The Long Price Before Expanse – Daniel Abraham Interview

daniel abraham

My guest today 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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 Tomio- 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.

Jay Tomio- Finally, in a moment of self-advocation, why should readers looking for a new series this month pick up A Shadow in Summer, and pass on other debuts this month. Your vision and labor has been given substance — what’s intrinsically present in an Abraham project that should have us buying??

Daniel Abraham- Self-promotion. Not really my strong suit.

I’d say it’s worth buying because it’s a good set of characters in an interesting, morally complex world. I’ve done everything I know to make the ride fun and memorable, and besides it gives you all the back-story for Winter Cities, and that book’s even better.