Author Spotlight – A.K. Larkwood
Joining us for today’s Author Spotlight is A.K. Larkwood!
A.K. Larkwood studied English at St John’s College, Cambridge. Since then, she has worked in higher education & media relations, and is now studying law. She lives in Oxford, England, with her wife and a cat. Her debut novel, The Unspoken Name, will be published by Tor in 2020.
Welcome to the Hive, A.K. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I just finished Jade War by Fonda Lee – it’s the second in a series about rival families who use magic and martial arts to try and claim control of the city. And in the case of the main characters, they have an absolutely horrible time doing it. Delicious.
The world is completely immersive, not just in terms of setting but also in terms of mindset. You understand exactly why these characters are making these terrible decisions and doing these terrible things. In the context of an escalating feud where the characters are always turning away from reconciliation, it would be easy to feel frustrated by the fact that things keep getting worse, but here you’re in so deep, the reading experience is like “Oh god! Of course you have to seek revenge! Of course you have to fight that duel! Of course you have to cut off your own ear! Fuck!”
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 usually play a rogue because in real life I’m pretty anxious and not especially nimble! That’s the level of escapism I want from D&D: the fantasy of finally not giving a shit and being able to do the monkey bars.
That said, my longest-running character was a human cleric, allegedly a healer, who “somehow” “accidentally” “for reasons that were not her fault” left a trail of corpses behind her which had all sustained enormous necrotic damage.
I also love wizards who just make life worse for everyone. If you read my work you may be able to detect… a whisper of this archetype on the breeze, shall we say.
That’s an intriguing breeze! When you’re not trawling through dungeons, leaving a trail of corpses, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? 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 a little bit about your writing method!
I have four younger siblings and we all loved to yell so dead silence is now very unsettling to me. I get most of my work done in loud coffee-shops. Also, for any given scene in the book, the more serious and dramatic it is, the more likely I wrote it while blasting the same Charli XCX song on repeat for hours.
As for plotting: I always have a plan, I just never pay any attention to it.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Ursula K LeGuin almost goes without saying at this point. The Tombs of Atuan is probably my favourite book. I remember reading it aged about nine, not understanding it at all, lying on my bedroom floor surrounded by plastic farm animals, imagining this immense dark space underground, and thinking ah yes, all this just for me!!!
In The Tombs of Atuan, the main character is a young woman brought up in the cult of a strange god, and she eventually makes her escape with a visiting wizard, who is a selfless, considerate person. Unfortunately, what I love best is a wizard who is neither of those things, and imagining how that would have panned out was what originally sparked the idea of The Unspoken Name.
Space opera was also a big influence. Iain M Banks, Yoon Ha Lee, Ann Leckie, etc. Ghost ship emerging from the wormhole! Space station suspended crystalline in the void! Villain sipping wine as an ominous planet looms in the gallery window! I eat this stuff up with a little spoon and I’ve tried to bring a little of that flavour to my book.
Sadly, though, I don’t think I could co-write. Writing is good because you spend most of your life in the real world where things happen to you at random, and so writing your own story gives you a little space of almost-complete focus and control. Unfortunately this turns me into a dreadful tyrant, unwilling to share power, and I have to assume this would lead any co-writer justifiably to shove me into a pit.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
It’s not the last thing I watched, but I think constantly about AMC’s The Terror.
EPISODE ONE: “haha, time for some dudes to die horribly on the ice, what larks!”
EPISODE TEN: [inconsolable weeping]
This show is about a real historical doomed Arctic voyage and you know from the get-go that everybody is going to die. It’s an object lesson in how to sustain tension even when the ending is a foregone conclusion. It would have been so easy for the show to lean into the gruesome absurdity of it all, but its core thesis is that your actions have meaning even at the extremity of your existence, and/or when you’re living in fear of a monstrous CGI polar bear. Good stuff.
*Makes a note* The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
IN THEORY: spend the day preparing an elaborate picnic, pick my wife up after work and head to the ruined nunnery outside town, because I refuse to picnic without goth points.
IN PRACTICE: “hooray, unscheduled downtime!” [I play video games for 4 hours and sulk because I’ve wasted the day]
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’m working on a follow-up to The Unspoken Name at the moment. It’s set 20 years or so after the first book, and deals with the darkest villain of all: the consequences of your actions.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
MOST HELPFUL: you do not need a special licence from the government to be able to finish your work. If you keep writing a bit at a time you’ll eventually get there.
LEAST HELPFUL: anything about how Adverb Is Forbidden, Never Must Thou Indulge The Passive Voice, etc. The only thing to be said for this kind of arbitrary rule-mongering is that it makes you think about your use of language, I guess, but nobody produces interesting work if they’re persistently on the defensive about whether it’s OK to use “he whispered” as a dialogue tag.
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?
Writing is my favourite thing and I’m absurdly lucky to get to do it professionally, but every time I sit down to it there is nevertheless a sort of black metal chorus of O despis’d fate, this dark path unending, I have never written a good sentence, I will never finish this book, I will be chased out of publishing town to dwell in shame.
Usually that goes away when I get into it, so my only tip is to commit to it for 15 minutes and try to make a start, even if it’s just prodding the keyboard at a safe distance all “and… then… he… opened… the… door… and… there was… a ghost! Oh no, he said.”
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
To the Lascaux caves about 20,000 years ago, to snoop on the artists at work.
There are a few things that make me weep instantly, like turning on a hose. The art of early humans really gets to me. The urge to make sense of things and to shape our own meaning, even when the world is hostile and frightening – that sometimes seems like the best of humanity and it’s very moving to know it’s been with us from the start, that it seems to be something we need for survival.
(People being people I would probably discover that the paintings were actually executed in a hurry by Big Jim’s Budget Bison, guaranteed best deal on livestock murals in the Périgord region. The original artist quit because horses just ARE too hard to draw.)
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones!
The first time I read it, as a teenager, I thought “So it’s really possible to write a book that combines space opera and Arthurian legend and virtual reality, and it tells the story in anachronic order because time is out of joint, and there’s an enormous expertly foreshadowed twist in the middle? Wow, I bet I could totally do that!”
I read it again this year and thought “Wow, how did anyone do that?”
It’s dated poorly in some ways, but it opened my eyes then to the kind of wild vision you can try for, and it’s still inspiring in terms of sheer audacity. What I admire about DWJ’s writing is that she speaks these outlandish worlds into being with complete and grounded assurance. Earth ruled from afar by ancient conspiracy of interstellar rulers? Yes! Almost inevitable that someone will turn into a dragon? Why not! Sad assassin still very handsome despite worst backstory of all time? Of course! All this takes place in a patch of scrubby woodland behind a housing estate in Surrey? Naturally.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
The Unspoken Name is about what happens when you’ve been brought up in the knowledge that you have a purpose picked out for you – and then, when it comes to it, you can’t go through with it.
My protagonist expects to die honourably as her god’s chosen sacrifice, but at the last minute she gets the chance to escape. She suddenly has a whole life ahead of her that she never expected to get – and she also owes an enormous debt to the wizard who helped her. So perhaps she doesn’t question too closely when it starts to become clear that he has plans for her…
Brilliant! Thank you for joining us, A.K. Larkwood, and good luck with the release of your debut novel!
A.K. Larkwood is the author of The Unspoken Name, a fantasy novel about an orc priestess turned wizard’s assassin. Sounds amazing, right? You can pre-order it here!