Interview with Anna Smith Spark – THE TOWER OF LIVING AND DYING
Hi Anna, welcome back to the Fantasy Hive! For those that haven’t met you (and I would say they’ve been living under a rock if they haven’t, but that’s a pretty grimdark place to be, and you’re the ‘queen of grimdark’ so they’re certainly not there!), in less than 50 words, introduce yourself!
Argh! [Fuck, that’s 1/50th of my word limit already]. I’m an ex-fetish model with a PhD in Victorian occultism. I wear shoes that make men moan and wince. I was cover article in the Fortean Times arguing that Erich Von Daniken is more rational than Richard Dawkins. I’m BFS and Gemmell shortlisted. Jo Fletcher calls me a mad poet.
[50! Yes! Yes!]
The Tower of Living and Dying came out in early August – the second book in the Empires of Dust trilogy. What can readers expect from this instalment?
More war. More landscapes. I think it rains a bit less.
The Court of Broken Knives ended with Marith on the brink of achieving everything … The Tower of Living and Dying takes us with him as he explores just how far he can go. It’s very much a war book, drawing on my love of the Iliad and the life of Alexander the Great. There’s a special language of war writing, phrases like ‘light horse’, ‘flanking manoeuvre’, ‘echeloned to the left’, that I love. Actually, I think that kind of military vocabulary triggers my synaesthesia. So I really went to town with Living and Dying. I’ve spent years reading different reconstructions of great battles, pouring over battle schematics, those gorgeous spaghetti junctions of arrows and differently shaded blocks that somehow attempt to show you how El Alamein or Balaclava were won and lost, The Tower of Living and Dying is me playing with that.
The Court of Broken Knives was about beginnings. Things being born. The Tower of Living and Dying is about the consequences of that birth. The wonders. The glory. The cost.
Now, with that out of the way…on to the real questions. Seeing as we (read: The Fantasy Hive) have already featured you in an ‘Author Spotlight’, I’m going to try and shake things up a bit and go for questions that either you, Anna, haven’t had before, or the readers of this interview haven’t seen you answer already.
As I write this interview, I’m about half way through the book, so NO SPOILERS (for me or anyone reading this). However, one of the things that struck me most is just how easy it is to read. It’s fair to say that your style, particularly your voice, is distinct, which is something I struggled with when starting The Court of Broken Knives. I made no secret about the fact that despite loving it at the end, I had to restart the first few chapters. I was reading the words, but not listening to what they were singing – once I had opened my ears (/mind) I could hear the music.
Do you feel like book two is different to book one in this sense?
Hmm…. Gosh. I don’t think so. Maybe you’ve properly opened your mind, man, or at any rate just got more used to me…. But I think I have matured as a writer since Broken Knives, and perhaps that comes through. Broken Knives wasn’t written as a novel, it just sort of happened, I was writing this thing and suddenly I had an agent and we were talking about book deals. Living and Dying was written as a novel, of course, with a much clearer sense of what was happening, where things were going, so in that sense perhaps it is easier on the reader from the off. The rich slow beginning to Living and Dying, the ‘this is what came before’ bit was written consciously to re-anchor the reader without too much of that Character 1: ‘I say old chap, can you remind me who you are again?’ Character 2: ‘Gosh, why yes, of course, how perfectly naturally absent minded of you to forget I’m your wife’ stuff. I’m very consciously telling the reader the basics, maybe that helped as well.
But bottom line: it’s not me, it’s you. if anything, I think Living and Dying ramps things up a bit in terms of my prose.
To me, this book disproves the ‘difficult book two’ syndrome. But saying that, did you find it harder or easier to write it? What was the toughest part about writing The Tower of Living and Dying?
Ah ha ha. Both. It was so much easier in some ways as I knew where I was going, who these people were, and also of course I had the confidence that I could write a book because I’d already done it. I’m a deadlines person, too, the pressure of an impending time limit helps me focus my mind, so I think the deadline I had with editors was a good stimulus. Writing Broken Knives was a bizarre adventure for me where I was rediscovering that I could wrote, re-finding myself and my confidence; writing Living and Dying, being a writer, was suddenly completely natural, like I had properly found myself. See above ^^^ – that’s probably one of the reasons it seems easier for a reader as well, maybe. Broken Knives was the first piece of fiction I’d written for well over ten years, remember, while Living and Dying was the product of utter certainty that writing is and should be my life.
But the pressure to go beyond what I’d already done was painful. I wanted book two to be different in feel, to do slightly different things in different ways. I didn’t just want to write book one with a different plot, if you see what I mean. If you think about the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, the three films each have a different aesthetic to them, I wanted to make book two feel different to book one as it was read [see above ^^^ again maybe?]. And I did place more pressure on myself to make it better, to see how far I could push my writing. Then the reviews of Broken Knives came in and the pressure to live up to the hype started getting to me as well, I did have a brief proper rock star I can’t handle the pressure of fame thing meltdown for a while, actually got very low about myself and my writing. In response to great reviews I became convinced I couldn’t write and almost wanted to abandon the whole thing, cancel my publishing contracts. You now when I say Marith is my animus, my soul….? Yeah. Like that. Like: how many times can you write blood shit filth death pain rain death death dying tit joke rain death before someone calls you out as an algorithm programmed to grotesquery and to delete all the commas? Maybe I’d better call it.
And, with that in mind, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in the past year about publishing/writing?
I answered this question for someone else a while ago and said actually not much, because I knew quite a lot about publishing anyway through my family background. But now I’m going to go slightly at a tangent and open myself up to trolling by saying – the vitriol around women fantasy writers. No matter how aware you are of feminist theory and practise and basic crappy daily life …. Nothing can prepare you for someone casually saying in a public forum that they haven’t read your book because ‘it’s by a woman and women can’t write’.
I’m in my thirties. I’ve been to university, worked in a huge organization, had an active social life. I don’t think of myself as particularly sheltered or naïve, I’ve encountered racists, sexists, homophobes, misogynists, crappy shitty people in all of those places. But until I was published as a fantasy novelist, I had never encountered people feeling it socially acceptable to say openly and publicly that they ‘don’t read books by women’, because ‘women can’t write books’.
2018 was, in my opinion, ‘The Year of Debuts’ – and whilst 2017 is shaping up to be ‘The Year of Book Twos’ there’s still a lot of promise for this year’s newcomers. Is there anyone that you’ve recently enjoyed reading from the debutants of 2017/18?
Oh, several people. One of the great joys of being ‘an author’ is getting sent very advance copies of books to blurb. I very much enjoyed Micah Yongo’ s Lost Gods, which is set in a secondary world informed by sub-Saharan Africa, the Empire of Guyana, Mali, Punt, the great trade routes to the Middle East across the Sahara and around the Horn… If you’ve read Broken Knives, it should be fairly obvious the cities in the desert are something of an obsession with me …. Sorlost is based on the silk route cities, Samarkand, Kashgar, Turfan, which are the great passion of my intellectual life, but I’ve been getting more and more interested in the history of sub-Saharan Africa and Lost Gods really inspired me to read more in the field. It confidently, very naturally evokes a world and a way of thinking subtly different to western European situated fantasy. It’s a good story too. (Although story for me is probably always secondary to style, aesthetics, emotional feel).
There’s a lovely YA-ish book called Torn by Rowenna Miller coming out soon as well. It’s romantic court-gossip-and-gowns fantasy set in an early modern European feel city, lots of lovely descriptions of ballgowns to wallow in, with very strong political discussion layered over the top. The central theme is the need for tolerance, for dialogue and reflection on different points of view, which feels so urgently necessary as a rallying call. I’m a born and bred socialist, but the idea of the woolly liberal middle …. gods, that’s attractive at the moment.
Of the ‘Class of 2017’ debuts, if you were to have an Avengers-style crossover between the your world and that of another, who would it be and why?
Hmmmmm…… I’m going to surprise people a bit and say Melissa Caruso’s world. First, because I loved The Tethered Mage, it’s delicious to read, and the world is a lovely place that I’d love to wander around in. I’ve sat in a Renaissance garden in Verona listening to a girl singing one line from Figaro over and over again, I’ve wandered around Venice in the moonlight… Melissa captures that romantic, hopeful sense of Renaissance humanism so beautifully.
And then, of course, and don’t say I’m not ultimately totally bloody predictable, I’d love to see Marith run riot in it. I think he’d enjoy himself. Thalia and Orhan would as well, obviously, for rather different reasons. Orhan in particular would be right at home in Raverra. Actually, maybe Marth would be happier as well if he packed up and lived there. Marith could be all Byronic in a big decaying palazzo on the Grand Canal, drink and mope and gaze at the beauty around him in melancholy maudlin pleasure harmless to everyone but himself. There we go – the big twist in book three is that it’s Game of Thrones meets Death in Venice.
As well as being the self-proclaimed queen of grimdark, you’ve made a name for yourself in the community, which is something I really admire in an author, actively contributing and taking part, even when it’s not ‘about you’ (a.k.a. ‘buy my book’). Sure, authors aren’t rockstars or Hollywood celebrities, though they bloody well should be!
What’s your secret to stardom?
I’m unutterably fabulous, that’s what it is.
I love fantasy. I love the tropes, the hackneyed plot lines, the OTT language conventions, the maps, the absurd names, the impossibly stupid magic armour, the terrible poetry prophecies, the cover art, everything. There are few things that make me happier than a picture of a woman in a chain mail bikini wielding a massive magic sword against a dragon. As soon as people with gratuitous ‘y’s in their name start saying things like ‘You are the last hope of men against the dark, my King’, I get all shivery with happiness. I picked up a copy of one of the Wheel of Time books at a jumble sale recently and got goose bumps just reading the blurb on the back. ‘Rand Al’Thon is the Dragon Reborn, who must stand against the Dark One’… gods, I love it. And I didn’t even enjoy the Wheel of Time that much. I grew up immersed in mythology and fantasy, it’s absolutely central to who I am. I still believe, really, deeply, that there is a world of magic out there, there are elves in the Hollow Hills, Arthur sleeps in Avon, one day the dragons will come again. There are Lords of Light and Lords of Darkness, enchantments, spells whispered on the wind. There are attack ships out there in a distant galaxy coming out of hyperspace, there are cities on other planets built of rainbow light. I know it. If I could only get there, see it. I grew up in a crap small town where being a teenage goth girl with Asperger’s syndrome, hippy parents, acne and a passion for high fantasy was perhaps not considered the ideal suite of attributes. When I finally discovered the world of on-line fantasy communities and conventions, it was like a door opening into a glorious life. There was a guy on the Fantasy Faction facebook group who used to post glorious high fantasy art scenes as a caption contest and we’d all pitch in with increasingly stupid in-jokes and honestly I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in my life.
And recommending books to people! I mean… what’s better than telling someone about a book you love knowing they’ll love it too? I saw someone on the tube the other day reading an obviously well-thumbed copy of The Farthest Shore and I wanted to go up and hug them out of delight that they were reading it.
Back to the books for a moment, and a huge shout out to T.O. Munro for contributing this question – at Bristolcon a few years ago, before the Court of Broken Knives was released, you featured on a panel talking about the ‘eroticisation of violence’ which, in T.O.’s words, was a phrase that stuck in his head somewhat. In context of both the Court of Broken Knives, but more specifically The Tower of Living and Dying, can you elaborate on this theme?
Violence is innate in us. Human beings are creatures of violence and cruelty. Look at what we’ve done, over and over. Murder and rape and status and power over others. I’ve heard people say that ‘rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power’. Hmmm… rape and killing, as far as I can see, are the ultimate expression of sex. The ultimate sexual thrill. Humans get off on violence, on power. Almost all of us do. We say we couldn’t do it, that people who kill and rape and harm are different … and history proves us wrong over and over again. Most of us would do it. And thrill to be doing it. Of course, also, its driven by feelings of inadequacy (and note the pretty clear sexual connotations of that term). But the vast majority of us think of ourselves as inadequate, don’t we? Violence, hurting someone, killing someone, violating someone, is an exercise of power that briefly makes us feel as the gods feel. Which is the biggest massive fucking turn on. Vindication that you have big dick power. Freud on swords, basically, yeah? A big dripping sword and that.
Almost leading on from this, taking a look at the battles and the campaigns and strategy here – how far in depicting Marith (or indeed the other characters) did you model him or his actions on great heroes of antiquity? I for one am reminded of the characters from ‘the classics’, such as Alexander the Great. But, with this in mind, is your take on it more Homeric than it is historic?
There’s a clue to Marith’s historical antecedents in his title Ansikanderakesis – ‘Iskander’ and ‘Sikander’ are Persian versions of ‘Alexander’. (There’s one battle in Living and Dying in particular that classicists should recognize). And Alexander modelled himself very consciously on Achilles (famously slept with a copy of the Iliad and a dagger beneath his pillow). Alexander has such a vast mythic quality to him, even in his own lifetime it was probably difficult to tell reality and myth-making apart in the presentation of his deeds; in his afterlife he assumes all kinds of strange roles: the Horned Prophet of the West in the Koran; the fantasy/superhero figure of the Alexander Romance; romantics like his great biographer Tarn who saw him in absurdly romantic Victorian ‘white explorer conqueror’ terms; the Persian magi’s reaction to him as the despoiler of the Persian Empire in fact directly informed Christian eschatology of the AntiChrist, the Enemy, and thus ultimately the fantasy trope of the Dark Lord. There’s so much bound up there that I wanted to stir all kinds of echoes of.
And Homer directly, also. The black ships, the shining hair, the killing bronze … I couldn’t not write those things. Achilles was my great childhood love before I discovered the more complex fascinations of Alexander, and there are certainly echoes in Marith. Cu Chullain, also, who I was fascinated by as a child reading the Tain, and who is clearly the same haunted, violent, terrifying archetype. The Mahabharata, also, I watched the famous Peter Hall production as a child, it had a great impact on me. These great myth archetypes have a huge amount of power in them, I wanted to play around with them, explore my responses to them. Mythological fanfic, as I’ve said.
I’d like to take a moment not just to applaud your distinct voice, and dare to be different approach, but also the diversity in your stories. One of the things I noted was the inclusion of diverse characters, including persons of colour and varying sexual orientation. How far did you go to deliberately tackle knee-jerk reactions to representation in fantasy?
Honestly, a lot of the diversity just …. happened. Thalia is the most beautiful woman in the world and has black skin purely because when I think about the most beautiful women in the world I think about Naomi Campbell and Lupita Nyong’o. Then it seemed fairly logical that the majority of the inhabitants of her home city might have a similar skin colour. So Orhan and Darath were dark skinned too.
And Sorlost is a city based on trade. Historically, the great trading empires have always had very diverse populations. The idea that all Romans were ‘white’ is an absurdity. The great cities of the Silk Road were and are very culturally and ethnically diverse. But people didn’t talk about ‘race’ and ‘diversity’ because the idea of ‘different races’ is a European colonial construct justifying the colonialism – and you’ll note that people in Irlast don’t talk about it either. Characters are very aware of people’s different physical appearances, languages, cultural habits, Marith is clearly sexually fixated by Thalia’s appearance, but the idea that the people in Sorlost are a ‘different race’ to the people in the Whites Isles, that Marith finds Thalia desirable because she’s ‘racially other’, would be absurd to them.
Thalia, Orhan and Darath are not ‘black’, with all the complex cultural meanings that implies, I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to try to write characters who even attempt to represent anything about modern black identity in a Trumpian, Brexit culture. I’m quarter Chinese, but … I doubt very much I can begin to imagine what it’s like to have the police called on me for having a barbeque, or have my right to live in my own country questioned by the government I might have voted for. Shot for the crime of driving while black… Told to ‘go back home’ to a country your grandparents left as children… In a secondary fantasy world, thankfully, people can not have those attitudes. There are a million crimes of which my characters are guilty, it’s a world of pain and cruelty, but the idea of racial discrimination fortunately doesn’t need to feature because … well, because it’s so fucking stupid that if you made it up in a secondary world fantasy it would seem absurd.
Orhan and Darath’s sexuality just kind of happened too. I was writing them, and the tension was building, and it became clear that they were sexually involved. Again, I didn’t then feel I needed to go on a lengthy thing about homophobia and why they’re so brave to face up to their love despite prejudice because, again, why not make my world not quite so bloody stupid? Homophobia is a cultural construct. Many cultures, especially in the classical world, weren’t homophobic and would be quite astonished by the idea of two men shagging being considered a thing. So why bother making it up here?
What was interesting was thinking about the dynamics of power in a relationship between two very high status mature men. Historically, some elements of homophobia have been rooted not in the physical relationship between the people concerned, but in the power dynamics it suggests. Two peasants humping behind a hayrick is really not worth mentioning unless you’re a particularly embittered repressed cleric – but if Edward II is in love with Piers Galveston and has just made him XXX that’s a political problem about power and influence. A bit like trying to imagine how we’d respond to discovering Philip Hammond was sexually in thrall to Angela Merkel. I said that to a very social liberal gay friend of mine and he looked disgusted at the mere thought – it feels totally wrong to think about two political leaders making pillow talk, making decisions that put their lover above their politics, deferring sexually to someone who’s got a power relationship with them, different, competing political goals to them. Orhan and Darath’s relationship as two very powerful men who are sexual partners and equals tries to explore that a little. They’re both high status men in a patriarchal, status-obsessed society, which cannot but problematise their relationship a little, to themselves and to other rival high-status men.
Marith and Carin was pure classical homoeroticism because it made me very happy writing it. I’ve had requests to write some shorts about them. I’m thinking about it. I think about it a lot.
And, to lighten the tone, because I’ve suddenly come across all serious, something that surprised me was the injections of humour in The Tower of Living and Dying – namely from Tobias. Where did his voice come from? Marith will always take centre stage for me, but I’d love to know more about Tobias.
Tobias is me. He’s so easy to write. He just pours out of me. There was a lovely review by the Fantasy Inn pointing out that Tobias is the reader, making the same cynical points that the reader might make. He’s utterly insane, in some ways, but also very much the everyman, the voice of sanity. The cynical, crude voice of ‘the common man’ can be extremely dangerous – just look at Trump and Boris Johnson saying ‘common sense’ – but can also be a powerful radical force for good. And there’s a Rabelaisian, carnival aspect to Tobias, the grotesque fool figure. If you think about thinks like Blackadder and Asterix, the use of low comedy to make profound political comments about power. The story needs humour, I wanted to use multiple keys, change the pace and the tone. What makes Tolstoy and Shakespeare so, so great is their use of multiple keys. Or think of the Wasteland, the swings between the highest erudition and the music hall. The slow landscape sections, the romance, Tobias’s vulgarity … it’s very deliberately done to change pace and key totally.
And I would be remiss not to include Thalia. Now more than ever I believe we need strong female point of view characters (and not just in the typical sense of the word ‘strong’, but as in well rounded and fully fleshed out) – and for me, she fits the bill. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
Thalia is an often misunderstood character. She is in many ways the classic conventional hero’s love interest, she was written as such, and that’s the point of her – I wanted to look at a woman whose identity is constructed through her relationship with someone else, and try to explore what that might mean for her. Let’s be honest here – for most of human history women were and in many places still are largely defined by their relationships with men. I wanted to take a woman in that role and look at her in her own terms, unpack how she might feel about her position and her relationship. How she deals with her status as ‘Marith’s woman’ and the role that gives her is another key theme of the book. She’s not an independent woman, no. For most of history most women weren’t. Aren’t. I wanted to deal with that. To me, she’s strong and fully subjective in her own way.
At the time I was writing key sections of The Tower of Living and Dying, Robert Mugabe was finally being forced out of office in Zimbabwe, so his wife Grace Mugabe was in the news a lot. She’s a fascinating figure, a younger trophy second wife (Mugabe courted her while his first wife, Sally, who fought alongside him for a free Zimbabwe, was dying of cancer), a powerful woman whose status depended entirely on her husband’s continuing authority; I’m certainly not defending her as a person but she was clearly a vessel for a lot of racist and misogynistic hostility, she was portrayed in such stark terms as corrupting Mugabe through her sexual relationship with him, abusing his desire for her as a way of enriching herself. What she felt about him, her marriage, her children, her political role … we don’t look at that, we’re presented with this caricature of a brash woman using her sexual wiles to enrich herself. Contrast Melanie Trump, who’s seen as a victim, a fragile little thing who must be oppressed by her husband, desperate to escape, ‘blink if you need help’. The idea that either of them are real women trying to live their lives, negotiating marriage and motherhood and life choices and normal stuff like that, seems incredibly difficult for people to contemplate.
Actually, that’s quite an interesting point – the need for strong female characters, distinct voices, diversity etc. If your characters were to become ‘world leaders’ in the modern world (the here and now) what would they campaign for, and how would they do it?
T.O. Munro (him again!) made an interesting point recently restating the insanity of the Brexiteers’ latest arguments and then saying cuttingly something to the effect of ‘apropos of nothing, I’m currently reading The Tower of Living and Dying with its evocation of man’s capacity for chaotic nihilism and ruin for ruin’s sake.’ Marith’s obviously rather more self-aware and glamorous than certain politicians, but I think they are embarking on a similar path of destruction for the thrill of it, just to see. As flies are to wanton boys… There’s a horrible story about the Bullingdon Club, the student drinking society Boris Johnson, David Cameron and George Osbourne (remember them?) were members of. The famous thing is the pig, but what I find haunting is the way they deliberately broke all the tableware at their dinners, just smashed it, trampled on it, just for the pleasure of having the power and wealth to break things. And then they came into power, and broke people’s lives. Because they could.
Orhan is of course the liberal democratic politician. Not a megalomaniac, not seeking power for power’s sake. He wants to make the world a better place, yes, maybe there’s a cost, everything has a cost, this is real politick here, we’re not naïve, but …. Obama and Clinton sanctioning drone strikes; Ed Miliband putting racist dog whistle campaign slogans on mugs; yes we know, we know, it’s unpleasant, but … but … but … it’s all for the greater good in the end. It has to be done. And it’s not like it affects me, personally, does it?
Apart from the world of the Empires of Dust, what’s next for Anna Smith Spark? What can readers look forward to beyond the current trilogy?
I’ve got short stories set in the Empires of Dust world coming out in Rogues: A Blackguards Anthology from Outland Entertainment, Unfettered III from Grim Oak Press and Legends III: Stories in Honour of David Gemmell from Newcon Press. The Rogues story, ‘The Second Siege of Telea’ is about Tobias, the other two stories, ‘Goldlight’ and ‘A Hero of Her People’, are episodes from the history of Irlast. I should have some exciting news about a totally different project I’m working on with some good friends of mine soon as well.
Beyond that, I have no idea. I’d love to write some more stories set in Irlast, and I have some ideas. There’s so much more I want – need – to write, and Irlast is the world my writing lives in. I’d almost like to write other styles of novel, perhaps something more gentle, more peaceful, perhaps something with the same violence but in the first person, shorter and more direct, but set in the same world. But still fantasy, and still literary. I’ll have to see how things work out, what comes out. I’m finishing up the final volume in the Empires of Dust trilogy now, then we’ll see.
Thank you for answering my questions, Anna. Before we go, if there was ONE LINE from The Tower of Living and Dying you could share with readers, what would it be, and why?
All men long to see dragons. Dream of wonders. Hope deep down in the depths of their souls to see wonders blaze and burn and die. We worship the sky and the trees and the earth and the sea and the rocks we walk on. We dream of light and shadows and the glory of something far greater, the old wild powers of the world.
That’s everything, isn’t it? Why I love fantasy, why I read it and write it: to see wonders. And yet, deep down, also, to see the terrible wonderful horrifying annihilating beauty of wonders being torn apart. Admit it: you’d support an Oscar for ‘best shit what gets blown up’.
 They don’t. It’s really not just you, they make no sense at all to everyone. But gods I love those diagrams. In the special luxury complete Empires of Dust box set, I want battle schematic diagrams.
 This is not to say, by the way, that the Romans were nice diversity-trained brotherhood of man types. They were as xenophobic and prejudiced and vile about foreigner as anyone else in history ever. But they didn’t, as far as we can tell, place any particular emphasis on skin colour. There are writings about attacks on the Roman cities of north Africa, for example, where it’s impossible to tell whether the author is talking about the native Nubian tribes or the Goths (i.e. Germans) that have recently moved there en mass. What to modern culture seems a big thing (are they black Africans or blond Europeans?) is totally unimportant, what matters is whether people are ‘Roman-like’ or not in terms of the way they live.