Women In SFF Author Spotlight – Sarah Ash (THE ARKHEL CONUNDRUM)
Sarah Ash trained as a musician but writing fantasy fiction has allowed her to explore her fascination with the way mythology and history overlap and interact. The Arkhel Conundrum is the latest addition to the ongoing Tears of Artamon series, whereas the Tide Dragons series grew from Sarah’s love of all things Japanese. Sarah is Reviews Editor for Anime UK News and writes regularly about anime and manga.
www.sarah-ash.com https://animeuknews.net/ @sarah_ash7
Welcome to the Hive, Sarah Ash. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I’m just reading Stormsong the second volume of C.L. Polk’s fantasy sequence The Kingston Cycle, having loved Witchmark, the first volume. It’s so rare for me these days to find a novel that I can just read and enjoy without subconsciously editing it on the page – but these books are a delight to read; the internal editor switches off because they’re really well-written. Great world-building and fascinating, complex characters. I know I’ll be impatient for the third volume Soulstar but I’ll just have to wait till February 2021.
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?
Oh dear. Confession time. I’m not a player of games! I watched Dungeons & Dragons the cartoon with my two boys on TV when they were young – although I know about D&D from the never-ending slew of isekai anime, manga and light novels that we’re constantly being offered at the moment. There has to be a Bard/Minstrel in this motley company, surely, with a harp and a few magical songs in their repertoire? (Not the Cacofonix-type though! Vide Asterix.)
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, 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 used to write everything longhand and type it up but that was before I had children! The first word processors were a breakthrough for me – such a time saver. I still keep the longhand habit for notebooks in which I scribble down illegible ideas at all hours of the night and then try to decipher them the next day. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter because I find that things will almost always change ‘on the page’. There’s something about the physical act of writing/typing that brings out useful matter that’s been lurking in the subconscious (probably) so I think it’s important to be open to new directions but not to be dictated to by them.
Thank the gods for BBC Radio 3! I love to write with Radio 3 playing in the background (as long as it’s not anything with distinguishable words, so most opera is out, also songs). I also have a great deal of music on the computer, but I go through phases – the exuberant, stormy symphonies of Czech composer Martinu were an obsession a while back and before that, Respighi, not to forget anime soundtracks. Currently listening to anything performed by the Danish String Quartet, including wonderful folk music arrangements.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing just blew me away when I first read A Wizard of Earthsea. For a long while afterward, I thought I wouldn’t be able to write again because it was impossible to do it as well! Mary Renault and Rosemary Sutcliff (although not technically fantasy writers) were also very strong influences, with their extraordinary abilities to bring a distant age to vivid life – and people it with memorable characters.
As to collaborating with someone – my love of manga leads me to wish that I could collaborate one day with some of the immensely talented mangaka in Japan. It’s a pleasure just to read their work and dream of working with… let’s say… Kamome Shirahama because I love her detailed artwork in Witch Hat Atelier or Tsuta Suzuki’s A Strange and Mystifying Story because she knows how to do urban fantasy in her own unique way (I have many other favourites and they’re all brilliant)!
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I’ve been watching What We Do in The Shadows, catching up with the second season. I just love it. It’s very silly, rude, and yet strangely, affectionately faithful to vampire mythology. The perfect antidote to pandemic blues. I also love baking shows so I’m currently glued to Bake Off: The Professionals, watching the patisserie experts battle it out with choux buns, towering spun sugar structures and elaborate entremets. There’s no way I could emulate their skill so I just watch (and maybe drool a little over the chocolate cakes).
Can confirm we’re also Shadows fans here at the Hive!
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?
Until I developed arthritis in my thumbs and wrists, I would have said playing the piano but sadly I can only play for about ten minutes now without needing to take a break and that’s not long enough to accomplish meaningful practice. So I’d love to go visit an art gallery; we’re lucky to have two galleries here in Bath: the Holburne Museum and the Royal Victoria Art Gallery which are both human-sized (not too big) and have fascinating exhibitions by artists old and new on display.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
My most recent novel is The Arkhel Conundrum, the first sequel to The Tears of Artamon and my first return to that world after writing the two-volume Tide Dragons. It answers many questions that readers asked after Artamon concluded – and gave me the chance to revisit favourite characters such as the wily Magus, Kaspar Linnaius, Emperor Eugene, and Spirit Singer Kiukiu – as well as introducing new people.
I’m supposed to be getting on with Book 5 of The Tears of Artamon but I feel that it’s not quite ‘ready’ as I’m see-sawing between picking up where I left off at the end of The Arkhel Conundrum – and a strong instinct to have a gap of several years. I haven’t yet found the best way to make this work – but I’m a great believer in the powers of the subconscious so it’s often best to walk away from a problem like this, rather than wrestling with it. (There’s also a very different project simmering on the back burner at a very early stage of development so I can’t talk about it yet for fear of killing it.)
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
‘Write to the red-hot heart of the scene.’ i.e. Identify exactly what’s important in a scene and keep that to the fore, cut out anything extraneous! (Paraphrasing a little, as this was way back in the early 90s, from my first editor, the wonderful Deborah Beale).
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?
A routine is really important in a writing life (well, for me at any rate). Just going to the desk/laptop every day at the same time and sitting there and writing something, anything, to keep the habit going. Even if it’s words that you cut later on, it’s the doing the writing that counts. (And it’s good to have an incentive like a cup of tea or coffee to look forward to after you’ve done some writing. And a biscuit. Maybe shortbread? You have to earn your treats!)
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I’m strongly tempted by the Floating World, Heian Japan – as depicted by Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji in the 11th century. (This was a major influence on my series Tide Dragons!) It would be wonderful to witness the amusements devised at court to pass the time: the poetry contests, the dances, the perfume making, the layering of one’s clothes in appropriate colours to match the seasons – and the outrageous flirting!
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
I’ve always admired and loved Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. She’s so stoical, in spite of all the disappointments that life throws at her – and yet, even though she keeps her hurt to herself, you can feel the yearning for the path not taken growing stronger as the story develops.
However, I do like writing about women who are not nearly as well behaved as Anne Elliot! In the Artamon series, I particularly enjoy working with Lilias Arbelian, the adventuress and one-time agent, who behaves abominably a lot of the time but is one of life’s survivors. But I also like introducing women of all ages into my stories, and have a particular fondness for Kiukiu’s grandmother, Spirit Singer and Arkhel Owl keeper Malusha, who is also a survivor in her own splendidly eccentric way.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I’m recommending Winterbloom by Jessica Rydill, the latest in her related sequence of fantasy novels and this time set in Bath. I would never say that it’s obscure – yet it definitely deserves a wider readership. (Disclaimer: Jessica is my sister – we’re a couple of Brontosauruses but we do our own thing when writing.)
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances – and discovering skills and strengths they never imagined they possessed. Scholars unearthing arcane secrets best left buried in ancient manuscripts. Beings believed to be merely legends in an age of reason and scientific discovery appearing…
Perfect, thank you so much for joining us today, Sarah!
Can I just add a thank you of my own to The Fantasy Hive for giving me a chance to participate in this truly excellent initiative to feature women authors of SFF.