Jul 21, 2009
A Discussion with Daniel Abraham
As anyone who has been following my blog is undoubtedly aware, I’ve recently reconsidered some of my bias toward certain types of Urban Fantasy books, thanks in a large part to author Daniel Abraham. After some back and forth discussions via e-mail, Mr. Abraham agreed to answer a few questions about his new Urban Fantasy series (Black Sun’s Daughter) and his opinions on the subgenre in general.
SoY: What’s in the future for Jayne? Is there a set story arc with a defined conclusion or is her future fairly open-ended at this point?
DA: One of the things that was really hard about writing Unclean Spirits is that about half the things happening in it aren't what they look like. I have a very clear idea where Jayné's headed. I know the last scene of the last book. I know some of the things that need to happen to her between here and there. I know the secrets about herself and her past that she needs to confront. I'd like the series to read kind of like watching a season of Buffy. Some books stand alone, some are part of a larger arc story, with all of it coming together at the end. I'm aiming toward ten books right now, but it could be more or fewer, depending on the market.
I'm one of those folks who thinks that the best stories end. If I get to actually go through my whole plan, the story we started in Unclean Spirits will definitively end.
SoY: Black Sun’s Daughter is somewhat late to the game in the Urban Fantasy market. Why should readers pick up your series instead of the some of the more established series out there?
DA: In part because it isn't an established series. Someone coming to the genre new doesn't need to track down the previous twenty books in a series. Or, for folks who've already read all those, Unclean Spirits is a slightly different take on the material.
Plus, it's got bones in parasitology and fringe Christian theologies. How much fun it that?
SoY: Many Urban Fantasy series start off with the protagonist already within the world of the weird. Why did you choose to start Black Sun’s Daughter where you did?
DA: There are advantages and disadvantages in both strategies. If you start with the protagonist knowing the score, you can dive straight into the action and the story of the individual book. But then you have to go back and backfill a bunch of the details of the world, and that's awkward. If your heroine knows all about vampires -- how they work, what their vulnerabilities are, that if you poke them in the neck with the Cross of St. Christopher, they break into showtunes, whatever rules set the book uses -- you still have to find a way to tell the reader all the things she knows. By having Jayné come into the supernatural world fresh, the reader learns about it along with her. All I need to do is make sure it moves fast enough that she doesn't seem dim. *You* know she's in one of those books with the tattooed girl on the cover, but *she* isn't aware of that. So you, as the reader, know more than she does. My job is to catch her up to you in a way that's still fun to read.
SoY: Based on the quality of Unclean Spirits, it appears you are well read in the genre. What are some of the tropes that annoy you most in Urban Fantasy and what did you set out to do when you started writing Urban Fantasy.
DA: Oh, there's a hell of a question.
Without naming names, there are a lot of traditions within urban fantasy that I find very problematic, some of which I've done in Unclean Spirits. The confusion of empowering women and weaponizing them. The "powerful" woman who is acceptable because the power was forced on her; God forbid any of these people have ambitions. There is a really great analysis of what the genre is about at:
Carrie's Analysis of Urban Fantasy: Part 1 (The Formula)
Carrie's Analysis of Urban Fantasy: Part 2 (When Things Go Wrong)
Carrie's Analysis of Urban Fantasy: Part 3 (Deconstructing Urban Fantasy)
And yes, the Black Sun's Daughter books are supposed to be both a bunch of entertaining adventures with characters we all grow to love and admire, and also my response to the things I think are unhealthy about this setup.
SoY: Why did you pick a female protagonist rather than a male? What were the biggest difficulties in writing a cross-gender perspective?
DA: For me, urban fantasy started with Laurel K. Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures and season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's certainly broadened out since then, but that core conversation about the problematic relationship between women and power is what turns my crank. So when I took a swing at it, it just made sense to me that I'd start out with something that looked like the things that got me started on it. Plus which, I always wanted to write the Hellblazer comic book by killing off John Constantine and putting in his niece, Gemma Masters, investigating his life and death. Jayné really got her start there.
SoY: Similiarly, your past work in the Long Price Quartet has been described at times as “feminist”. Are there some larger themes that you like to address across even series boundaries?
DA: Anything I write is going to come out of my head. I don't have an overt political agenda or anything like that. But between being on the one hand skeptical of the traditional limits we put on ourselves because of our genders and on the other wanting to write believable characters, I think there's a kind of intellectual and psychological common ground anything I do is going to have. Just by default.
SoY: The cover to Unclean Spirits is guilty of several sins of stereotypical Urban Fantasy covers. You’ve got a female with her back to the reader, complete with lower back tattoo. She’s also holding a dagger which I don’t remember from the book. What are your feelings on the lack of cover diversity in the sub-genre? What would you like to see in the future?
DA: The covers of any book is supposed to do one thing: sell the book. I knew pretty well how the book was likely to be marketed when I wrote it, and you'll notice that, for instance, I gave Jayné a tattoo on the small of her back. It was going to be there anyway. Might as well make it matter in the plot.
I have to say I like the cover of Unclean Sprits better than you do. It does the two things I wanted it to do: it said this was an urban fantasy book (or as I often describe it "the books with the girl looking over her shoulder with improbable top and the tramp stamp tattoo") and it got people to pick up the book.
In the future, I would like to have more covers that do both of those things. It's less important that the images be illustrations of the literal story than that they set the right expectations for the readers and talk people into picking up the book. The thing I actually like best about the cover of Unclean Spirits is the spine of the book. They have a little square with Jayné's face in it. It's high contrast, it's a face, and it's on the spine so it shows even if the book is spine out. As a piece of design, it's just sweet.
SoY: What was your reasoning behind writing Unclean Spirits behind a pseudonym?
DA: It turns out I have no hesitation in picking up pseudonyms. I know some people do. I'm just not one.
I wanted to do this under a different name for a couple of reasons. First, it's such a different project from the Long Price books that anyone picking up Unclean Spirits expecting it read like An Autumn War would be disappointed no matter how good the new book was. It's like forgetting that you ordered a Coke, and expecting iced tea. It can be a really great Coke, but as iced tea it's just *wrong.*
SoY: M.L.N. Hanover is both gender neutral and conveniently positioned between Lauren K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris, arguably two of the most prominent (and female) Urban Fantasy writers in the market today. Who made the decision to choose the name M.L.N Hanover
DA: MLN was my choice. The gender neutrality was a big part of it. I've had several people write to me or leave comments on the blog that they wouldn't have picked up the book if they'd known I was a guy, but having read it, they liked it.
As far as the placement on the shelf . . . well, one of the things I've learned as Daniel Abraham is that people don't browse in alphabetical order. I think the middle of the alphabet is a more likely place to get picked up at random than the folks up in the As and down in the Zs. The placement between Laurell K Hamilton and the Charlene Harris/Kim Harrison complex is either a blessing (because I have books kind of like theirs close to where they are) or a curse (because my one little book is getting swamped by the shelves and shelves and shelves of other people's more popular titles). I'll tell you how that plays out when I know.
SoY: In a recent interview, Ginjer Buchanan (editor-in-chief for Roc and Ace) said they were receiving too many Urban Fantasy manuscripts. Has Urban Fantasy reached its saturation point? How long do you forsee the golden age of Urban Fantasy lasting?
DA: I've been proclaiming the End of the Golden Age of Urban Fantasy for about ten years, and I've been wrong the whole time. I don't think it's reached its saturation point because people keep buying it. That popularity has the seeds of its own destruction. If writers and publishers start thinking of this as an easy-A kind of genre, we'll be in trouble. When we as writers stop turning out good stories, readers will stop reading them.
SoY: Ignoring sales figures, who is writing at the top of the Urban Fantasy market today? Who should we be reading?
DA: You may have picked up on the fact that I'm a Carrie Vaughn fan. She reads like fluff, but she's doing some of the most interesting, subversive work in the field. I think Patricia Briggs is also doing some things I find interesting. I want to see how they play out over the next few books.
Branching out from my particular project, Mike Carey's Felix Castor books are great, and Diana Rowland (full disclosure: she's a friend of mine) is doing some fairly mind-bending work putting paranormal romance together with police procedural. Diana is both an ex-cop and a long-time serious fangirl, and the combination makes for some really interesting writing.
That’s all for now but I’m definitely interested in continuing the Urban Fantasy discussion and potentially expanding it if some other authors are interested in joining in. I’d also like to express my thanks to Mr. Abraham for both initiating this dialogue and taking the time to provide some insight on the state of the sub-genre. There are a lot of authors who write well but can’t take criticism well or shouldn’t be allowed to speak in public and there are the nicest authors in the world whose books just plain suck. Daniel Abraham has proven to be an author who impresses both on and off the page and one I will continue to support where possible.
I’d encourage anyone who enjoyed this to comment and let me know and if there are any Urban Fantasy related topics that you would like to see discussed in future interviews with genre authors.
Posted by Patrick at 7/21/2009 07:00:00 AM