Historical novelist David Anthony Durham, winner of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fiction Award, turns to fantasy in Acacia, the vividly imagined first of a series set in an island nation that's "a slaving empire."

Was fantasy easier to write than historical fiction?

It was wonderful not to have the restraints of perceived historical accuracy. That was freeing, and it was nice to know that nobody could claim ownership of my world. But that freedom provided significant challenges, too. If I wanted it to feel like a credible world, I had to create the cultures, the histories, the myths from scratch. That was terribly daunting.

Did you do a lot of research?

I looked into a wide swath of mythologies, read my share of both fantasy and historical fiction, studied the flow of succession in monarchies, examined tribal cultures and animal domestication. Acacia was actually a research-heavy novel, even though a lot of the research doesn't overtly appear in the book. I just needed to do it to have as wide a grasp as possible about what forces would likely push and pull on a world in conflict.

What themes were you able to explore more easily in a work of fantasy?

Many of the issues I wanted to explore in fantasy were the same as those that attract me in historical fiction. The notion of empire, national myth, slavery, personal destiny amid the swirl of larger events. I wanted to present these issues with a clean slate, so that readers wouldn't come to the material with preconceived notions. A lot of people just wouldn't pick up a book about the Atlantic slave trade for a variety of reasons. Maybe, though, a wider range of readers will engage with them when the trade isn't about any particular racial group, when it's done across the Grey Slopes instead of the Atlantic, and when the recipients of the slaves are an alien race.

What role does chance play in the novel?

Chance can and does play a part in our lives on a daily basis, so it makes sense to me that it does so in fiction. I'm not one for easy rescues, though. I find it disappointing when an author puts characters in impossible situations only to have them saved by an outside force that just happens to appear at the right time. In Acacia, the possibilities that chance presents only provide aid because the characters find a way to grasp and make use of the opportunities.