INTERVIEW: Daniel Abraham
[Editor's Note: A while back, SF Signal published a Mind Meld feature on Tomorrow's Big Genre Stars. Patrick at Stomping on Yeti has been profiling these writers and has agreed to cross-post them here.]
After a brief absence, Keeping An Eye On… has returned! This week’s author is none other than Daniel Abraham. I held off interviewing Daniel until late in the process because I had previously talked with his alter ego, M.L.N. Hanover a couple of months ago regarding a few Urban Fantasy covers of “typical quality” and I wanted to give him the opportunity to write a little more. It helps that everything he writes is definitely worth talking about. Additionally, that first interview focused on his Hanover books and Urban Fantasy in general, so I wanted to revisit Abraham’s own books and gauge his opinion on some more universally applicable subjects.
Abraham has proven to be one of the authors on most enjoyable authors on SF Signal’s Watchlist. Granted, that’s like picking the most attractive Victoria’s Secret model but nonetheless Abraham’s Long Price Quartet and Hanover’s Black Sun’s Daughter series are some of my recent favorites. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Abraham’s short fiction has been nominated for several major awards including the Nebula and World Fantasy. Needless to say, Abraham writes a pretty good story and if you keep reading, you’ll find he makes for a pretty good interview as well.
SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?
DA: In the absolute most literal answer to the question, I’ve got a contract for three books in an epic fantasy series for Orbit and a couple more of the urban fantasy titles as MLN Hanover. I’m hoping that both of those turn into more contracts in the next few years. They’re both projects I’m having a lot of fun with.
On a more abstract level, I’m finding myself interested in the difference between trying to do something really new and trying to do something familiar really well.
SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours would you like them to read?
DA: I’d point them at “The Cambist and Lord Iron”. It’s just a short story, so it’s not something that asks for a lot of time. I’m fond of it, and it’s free online here.
SoY: Can you tell us some more about your Dagger and the Coin series?
DA: Ah! The Dagger and the Coin. That’s an interesting project.
When I started writing the Long Price Quartet, my personal mandate apart from the exact plots and characters and all was to figure out how to write a novel. I’d written a bunch of short stories, and I felt like I had a handle on that length. Novels, though? Before A Shadow in Summer, I’d written three trunk novels. Each one was better than the one before, but I didn’t have it down yet. So four books later — or five, if you count Hunter’s Run, or seven if you add in the Black Sun’s Daughter books to date — I understand book-length fiction a better. I’m comfortable. I win, right?
When it came time to build the new project, one of the things that was clear to me is that if you know where you’re going from the first word, you win. I have this whole rant comparing X Files to Babylon 5 that makes the point. Anyway, I started this by something I called the Symposium. I got a bunch of really great minds together for a Sunday, and we talked about what epic fantasy *is*. What’s the relationship of the genre to landscape? How is it about nostalgia for a mythical past and how is it more than that? What are the expectations, and how can you fulfill them without painting by numbers? It was a *long* talk.
Then with that as a focus, I went through all the things I think are the most interesting things that I could fit into an overtly epic fantasy universe. I love the Medici bank, and especially Tim Park’s book-length essay on it, Medici Money. I love The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis. I love Whedon’s Firefly (not so much Serenity, but that’s another rant). I love The Diary of a Man in Despair by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen. I love Dumas and Dickens. I love Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books. I think Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall series is critically under-appreciated. And on and on.
And so I stole everything I liked the best, and now I’m making gumbo.
The books — I’m under contract for three, but I’m thinking that the first full arc will take about five — follow five main characters. It’s a little weird, since instead of having a farm boy chosen by prophecy, I’ve got an orphan girl who was raised by my version of the Medici bank, but hey. The point was never to paint by numbers, right?
The first book covers the introductions and setup with a bunch of swashbuckling and dark magic and intrigue and sentiment. The second book is the start of the Great War. The third will take us up to the critical moment, and then change the game again.
They’re longer books than the Long Price — about 160,000 words at the minimum where the Long Price was more in the 120-140 range — but so far, it reads like a short story. With as much as there is to cover, things move fast. And it’s a different tone. The glib way I’ve been describing it is that I wrote my tragedy first, now I’m writing my adventure, and if someday I’m good enough, I might try my comedy. But not yet.
DA: Oh yes. I’d love to. I have things on the back burner for a space opera, a mystery series, and a semi-literary horror/popular science book. But I also have 24 hours in the day and a family. I’ve had a good time playing in the different subgenres, though. It’s taught me a lot of things I don’t think I’d have learned otherwise.
SoY: What authors would you describe as your primary influences in developing your personal narrative style?
DA: That’s a hard call. I don’t think I’ve consciously adopted anyone’s voice. When I was just starting off, I was interested in Anne Rice and Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. There’s a grouping that would make all of them cringe, but they were all people I admired. People forget this, but back in the day, Anne Rice was really good with evoking a mood and making things that should have been absurd and ridiculous poignant. She lost it later, but a lot of people do. It doesn’t make her earlier work bad. King was great at telling a story, and not letting the beauty of the piece get in the way. I still admire the hell out of him for being utterly in the service of the story and not the aggrandizement of the author, moreso since he’s become a demigod. And Atwood — say what you will about her unfortunate snobbishness — has a feel for the complexity of human emotion and poetry options of language that is very, very compelling, especially in her non-genre work before The Handmaid’s Tale.
The biggest single influence, though, is Walter Jon Williams. I’ve been workshopping with him for over a decade now, and he has taught me more than any other single person, especially about how to identify and overcome my default errors. Walter’s a craftsman, and that’s sky high praise where I from.
SoY: In the novel Hunter’s Run, you collaborated with genre heavy hitters Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin to expand a novella decades in the works. Do you find it easy for you to collaborate on creative projects? Is it harder when working with people that are at different points in their careers?
DA: I appear to be pretty good at collaboration. The biggest single skill I can recommend for that kind of project is give up having it be the way you’d do it alone. The point of collaboration is that it isn’t what any of us would have done solo. Once you’re willing to lose a point here or there — to relinquish total ownership of the project — it can be great fun. That’s true whether it’s Hunter’s Run or the Wildcards books or the Tauromachia story I did with Walter, Sage Walker, and Michaela Roessener.
And George and Gardner were fun to work with. We have deeply different styles — especially me and Gardner — but they’re serious writers who treated me and the project with utter respect. As far as being at different points in our careers, that would be a real problem if I looked too much up to them or they looked too much down on me. But they were very good about treating me as an equal, and I’m not that bowled over by people higher on the food chain. Didn’t help me in high school, but it’s a nice talent now.
SoY: Like many authors you started out writing shorter fiction (Leviathan Wept is out next year!) but your output has diminished as you came to focus more on novels. What is your opinion on the short form? Is it merely a stepping stone to bigger things or a valuable form that just isn’t financially viable for today’s writing market?
DA: Are you sure my output’s diminished? I’ve got three novelettes that are eligible for the Nebula this round, and four more stories under contract one place and another, both as myself and MLN.
I think short form is great. It’s sharper and faster than a novel, and it allows for some effects that in a longer story would just get tedious. From a purely mercenary point of view, yes, it’s a good stepping stone to larger projects. I’m not sure that novels always make you more money if you account it by the word, but the stability of knowing that, for instance, the Orbit contract I signed will pay me for the next three to four years is a very pleasant thing.
From a really mercenary point of view, though, any fiction writing is stupid. Better to write non-fiction where the money is, or get a real job. And short stories are fun.
SoY: As a follow up, what would it take to resurrect the ailing short fiction market? Would a clear cut internet delivery system (iPod for fiction/Kindle/iTunes) be enough to provide another golden age for short genre fiction?
DA: Well, the glib answer is more people reading them. Part of the problem is that short stories are more directly in competition with television and movies than novels are. It takes about the same kind of time commitment to read a short story as to watch an episode of House or, if it’s a longer story, a feature film.
My sense, though, is that the thing that would really help resurrect the short story market is a really skillful, reliable, high-profile editor who can present stories so that readers know what they’re signing up for will be what they want. I remember the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents anthologies. The problem, I think, we’re facing in an information age is filtering. We need more recognized, acknowledged, high-profile filters. Maybe Oprah.
SoY: As a Clarion graduate, What is your opinion of writing workshops? What’s the more important aspect: writing advice or networking opportunities?
DA: Ah, the tastes great/less filling question.
I went to Clarion West in 1998, and it was a very good thing for me. I’ve been in a live, active writing workshop for almost a decade, and I’ve gone to the week-long Rio Hondo workshop in Taos probably eight times in the last ten years. Every one of those has both made me a better writer and broadened the number of serious, professional people I know in the field.
That said, I’m a skeptic when it comes to workshops.
There is an industry of writing how-to books and workshops and seminars that preys on the desperation of new writers. I’ve talked to editors and agents who go to these, and even the folks who do go to them don’t think much of ‘em.
If you can get a good group of people to work with, if you’re already sure enough of your craft that you can consider something that a more successful author says and discard it, if you’re open enough to changing that you can consider something a lesser writer says and accept it, then workshops will make you better faster than anything else in the world.
Even from a strictly craft perspective.
And knowing a bunch of people doesn’t hurt.
DA: Briefly, meet your deadlines and don’t be a dick in public. It’s not a moral thing, it’s just good tactics. If there’s more than that, I haven’t figured it out.
SoY: Tell us a little about your personal writing style. What are your writing habits like?
I drop the kid off at school at 8:30. I get my coffee and a raisin tart rom Guiseppe’s. I go to a desk in my parent’s print shop. I leave it again when I go get the kid at 3. In between, I avoid writing as much as I can.
SoY: Who wins in a fight between Daniel Abraham and M.L.N. Hanover? Does he have an evil goatee?
DA: MLN. Daniel’s a very sensitive, thoughtful kind of guy. MLN’s willing to take the kick to the balls. And of course there’s no goatee; anyone using initials instead of a full name is obviously a woman.
SoY: An incident occurs resulting in your removal from the list of up-and-coming genre stars. What is the most likely cause of that incident? (can be as serious or as funny as you would like) Who do you nominate in your place?
DA: Funny you mention it. My wife was hilariously sick last year, to the point we were talking about what the plan was if I had to go back to a full-time day job. If anyone out there ever enjoys anything that I write for the rest of my life, let me make it very, very clear: You owe Dr. Mohammed Othman and Dr. Michael Camilleri. So do I.
As far as giving away my chair, Ian Tregillis is going to kick my ass out of it in a couple years anyway. You haven’t heard of him yet because his Milkweed Triptych hasn’t been published, but he’s hands-down the most talented writer I’ve ever read who isn’t already more famous than me.
SoY: On a possibly related note, What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?
DA: That’s actually a trick question. I’m on the jury for the PKD this year, so I’m actually not allowed to talk about the vast majority of the things I’ve read this year, and my extra-curricular reading has been thinner than I normally like.
I’d mention Tana French’s “mystery” In The Woods. I use the quotes because as a mystery, it’s not particularly satisfying. Read as supernatural horror, though, it’s freaking lovely. And anyone who hasn’t read Jo Walton’s Small Change books is missing a real treat.
SoY: What’s being a judge for the PKD award like? Have you figured out how many metric feet of book you are suppossed to read?
DA: It’s a fascinating process. I’m not allowed to into specific, of course, but the assignment is to read every original paperback science fiction book that comes out this year. I was warned going in that the problem was starting to read a book I enjoyed, but not so much that I’d give it an award, and then having to put it aside because there were so many others to get to.
The award committee this year has some really great people on it, and more than half the fun is getting to talk to them about the books. At this point, there are still some books that may show up on the doorstep, and we haven’t even nailed down a short list, so I don’t have any idea who will actually take the prize. There have been some damn fine books in the mix, though.
SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]
If you are still here after that long (and fantastic) interview, thanks for reading. Abraham’s Black Sun’s Daughter series and Long Price Quartet are two outstanding series so I have high hopes for The Dagger and The Coin.
Filed under: Interviews
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