Interview with Daniel Abraham

Q: For the benefit of those of us not familiar with your work, what can you tell us about your fantasy debut, A Shadow in Summer?

It’s intended as a stand-alone novel and also as part of a four-book sequence called The Long Price Quartet. It was meant to be a little bit different than the usual fantasy. This one in particular sets up the world, and puts a handful of men and women in a position where they have to champion right, save their city, and prevent genocidal slaughter. Pick two.

Q: How important was it to benefit from George R. R. Martin’s “patronage?” His quote on the cover of A Shadow is Summer must have helped give you and the book some exposure.

It never hurts to be mentioned in the same breath as George. He was one of my teachers when I went to Clarion West, and he’s been very kind in supporting me and introducing my work to his fans. The cover blurb was great, and I think it helped get some attention from folks who otherwise might not have picked it up.

That said, though, I’m not sure how much patronage really helps. George has blurbed books other than my own. Some of them have done well, some haven’t. I wish I could invoke his name and have my sales figures turn to gold, but honestly I don’t think famous friends can make or break a career. If the book’s good enough and the author gets lucky, it’ll find it’s audience. If the book isn’t good or the writer isn’t lucky, even a 900-pound gorilla can’t keep it from failure.

Q: What can you tell potential readers about the sequel, A Betrayal in Winter?

It’s also intended to be a stand-alone novel. It’s set 15 years after the first book — there are gaps like that between each book in the series — and not all of the folks from the first book are in this one. It’s set in the far north of the world where A Shadow in Summer was in the far south, a lot has happened in between books, and people aren’t quite who they were when you saw them last.

The way that A Shadow in Summer was about being young and dramatic and over your head, A Betrayal in Winter is about deciding who you are, or maybe realizing that between what you’ve already done and the world you live in, a lot has already been decided for you.

Q: What can we expect from the two forthcoming volumes, An Autumn War and The Price of Spring?

An Autumn War is a little bit longer than either of the first books without being a doorstop. Again, it’s set 14 or 15 years after A Betrayal in Winter, and it’s the great big war to end all wars, the big showdown between the forces that were put in play in the first two books. That sounds very simple, like the orcs all show up and start waving axes or something. It’s more complex. I’m deeply into moral ambiguity. By the end, I hope that readers are wondering who they should be rooting for.

The Price of Spring is the book where the war’s over and we have to deal with the peace. And if that’s not contemporary, I don’t know what is.

Q: What’s the progress report pertaining to An Autumn War? Any tentative release date?

It’s done. I turned it in something like a year ago, and we’ve been editing it and getting cover art and waiting for the great and unstoppable wheels of publication scheduling to move forward. I assume it’ll be released about the same time as the paperback of A Betrayal in Winter, so late summer/early fall of 2008. But I expect I’ll be putting up excerpts and samples well before then.

Q: Are you happy with the way A Shadow in Summer was greeted by the SFF community?

It’s been very well reviewed, and people seem to be genuinely interested in what comes next. I don’t know that there’s a higher compliment than that.

Q: Since this was your fantasy debut, could you tell us a bit more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to published novel?

Well, it started off as a short story in Asimov’s called “A Lesson Half-Learned” which I thought was a complete piece. Nice story, punchy ending, bow, and get off the stage. But people — notably my agent — thought there was more in it. I sketched out this idea for a series that traced one man’s life through individual stories set at different times.

I was thinking of my grandmother, actually. She was born in the 1920s. When you look at the things she lived through — the depression, the second world war, the invention of television and the ubiquity of the telephone, McCarthyism, the formation of Israel, the Vietnam war — the scale and scope of that life really dwarfs what we do in “epic” fantasy. My grandmother lives alone and can go pretty much as far as her oxygen tanks will take her. She’s lost a husband and a son. She’s lived in half a dozen different cities. She was a spitfire as a kid. She’s been alive when women died because they couldn’t get legal abortions. She’s worn white gloves to social occasions. She’s seen three children married. She’s sent her newly married daughter to live in Columbia. She’s gone to meet the train that brought her husband home from war. She knows more secrets about this family than I ever will. Tell me she hasn’t been through more than Elric. G’head. I wanted to try to capture a little bit of that. One life in which the whole world changes, because it always does. It’s huge and its personal and it’s like that for everyone, all the time.

I wrote the first book and ran it through my critique group. They hated it. Every time I brought a few chapters, they said the same thing. They didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t like my protagonist. So I saw it through pretty much to the end, then threw it out, deleted the old files in a kind of burn-your-boats way, and wrote the story that I remembered having written before. That draft was much better. It’s the one that sold.

Tor picked it up, and I worked it through with Jim Frenkel over there. We got very lucky with the cover art, we got very lucky with the blurbs. Jacqueline Carey, for instance, isn’t someone I know, so when she said nice things about the book, it was because she thought ‘em. And then it came out. But by then I was working on An Autumn War and my own life had changed so much since I’d written it, it felt weirdly nostalgic to see it again.

Q: Will you be touring to promote A Betrayal in Winter this summer/fall? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?

I’ve got a signing in Albuquerque on September 8th, and I’m going to the Mountains and Plains booksellers convention in September, MileHi Con in October (both of those are in Denver), and the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs in November. Beyond those, nothing’s set.

Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the Long Price Quartet in the first place?

Honestly? That it was Sunday night and I had to have a manuscript to turn in by Tuesday morning. The short story that started it all was something I wrote at Clarion West. We had Connie Willis as our second week instructor, and we met her over dinner Sunday night. She said to start with someone getting hit in the head, I had this vague notion about the Neutral Angels in Dante’s inferno, and I had read a Walter Jon Williams story in which people used mudras to modify the meaning of their spoken words. 11pm on Sunday, 7000 word manuscript by Tuesday morning. Go.

Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

I’m pretty good at making the “bad guy” sympathetic, which is a huge blessing. There’s nothing better for building tension in a story than not being quite sure which side you *want* to win, because then every advance anyone makes is a setback for someone else. I’m told the descriptive passages are pretty good too. It’s hard for me to tell with that, though. I see what I see and I try to evoke it. Apparently it works more than it doesn’t.

Q: Were there any perceived conventions of the SFF genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write the Long Price Quartet?

All kind of ‘em. I wanted to do something that had the great big epic feel without being operatic. I wanted to have a magic system that actually integrated with economics. I wanted to set it in an age where trade was as important as war. I wanted a world without a dark lord or orcs or any obvious signs that said “Root for this guy” and “hope that this guy fails.”

Oh, and prophecy. I don’t think I have a single prophecy that means anything more than your newspaper horoscope.

Q: Any plans for what you’ll be turning your hand to after the Long Price Quartet is done?

Several. I don’t know which one of them will actually happen. There are a couple other genres I want to play in before I die. As far as epic fantasy, I feel like I’ve cut my teeth on the Long Price books. I’ve learned a lot since the first book, both about what readers are looking for and how to structure novels. I’m hoping to get a few people together for a long weekend and have a small symposium on what fantasy is and does, and then really seriously plan out a fairly long project — like seven or eight books — with a good solid backbone and benchmarks and timetables and all the homework done before the first word gets written. I guess I want to see if I can write a big fat fantasy series with absolutely no bloat.

Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?

Sadly, I’d take the bestseller. I know some folks who’ve won the World Fantasy Award and couldn’t sell their next novel. I’ve got a family to feed and ambitions that I’ll need to keep writing if I’m going to meet. I’d love the prestige and the critical consideration of an award like World Fantasy or the Nebula or the Hugo. I’d aspire to any of those. But if I had to choose, I’d take the check because it lets me keep playing.

Q: What authors make you shake your head in admiration? Many SFF authors don’t read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?

I think Ted Chiang hates it when I say this stuff, but he’s the best living science fiction writer, just because of The Story of Your Life. The more I stew in issues of craft, the fewer writers I can read without getting distracted in this kind of reflexive dissection. Ted is better than I’ll ever be, so I just shut up and take the ride.

Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall is also amazing and deeply under appreciated. And there have been times that Jack Cady had me sitting in my bathtub until the water went cold. Catherynne Valente’s In The Night Garden was also gorgeous, but in a very different way. I was always aware of her craft, but her craft was so good, my dissection of it was constantly delightful. I don’t know how it would have read to someone who was just reading it, but I think it’s brilliant.

I read inside the genre and outside it too. It’s tough, though. If you read a book every week — along with writing and cleaning the house and taking care of the kid, much less a real day job — that’s 52 books a year. I have over a thousand books at my house, and I have a hard time walking through a bookstore without one or two sticking to me.

Q: Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the superb covers that grace A Shadow in Summer and A Betrayal in Winter?

I think you should see what we got for An Autumn War.

Seriously, though, cover design and cover art — maybe even design more than art — makes or breaks us. That don’t judge a book by its cover thing is crap. Everyone does it, all the time. Metaphorically and literally. If the cover can get someone to pick the book up and read the first few sentences, I have a chance with them. If it never gets that far, then seriously nothing I’ve done matters.

 

Q: Both novels will be published by Orbit in the UK this fall. Have other foreign rights been sold thus far?

Yes. It’s already out in Germany, and we’re also in Poland, Italy, Holland, and France. I’m missing a couple there. It’s all over the place.

Q: The fact that there is a website (www.danielabraham.com) dedicated to your work is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?

Special? Odd word. I don’t know any author who doesn’t delight in interacting with people who enjoy their work. I guess they exist, but I don’t hang out with them. So it seems pretty common in that sense. Generally, though, I’m damn pleased to be living in an era when that kind of communication is possible. I think people who read my books tend to be intelligent, compassionate, usually better looking than average, and generally good folks.

I’m half kidding. Only half, though. There’s a lot of how I think and see the world in these books. People who spark to that seriously do tend to be the sort of people I spark to too.

Q: A Shadow in Summer is the living proof that the internet can provide a lot of exposure for a book. Do you feel that most publishers don’t yet understand the full potential of this tool, in terms of exploiting the wealth of fantasy-related websites, message boards, and blogs?

I don’t think anyone understands the full potential of the tool. I worked tech support for ten years at an ISP, so I was swimming in the internet 40 hours a week plus whatever I did at home, and I’m pretty sure I don’t grok the fullness.

The thing is, the internet is literally the biggest single machine humanity has ever built. There is room on it for a semi-infinite number of communities dedicated to a semi-infinite variety of enthusiasms, and the one thing they all hate is getting marketed to. Imagine a new author getting a listing of every fantasy-related message board and blog, and hitting all of them to talk about how great her book was. I know I’d look on her with pity and disgust. More spam? Great, because that was what I needed. Wrote the spam yourself? Bite me.

On the other hand, being a part of a community draws a lot of water. Creating a community is even better. How to do that, promote your book, and not be one step shy of spam? That’s tricky.

Q: You appear to be a prolific short fiction writer. Are there any plans to one day put together a collection of short stories?

Plans? You betcha. But I’m not doing anything until I can reprint the story I have in Klima’s Logorrhea anthology. I really like that one.

Q: How was the process of writing for the interstitials on Inside Straight? Arguably, they’re one of the key — maybe _the_ key — parts of a book of that kind, as it bridges the various individual stories and pulls them together into a cohesive whole.

It was right on the edge between writing and improvisational theater. There was some reshuffling — no pun — as the book took shape, and my part had to shift constantly to keep up. I was lucky in that my character has a blog, so I had a lot of tools to get information across to the reader without having to make characters explain things to each other for your benefit. And my guy in Inside Straight was funny. He was the Han Solo character. I always thought the Wild Cards universe needed more Han Solos.

Seriously, though, the fact that I could take a light tone sometimes and a dark one in others made it a lot of fun. As a storytelling exercise, it was tough, and the interstitial material was threatening to be long enough to classify as a novel all by its lonesome, but I think what came out of it was pretty spiffy.

 

Q: You’ve got two or three comics projects in the pipeline. What’s the status on those?

Two of them, the scripts are in. One of them, the artists is cranking away, the other I think we’re between artists at the moment. The third, I’ve turned in the first script of six. I should have the last of those done by January. Then it’s up to the artist.

It’s a really fun gig, though. Comic scripts are much more fun than I’d anticipated. It was hard to change gears, though. The way comic books deal with narrative voice is *very* different than prose. Most of my tools didn’t apply. Thank God for Scott McCloud…

Q: Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

Not in our generation. But that’s always the way it is. Hard-boiled detective novels were crap, and now Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler are taught in college. Science fiction is making its way in — Ursula Le Guin and now Philip K. Dick. Tolkien is still sneaking around English departments like a guilty pleasure.

But let me ask you this: what would we do with respect? Would it make us better writers? Better readers? Does it add to the pleasure you take in a good story, well told? I’ve known people who were bent on creating Real Literature, leading caps and all. A lot of them were pretentious gits who were so busy being authors they couldn’t tell a story.

And I also know from experience that there is nothing that can suck the juice out of a good book like being put on a syllabus. I loved Camus, and I was damn lucky that I found him before my high school English teacher assigned him.

Let’s not get respectable. Let’s stay the guilty pleasure than all those English professors and High Literature wonks sneak in when they think no one’s watching. If I spend my life as a kind of literary back-door man, it’ll be a good time for them and plenty of fun for me. If I hit one out of the park and tell a story that changes the way someone lives or looks at the world — all that stuff that Capital-L Literature is supposed to do — and I don’t get respect for it, who cares? I’ll have changed someones life, or the way they look at the world. What’s respect next to that?

Q: Anything you wish to add?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a suck-up, I’d go back to the previous question about the internet. I appreciate the time and effort that folks like you and Jay Tomio over at Fantasy Book Spot and Robert Thompson at Fantasy Book Critic do. It’s a lot of time and a lot of effort, and I get the benefit of it. You folks are the ones who are making this community. The writers are here because you made a space for us. Go you.

___

Interview by Patrick
fantasyhotlist.blogspot

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