The Dandiest Life: Hear Our Voices Author Interview with David Anthony Durham

Graphic that reads "The Shadow Prince Saga Continues! Can Ash and his friends bring light back to Egypt" with the covers of both books and the Tu Books logo in front of a dark blue background with bat illustrations

This Q&A with author David Anthony Durham and Owner & CEO of The Dandiest Life, LLC Elizabeth Mobley originally appeared on The Dandiest Life Blog. David’s second novel The Longest Night in Egypt is available wherever books are sold!

David Anthony Durham was born in New York to a Caribbean family and raised up on the mid-Atlantic coast. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland, and teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program and the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the author of seven books for grown-ups.

Elizabeth Anne Greer (Mobley), affectionately known as, “The Melanated Neurodivergent Medical Momma”, is the Owner & CEO of The Dandiest Life, LLC.  The Dandiest Life Is a company that specializes in helping individual persons and their families (or businesses) navigate the Special Education system, the work environment, or the community at large  in which they live,  through providing supportive measures by way of coaching and one-on-one family and individual trainings sessions. 

To be an award-winning Author is to be an artist that produces works of critical acclaim, beloved by many. It is a production of written word, not drawn or painted. Yet, you are able to produce great imagery through the written expression. It is great work that does not let the reader down! You create opportunities for the reader to have an experience; to learn, to grow, to have fun. The emotional journey that one experiences when reading is what I thoroughly enjoy when reading. What is your ultimate goal when writing and who do you write for when you’re actively in the writing process?

David: Thank you. One of the wonderful things about writing in different genres and for different target ages is that who I’m writing for changes each time. I don’t want to always talk to the same audience because I believe stories and the many things they offer are valuable for all ages and types of readers. 

With The Shadow Prince series it’s a pleasure to write for young readers. I remember how enormously important reading was to me as a child. Books took me to far off places, introduced me to friends and experiences that made the world larger and grander. I needed that. It’s a reality that most of those fictional friends and places did not include people who looked like me, but that didn’t stop me from being entranced. Now that it’s my turn to write for kids it’s exciting to do so in a diverse setting that does include characters that look like me! And like many other people. I want to take all sorts of kids on adventures, through dangers, forming friendships, learning and growing wiser and kinder in the process. This sort of writing is a bit more fun than my adult books, but it’s no less important. In some ways it’s probably more important.

The reader/audience goes on an epic journey with the characters found on the pages of The Longest Night in Egypt. What led you to this creative space and to pivot and begin writing books for the middle grades? (Although I’m a Black, 32-year-old adult educator who needed to go on this journey too!)

David: Haha! I love that! And I love reading middle grade books myself! I think they have the special potential to speak to readers of all ages—to either kids or the kids (hopefully) inside us all.

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Egypt. It was such an amazing civilization, with so many achievements that were literally thousands of years ahead of their time. I took a lot of courses on ancient Egypt in college, so that interest had been with me for a long time. But that was a scholarly/historical approach to a culture that in many ways seemed lost in antiquity. I remember the exact day that the inspiration for The Shadow Prince hit me. And it was a very different take on Egypt.

My son was in elementary school at the time. He borrowed a book on Egyptian gods from a neighbor. Taking a break from mowing the lawn one summer afternoon, I picked up the book and began reading it. For some reason on that day the gods didn’t seem like distant, unknowable beings. They seemed full of humanity. With quirks and flaws, virtues and jealousies, wisdom and sometimes astounding silliness! Yes, they had magical powers, but in so many ways they seemed like versions of us humans. But with all those magical powers and immortality . . . It seemed like great material for fiction! I was hooked on the idea of writing a middle grade series immediately. 

In The Longest Night in Egypt, we find our main characters on an adventure to solve problems that seem greater than themselves (from an adult’s perspective). One that many would say may be out of a child’s depth. However, the perseverance, intelligence, intuition, and resilience of the characters shine through the pages. It’s a learning journey of sorts and each pre-teen comes with a different personality and set of skills that is imperative to the mission. Are the characters based on children you personally know? Or do they come from your pure imagination?

David: Hmmm. Interesting question. I wouldn’t say any particular character is based on any particular child I know, but they all certainly have bits and pieces of children I know. Of my kids, their friends, my friends when I was a kid. And also to kids that I knew—and kids I would have liked to have known—growing up.

Also, I have to acknowledge that there’s some of me in all of them. Of course I relate most to Ash, my main character. But Khufu, Gilli, and Seret from the first book, and Iset and Thea from The Longest Night in Egypt have a little bit of my heart beating in them.

Truth is. . . that’s true of all my characters, even the villains. Lord Set may be cranky and jealous and plotting all the time. I’m not that. But there have been days when I’ve been all those things. Haven’t we all? I think part of what I do as a writer is use characters to explore parts of other people and parts of myself as well. The lines blur a lot, though.

I’ll be transparent in saying that this is the first fiction novel I have read in quite some time! I typically lean towards reading endless pages of published clinical research, peer reviewed journal articles, and first-hand narratives and helping books, or I am reading children’s short form lit! I was proud of myself when I stepped away from my comfort zone because I had so much fun reading this fiction novel that had beautiful African references. I utilized assistive tech to help me stay on track. It made me remember why I was scared to step back out there into the land of fiction. As an educator who is Autistic and has ADHD, I often feel like living in the imaginary is foreign to me. Having Aphantasia makes it hard to have an imagination, but your storytelling is so wonderful that you help the reader vividly build a picture so the guess work is taken out of it. Who is your typical intended audience and what is it that you hope they take away from reading this book? There is so much culture and science infused in it! Anyone with hyper-focused interest would love it. . . especially a Neurodivergent person!

David: That’s wonderful to hear! I’ve worked with a number of really talented Autistic graduate student fiction writers. At times my queries for them were asking to explain this or that character action. What was the character thinking that made them respond in such and such a way. What was so interesting about it was that all I had to do was ask. Then we’d have these wonderful conversations wherein I would explain why I was confused and they would explain the things I wasn’t understanding about the way their characters perceived the world. We both learned from each other!

I can’t say that I’ve written specifically with a reader with Aphantasia in mind, but I can say that it’s always been important to me to be visually descriptive. It’s a big part of all of my books. In my own way maybe what I’m doing is being deeply visual and descriptive because I need to see things in my mind to really experience them in fiction. You’ve just given me a lot to think about. . .

Although it was only briefly mentioned in the initial pages of book two,  The Longest Night in Egypt, Thea was personally a standout character for me. The descriptions of her outfit were in stark contrast to her (what I would consider medical assistive equipment) beautiful braces on the legs that helped her walk. As the mother of children with medical complexities, and being an adult with ADHD and considered a Person with Disabilities because of medical challenges, Thea’s character made me excited. She was strong and smart, cool, and beautiful. She made the book inclusive. Children want and need to be included and feel seen.  Was this your initial goal? And did you expect this type of impact?

David: Elizabeth, I mean this sincerely. . . Your words and this question made me tear up. It gives me great satisfaction that Thea spoke to you. Yes, it was my hope that she could represent a person with a disability who was fully capable of being a driving force in a great adventure. As I mentioned about autistic graduate students who have taught me so much, I’ve also been enriched by working with students with many disabilities. Including disability in my work felt important.

My fear, of course, is that I wouldn’t do it correctly. That I’d have ableist assumptions that would just show I didn’t know what I was doing! I’ll always have that concern, and always strive to listen and learn and ask questions to help broaden my perspective. But for right now, in this moment, I’m very pleased Thea made the book feel inclusive to you. Thank you saying so—and know that it only makes me want to do that in more and better ways in future works.

As a fellow Marylander, I want to say that it is awesome to have the opportunity to interview you! I spent most of my life in Maryland (Prince George’s County-Capitol Heights) before moving to Berkeley Co, West Virginia. Like you, I am also an educator. “The ability to read and comprehend gives access to information. The information creates awareness that provides opportunities for learning. That which we have learned is what creates knowledge that will last forever and that can never be taken from us.” I often share this sentiment with the communities/students/businesses that I work with and support. How can communities and schools (of families) do a better job at instilling the love of reading & literacy? Especially Black or BIPOC communities.

David: I’ll answer this from a personal perspective. In elementary school I was a very reluctant reader. I was always in the lowest reading group, always on the verge of failing. Actually, my second grade teacher tried to fail me, basically arguing that for all intents and purposes I couldn’t read. Fortunately, the school’s principal overruled her. I can’t know why the principal did that. But I’m grateful. My gut feeling is that she knew—and I don’t know if she was likely to have told my second grade teacher this—that I was a shy Black child who had just moved from diverse Prince George’s County to an all-white community (and school) in Anne Arundel County. Overnight, I became a singular oddity, an outsider. My attention wasn’t on reading. It was on struggling to find who and what I was in this new—and not very welcoming—community. There may have been more to it than that as well, but that was a big part of it.

So how did I learn to read? I spent a summer with my grandmother. She was an immigrant from Barbados. I’m not sure how much schooling she had received, but it wasn’t much. She did, however, take on the task of teaching me to read. Night after night that summer, she read to me; I read to her. She did it by having faith in me, by having patience with me, and by convincing me that I was worth challenging. It worked.

This is not to say I was a great reader by the end of the summer. I was better, but still had a long way to go. And my experience with teachers in middle and high school weren’t much better than in elementary school. But even when they didn’t seem eager to challenge me I found ways to challenge myself. I read on my own. Fantasy books that I found on my own! Grand adventures in imagined worlds! That’s what I needed. I wish, though, that I’d felt better supported by academic institutions, instead of having to find ways to do much of it on my own. And with my grandmother, of course!

But all of this is about me. To answer your question. . .

I’d urge communities/schools/families to instill a love reading by believing they can do so. By trying. By modeling it. By offering children works that appeal to them. By suggesting this. And then that. And then something else. . . On and on. By telling BIPOC youth that the world of reading/literacy is for them as much as it is for anybody. It helps that there are many more works that include BIPOC characters and themes. That’s great. I also think that we shouldn’t get hung up too early on pushing kids to only read “literature.” I learned to love reading when I discovered how fun it could be! It was fun and adventure first. When I was ready I had the foundational skills to delve into and fall in love with serious world literature. And then—when I became really grownup—I found my way back to fun adventures!

I am often curious about the creative starting point for any artist. In this case, you as an author have chosen to create this epic story that takes the reader on a beautiful journey filled with detail, historical context, and science-technology concepts. Where does such a story originate from? Has it always been within you?

David: It’s built upon the foundation of the works I first fell in love with. Some of these works—by C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, for example —are not at all inclusive, but they are filled “with detail, historical context, and science-technology concepts.” They showed me what writing could do from their perspective. Now I’m writing from my perspective.

I feel what a lot of authors are missing these days (and honestly, creators in general) are cross-disciplinary methodologies and context. Having a deep and insightful frame of reference for the subject matter being produced in the book is important during the writing and in the creative process as a whole. When you are preparing to write your next book, what is your process? What steps do you take?

David: I’ve got a number of projects in mind. Continuing with The Shadow Prince series, of course! The step I’ve taken for that one is writing a detailed proposal that’s with my publisher now. I know where Ash’s story goes, and I’m itching to keep telling it!

In the adult realm, I’m mulling over an African-American themed historical novel that’s literary + adventure + a magical element + a touch of horror. It’s evolving in me slowly, new things emerging. It’s sort of growing with revelations finding me in their own time. At some point, I’ll be ready to start writing.

I’m also writing an African-American themed horror film script set in the 1970’s. The horror element reaches back into the Atlantic Slave Trade, but the focus is on the relationship between a father and son.

There are some other things in the works, too, some which involve adapting other author’s works in new mediums. I like to keep things interesting!

For anyone wanting to become a published author like you, what encouragement would you give them? I so often find that there is joy lacking in the creative space. Yet you have found a way to continue to provide that on the pages of your book!

David: I’ve always felt that what kept me going as a writer was 1) feeling I had stories to tell, ones that I’d not seen written in quite the way I imagined, and 2) that I found a way to balance impatience with patience. By that I mean that I’d wake up each morning striving for a certain word count, craving for the story I was writing to be further along, to be done, finished, ready to send out into the world! But, that doesn’t happen in a day. Or a week. Or perhaps even in a year or a few years. So, it was a process of trying each day, but then going to bed each night thinking, “Well, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll write what happens next.”

If there is anything you would like your readers to know about this series or your work in general, what would it be? What legacy would you like your books to leave on this generation and the ones to come?

David: Well, I don’t know about “legacy.” That feels a bit grand for me. Ultimately, a writer’s legacy is for others to define and champion.

What I’d like readers to know about my work—whether they’re seven years old or seventy-seven—is that I believe in the power of story to do great things, and that those things aren’t in any one box or category. To teach, yes. To challenge, of course. To entertain, frighten, comfort, inspire. . . the list is endless. I hope that in different ways in different books I do many things for many readers.

Here’s a small example. 

After my first novel, Gabriel’s Story (pub date 2001) came out, I did a lot of interviews. With one of them the white interviewer made it mildly clear that she didn’t think my story of a wayward African-American boy caught up in a bloody adventure in the American west of the 1870’s was for her. But part of the way into the conversation she began speaking about a particular scene. In it my two teenage Black boys have escaped the murderous band of cowboys they’d fallen in with. They are alone and desperate. When they finally come on a homestead the interviewer said, “I was so relieved. Finally, someone would help them!” 

That’s not what happens, though. Instead, they are greeted with the barrel of a gun and a white man demanding they get off his property as he promptly starts shooting at them. The interviewer said she realized that the world was different for my Black teens than it was for her own children. Even if she didn’t know it, she’d come to care about my boys as boys just like hers—and she saw the unfortunate reality that the world doesn’t treat them the same. It didn’t then; it doesn’t now. I don’t think she realized it, but that single reaction from her was—for me—a triumph. It meant my made-up story had changed her awareness of the world. Stories can do that.

I appreciate your time and thoughtfulness in your responses! I look forward to following your career and I’m appreciative of Hear Our Voices for exposing me to your work!

David: Thank you, Elizabeth. I appreciated all the questions and really enjoyed talking with you!