Author Spotlight: Anna Smith Spark
Joining us for the Author Spotlight today is the Queen of Grimdark herself: Anna Smith Spark! Anna lives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website www.greatworks.org. Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.
Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault. She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player.
You may know her by the heels of her shoes.
You can find Anna on Twitter @queenofgrimdark or on her website www.courtofbrokenknives.org.
This week’s Spotlight takes place inside a ruined castle. Vines creep up the walls to strangle the crumbling battlements and the wind howls through the empty arrow-slits. It sounds a little bit like ‘Death! Death! Death!’ For the last few hours there have been knocking sounds from below, and one can only imagine what horrors are waiting to burst out from the cellars. Only by answering our questions will Anna get access to the magical Hiveguffin Scenario Randomiser™, and possible escape.
Will she survive? Keep reading to find out!
Anna! Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
So many books to recommend. Where to even start?
With a fantasy novel, obviously. To narrow it down a bit.
I recently finished Miles Cameron’s The Fall of Dragons. It’s EPIC. One vast, glorious battle, spread over two continents and multiple worlds, featuring dragons, knights, sorcerers, elves, laundresses, nuns. Miles is a re-enactor and a historian; he’s served in the US navy – he really knows what he’s writing about. A lot of the battles in the series are based on genuine historical battles, and it shows: his battles are totally convincing, and described so that you’re there in them.
I also just reread Orlando. It’s a gorgeous jewel of a book. The scene at the frost-fair in the Thames just shimmers, it’s a sublime piece of writing. And technically it is historical fantasy – time travel, immortality, gender shifts ….
I’ve got Deborah A Wolf’s The Dragon’s Legacy lined up next. It’s had some fantastic reviews; the cover and the title alone suggest I need to read it. I’m very much looking forward to getting stuck in.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I was an obsessive D&D player for years. On the rare occasions I did something social that wasn’t D&D, I’d sit in the corner telling myself stories about the D&D adventure I was on. Happy days.
I’d be a chaotic neutral cleric sworn to the dark gods, obviously. My weapons of choice: a low-cut dress and spiked shoes.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Why?
I can only work on a computer. I’m dyslexic and dyspraxic (poor fine-motor skills), which means I have atrocious handwriting, I find handwriting things incredibly tiring and frustrating. And the way I write simply doesn’t work without a computer: I edit a lot as I go along; I probably delete as much as I write; I move lines and paragraphs around all the time, adding or removing line breaks; I reference and repeat lines and images a lot and I’ll go back and rewrite a whole paragraph in chapter one so that one line works better when I reference it in chapter twelve. I couldn’t write without a computer.
Some might say this means I should smash my computer.
Those people might want to go screw themselves. And how do you like to work, Anna – in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps?
Have you ever heard the song of a thousand dead shrimps? It sucks.
I listen to music when I’m writing. Usually the same CD on repeat all day. My favourite writing albums are the Best of The Doors (because Marith is Jim Morrison); Leonard Cohen’s The Future; and the albums The Blade and Lex Talionis by an industrial folk band called Sol Invictus. I actually named the final section of Broken Knives ‘The Blade’ after the album, it’s rather the book’s soundtrack. A proud moment of my life was signing a bookplate for Tony Wakeford, Sol Invictus’ main man.
You can listen to some of the songs that helped to inspire Broken Knives here.
Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit? Tell us something unusual about your writing method!
I type with the middle finger of my left hand, sucking suggestively on the first finger of my right hand and swearing repeatedly under my breath.
This is because I learned to type at university, frantically typing essays at two in the morning, a cigarette clutched in my right hand, swearing repeatedly under my breath.
I have written naked occasionally. Because bright ideas often come in the shower. I have been known to rush out of the bathroom clad only in a towel because it’s vitally important I delete a comma (see ‘If you could choose one punctuation mark …’ below).
Getting away from my revolting writing habits … The Court of Broken Knives was a voyage into the dark for me, I was discovering what I was writing and who these characters were as I wrote. My subconscious was pouring out images, landscapes, themes that matter to me, creating a world and its people, spooling out a story that I didn’t know. Now, with books two and three I know the people and where it is they end up, I’m exploring how we get there and what it means to them and to me.
Which is really to say that, when I write, the plot is secondary to the prose, the world, the emotions and aesthetics. Shit happens. I’m interested in describing the impact of the shit.
What are your most significant non-book fantasy influences?
I’ve mentioned some of my musical influences above. Then there’s film, obviously – a lot of people have used the word ‘cinematic’ to describe Broken Knives and I’d agree. I see what I write very clearly, I’m trying to use language on a page to create a cinematic, total sensory experience. When I watch films I’m very focussed on the cinematography and the editing, not the dialogue – the lighting, the way an image is framed, the way sound effects such as approaching footsteps or background music work – and I approach writing in the same way, trying to replicate that sensory experience. David Lynch and Derek Jarman, especially: the richness of their films helped to shape the way I visualise scenes in my mind and then try to put them down in words. And Fellini’s Satyricon was a huge influence on the way I see Sorlost and the way I try to describe it, the surreal decay that is his vision of Rome. I want to write the way those films look.
And poetry – my writing background is in poetry, my father is a poet and I grew up with poetry around me. The aesthetics of modernist poetry strongly shaped my sense of language – lyrical, abrupt, raw, playful. Have a look at www.greatworks.org.uk (there are two poems by me on there somewhere). I wrote a blog post about my poetic influences for HarperVoyager here: Yeat’s Byzantium, Coleridge’s Khubla Khan, Flecker’s Samarkand, Browning’s’ Childe Roland, Shelley, Blake.
And if this all sounds utterly horrifically absurdly grotesquely pretentious, which it does because I am, the Asterix comic books and Blackadder were both a massive influence on my writing. Asterix and the Normans is one of the funniest things ever written. Blackadder Goes Forth is probably the best television programme about war ever made. Blackadder II has Queeny and that scene with Baldric as a bridesmaid.
And the Dungeons and Dragons children’s cartoon series. Gods, I loved that when I was little. I loved Tiamat the dragon so much. Huge influence on my life.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?
I don’t watch that much television, being the pretentious arty middle-class tosser that I am. I read or write instead. Go running. Bake brownies. I make myself vomit sometimes, yes.
I am a fan of grand tour cycling and try to watch the highlights of races, at least. I love professional cycling. Stunning scenery! Men racing each other up mountains! Men in skintight lycra! Crashes! Rampant drug abuse! The occasional violent death! The great British cyclist Tom Simpson died after racing up a mountain in the south of France, in July, in the burning summer sunshine, whilst suffering from illness, whilst drinking neat brandy laced with amphetamines. That’s my kind of sportsman.
Wait, I tell a lie, I do I watch TV, I do my aerobics videos. Me and Rosemary Connelly leaping round the room in sports bras while the neighbours bang on the wall.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write or otherwise do any work. How do you choose to spend the day?
I’d go to the British Museum, followed by a nose round the shops looking for more tight, low-cut black dresses to add to my collection.
Or I’d lie in bed all day reading and eating chocolate. Same as I do most weekends.
If you could choose one punctuation mark to be made illegal, which would it be and why?
I love punctuation. Adore it. Obsess about it. I hear punctuation in my head when I read and write. I can spend days debating where and whether to place a single comma. I would rather cut off my own arm than make a bit of punctuation illegal. I’m not that keen on semi-colons aesthetically, perhaps, but even they have their place.
However, those who fail to use punctuation correctly should be subject to the severest penalties the law can impose. Hang them, draw them, quarter them, and display their pitiful remains to public mockery; look upon my works, ye mighty, and learn what an Oxford comma is.
In no more than three sentences, tell us a little something about your current work in progress!
I’m currently doing the final proof edits for The Tower of Living and Dying, the second book in the Empires of Dust series. It’s definitely a war book: the music of bronze and iron, the ringing of silver trumpets, the lamentations of grieving women, ten times a thousand voices crying out in fear as a city falls. I’d describe it as a journey into the emotional heart of a battlefield – although my editor just calls it ‘breath-taking’.
If you could co-write or co-create a series (like The Expanse, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen), who would you choose to work with and why?
Michael R Fletcher. I really admire his writing. I read Beyond Redemption and decided to force him to become a friend of mine. He pushes things so far, far further than I do, his books are pretty insane and horrible, utterly cynical, utterly aware of the absurdity of everything; his world is a reality in which all human action is shown to be a product of self-delusion and insecurity, stupidity and greed; like me, he’s something of a fan of body horror; like me, he certainly doesn’t believe in straight- up good and bad. And yet his world is so profoundly humane. I rather like the idea of seeing how far we could push each other to create something …. unreadable, possibly.
I have discussed co-authoring a story with Deborah A Wolf. We haven’t got a plot yet, but the cover will be a middle-aged woman in armour standing on top of a huge pile of enemy corpses, bloody sword raised in triumph, gorgeous seventeen-year-old boy with long fingers wearing only a posing pouch and a dog collar crouching adoringly at her feet.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Honestly, the old adages are all true: write what you want to write, write whenever you can, enjoy writing, relax and don’t think about it. JUST WRITE, basically: not for an audience, not to be like another author, just to please yourself and create the story you want to tell.
And ignore the critics – my editor tells me this, my agent tells me this, my father (a critic himself) tells me this. I ignore it completely, spend whole evenings lying on my bed crying and drafting emails to my publishers cancelling books two and three, but it’s still good advice.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
Gods. Where to start?
The Lop Nor desert in the first age of human civilization. Cities rise and fall here in the shifting sands; statues of gods are raised here, watching over the emptiness; we have no memory of the builders or their names. The course of a river changes and all is lost to the desert. White wood and mummified bodies, buried for ten times a thousand years.
Persia during the conquests of Alexander. To stand before the walls of Ekbatana in the mountains, the dawn sun reflecting on its gold and silver walls, hearing soldiers tell of the burning of Persepolis. There are eagles and leopards in the mountains, cooling breezes blow down from the heights where the snow still lingers even in the spring; the gardens are filled with fruit trees; in the great summer palace of the Lord of All Asia, Alexander is at ease with his companions, drinking wine, reliving his victories, dreaming of conquests yet to come.
Samarkand in the reign of Tamerlane. The poets sing of wine and love in shady courtyards, the air is heavy with dust as the workmen raise up the great dome of the Bibi Khanum Mosque, the riches of half the world pass in tribute through the Turquoise Gate. TAMERLANE’S SOLDIERS HONESTLY GENUINELY MADE TOWERS OF HUMAN SKULLS IN THE SMOKING RUINS OF SACKED CITIES YOU KNOW.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I force myself to write. It’s a job, as well as a pleasure – I’ve got an obligation to my readers, my publishers, my agent, my characters to finish the thing, and to finish it well. I try to write every day. If I’m really struggling to find any spark of writerly imagination, I go back and read an earlier section, start editing it. I love editing (no blank page! No need to agonise over what happens next!); going over previous sections improves them, obviously, and also helps me get themes and images completely clear in my head. It works as a warm-up exercise: often, the text then starts flowing and plotting problems I’ve been struggling with fall away.
This works less well when you’ve got a screen saying ‘chapter one’, admittedly. But that’s where the ‘forcing myself’ comes in. I just start putting down words, no idea what’s happening or who’s involved, no idea where or when or what. Just force some words down. See what comes. Then delete repeat delete repeat until something gets a spark to it. It’s amazing how you can build a whole novel around a comedy pastiche bad-joke scene you end up editing out.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
M John Harrison’s Viriconium. It’s the single greatest masterpiece of literary fantasy. The writing is sublime, lyrical, complex, haunting. Years after reading it, I can still see images from it in my mind. Remember the way I felt. It is wilfully obscure and complex, yes. It’s fucking literature, man. A modernist literary godsdamned fucking masterpiece.
And so, here, bursting out unstoppably, my rant about literature and fantasy. ‘Cause I can’t crowbar it in anywhere else. I aspire to write fucking literature, like. Yeah? I see no contradiction between the terms ‘literary ‘and ‘fantasy’. And I have no issue with complex literary works in the genre. Look at authors like Le Guin, Tolkien, Doris Lessing, Borges, C S Lewis, T H White, Margaret Atwood – all of them creating intellectually complex, literary sff. Epic fantasy allows us to explore the extremes of human experience, it confronts issues of power, violence, morality, the nature of good and evil, the relationship between man and the gods. These are some massive, massive questions. The roots of epic fantasy, indeed, surely lie in some of the great canonical works of early literature that are concerned with morality and the meaning of life – the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Eddas, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Maharrabata, the Bible. The great religious and literary texts of human culture, in other words.
So, yeah, fantasy can be literary and I make no apologies for writing it that way.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what we like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Which, by the way, is currently picking between its rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto its elevator.)
Ahem. So: why should readers check out your work? A shark elevator pitch of your own book(s) in no more than three sentences – go!
Joe Abercrombie and GRRM meet Soren Kierkegaard and Leonard Cohen in a particularly filthy public toilet; they hook up with Bertolt Brecht and decide to go for a long nature ramble in the rain.
Filth dirt pain grief war violence killing love joy hope sex dust darkness cruelty redemption pity ruin death death death.
The most epic fight scenes you’ll ever read, a dragon in the first eleven pages, some top-class nob jokes.
Nob jokes are always a winner! But the banging and clanking from below is louder now, much louder. The creatures making the noises are not just coming; they’re HERE. Thankfully, having now answered our questions, you may activate the magical Hiveguffin Scenario Randomiser™ . . .
. . . Oh, shit. You just summoned a rain of blood and guts. Not good, Anna. The creatures below choose this moment to finally break out from the cellars and spill into the courtyard. Thankfully, they’re just kobolds, and a well placed high heel to the skull dispatches them just in time for you to take shelter in the newly-vacated cellars. And not a drop of red on you – well done!
Anna Smith Spark is the author of THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES, out now from Harper Voyager.