Monday, 22 March 2010

INTERVIEW: Daniel Abraham

Renowned as a short story writer, author Daniel Abraham has really grabbed the world of fantasy by the short and curlies with his Long Road series.

Here we chatted to the author about writing, the tortured author effect and how he deals with being "left 4 dead"...

Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?

Daniel Abraham: I'm leery of the tortured artist effect. Certainly writing is important to me, and if I go too long without, I get cranky. But in this, I think it's much like any passion. It's as likely true to say that a love of dog agility trials or gourmet cooking is something with which you are afflicted, and that those for whom it is a passion have to do it.

FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?

DA: I was twelve, I think. I had an assignment to write a story for a class and did a sort of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" for the preteen mindset. I remember that I had a couple of friends at the time who mocked the assignment and implicitly invited me to be loyal to them instead of -- essentially -- my homework. I chose my homework. I wasn't a particularly brave boy, and the decision to betray my friends wasn't lightly taken. It seems a small thing now, but it was momentous enough that I still remember it now.

FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?

DA: I disagree. If you can write a short story, you can write a short story. I wrote short stories for years and published several of them before I wrote a novel worth reading. And having written several novels doesn't teach me how to write a play or a script for film of comic books. There are some basic skills that short stories are good for teaching, but structure doesn't scale. As for what I've written that supports me in this, I have several novels in my files that will attest to my inability to write them even after I'd managed some decent short work.

FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?

DA: If I were trying to sell someone on the Long Price books, I'd say that they were a genuinely new take on epic fantasy. An unusual structure, an unusual setting, well-written, and with four essentially stand-alone stories that added up to a much larger story. And then I'd probably die of embarrassment from having puffed myself up over any number of other very good books.

FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?

DA: "Abraham is fiercely talented, disturbingly human, breathtakingly original and even on his bad days kicks all sorts of literary ass." -- Junot Diaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?

DA: Graham Joyce. I keep his books as rewards for doing chores I hate and projects that I don't enjoy. The prospect of curling up for a night with his newest book will get me through almost any amount of overdue housework. I've also developed a thing for Jo Walton.

FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your idea's develop as you write?

DA: If I just "let the ideas develop," it's with the understanding that I'm just noodling around, and that I will destroy that draft and write another one after I've figured out what I'm doing. I almost always know where I'm starting and where I'm heading toward. If the middle bits are a little fuzzy until I get there, that's fine. If the details shift around on me . . . well that's what second drafts are for.

FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?

DA: To relax, I walk or avoid housework. Most recently, I've read Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Connie Willis' Bellwether, and Tana French's The Likeness.

FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?

DA: Left 4 Dead. I have come to console gaming late in life, and almost exclusively for the pleasure of shooting zombies.

FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)

DA: I have a standard poodle cross who is only happy when she's curled up on the couch with someone and the neighbor's cat. I can't say that either of them has particularly been immortalized in fiction as yet.

FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?

DA: In the last book of the Long Price Quartet, there's a character named Idaan who has become one of my favorites. She was the villain of an earlier book, and shows back up having spent thirty years growing up, having experiences and trials of her own, and when she appears again, she's both a different person and who she always was. One of the things that writing these books taught me about myself was that I don't want my bad guys defeated so much as understood and -- where possible -- forgiven.

FT: How similar to your principle protagonist are you?

DA: I can't tell. He and I certainly have some character traits in common, but that's true of me and my villain too.

FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?

DA: I have a preschool-age daughter. My opportunity for hobbies is pretty slim these days. When I had free time, I was learning to play piano and draw. I'm terrible at both, which is part of the point. I suppose, being bloody-minded about it, biology is something of a hobby of mine.

I have a degree in it, I still read magazines and books on the subjects I've studied, and I've never applied any of that knowledge in a professional setting. And that certainly has influenced how I see the world.

FT: Where do you get your idea's from?

DA: I've thought about that a lot. On the one hand, I don't know.

Sometimes I can trace an idea back to some particular incident or accident or response to something that pissed me off. Other times, they just show up. I suspect that for the most part I get my ideas from other books and stories I've read, only they bounce off my perspective and experience and take on a spin of their own.

FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?

DA: I've had something like it in which I decide that whatever I'm doing at the moment is the worst piece of junk ever put to paper and will prove beyond a doubt that I'm a talentless fraud who would be better served answering phones on a tech support desk (which I actually did for several years). It turns out that just about every writer I know suffers the same. As hard as it is, I try to get around it by giving myself permission to do bad work. When I go back later, it's usually not half as bad as I thought, and when it is, there's I often know how to fix it.

FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?

DA: My household is very supportive of me. Which is to say, my wife is. A four-year-old daughter is never supportive of anything but the decision to get more ice cream. When I was younger, I would write late at night, starting around 10pm and going until I was done. Now, I begin writing about half an hour after daycare starts and stop about as long before it ends.

FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?

DA: I tend to write in silence, but there are exceptions. I wrote a novel once with Cliff Martinez score to sex, lies, and videotape looped in the background. But I can't write to music with words. I start paying attention to them, and then I'm not at work any more.

FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?

DA: The biggest misconception I had was exactly how much of being a writer means writing. I am capable of filling any number of days preparing my taxes, participating in online discussions, promoting my books, copy editing, reading galley proofs, corresponding with my agent and editor, and on and on and on without ever getting around to writing fiction. A friend of mine once spoke to a group of business professionals who were astounded to discover that writers don't have personal secretaries to take care of all those things. They don't.

FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?

DA: If music be the food of love, than writing be the food of insight. An old teacher of mine once said that music sounds the way feelings feel, and I think that's true. Music -- like photographs -- gets a free pass around our conscious, evalutative mind. Words on paper have to push through much more brain. The way that music invites you to feel, words invite you to think, to agree, to disagree, to recognize whether a thing is true in your experience. It's what makes writing fiction tricky.

Fiction's the art of saying things happened that didn't happen, any yet are in some sense true.

FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?

DA: It's an intentional riff on everything I think is cool. Tevis' Queen's Gambit, Reck-Malleczewen's Diary of a Man in Despair, Macbeth, Babylon 5, Firefly, anything by Alan Furst, Dunnet's House of Niccolo books, A Song of Ice and Fire, all whipped together into what I think makes them nifty. Plus, there's dragons.

FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?

DA: (She really didn't like Yellow Blue Tibia) (Yes, everyone's lives are progressing apace) (Sometimes, I despair) (Always) (A friend of mine just made the "names to watch" list)

FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.

DA: I have taken several undergraduate creative writing courses from which I learned nothing. I have attended the Clarion West workshop in 1998, from which I learned quite a bit. I am a habitual attendee of Walter Jon Williams' Rio Hondo workshop in Taos, New Mexico, where I consistently get deeper and more nuanced insight into the craft of writing, and I was part of a critique group with Walter Jon Williams, S.

M. Stirling, Melinda Snodgrass, Ian Tregillis, and (occasionally) George RR Martin (among others) which taught me how to write novels.

FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?

DA: I turned it into a game of postal ping-pong. I sent the story out, they sent it back, I sent it out, they sent it back. The point of the game wasn't to sell the story so much as to always have it in the mail.

Redefining success as having something in the mail helped a lot. And then there was also the weeks-to-months long bouts of despair and depression after a particularly cruel rejection letter. (I'm looking at you, Weird Tales, circa 1992 . . .)

FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?

DA: The best aspect is that I get to make money from doing something I would be doing anyway. I can work on my own time and my own schedule, and I'm doing things I genuinely love to do.

The worst aspects are that I am also a professional gambler. The success or failure of a project is driven by a huge variety of variables over which I have no control, and too many failures in a row can have very serious economic consequences. I live in the US, and we have no public health care, so the stakes are often quite high.

1 comment:

ediFanoB said...

It was Yetistomper's "Keeping AN Eye On... series which forced me to read A SHADOW IN SUMMER and I'm glad I read it.

Informative and varied interview.

Thank you both!