I’ve been combining appropriate and related content into single posts lately and this is an interview I conducted with Daniel Abraham in 2006 with my review of his debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, following it.
Abraham has gone on since to be the co-creator of The Expanse, which is a dope science fiction tv show that started on Syfy and has since moved on to Amazon, based on his novels as James S. A. Corey (the pen name of Abraham and his writing partner Ty Frank).
Before that though he wrote what I think is a very underrated fantasy series called The Long Price Quartet, which I’d guess didn’t do so well commercially (one of the handful of common reason writers take on pen names after publishing something). I thought it was fresh though and different, yet still not so far off where it’s something off-putting to people looking for a fantasy series.
Since George R.R. Martin’s star has been rising (years before even before the Game of Thrones HBO show) he has what I would call champion several writers that I have to admit I didn’t really take to but Abraham is one that I was on-board with from jump, and he seemed very much a like a solid dude as well. I conducted a lot of interviews with writers and it’s just human nature to come away from them having some sort of, even if incomplete, opinion about someone and Abraham was definitely on the good end of the spectrum.
At any rate my interview with Abraham is below followed by my review of A Shadow in Summer.
Daniel Abraham recently saw his debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, the first installment in his The Long Price Quartet released. Currently his story Flat Diane is a finalist for the Nebula Award, he has been published in publications such Asimov’s, and SciFi.com, and collaborated with George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois on the novella Shadow Twin.
I recently reviewed A Shadow in Summer, and Abraham answers question about his debut novel, future projects, and past work.
Jay – Publisher’s Weekly recently printed what I thought was a terrific synopsis of A Shadow in Summer, I was wondering, however, if you would encapsulate — for those reading this interview — what type of journey are you taking them on with A Shadow in Summer?
Daniel Abraham- Well, encapsulation is hard when you’ve spent so much time writing something long in the first place. The best I can do would be something like this:
A Shadow in Summer is a high fantasy set in an Asiatic milieu where captive spirits are used to drive trade and replace military protection. When one of these spirits conspires with a rival nation, a handful of men and women have to come together to champion right, save their city, and prevent genocidal slaughter. Pick two.
Jay – A Shadow in Summer is the first installment of your Long Price Quartet. The two following installments are titled Winter Cities and An Autumn War, where are these, and the final book at in terms of writing/editing process and possible release dates?
Daniel Abraham- We’re shooting for each one coming out at approximately one-year intervals. Winter Cities and An Autumn War are already finished and are both in different stages of editing. The last book, The Price of Spring, is part of my homework this year. I have the rough outline, and as soon as I have a couple other little things cleared away, I’m on it.
Jay – The theme that really struck me, from the focal characters, to those met in travels, was that of freedom. Seedless, who would rather not be manifested at all, the life choices of Otah, Liat who seeks freedom through elevation and ambition, Wilsin who wants to go home, Amat Kyaan who forges out on her own, eve at an advanced age, and the brief appearance of Orai, seemed like Freedom itself knocking on the door. Was this intentional, or was it something that happened to play out that delusional reviewers force you to ponder?
Daniel Abraham- Freedom, per se, wasn’t something I had in mind for everyone but the issue of enslaving the andat and the cost that takes out of the poets and Otah’s refusal to accept the roles offered to him were. A Shadow in Summer was intended to be a young book — several of the main characters are in their late teens and early 20s. Ideas about responsibility and identity and the balance between justice and compassion and a kind of moral, real politik, all went into it. In later books, we see some of the same people as their roles in life change and their views and positions shift.
Jay – How did you get involved in the novella, Shadow Twin, a collaborative effort between yourself and Gardner Dozois, and George R.R. Martin?
Daniel Abraham- The glib answer is George took me out to dinner one night and said “So Daniel, how do you feel about a three-way with two old fat guys. . .”
George and Gardner were both professors of mine at Clarion West 1998. Gardner started Shadow Twin back in the mid 70s, when I was in grade school. George picked it up in the 80s, and then both of them got so busy that the manuscript never quite floated to the top of their collective to-do list. The idea of having a third person complete it was always on their minds — Walter Jon Williams and Michael Swanwick both got a look at it and passed. I had less work on my plate at the time, and frankly I was a little star-struck. I mean it’s George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. If they’d invited me to collaborate on a grocery list, I’d have jumped at it. As it stands, it’s really collaboration between three fairly new writers across several decades. When Gardner started it, he wasn’t a multiple Hugo winner. When George picked it up, he didn’t have Time calling him the American Tolkien. When I finished it, I hadn’t published a novel or won an award or really been heard of much.
I have to say I’m pleased with how it came out.
Jay – The fantastic element in A Shadow in Summer — the magic if you will — is employed by Andats, the creation of, and binded by poets. I felt it was a refreshing application, however, one that I have found some difficulty in conveying to others via brief summary. For myself, perhaps more than others, can you describe to us an Andat, beyond what is an admittedly a rather concise remark in the text, “Concepts translated into a form that includes volition?”
Daniel Abraham- It’s a kind of elemental magic, but instead of the Earth/Air/Fire/Water, elements are whatever you can make into a unified concept. I originally thought of it as an act of translation. The world in the books has a thinner gap between concrete reality and abstraction than we have, and the andat are when you pull an abstraction over into the concrete and try to keep it there.
The trick with it is that every time the poets do this little trick, it gets harder. So by the time they’ve bound Water-Moving-Down and lost control and gotten it back a couple times, it essentially becomes impossible to recapture. Basing your culture’s stability and supremacy on something that is becoming harder and harder to get is a problem that I think we post-industrial superpowers have close to our heart.
Jay – A Shadow in Summer is your first major release, however, a number of examples of your short fiction is publisher by the likes of Scifi.com, Infinite Matrix, and Asimov’s, among others, how long have you been writing SF/F, and what started you down that path, and how long has your current project been in the making?
Daniel Abraham- Well, I think I was writing horror in fifth grade. It wasn’t what you’d call sophisticated. But I’ve always been writing stories. The first sale I ever made was to Ann Kennedy — now also known by her married name Ann VanderMeer — for The Silver Web. That was back in 1995 or ’96. I just collected rejection slips for 10 or so years before that.
The Long Price books started as a short story I wrote in the summer of 1998 at Clarion West. It was Sunday night and I had to have a story done by Tuesday morning. The back of my head pulled through, and the result is the introduction of A Shadow in Summer. I was pretty happy just having it be a short story, but my agent — Shawna McCarthy — saw it and told me it deserved more attention.
She was right.
Jay – We have corresponded briefly before this interview, and you described the few days prior to the release of A Shadow in Summer as a neuroses beckoning time, when it no longer is a on-going project of ideas and finishing touches, but something that is given physical substance for others to interpret. How are you feeling now, and how would you describe the difference — if any — of seeing the Long Price Quartet come into fruition, in comparison to other past projects?
Daniel Abraham- It’s weirdly anticlimactic. I think every author oscillates between thinking what they’ve done is just the best thing ever and thinking it stinks. I’m still going through that phase with A Shadow in Summer. But for something that I’ve struggled to do for the better part of my adult life, it doesn’t really change much.
And actually, that’s pretty much in line with other milestones I’ve passed. Before I got published in Asimov’s, for instance, I had all the same psychological quirks I had afterward. I usually find that reassuring. I don’t trust things that are supposed to fix my problems with some One Great Gesture. As long as I can be neurotic with a decent sense of humor, I’ll count myself ahead of the game.
Jay – One of the elements that gives The Long Price a distinctive quality, is your integration of a system of poses, and I think very seamlessly implementing a secondary form of communication. What was the inspiration for this addition, and when did it become an element that you wanted to use in a SF/F work?
Daniel Abraham- Walter Jon Williams used mudras in one of his stories as a way to modify the words the characters spoke. Kind of a physical inflection. I thought it was an incredibly cool idea, and I kind of went to town with it. And in a world where the magic structure is so explicitly grammatical, it seemed appropriate to have a culture whose sense of language was broader than most.
Jay – You thank Connie Willis for giving you the first advice on the book. What was that advice, and whom would you identify as those who influence your own work?
Daniel Abraham- Her words were “Start with someone getting hit in the head.”
As far as influences, it’s hard to say. I’ve been amazingly lucky in having literally dozens of professional writers and editors who’ve been kind enough to talk with me directly about my writing. Just from my experience as a reader, I think Jonathan Carroll, Graham Joyce, and Tim Powers are the writers who have some of the best intuitive understandings of magic. I’ve read Eco’s The Name of the Rose about five times now and I love him. And when I was in high school, I read David Eddings until I broke the spines. I think Umberto Eco crossed with my 16-year-old memory of David Eddings might be who I want to be when I grow up.
I’m sure that I’ve read something with an overall structure similar to what I’m doing with the Long Price books — there’s nothing new under the sun — but I’m not sure what.
Jay – Well, you certainly took her advice to heart! Are there any non-Long Price projects, whether short fiction or novels, that you are working on or plan on pursuing in the near future you can tell us about?
Daniel Abraham- Ah, the to-do list. I have a huge list of things I want to do. George, Gardner and I are working on an expanded and deeper version of Shadow Twin. I’ve promised to contribute a story to a really nifty short story anthology John Klima of Electric Velocipde fame is putting together. I’m pitching a six-issue comic book, and there are a couple other short stories in one state of undress or another that I’d like to get out the door. That’s pretty much all I have scheduled this year.
I also wrote a contemporary fantasy novel called Unreal City that I hope to publish someday and a follow-up to it called Faust’s Children. I’m working up a fantasy series for after Long Price is done. And I’d like to try my hand at mysteries. You know, in my spare time.
Jay – The Unreal City! I saw this being advertised some times ago, and was anticipating procuring a copy. Is Meisha Merlin still tabbed to publish it, and what can you tell us about that project?
Daniel Abraham- Alas, the arrangement with Meisha Merlin fell through. I still hope to get it published at some point — it’s a story I’m very fond of — but it’s not slated for the world just yet.
Jay – How do you have this quartet plotted out, will Winter Cities revisit the entire cast from A Shadow in Summer or is the journey focusing on a specific character, or a should we expect a turnover in cast?
Daniel Abraham- Expect some turn-over. There’s a little over a decade between each book in the series. There are a couple characters around whom the story really revolves, but the rest of the cast will come in and out over the course of the books.
Jay – You mentioned Clarion, a very well thought of workshop, and one that has produced some really quality debuts of late (as recently as Tobias Buckell’s excellent Crystal Rain ). What did you take from Clarion, and how instrumental — if at all — was it to your growth as a writer?
Daniel Abraham- Clarion West was a watershed for me. I’d sold a couple short stories before I went to Seattle, but things really changed after the workshop.
Part of that is that I think I genuinely became a much better writer — doing anything with that kind of focus for six solid weeks is bound to improve your skills with it. Part of it was that I got to know a lot of people in the industry, I learned a lot about the kinds of professionalism that is expected of writers, and the prestige of putting Clarion West on cover letters probably helped me get out of the slush pile.
Jay – There is an eastern flavor to your society, and while not a rare choice of direction, it’s not one that is prevalent either. What made you go this route when you started your short story at Clarion that would become A Shadow in Summer? Is there an interest in the culture or was it a choice that simply fit the other concepts you wanted to employ?
Daniel Abraham- I’d say it’s more that I was hesitant to set something in a western culture. We see a lot of fantasy that feels very familiar because it’s got medieval European middle earth stamped on it. I wanted something that had some of the issues that surrounded the renaissance and the rise of nations — trade, technology, nation-level politics — but without the familiarity that would leave people thinking, “Ah! He’s writing about the Thirty Years War with elves.”
Jay – You seem to have strong roots as a fan of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror — fiction in general. Being a working writer, and I believe a student, what authors do you make the time to read now?
Daniel Abraham- Well right now, I’m re-reading Walter Jon Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall books, which I think are some of the best things he’s ever written. I’ll also read anything Maureen McHugh or Sean Stewart put out. You mentioned Toby Buckell. I have his first novel by my bedside right now.
But as I spend time writing fantasy, I find myself reading more outside the genre. Mysteries, non-fiction. And there’s nothing like P. G. Wodehouse to lighten the burdens of the world.
Jay – Along with the release of A Shadow in Summer, your novella ‘Flat Diane’ is a finalist on the Nebula ballot. I thought it was just an incredibly chilling, and effective supernatural/horror piece. Do you have a preference between writing short fiction and novels? You described your feelings of being published in both as rather similar, but what about during the actual writing process?
Daniel Abraham- — I don’t really have a preference, except in that I’ve written a lot of short stories, so I feel like I’m better at them. Structuring a novel is a different skill from structuring a short story, and it’s harder to learn if only because it takes so much time to do one.
As luck would have it, I have had my eye on a book since around mid-2005, and was lucky enough to get my hands on it a couple months ago, and it’s quite topical — being just released this week — and sporting an endorsement from the ever popular George R.R. Martin.
“…AN ELEGANT STYLE THAT REMINDED ME BY TURNS OF GENE WOLFE, JACK VANCE, AND M. JOHN HARRISON, WHILE STILL REMAINING VERY MUCH HIS OWN….”
Definitely some daunting words to live up to, and something that will draw the consideration of anyone who appreciates quality fiction, but author blurbage is something I find — as a reader — largely inconsequential. If a writer was at times reminiscent of Wolfe, Harrison, and Vance, in a single book, I dare say I would go to church this Sunday and repent my numerous sins, as god himself has come back and apparently works for Tor. All that said, A Shadow in Summer, as it turns out, is a rather fine choice for those looking for a new series to turn to in early 2006.
Although our journey begins in a Monastic School of potential poets, the bulk of the story takes place in the port city of Saraykeht, a city of the Khaiem, the surviving city-states and remnants of an Empire generations removed from its glory. While not the military power in the region, Saraykeht, an economic jewel, and the rest of the cities of the Khaiem live with a complete absence of trepidation from any threat of the jingoistic and bellicose Galts — a luxury afforded them being the station and home of the poet Heshai-kvo. Abraham’s poets’ harness the fantastic element in the quartet, as only they, through knowledge of language and description, and monastic training of discipline are able to bring to form and bind to them an Andat. Andats are essentially avatars of the abstract, given birth by articulation. Heshai has dominion over a rather powerful Andat, both the opposite of, yet perhaps the very self-ideal image of the poet himself. He is called Removing-The-Part-That-Continues, in the North he is simply Sterile, in the Summer Cities, he is Seedless. Seedless’s power gives Saraykeht its stranglehold cutting down the harvest costs and labor making it a prosperous economic center, however it’s not Seedless’s agricultural prowess that holds rival nations in fear, with is power he is also very much capable of toppling nations at a whim. What he gives he can take, he can make an entire nation’s crop fail, he can make every livestock animal go barren — he can do the same with people — killing generations of a population. They also don’t care to be bound and given physical form, and work tirelessly, with Machiavellian purpose, at breaking their master’s hold on them, and Seedless will show how an idea — a product of words — can take a life of its own and change the lives of those Abraham chooses and potentially the fate of nations.
We don’t so much as get differing views of Abraham’s setting, as much as we are thrust into a the lives of several characters that are all about the be affected and diverted by the machinations of what is theirs but they cannot fully subjugate. We will follow a cast that is largely interconnected, Itani, who seems aptly described as a simple man in complex times; Maati the student sent to Heshai for training; Heshai himself, the poet of Saraykeht, who battles inner-demons and his Andat alike; Amat Kyaan, the seasoned overseer of the Galt house in the Summer City; Marchat Wilsin, her friend, and the head of Galt’s presence in Saraykeht who is playing a game of clandestine high stakes with someone who has nothing to lose; Liat Chokavi, Itani’s lover, the aide of Amat Kyann, Galt thrust into a game she fails to see through her own ambitions; we follow their plights and how they center around a pregnant Nippu girl, and an Andat who considers all but one of them expendable, in his quest for both absolution and an innate self-hatred that he shares with his master.
Abraham creates a very distinct introduction to a series, chiefly by employing the element and role of the Andat and poet relationship, and the seamless integration of social communication, a practice of elocution, where gestures and poses are as standard as verbal response. The idea itself is rather ambitious, and after getting accustomed to the practice in the first dozens of pages, it becomes a realized ambition, as instead of hindering the narrative, it adds, and reemphasizes — adding to the depth, and really, for myself, a bit of a wow factor, and element too truly appreciate, both in its inclusion, and in reference to its application. The Andat poet relationship fulfills, because ultimately the power is not treated as something that stands beyond the scope of man. This is a power — a technology we ourselves seek — ultimately our responsibility and creation, and as such has a long price.
As I noted in another recent review, fans of the epic styled of fantasy love debuts, thus our novel-length introduction to Daniel Abraham, A Shadow in Summer, needs not so much as find an audience, as much as prove worthy of this existing predilection, and serve as an entrée for the rest of the four-book sequence, The Long Price Quartet, the next three books entitled, Winter Cities, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring. In this, Abraham succeeds, our travels through Khaiem is one of true discovery, bearing little semblance to any existing current series, and avoiding joining the ranks of failed, vacuous, and at times inconsiderate attempts at melding fantasy with a eastern backdrop. Abraham juggles inventive elements that don’t distract from his plot, but expands upon it and creates appreciable tension; Seedless — poetry incarnate — is rendered alien, even when born of and motivated by the most basic of human instincts. In fact, the single thread that transforms the diverse cast into a thematic ensemble is the apparent destination all are trying to reach; albeit by vastly different paths and modes of travel, they all search for what they perceive as freedom, a condition and destination I felt best represented by a chance meeting between travelers.
“I THINK IT’S WHY I KEEP TRAVELING EVEN THOUGH I’M NOT REALLY SUITED TO IT. WHENEVER I’M IN ONE PLACE, I REMEMBER ANOTHER. SO I’LL BE IN UDUN AND THINKING ABOUT A BLACK CRAB STEW THEY SERVE IN CHABURI-TAN. OR IN SARAYKEHT, THINKING OF THE WAY THE RAIN FALLS IN UTANI. IF I COULD TAKE THEM ALL — ALL THE BEST PARTS OF ALL THE CITIES — AND BRING THEM TO A SINGLE PLACE, I THINK THAT WOULD BE PARADISE.”
And also by Seedless:
“WE WANT TO RETURN TO OUR NATURAL STATE LIKE THE RAIN FALLS”
Abraham gives us hints of the Empires of the past, when poets at times had multiple Andats at their disposal, a practice and trial, long since forbidden. We are told of a system of succession that has brother’s slaying kin, to insure their own ascension. He introduces a love-triangle, one that which is difficult to take sides with, and tells a story of people making personal decisions, whether moral, economic, in self-interest, for desire or duty on all levels, and shows not how Empires are moved or saved by such decisions, but simply how they exist — only the names and participants change. It’s simply a strong combination of zooming in and out of events, making it both have a personal and far-reaching effect, and knowing precisely when to do so. It’s at the very least, a very different reading experience from any other series out there, it takes some chances, and I think they pay off into the most gratifying parts of the novel.