“I spent endless hours reading every kind of science fiction I could get my hands on growing up,” recalls Doubleday editor Gerald Howard, sitting in his office as we watch a blimp float above the East River. “Then I went to college and got all snooty.” We laugh conspiratorially; in his hands, he’s cradling a copy of Acacia: The War With the Mein, the first volume in an epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham—totally not the sort of book that Doubleday or Howard is known for publishing.
Or, for that matter, that Durham was known for writing. He’d done two historical novels for another editor at the house before Howard began to work with him on Pride of Carthage, a story about the Punic Wars that the editor describes as “one of the best classical historicals I’d ever read.” They got around to discussing what Durham would work on next, and “it was very clear to us that Acacia was the book that wanted to poke out of his mind,” Howard recalls. “One of the things I’ve been saying about David to anybody who will listen, even before this, is that you have to look at the size of his imagination for a writer his age. Look at the themes he’s been willing to take on.” A fantasy series was a gamble for Doubleday, but with the ability to look at sales figures for comparable works by George R.R. Martin and Terry Goodkind at other Random House imprints, Durham’s proposal soon became an acceptable risk. “The first rule of literary editing is to listen to your writer and discover what engages him,” Howard says. “You get the best work you can from him, and then you deal with the publishing issues later.”
Howard’s youthful enthusiasm for the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs was a helpful mental starting point while going through Durham’s manuscript, but the editor says that plotting was never much of an issue. Instead, he worked with Durham on “matters of diction,” ensuring that the “high mythic style” of the prose didn’t get overblown, and that too-modern turns of phrase didn’t creep in.
“This doesn’t represent a trend for us,” Howard emphasizes, “but everybody who’s paying attention sees the success of works set in imagined worlds, from Harry Potter to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” Likewise, I point out, the science fictional vibe of Doubleday’s own John Twelve Hawks, to which Howard responds by invoking the apocalyptic dystopian voice of Chuck Palahniuk. What about, I wonder, his recent high-profile purchase of The Gargoyle, a debut novel from Andrew Davidson? The plot elements described on New York‘s Vulture blog sounded pretty fantastic. “It’s fantastic in the way that John Fowles‘s The Magus is fantastic,” he clarifies, preferring to contextualize that novel in terms of “a spiritual quest.”