This week I am interviewing Grimdark, Fantasy author; Anna Smith Spark. Anna’s first novel The Court of Broken Knives is currently on the Long List for the David Gemmel Awards for Fantasy.
Let’s start with a bit of an introduction, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Anna Smith Spark. I’m a fantasy novelist, aspie girl and notorious shoe wearer. I tell sad stories of the death of kings.
What book are you currently reading and are you enjoying it?
I’m rereading War and Peace, because I chose it as my ‘what book would you chose if you were stranded on Mars’ in another interview and as soon as I picked it up to check something I had to start reading it again. It has everything – vast battles, romance, politics, closely observed daily life, a sweeping, complex cast of characters. Tolstoy found in the Crimea, at the siege of Sebastopol, is writing war from direct experience. He understood the strange mixture of fear and horror and boredom and utter joyous excitement that war engenders, he’s not sentimental about it but equally he sees the horrible reality that people caught up in it do enjoy it. There’s a horrifying scene in his Sebastopol Sketches where young soldiers are running into battle, almost certain to die but cheering, feeling themselves glorious in rushing to killing and death. Tolstoy saw – personally felt – that intoxication of killing and death. And the sheer confusing boredom of war, as well.
I’m also reading a science fiction novel called Diamond Roads: The Outer Spheres by Andrew Wallace. I do struggle with hard science fiction, I can never make any sense of the world as soon as high technology gets involved. But the disorientation here is part of the point, the reader is lost in an endlessly changing, claustrophobic, unreal world, without bounded dimensions, without any anchor-point. It’s very much a piece of stylized modernist prose about disorientation, taking the noir world of ‘trust no one’ physically – and makes a wonderful counterpoint to War and Peace.
Your second novel, The Tower of Living and Dying, is set to release in July this year. Did you find it easier to write the sequel or the first book?
It was a totally different experience writing the two books. The Court of Broken Knives was written very fast, purely for my own enjoyment. I had no idea what I was writing, where it was going – I didn’t even set out to write a novel, let alone a grimdark fantasy, I started writing with no sense of anything beyond the desire to write. The world, the characters, the themes and plot, were all totally unknown to me.
I got an agent really quickly, within days of finishing the first draft of the book [pro tip: DO NOT DO THIS. DO NOT APPROACH AN AGENT THE DAY AFTER YOU TYPE THE FINAL FULL STOP]. So writing The Tower of Living and Dying was suddenly ‘I’m afantasy novelist and I’m writing a fantasy novel for publication, and here’s the plot synopsis I’ve had to come up with’. And, slightly more cerebrally, the world existed, the characters existed, I actually knew what I was writing about. It was less exciting as a voyage of discovery. But I had a greater confidence in my writing, I really felt that I had found myself as an author, realized where my strengths lay and what I could do. Which of your characters do you most enjoy writing and Why? I love writing Marith because he’s Marith, he’s the great love of my life, he’s my Alexander fan fiction slash fiction and I get off writing about him, oh yeah. But the character I find easiest and most fun to write is Tobias. Beneath that poised, feminine exterior, I’m apparently a cynical foul-mouthed bastard-hard old mercenary letting out rip-your- face-off farts.
In other interviews you’ve mentioned that Empires of Dust is going to be a Trilogy. After you complete the Trilogy, what’s next for you?
Honestly, I have no idea. I would love to write more stories set in my world and have some ideas. Not ‘actually it doesn’t end with book three, I’m thinking at least a ten parter’, I hasten to add, it does end at book three and I’ve already written the end. But other stories in other places and times within the world that exists so clearly in my head. Irlast is my subconscious, a place where I can explore themes and images that mean things to me, let go of constraints and immerse myself in everything I love. I want to keep writing in it.
But it all depends on my publishers, and sales, and that, hint hint cough Gemmell Awards cough hint.
You’ve also written a number of short stories for fantasy magazines and anthologies, do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Why?
I much prefer writing novels. It takes me a long time to work out what anything I’m writing is about, what the underlying plot structure and intention is. So a short story will inevitable involve a lot more work as there’s a lot less space to roam around in before I find my direction.
I am interested in the idea of writing fragments, multiple snatches of voices – rather like a volume of poetry, or a collection of eyewitness accounts of a battle. I did some work on oral history at university, the use of multiple, fragmentary accounts of personal experience and memory to tell history, as opposed to one definitive narrative. It’s something that short stories can do beautifully – but it can be less interesting to read. Which kind of defeats the point of a story.
What drew you to writing Grimdark Fantasy?
I didn’t consciously sit down to write a grimdark fantasy novel – to be honest, I didn’t sit down to write fantasy or a novel. But dark fantasy has always been one of my great loves. I’ve always loved epic fantasy, my dad read me Tolkien, C S Lewis, Alan Garner, Kevin Crossley-Holland as a child and it called to me. And I was always more interested in the more, uh, morally complex characters, I remember very clearly the picture of the Assyrian-influenced dark godpower in The Last Battle; I fell madly in love with the Black Rider in the Dark is Rising sequence*. I was never quite being clear why anyone wouldn’t want to be on the same side as that.
I read and reread the Norse myths, the Tain, the Iliad – and it’s their bleakness, their lack of morality, their pitiless awareness of human frailty and the absurdity of meaning in an immoral, pointless cosmos, that drew me. Then as a teenager I read the insane cosmology of Lovecraft, Haussmann’s La-Bas, James Ellroy, the great modernist poetic responses to the absurdity of the 20th century’s wars. I wrote a lot of body horror and psycho-sexual horror stuff as a teenager, torture porn, pain stuff. The experience of physical violence, of casual cruelty, of utter cynicism and despair and revulsion at the world and the self. I was brought up a pacifist and a socialist, to care about others, to want to help change the world – but also as an anarchist cynic with a healthy disrespect for power of any political stripe. I’ve spent my life trying to make sense of war, of violence, of cruelty, of power.
I’d love to believe in a compassionate, interventionist god. But everything I’ve read and seen suggests that Lovecraft was right when he placed the blind idiot god Azathoth at the center of everything. Read Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies on eroticism, violence and death. That’s why I write grimdark. What book/series has had the greatest influence on your writing? Oh gods! Thousands of books…. the god Bakker, Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, Le Guin, Mark Lawrence for the sick jokes. My father’s poetry magazine, Great Works, for shaping my literary aesthetic since I was a child. T S Elliot for the same. James Ellroy, for showing me just how far pulp literature meets modernist high art can go. Lord Dunsany and Clarke Ashton Smith and early Lovecraft, for fantasy as sensuous romantic symbolist dream.
Probably Tolkien, right back in the beginning when my dad read it to me.
*The use of ‘black’ to mean ‘evil’ drives me to distraction. If you read carefully I never once elide the two terms. But that’s what he’s called. The book is an old on, and, in Cooper’s defence, she does also have an evil White Rider – although he gets a lot less of a role.
In your opinion, which fantasy series has had the greatest influence on the fantasy genre?
Tolkien. Without a doubt. Yes, there were fantasy novelists before him. But the total creation of a secondary world, rather than the dream-slippage between our world and the world of magic, of dreams, is something most of us owe directly to him.
If you could write in any fantasy world, which would you choose and why?
Michael R Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions. It’s a world within which delusions and morbidities shape reality. As someone with long-term health issues, the concept fascinates me – I find the way Fletcher portrays mental ill-health is very convincing, he shows how utterly destructive mental ill-health is (and it is. It really is. There is nothing positive or interesting about mental ill-health) but also makes it very clear that there is no such easy division as ‘normal’ and ’abnormal’, just people in various degrees of fucked-upness and temporary stability and mental pain. We’re all deluded and lying to ourselves and everyone around us, all the time. And we’re all capable of great acts of pure heroism, of perfect moral goodness, at times.
Also his world contains a lot of scope for body horror and pyscho-sexual violence and torture porn, which I do still enjoy the odd wallow about in.
If you could write a book using another writers character, which character would you choose and why?
That’s a lot harder. Hmmm…. Honestly? No one. My characters are all so much a part of me, they’re all aspects of my psyche. I couldn’t write someone else’s existing character, it would just be pastiche. Trying to pretend to be inside another novelist’s head.
I have thought about writing historical fiction about Alexander the Great and Seleucus I . Real historical people! But that’s very different to writing about someone else’s characters, because we know so little about their internal worlds that it would be an act of self-projection. I’d find imagining someone’s inner character within the confines of their life story much more interesting. (Also easier, as no need to think up a plot. I hate bloody plots).
Let’s have a little bit of fun now! An evil wizard casts a spell on you and transports you to a world from a fantasy novel. Which fantasy world would you want it to be?
Oh, my own! Declare my undying love for Marith, wander through Sorlost lost in its haunted beauty, ride down to the beach on Third Isle and bathe in the cold grey sea.
Or Terre d’Ange. That would almost certainly be a good place to live. Probably rather more pleasant than Irlast as a lifestyle choice.
You cannot return from the fantasy world you have been sent to and are doomed to spend the rest of your days there, what profession do you choose to take up?
Adept of Valerian House. Definitely. Fun fun fun in a silk dress.
What is the weirdest place you have found yourself working on a book?
Stark naked, dripping wet, standing in a freezing cold kitchen, sending myself a very long text message. I had a good idea in the shower.
What weird writing rituals or habits do you have?
I’ve postured on about the naked writing and the writing while fellating my own middle finger before to remarkably little interest.
I snack a lot when I’m writing, I get through huge amounts of black decaf coffee and chocolate. I need things to do with my hands. I tend to listen to the same CD on repeat for days at a time while I’m writing if things are flowing well – the CD must be inspiring me, so I keep it going on and on. It’s possible the neighbours feel a bit upset when its an industrial folk metal album.
Why should readers check out your books?
You mean this interview hasn’t already sold them completely? What was the point, man?
People have come near to blows over whether Broken Knives is any good or not (seriously, there was one very strange week where there were four different arguments about the book running on my facebook feed). I am either the most talented new voice in fantasy for the last decade, writing a lyrically beautiful exploration of human darkness, or an unbalanced, willfully obtuse charlatan with an obsession with repetition and no ability to write plot. Join the debate and break the last scarred remnants of my heart via goodreads.
It’s about a quarter as long as a volume of Marazan, and the whole series only runs to three books.
If people buy my books, I can buy more shoes.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today!
About The Book
They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust.
In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion and only one man can see it.
Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.
About The Author
Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series. The Court of Broken Knives is out now with Harper Voyager (UK/world) and Orbit (US/Can); The Tower of Living and Dying will be published in summer 2018. Her favourite authors are Mary Renault, R Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison. Previous jobs include English teacher, petty bureaucrat and fetish model. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.
Facebook: Anna Smith Spark