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Battling the Implacable: A Conversation with David Drake

Posted on July 14, 2008 by Flames

David Drake’s fiction has always been dark. His combat experiences in Vietnam made his fiction even darker and, in many ways, more honest and more horrifying. Earlier this summer Night Shade Books released the paperback edition of a collection of Drake’s “weird and fantastic” stories, Balefires. The collection is rich with generous commentary from the author and a variety of fantasy, science fiction and horror stories. Shortly after the hardback release, Mr. Drake and I discussed writing and his experiences in Vietnam for an interview that ran in The New York Review of Science Fiction. What follows grew out of that larger conversation.

Jones: You are most known for your science fiction. But you have written a good bit of fantasy and horror as well. How is writing horror different from writing fantasy or science fiction?

Drake: There is no difference for me in writing any of the different forms of fiction–SF, fantasy, horror; even my few attempts at mainstream fiction. (Essays are another matter. I don’t think of them as work.) The story, the plot, is the most important element, but frequently it grows out of the characters and setting.

Jones: What is at the heart of a horror story for you?

Drake: The heart of a horror story for me? That’s a good question. Thinking about it, I’d say it’s a character being destroyed by something impersonal and implacable–not necessarily a thing, and not necessarily outside himself.

Igniting the Reaches becomes a horror novel in this sense because circumstances compel the viewpoint character to become a monster in his own eyes; it’s the only way he can save himself and his comrades. The idiom is that of space opera, but the effect is horror.

Likewise “The Interrogation Team”, which my long-time editor David Hartwell cited as proof that I didn’t stop writing horror when I changed the idiom to that of Military SF: the viewpoint characters have become so jaded by the requirements of their job that they will knowingly melt out the eyeballs of a little girl because that’s the most efficient way of accomplishing that job. This is horror by any human standard.

But that means that a story like “Firefight”, where the characters destroy an inhuman evil with weapons, is really just a modern-dress equivalent of heroic fantasy. It lacks the impersonal and implacable element.

Jones: How much graphic detail is too much graphic detail?

Drake: I tend to be fairly graphic, though generally in the course of the action rather than as something there for itself. I’m normally writing from a discrete viewpoint, so I might say, “Fluids from the exploding body coated his visor, half-blinding him.” The focus is on the character being blinded, not on the fluids.

Jones: There are a lot of horrible things in Grimmer than Hell, but it is not a collection of horror stories. Is your goal as the writer different when you write a horror story as opposed to when you write a science fiction story?

Drake: Hmm. Grimmer than Hell isn’t a collection of horror stories, but one piece in it–the final story from The Fleet sequence, “Mission Accomplished”–certainly is horror. In effect the viewpoint character has walked into the attic thinking he’s prepared, but what he finds there is beyond his or anyone’s ability to deal with. He can fight–and he does–but he knows and the reader knows that he’s doomed.

So no, my goals don’t change. It’s simply a matter of dealing with small, discrete–human-sized elements–or with inhumanly large elements. The latter is what Lovecraft claimed to be doing, but to my mind Clark Ashton Smith did a much better job of depicting the truly inhuman in stories like “The Garden of Adompha” than HPL generally did. “The Colour out of Space” is an exception; that’s horror by my definition from Lovecraft.

Jones: Small human sized elements up against larger, inhuman elements. This sounds much like what goes on in Redliners, which is, I think, your most disturbing novel. I’ll go so far as to say it is your masterpiece.

Drake: Without using loaded terms, I will say that Redliners is me writing way over my head. And yes, that’s absolutely what it’s about. The thing is, they come through to the other side, if anything better off for the experience. (The survivors, that is.)

I guess I’d say I took a horror trope and modified it into a novel of redemption. Which is what the process of writing Redliners unexpectedly became for me.

Jones: Can you explain what you mean when you say that with Redliners you were writing way above your head?

Drake: I’m a very good plotter and have considerable line by line skill; I’m not saying I don’t write well. But Redliners worked better than I’d dreamed, better than I’d realized it was possible for a book to work.

Furthermore, when I sat down to write it I didn’t have any intention of doing anything significantly different from all the other books I’d written. I expected it to be an adventure story, a space opera with a military component. Not Military SF, really, because the focus was the struggle against a hostile terrain rather than the alien enemy. After all, you wouldn’t call Beau Geste a military novel just because the plot includes a company of the Foreign Legion defending Fort Zinderneuf, would you?

What came out in Redliners broke twenty-five years of, well, something. It’s helped many people with PTSD–I know this because lots of them have told me so–but it helped me more than anybody else.

The book came out of me, sure; nobody else’s fingers were hitting the keys. But having said that, I had no conscious awareness of what I was doing until after it was done and a huge weight came off me. It was the damnedest thing, and I can’t really take credit for it.

Jones: Does the theme of redemption show up often in your work?

Drake: I wouldn’t say redemption was a common theme in my work, but there are other examples. “The Sharp End” certainly includes that as one plot thread.

And there’s rather a nice bit in the novella A Very Offensive Weapon which I wrote for a Roger Zelazny shared universe. It’s an intentionally humorous piece, one of the funniest things I’ve written, but there are some serious themes in it. The hermit who, at the end, decides to go back to his wife no matter what that costs him is definitely redeeming his life.

Hmm, and there’s a similar thread in The Fortress of Glass, a recent fantasy. You know, now that you mention it I think it may crop up more often than I’d realized.

Jones: Since were talking about horror, I have to ask: what scares you? What are you afraid of?

Drake: I was going to give you a quick, almost flip answer–and I will: spiders. They terrify me, but I make a point of shooing them out of the house unharmed or if they’re harmless just carry them out. (Wolf spiders will give you a hell of a bite; it won’t kill you, but neither will a Pekinese and they’re no fun to be bitten by either.) I decided when I got back from Nam that killing things because they’re ugly and they scare me isn’t a good reason.

But there’s another answer, which surprised me when I realized it. (I learn stuff when I answer interview questions.) When I was ten or so I watched a very good educational film titled “Our Mister Sun.” In the course of the film, I learned that our sun had used up approximately 2% of its fuel and that it would inevitably go dark in a calculable number of billions of years.

This really frightened and depressed me, though even at age ten I didn’t imagine it had any bearing on me personally. I think it was the awareness of inexorable fate that did it.

Nowadays I sort of embrace the Heat Death of the Universe as a certainty that makes all my personal failures (and those of humanity more generally) insignificant. But by the same token, nowadays my normal state is a fairly serious depression.

Jones: Old Nathan is a dark fantasy that draws on folktales. It is dark and disturbing and some of your finest writing. Would you say that there are elements of horror in Old Nathan?

Drake: One of the Old Nathan stories to me is horror: “The Gold”. That isn’t because of black magic or ghosts or demons; it’s because one of the characters is shown Hell and shown the way to escape Hell–but because of who he is, he rejects the warning and continues on his way to certain damnation.

That’s horror. Though the compulsion is internal to the victim, it’s as inevitable as the external doom descending on the viewpoint character at the end of “Mission Accomplished.”

Jones: Your description of the main character in “Mission Accomplished” puts me in mind of a lot of what you have written (and spoken) about your experiences in combat. Do you suppose you could have written such effective horror without having seen combat?

Drake: I’m going to give two answers: it is possible to write effectively about things you’ve never personally experienced. Kipling’s Birds of Prey March is the best evocation I’ve ever seen or expect to see of troops boarding ships for a long deployment. (And by the way, it’ll do very well viewed as horror.) Kipling had never personally experienced that at the time he wrote.

Similarly, Cecelia Holland in her first novel, The Firedrake, (and consistently through her work) provides an utterly real, utterly compelling view of combat and the exhaustion it brings to the participant. Quite marvelous. I don’t know where she got it (I doubt Cecelia knows) but it wasn’t from personal experience.

That’s the first answer. The literal first-person answer to the question is no, I wouldn’t have been able to write the things I’ve written if I hadn’t been there. Couldn’t have and wouldn’t have needed to do so.

Interview by Jeremy Jones

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7 Responses to “Battling the Implacable: A Conversation with David Drake”

  1. E.E. Knight says:

    Great work. The HAMMER’S SLAMMERS series is required reading if you’re a military sf enthusiast.

    Reply

  2. Preston says:

    I love reading interviews with my favorite authors. Thanks!

    Reply

  3. Michael Erb says:

    Excellent interview. I wasn’t familiar with his works before reading this, but now I will check them out.

    Thanks!

    ME

    Reply

  4. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for the kind words! I am glad you enjoyed the interview. Keep an eye out for more interviews soon.

    I do believe Jeff VanderMeer talking about steampunk is next.

    J

    Reply

  5. Brian Rae says:

    Being ex-military myself, one of the many things I have always appreciated in David’s work is the gritty reality of combat and the engaging, humanity of his main characters.

    So many authors, perhaps lacking terms of conflict-experience when compared to David Drake lack the same authenticity in their writing and rely overmuch on combat stereotypes.

    His military sci-fi, and that of others authors with combat time, such as Johnny Ringo engage me far more than the work of those fortunate enough to never have experienced the “real thing.”

    Reply

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