Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Pretoria-based author debuts with epic fantasy

While South African authors are making waves with speculative fiction, it’s heartening to see yet another bring epic fantasy on the market. Dave-Brendon de Burgh joins the ranks with other South African authors such Greg Hamerton, Cat Hellisen and TC Southwell, who’ve all created magical worlds populated with unforgettable characters.

De Burgh’s debut novel, published this year by local small press Fox & Raven, submerges readers in a realm wracked by ancient conflict involving humans and the elf-like Elvayn, the latter which have been enslaved. As for what got De Burgh started as a storyteller, he shares: “Around that time that I read and finished Steven Erikson’s Memories of Ice, I put the book down, wiped my eyes again, and told myself that I wanted to and would be a story-teller.

“I had passionate and accommodating English teachers in high school; one of the people I dedicated Betrayal’s Shadow to – Celeste Botes – let me daydream and write in class as long as I got the results in tests and exams. She never restricted me, and encouraged me to write – even though the stories I wrote back then were gruesome.

“I took part in a creative writing course which Random House Struik (at that time) and GetSmarter partnered on; I wanted to get a handle on the tale I wanted to tell, because I had more than a hundred thousand words already and hadn’t finished a single story. I was beginning to irritate myself, and I was losing hope that I would ever be able to finish writing a story, never mind complete a novel. So, taking part in that course really focused my mind and taught me about what constitutes a story or a tale.”

Like many fantasy authors, De Burgh grew up on many of the genre classics, which laid down fertile ground for the first story seeds that he cultivated.

“I’ve been reading epic fantasy since early high school,” he says, “and I knew I wanted to write a story that included the – for want of a better word – epic aspects of epic fantasy; the battles, the magic, political intrigues, complicated yet dramatic character-arcs, and worlds that are familiar yet different. I had been writing for eight or nine years before I began writing the novel, so there are many unfinished and scrapped scenes, even characters.”

Central to the conflict of his novel are his magical Elvayn, and De Burgh says that they are his answer to the standard elves found in the fantasy genre. “Particularly elves as they are portrayed on-screen,” he adds. “Seems a bit strange to tackle it that way, I know (instead of book-elves), but the visual aspects are what stick in most people’s memories. They are noticeably not human – so there’s no long, flowing hair and perfect features, and they also don’t use swords or shields or bows. They’re a philosophical people, more prone to think than to act.”

Apart from writing, De Burgh has been a bookseller since 2002 and his career has given him an advantage. He says: “Being a bookseller has taught me not only to identify trends in what people are reading but to also anticipate what they might like to read next. And being a bookseller forces you to explain a book’s plot to a browser without giving anything away – you want to hook them, get them to read a page or two, without making them feel as if you want them to buy the book.”

Like many authors, he faces daily challenges, like finding them time to write. De Burgh adds: “Even seeing my novel on the shelves every day doesn’t help my motivation; it’s very easy to want to relax after an eight-hour day at work, instead of making the time to sit down and write those thousand words. Also, ironically enough, reading can be a problem, but only if I read as a writer and not as a reader.”

Despite the current publishing industry operating in a state of flux, De Burgh remains positive on the role of small presses leading the way: “Smaller presses will definitely be the leaders when it comes to epic fantasy, science fiction, horror, and similar speculative fiction (specfic) genres. The fact of the matter is that the bigger guys don’t have specialists, or even specific imprints, that focus on specfic. South Africa doesn’t have its own Orbit, Tor, Gollancz or Del Rey; yet the book trade makes quite a bit of money from specfic titles. At the moment, specfic writers in South Africa have to deal with the mother of all Catch-22s – our tales aren’t published because there aren’t sales to base such an important decision on, but the writers can’t get those sales because their work isn’t published here.

“Lauren Beukes’s work is a good example of how strange our industry can be; although Moxyland was published by Jacana Media, the title didn’t really start gaining ground until Angry Robot (an excellent UK publisher) picked up the title. By the time Zoo City arrived, many more thousands of people were talking about Beukes’s work, and when The Shining Girls hit the industry, readers went nuts. Our industry seems to be reacting, not creating. Fox & Raven Publishing, Crystal Lake Publishing, Something Wicked and WordSmack (to name but a few) are the presses that are giving writers the chances, precisely because the bigger publishers don’t and aren’t equipped to do so.

“Our industry also needs to understand that finding South Africa’s Tolkien or Martin or Jordan isn’t the answer – we shouldn’t be looking for equivalents. We should be looking for tales that are well told and which showcase the talent and imagination of our writers, regardless of where those writers come from or which connections they do or don’t have – and the smaller presses are the only publishers who are doing this. The scale at which they operate is also smaller, more focused, so they’re able to keep prices relatively low, and unfortunately the book-buyer is buying less because prices are skyrocketing. So, where does the buyer look? Online. People are using their tablets and smart phones as ereaders, and the smaller presses are taking advantage of that while also doing all they can to get their books onto shelves in stores.”

(As appeared in the Pretoria News on September 29, 2014)

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