First Book Friday: David Anthony Durham

Welcome to First Book Friday.  I missed last week on account of World Fantasy Con, and because my Journalpress plugin has been giving me grief.

But we’re back!  Today we have the ever-awesome David Anthony Durham, another genre-jumping author who didn’t start out writing fantasy.  He’s the winner of the 2009 Campbell Award, has been praised by everyone from the NY Times to the LA Times, has sold movie options for at least three of his books, and is pretty much kicking ass and taking names.


First, the romantic part…

I wrote my first published novel, Gabriel’s Story [B&N |  Mysterious Galaxy | Amazon], while living in an attic apartment in a small city near the French Alps. I’d been married for about a year. My wife had secured work for a ski company based in France. While she went to work, I got to stay at home and work on writing my novel. Kinda cool, yeah?

Now some other details…

My wife was pregnant. She was supporting me, but only for eight to nine months. After that, I had to get a frickin job. I probably should have had one already, as her income barely paid our bills. Each day I turned off the heat when she went out to work. Through the winter, I wrote with fingerless gloves on, watching the computer screen through plumes of my own breath. I’d already written two novels that had been roundly rejected by more publishers than I care to remember. I was intent on writing a publishable novel, but it seemed a very real possibility that life was about to demand other things of me. The fact that I was writing a 19th century African-American literary Western didn’t help much either.

“A what?” you might ask. Let me explain.

In addition to always wanting to be a writer, I had always loved studying history. I was fascinated by the settlement of the American West, and surprised to discover how much a part of it black people were. Former slaves didn’t just head north after the Civil War. They went west too, for the same reasons as white settlers. As an African-American that had just come from a long season of raft guiding in the West, this stuff greatly interested me. (Yeah, back then we got around a lot.)

I combined that historical information with a story I’d been working on in a contemporary setting. One of those first two novels was a coming of age tale of a trouble African-American kid, a boy going into adolescence with major chips on his shoulders. It was literary, character-driven, heavy on family issues and unrelentingly sad. It’s no surprise I couldn’t get the thing published.

I took some aspects of the coming of age story and I blended them with my interest in the American West. I transported key characters from 1980’s Baltimore to 1870’s Kansas, and a funny thing happened. The novel took off. Suddenly, it had a plot that included murder and cattle rustling, desert chases and shootouts and a finale that tied everything together in one suspenseful moment. It was a very different book than I’d been taught to write during my MFA program. It was better.

I sent it to an editor at Doubleday that had been a fan of one of my earlier novels. She liked it, and Doubleday made an offer not long after. Good thing, too, as that job in France had concluded. We were living in Scotland, our daughter had just been born, and I was working in a music shop, selling Brit-pop. The day after I got the book offer I quit. And a few days after that I got an agent!

That’s the short story of my first novel. It wasn’t until a few more books that I turned to writing about warrior princesses and banished sorcerers, mutated monsters and warfare in a made up world. But that’s another story.