David Anthony Durham discusses writing process and root of inspiration
Durham delves into his prolific career spanning multiple genres, from historical fiction to fantasy, and provides insight into his creative writing process.
On Nov. 2, author David Anthony Durham led a writing workshop and discussed his oeuvre. This event was part of the Creative Writing Reading Series and was co-sponsored by the Mandel Center for the Humanities.
Prof. Stephen McCauley (ENG), the co-director of the creative writing program, gave an introduction. The event was supported by the Dafna Zamarripa-Gesundheit Endowment, and McCauley explained that the endowment was created to memorialize Dafna Zamarripa-Gesundheit, who was a Brandeis student.
During the talk, Durham emphasized that perseverance is essential for writers and highlighted advice from author Octavia E. Butler. Butler believed that the most important trait for a writer to have is persistence. Out of the students Durham has worked with, the ones who kept trying, worked through rejection, and remained incredibly patient with the writing process were the ones who made progress. “Forget about talent, whether or not you have any. Because it doesn’t really matter,” Butler stated. “I don’t feel that I have any particular literary talent at all. It was what I wanted to do, and I followed what I wanted to do.”
Similarly, author Neil Gaiman stated that it’s normal if one’s writing doesn’t appeal to everyone. Gaiman’s mindset influenced Durham and showed him that writers should showcase their work even if not everybody likes it. Gaiman stated that ideas can come from anywhere, whether that be at the airport, from one’s imagination, from daydreaming, or from boredom. However, “the only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it,” according to Gaiman. Durham added that “we [also] write things down.” Durham relates to Gaiman’s statement, and as an undergraduate student, there was a moment when he realized that he had ideas but was not writing them down. His decision to start writing was a significant step because he “was attempting to put them on paper, to make them tangible, shareable, so that I could remember what I’d written, ... develop the stories better, and maybe hopefully other folks could read them.”
Just as Gaiman found inspiration at an airport, Stephen King and Suzanne Collins’ work also drew from mundane occurrences. King fell asleep on a plane ride once and dreamt of a woman who imprisoned a writer and killed, skinned, and fed him to a pig; she then bound the writer’s novel in his own skin. King’s dream provided the basis for his novel “Misery.” Meanwhile, Collins was flipping through channels on television and saw a show where young people were trying to win money. Then she came across footage of the Iraq War, “and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way … that is the moment where I got the idea for Katniss’s story,” Collins told Scholastic.
Although Durham said that he has never found a story in a dream, he has often taken ideas from the news. He described that when he switches to writing mode, “It’s like an antenna that is always picking up things [and] stealing from the world, from news, from mystery, and finding a good idea and making it your own in some particular way.”
Durham also delved into how his stories challenge other authors’ portrayals of Black characters. He used Victor LaValle as an example. LaValle grew up reading the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and enjoyed them. However, as he got older, he recognized the racism evident in Lovecraft’s work, which created conflicting feelings. LaValle wrote his book “The Ballad Of Black Tom” to criticize the prejudice in Lovecraft’s books.
Similarly, Durham wrote his first book “Gabriel’s Story” partly as a criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s depiction of a Black character in his novel “Blood Meridian.” Durham admired McCarthy’s writing style but took issue with its treatment of Black characters. He wanted to write a Western with an African American character as the center of the story. Moreover, as a history major for most of his college experience –– before switching to an English major –– he fell “in love with the unexplored history of African Americans in the American West.” Durham read an excerpt from “Gabriel’s Story.”
His second book “Walk Through Darkness” was also historical fiction. It combines a story of immigration from Scotland, a story of slavery, and the forced migration of African Americans to America. The book reflects his family in two ways: his wife and her family, who are from Scotland, and also his own family. He also read an excerpt from this novel.
“Pride of Carthage” was inspired by a college lecture on Hannibal Barca and the Second Punic War. Durham wanted to explore how the war affected everyone, and he “had no interest in telling the story of the war from one perspective, or from Hannibal’s perspective. It needed to be about everyone who was caught up in it.”
Durham also read a section from “The Risen.” The book is about “the legendary gladiator Spartacus and the vast slave revolt he led that came ever so close to bringing Rome, with its supposedly invincible legions, to its knees.” His original idea was a vampire and werewolf novel, but his publisher rejected the idea. He joked that there are still some elements in the book reminiscent of vampires and werewolves, though.
Durham additionally authored a trilogy of fantasy novels called the Acacia Series that includes “Acacia: The War with the Mein,” “The Other Lands,” and “The Sacred Band.” “The Shadow Prince” and its sequel “The Longest Night in Egypt” are part of his middle grade solarpunk fantasy series. According to his website, his stories were featured in four of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards novels: “Fort Freak,” “Lowball,” “High Stakes,” “Texas Hold ‘Em,” and “Pairing Up.”
In addition to his literary work, Durham has consulted for several shows in development at HBO and is currently writing the film adaption of “The Ice Dragon” by George R.R. Martin. For his collaboration with George R.R. Martin for the “Wild Cards” novels, Durham had to create his own signature character which had not been done before in the series. Many of his ideas were rejected, but he finally found an idea when he saw his young son Sage’s drawings. Sage had a binder with character worksheets inside, and each page had a drawing of the character, the character’s name, their origin story, nemesis, special powers, and weaknesses. One of them was a character named Black Tongue, and Black Tongue became the basis for the first character that was accepted for the series.
Durham has also taught at many places, and he is now teaching at the Stonecoast MFA Program of the University of Southern Maine. He received the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award in 1992, the 2002 Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, and was a Finalist for the 2006 Legacy Award for Fiction. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2009. Durham also mentioned his connection to Brandeis through his mother, who attended the University in the 1960s and was the first person in his family to go to college.
After his mother passed away in 2001, he did not want to take life for granted. He started thinking about what his next novel would be, and he turned to the fantasy genre, ultimately resulting in his “Acacia” trilogy. When he was young, he admits that he was a reluctant reader; however, fantasy helped nurture his love for books, and his favorite authors included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula K. Le Guin. For the trilogy, he wanted “to write a fantasy world [that] was a lot more representative of our world’s diversity.”
After Durham’s talk, there was a raffle to win free editions of his books. Four winners were chosen from a bucket containing slips of paper with people’s names on them. People could also purchase his novels and get them signed by him.