Interviews - Daniel Abraham

Hey, Daniel. Let's get your vitals out of the way--books you've published, genres you've written in, any awards or mentions, boarding schools that scarred you. You know, the usual stuff.

Funny thing.  I was just having that conversation with an old friend of mine. At this point, I've got eight books in print, four semi-literary epic fantasy in a completed series (The Long Price Quartet), a book of short stories that's just come out from Subterranean Press (Leviathan Wept and other stories), a three-way collaborative science fiction adventure with George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois (Hunter's Run), and two urban fantasy titles under the pseudonym MLN Hanover (The Black Sun's Daughter series). I've got eight more books under contract: two more of the urban fantasies, three books in a new epic fantasy series (The Dagger and the Coin), and three collaborative space opera books in a new series (The Expanse) under a third pseudonym.

Most of the critical attention I've gotten has been for short stories, though. I think I'm pushing 30 stories at this point, and they've been all over the genre map. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, unclassifiable what-the-heck-was-that, surreal. Haven't done a straight mystery/crime project yet, but I've got one I'm chewing on.

*And* I've done some comic book writing, mostly translating George RR Martin works into comic scripts, but one 6-issue original story in the Wild Cards universe too.

I've been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. I got the International Horror Guild award.

So yeah.  Like that.

Definitely going to dig on some of the forthcoming stuff. But let's drill a little on The Long Price Quartet. You write of it as semi-literary epic fantasy—a very cool blend, by the way. Say more about that.

Well, of course, they aren't my first books. My first book was something I did in High School called Tales from the Immodest Elf, that being the name of the tavern that everyone met in. I suspect it might work now as parody. Then there was a terribly ponderous thing I did in college.  And one that actually got sold to a small press which shall remain nameless, and from which I bought it back. Unreal City, that was. Got as far as getting really deeply cool Rick Berry cover art before that one went south.

Unreal City was the one I gave to my agent when I first got an agent. Her thought was "Cool, what've you got that I might possibly be able to sell?" Fair question.  I'd had a short story in Asimov's called The Lesson Half-Learned that folks liked. I showed it to her, and it became the prolog of the first book of the Long Price Quartet.

There were a couple of things I was really aiming for in the Long Price books. First off, I wanted to do something I hadn't seen before. What I came up with first was a structure. It's four stand-alone books that add up to something more than the single books together. Which isn't really new, because I copped the basic idea from Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, but since that's not really part of the bones of epic fantasy, usually speakin', I got away with seeming clever. Then it was in the semi-Asian world instead of the more usual semi-European one. And I had a magic system no one had seen before. All in all, it made for something that I at least thought was pretty different.

Second, I wanted to write a straight-up epic fantasy with war and magic and all the stuff that I really like about epic fantasy. And I also wanted to talk about how mind-blowingly epic a normal life is. My grandmother's my example on that. When she was born, we hadn't had a world war yet, much less two of them. My daughter lives a world where you watch cartoons on Daddy's phone. The change in worlds between when Gramma was a kid and now is more profound than anything I could make up. And I wanted to write about that.

Okay, so three things. I also wanted to learn how to write novel-length books. And I figured the only way to really do that was to write a bunch of 'em.

I really like your notion of a normal life being "epic." The word has found its way into popular slang, but I've often thought about people I know and applied the word. I began doing so after reading e.e. cummings ‘pity this busy monster manunkind,’ which ends with the line: "...listen, there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go." I always interpreted that to mean people. Prolly just me. So, now I want to talk about your character process. Do you have your characters more fully drawn before you start to type? Or do they draw themselves out as you write? Or a little of both? And do you find you focus down on the character first, and let "epicness" happen.

I don't have much fully drawn when I start the first draft. Or, really, I have a pretty good outline and a feel for the characters, and I'm always at least a little bit off. It's a funny thing about memory, though. I know that what I just told you is true, but I couldn't, for instance, tell you how a particular character changed over the course of writing them. I know that Idaan from Betrayal in Winter was different when I started, but who she became is so much more alive and authentic to me now, I don't really remember how the prototype was different.

I usually have to do a second draft, or at least fairly careful revision to get the folks who showed up at the end in at the beginning. But I don't think that's a flaw so much as a way of thinking things through.

What I really start with—and what carries me through that first draft—is picturing scenes. What happens first? And then after that, and after that, and then eventually, what happens last. It think that may be an artifact of growing up with movies and television. I like plot. Even in the books where the pace is arthouse stately, I'm thinking about what's going to happen, and a little about how the characters are going to go about it, and then I make up the details within that as I'm going.

Speaking of first drafts and revision, I know from Facebook that you've just completed a draft of the first book in your new fantasy series. There's a little information out there about it, including a great press release on the Orbit website. But give me a kernel (if you can) of something we can look forward to in that book that no one knows yet. You know, an exclusive. Or barring that, tell us as much as you can to set the stage for this next career effort. I mean, epic fantasy. We gotta know.

The Dagger and the Coin. Yeah, that's going to be an interesting ride. It's a very different project than the Long Price books. It's more of an adventure story, and it's packed with the things that I like the best. Hopefully, other folks will enjoy it as much as I did.

I'll give you five exclusives.

1:  The apostate pressed himself into the shadows of the rock and prayed to nothing-in-particular that the things riding mules in the pass below him would not look up.

2:              Marcus rubbed his chin with a callused palm.
             "Sir?" rumbled the Trollu looming at his side.
             "The day you throw me in a ditch and take command of the company?"
             "Yes, sir."
             "It wouldn't be today, would it?"
             The Trollu crossed his thick arms and flicked a jingling ear.
             "No, sir," he said at last.  "Not today."

3: The market buzzed with the voices of the fishmongers and butchers, farmers and herbmen, all hawking their late summer harvest. As with the city itself, most were Trueblood and black-chitined Timzini, but here and there, she caught sight of the pale, slight body of a full-blooded Cinnae or the wide head and mobile, hound-like ears of a Trollu. Growing up in Vanai, she had seen at least one example of nearly every race of mankind. Once, she had even seen one of the Drowned in the canal, staring up at her with sorrowful, black eyes.

4:             "You can not harm me. Your arrow will miss its mark."
             The Chennic scowled and drew back the string. The horn bow creaked.
             Well, he thought, it was worth the try.

5: His lips were rough against hers, surprising and intimate and strong. She was shocked, but then gave a little internal shrug. The young man might be dead in the next few minutes, so really where was the harm?

That give you a feel for it?

More than a feel, thanks! Very cool stuff. You talk about this series as more of an adventure story. It has a more commercial feel, to me. Which—to my mind—is NOT a bad thing. You're sometimes known as a writer's writer. Also not a bad thing. But I believe you have thoughts on that vs. being a "reader's writer." This is cool terrain to explore, if I do say so myself. How do you think about it in light of your own work? Or is that all over-thinking the whole shebang?

I'm one of those folks who thinks commercial v. artistic is a false dichotomy. I think when we say "commercial" that usually means that it reads like the sort of thing a lot of people could read and enjoy, which is to say it's easily accessible. Cultivating that accessibility is an artistic choice, and it's surprisingly difficult work.  I'm still trying to get my head around all the implications of it.

While I really appreciate the kind comments of other folks in the field, I'm leery of being a writer's writer. I think writing for writers is an inherently dangerous thing for the literature you're writing, much like writing poetry that poets will read or playing jazz music that you need to be a jazz musician to understand. It risks making your whole literary project an in-joke, and it's tempting to do that (in part because if you cultivate accessibility you sometimes get accused of dumbing down or selling out or something). But it turns out my literary ambitions—my *artistic* ambitions—is involved with being a reader's writer. I'm working on it.

I have a love/hate relationship with this topic, since I actually studied and argued it some in my vaunted collegial days. So many of our canonized writers were working writers, who wrote fast and for people's entertainment, e.g. Dickens, Stevenson, etc. Shakespeare was an interest owner in the Globe theater—you think he wanted to be sure to entertain the folks in standing-room-only on the floor? Ayeah. All of which is to say, yes, false dichotomy to be sure. Anyway, stepping down from the box, I'll shift gears on you: Which book(s) are just so good that you've found yourself saying, "Geez, I wish I'd written that?"

A lot of 'em. Mostly by people whose brains work in ways that mine doesn't, so even if I'd tried I'd never have gotten those words in that order.

If, for instance, I'd written Ted Chiang's The Story of Your Life, I could quit and get a day job.  Everything Ted turns out is at least deep and thought-provoking, and at his best, he's the best science fiction writer of our generation, and The Story of Your Life is the best science fiction story ever written.

For novel-length works, the list's too long to write up, but as a sample set, I'd put out John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, Walter Tevis' Queen's Gambit, Charlie Huston's The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, Nicola Griffith's The Blue Place ("Pain is a message. You can chose to ignore it." has become a catchphrase for parts of my life.), and Barry Hughart's The Bridge of Birds.

I don't claim that everything I like is equally good, only that I've enjoyed it deeply.  Since what I'm aiming for is a book or books other people can enjoy deeply, that's all I've got to go on.

Love that you mention Ted, who happens to be a friend of mine. Good list, too. I'll be picking up a few of those. Now, one thing I'm always interested in is writing quirks. I suppose some writers are totally normal, well-adjusted folks. But even they seem to have an interesting habit or ritual or approach to their writing. Fess up. What's yours?

I have a perverse fascination with word count. Seriously, perverse. There was one time I was writing a book, and I told my critique group that I had fifteen thousand words to go. When I turned in the last chunk, someone checked, and it was fourteen thousand, nine hundred and change. When I start writing a book, I can tell you to within a thousand words how
long the first draft is going to be.

No one else I know does this, but it's really right down in the bedrock of how I write. I figure obsessing about the length gives my conscious mind something to occupy itself while the back of my head works.

Dude, sounds a little "Rain Man." You should see if your numbers gift works in Vegas. If you do, let me know, I want some of the action. Now, we've hit on your process with respect to character, but where you're doing some large-scale series, I'd be remiss if I didn't probe a little on your world-building. I've read where some writers have half a million words of
notes; and others would no sooner map it out beforehand than slit their wrists. What do you find works for you? I mean, are you a "first mover" type of writer-god; or are you an "every sparrow that falls" guy?

I'm more of a Kim Stanley Robinson man myself. I heard him talking about his Mars trilogy a little over a decade ago, and one of the things he said was that the trick was to put everything you knew on the page and make is *seem* like you only put ten percent.  (I paraphrase -- he may not have said that, but it's what I heard.)

I have a map, and I have a lot of the small details and a general idea of the economics, but the details grow out of that, and the bet ones are almost always small, concrete, and specific in a way that implies another ninety percent of the world behind it.  When I find myself writing things
like "The city was cluttered and cosmopolitan." I know I'm doing it wrong. When I write "A pair of grey dogs dodged between the crushing wagon wheels and the hooves of uneasy horses, navigating the close-packed, dust-aired street with the ease of fish in a river. When the priestess's wailing call to prayer cut through the clatter of cobblestones and the shouting of carters, the men in the street nodded to the north and touched paired fingers to their throats without apparent thought or even awareness." then I feel better.

"Big and Cosmopolitan" is what I know going in (along with things like "on the southern coast on not-quite France" and "lots of fishing, but not a big agricultural base") and the dogs dodging between wagons and the casual piety of the street life is what I find out when I get there (or often in the second draft when I go back and say "Oh.  Big and cosmopolitan.  Bad work.  Fix that.").

Geez, now I have to go fix my "big and cosmopolitan" line. But on we go. I ask a lot of writers about the idea of writing as autobiography. It comes from a conversation I had with David Morrell once—he's got some fascinating ideas on the topic. How do you think about that idea with respect to your writing?

I would rewrite yet.  Mine's kind of overwritten.

As far as fiction-as-autobiography, I think, fits right in with autobiography-as-fiction. It looks like a spectrum to me. Anything I write is by necessity the kind of thing that would come out of my very own personal idiosyncratic head. The people and the actions and the worlds might be made up, but the important parts—how do men and women deal with each other, what does it mean to be a good (or bad) person, how do you reconcile yourself to death—all have to be mine or they don't ring true.

One of the things I picked up reading about the concept of a premise in fiction is that the best work makes one (and only one) argument. There are reasons for the just one thing, but the other part is that it has to be an argument you believe. I couldn't write a story or a book that says that love, fer instance, is something I just flat don't think it is. Or that sincerely takes a political view that I think is flat wrong. I can write dragons or angels or sentient, self-aware self-help books, no problem, but if I try to write something that says (again for instance) that there's a nation ordained by God to have a different set of rules and obligations than anybody else, I can't convincingly do it, because I don't believe it.

So looking over some of my most recent stuff, you can figure out a few of the things I think are true—that you can't shield you children from the dangers of the world, that the regreening of every generation comes hand-in-hand with the passing of the ones before it, that love and sex are asked to carry more than they can support. Things like that. All of those come out of my idiosyncratic experiences and beliefs.

Now do I think you can say things like "Well, this character cheated on her lover, so clearly someone must have cheated on you"? No, I don't. I don't think fiction is autobiography on the small, detailed sense. In the important ways, though, I don't see how it can be anything else and still be good.

Okay, on to moral ambiguity ... or not. I've heard some of our great living fantasists talk about the degree to which fantasy is one of the last (if not THE last) genres of fiction where the author can really explore or write about right and wrong. Not to be confused with flat caricatures for characters—no Dudley Do-Rights or Snidely Whiplashes here. But just, you know, the concept at all. Do you find that true and/or appealing with the genre?

I'd certainly agree that it's one place to talk about right and wrong, but I would have picked mystery as a more natural playground for those questions. Or maybe religious fiction (which is quite the genre in and of itself).

I don't find fantasy to be more or less suited to philosophical questions than any other genre, really. I think that the soul of fantasy—or second-world fantasy at least—is our problematic relationship with nostalgia. The impulse to return to a golden age seems to be pretty close to the bone, at least in western cultures, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's a human universal. For me, it's tied up with the experience of aging and the impulse to recapture youth. Epic fantasy, I think, takes its power from that. We create golden eras and either celebrate them or—more often—mourn their loss.

I think that's important work. Especially in America, and right now, I think we have to engage with what we gain and what we lose when we romanticize the past.

Okay, Daniel, now you're prolonging the interview with these provocative replies. You're going to have to be less interesting if you want this to end. So, before I hit my home stretch, I now have to ask: If fantasy—epic fantasy, anyway—is a recreation of golden eras that we celebrate or mourn (which, by the way, I agree with), is science fiction the opposite side of the same coin, but with technology and robots instead of magic and monsters?

I don't know what science fiction is about anymore. I think science fiction is facing an existential crisis because. There was a time when it was about our response to change, and it was a very dynamic, very engaged genre. It leaned forward, or at least that's how I remember it. Extrapolation was a virtue, using it for thought experiments about race and gender and political issues. And so I think it used to be a genre about our relationship to change—celebratory or fearful or allegorical or whatever. But then it won.

There's I read a few years ago about an alien who's come to Earth, been surgically modified to look like a really sexually attractive woman, and set out with a special car to pick up male, human hitchhikers, abduct them, then fatten them up and slaughter them for shipment off-world as a delicacy. This is a mainstream, literary book called Under the Skin. Kazuo Ishiguro—one of my favorite authors—did a book about cloned kids being raised for spare parts that got short-listed for the Booker. The Road was an unabashed post-apocalyptic novel that would have been science fiction once, and is now—somehow—literature.

And I'm glad about that. I think mainstream literary culture should get in the game. I'm delighted that people like Ishiguro and Atwood are discovering the richness and complexity that grew up in Clarke and Heinlein because—frankly—Ishiguro and Atwood are better wordsmiths, and I like reading their stuff better now that it's less bound by literary convention. But it leaves the science fiction genre scattered. Once upon a time, we knew what it was by how it dressed, and we don't anymore.

I'm seeing a lot of different responses to that. Retro-science fiction (like steampunk) that doesn't pretend to extrapolate so much as reinterpret the stuff that we loved when we were starting up.  A harder, less accessible vein of hard SF—sort of the jazz fusion of genre—that reads to me as more and more sophisticated and appeals to a narrower and narrower audience. Science fantasy of the Start Wars variety that celebrates the adventure. But I don't know that they're working on the same project that science fiction was when I first came to it. Certainly they aren't working on the same projects as one another.

And the people who are still doing the kinds of things that science fiction was really doing when I came to it—and I'm thinking of Ted Chiang here—are science fiction writers by courtesy and convention. Ted would swim just fine in the mainstream.

Your music metaphor (jazz fusion) is a serendipitous one, since my next question is music related. I'm a musician, and I'm always interested in the relationship writers have with music—or not. In particular, some writers play an artist or genre while they write; others insist on utter silence. Anything about the ambient sound when you write that you can tell us? And if there IS a music you play, what function does it serve?

Usually. I'm a write-in-silence guy, though sometimes I'll use music to drown out other noises.  The only real rule is that it can't have lyrics. If there are words—or at least words in a language I know—it winds up distracting me from the words I'm writing. I did write a book once to the soundtrack of sex, lies, and videotape, and I've also used Gregorian chants and plainsong, Cirque de Soliel soundtracks, and some French cafe music.

You surprised me with the Gregorian chants and Cirque bits, only because I really dig both, as well, and don't often find kindred spirits there. But now let's take the writing companion qualifier out; and let me ask you who you like to listen to just, you know, cruising in your car or while you're dancing around the house. And part two of this question is: What's the best concert you've ever been to?

Usually my hanging around the house music tends toward unthreatening pop-punk. Pixies, Green Day. The disk I have in the car right now is a compilation of things off my computer that includes Ani DiFranco, Tom Waits, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Pink Martini, and Seth MacFarlane channeling Frank Sinatra.

The best concert I've ever been to was Leonard Cohen at the Paolo Soleri in Santa Fe.

Thanks for indulging me on the music Q's, I can't help myself. Now, for the last question. I'm going to admit that I had a kind of author-interviews-self question in mind. But just lately, I've had some "deep" questions on my mind, and, well, I've decided to take a turn in that direction. So, here goes. In short, are there "places" you think fiction writers shouldn't go in their stories? To frame that question, there's this idea of "semantic contagion"—that some ideas shouldn't be written down and shared, since they introduce notions to a public that we are better off not exposed them to. In one example, Stephen King wrote an early story called "Cain Rose Up," about a high school kid who snaps and sets himself up in a tower, more or less, with a high power rifle. King later had that story removed from his Skeleton Crew collection. And the idea of semantic contagion cropped up when someone ran an ad wanting to literally have someone for dinner, meaning eat them—and someone answered that ad. The notion of semantic contagion so fascinated me I wrote a short story on the premise. So, when it comes to writing novels, I'd be interested in your thoughts around whether or not there are taboo topics that should be left un-detailed. Kind of a hefty question, but one worth exploring, I think.

So, are there evil books?  Is that the question?

There are evil books. The Turner Diaries leaps to mind. There are books of ill intent, there are books of good intent that lend themselves to being misunderstood, there are books that are propagandizing philosophies that weren't all that bad when they were written but have become evil in context, and there are books which compellingly present a wrong idea.

I don't think that there are taboo subjects, but I think there are toxic arguments that fiction can make about almost any subject. If you write a story about a kid shooting up his high school, and the premise of your story is that violence gives you power, there's a problem. I don't think that means no one should ever write a story with a kid shooting up a school. I have written stories that I didn't try to publish because the story as it came out wasn't what I intended, and the argument the story made in then end wasn't something I could stand behind.

But I also think that self-censorship is part of editing, not writing. Evil people will always write evil books. Good people will propagate mistakes. Writers will fail to make their points, and be misunderstood in dangerous and destructive ways. If you start worrying about that too early, you'll break the process. I think you write first and without limitations, edit afterward, and ruthlessly.

Not a rule, but a decent guideline.

Good guideline. As an endnote, it’s not so much a question of “are there evil books” that I’ve been thinking about, but certain acts that should go unwritten or at least “less” written. I’m thinking about things like pedophilia, or infanticide. As a dad, such topics, in particular, have been on my mind—since there’ve been so many reports of such in the news lately, I’m guessing. I’m just not sure how much of that we really need in fiction. Questions like: If a writer could make a pedophile seem sympathetic, should he? I know a guy who works in the prison system counseling these criminals, and while “officially” they say there is a 1% chance of rehabilitation, he tells me that is because you can’t ever use an absolute in government. The truth is, he says, all these guys repeat their crime. Period. Just makes me think, you know. Anyway, I’ll leave off on that.

So thanks, Daniel.

And folks, you need to check out Daniel Abraham’s work past and present, because if you’ve missed it, well, just do yourself a favor and go pick one up. You can thank me later. And together we’ll watch for the stories he’s writing now that’ll be entertaining us in the years to come.