying, how do we respond to this? What do we do? Because how we treat our enemy says more about us than it does about the enemy.
DA: I have been thinking a lot about bin Laden and about his kind of literary project. He was an amazing self promoter. He was stunning. In point of fact, he wasn’t very much of a threat to us, you know? More people die every year from car wrecks. If you look at it coldly, and you look at the numbers, al Qaeda’s not a big threat, and what he did was not a big threat. But the narrative that came out of it was so powerful, and the way that he married that narrative to his personality and to his life was so powerful and so effective that I look at his death and I see this huge cultural relief. The catharsis we feel because that one guy died, I think is a testament to how well he did his job. You know, I’m not particularly a man of violence, and I felt the world lighten up a little bit when I heard the news. And yeah, I think there’s a difference between celebrating his death and acknowledging that release.
ZW: I should probably make sure you get your plugs in. You have written more than The Long Price Quartet, and we’re hoping that you can get Mythcon 42 attendees reading other things. But The Long Price Quartet is set in this very Asian-like culture which is very unusual in Western fantasy. So can you talk about the decision you made to write in that kind of world?
DA: Especially when you’re starting off as a writer, there’s tremendous encouragement to embrace originality and do something new. I wanted to do something that felt very different, that stood out from what other folks were up to. And one of the ways to do that was to have it not be the traditional pseudo-medieval world. I also did some weird stuff with the structures of the books, with the big time jumps between the books and a fairly small cast of characters. And what I was really reaching for was to do something I hadn’t seen before. And I think those books did what I wanted them to do. They didn’t light the world on fire sales wise, but that’s always a crap shoot. But artistically, I’m very comfortable with how those books came out.
ZW: How do you feel they impacted your development as a writer?
DA: They gave me practice. The other mandate going into that project was to figure out how to write a novel, because I did a lot of short stories before those books. And I felt pretty good about the rhythm of a short story and how a short story works. And I was pretty clear that I didn’t know how to write a novel, because, I’d done three, maybe three and a half, four, before I started The Long Price Quartet. And they sucked less each time. But they still sucked. And in fact, when I finished the first book of The Long Price Quartet, A Shadow in Summer, my first readers, the people who were critiquing it as I went along, my writers’ group, all said, “It’s beautifully written, I don’t know what’s going on, and I hate your main character.” And I wound up throwing the book out completely and rewriting it from scratch.
ZW: Being part of that writers’ group in New Mexico and being from here—I had a friend once call Albuquerque a “not real part of the world”—as an author, how has the Southwest influenced you or provided you with inspiration?
DA: One of the things that’s been interesting to me, thinking about growing up here, is that the American narrative of race has never been my experience. When you look at the American narrative of race, the story we tell ourselves about race, it’s about white folks and black folks. Where I grew up, it’s about Anglos and Hispanics. And that’s a totally different dynamic. I live in a place that is the occupied territories. I live in a border town. I live in a place where some people identify as American and some people identify as Mexican, and I’ve always felt a little bit like a foreigner traveling other parts of the nation. I’ve always felt a little bit outside the narrative of my culture. And I kind of like that. That sense of being from something that’s not quite real—and when we say not quite real, we mean not quite part of the overwhelming narrative. That gives you, I think, a certain power over the narrative. I like that. I enjoy that. Also, growing up I had access to literatures that you don’t get other places. My dad would read me short stories by Enrique Anderson Imbert, and he would translate them on the fly as he read. And they were all these amazing stories about these fantastical and weird and disturbing things. Part of my experience of literature was those things I don’t know that you get when you’re living in other parts of the country.
Racism’s going to be any place. No matter where you go, when you get folks who identify as different races, it’s going to happen. We’re a tribal species, it’s what we do—but here, you have that racial divide with power on both sides. I’m in New Mexico and if you have a Hispanic surname, you’re electable. When you have that level of power equality and difference and acceptance and distance, it’s… I think New Mexico is a very humane place. Apart from the grinding poverty.
ZW: Your chance to pump yourself. Do you have any new or upcoming works you’d like Mythprint readers and Mythcon 42 attendees to know about?
DA: Specifically, yes. I’d like you to know about The Dragon’s Path, which is the first book in The Dagger and the Coin series, my next epic fantasy. I’m also coming out with an urban fantasy series under the pen name M.L.N. Hanover, The Black Sun’s Daughter. So if you want to talk about what I think urban fantasy does, and women and power, there’s that. And I have a book coming out with Ty Franck [also attending Mythcon 42] called Leviathan Wakes, which is a space opera, coming out in June. Right before Mythcon. It has a big spaceship on it.
ZW: Perfect! Thank you, Daniel. I’ll see you again at Mythcon 42 this July in Albuquerque, New Mexico.