Interview with Anna Stephens (THE STONE KNIFE)
Anna Stephens is something of a regular here on the Fantasy Hive, and she’s returned once more to chat with us about her new book THE STONE KNIFE – out today!
For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.
The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.
As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.
Anna, you came back! Thank you, especially after last time.
So, today is publication day – congratulations! How does it feel having a brand new trilogy out there?
Hello! Thank you for inviting me, though yes, I am a little nervous. Just … please don’t make me compare you all to animals again. That was nerve-wracking.
It feels very good, and very weird, to have a new book in the world. It’s been a really strange process this year, and I’ve very much missed book conventions and events to help promote it, but I’ve been really touched by the number of reviewers who’ve reached out to help me do that online instead. I mean, I had to learn how to make memes. This is what 2020 has done to me.
And the book has had some really positive reviews, as well, which is always very gratifying, because while there are some similarities to my previous trilogy, this is definitely more ambitious. And I’ve spent a very long time wondering if I’d managed to pull it off.
Personally I’m of the opinion you most certainly have, but are you feeling more confident of that yet?
Well thank you, perhaps I’ll let your character live a little longer in our D&D campaign…
Honestly, I wrote the book with as much knowledge and ability as was available to me at that time, and that’s really all I can say. I find writers are chimeras – on the one hand, we want to write the book for ourselves, delving into what means most to us, and on the other, we want it to be received well. Those two aims don’t always mesh together. I’m very proud of The Stone Knife, and I hope it’s well-received, but once a book is published, it becomes its own thing and however readers react to it is valid.
That might be the most diplomatic answer I’ve ever given…
Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to read your incredible new book (you can find my review here). You’ve managed to create something that’s wholly new, and yet at the same time is recognisably Stephens (the feels, the grim, the viscera…)
Was it easy stepping away from the Godblind world and creating something new?
Did you have any writerly hacks to keep you from falling into too-familiar territory?
It was both easy and very, very hard. I love the universe I created for Godblind and its sequels, and I know it intimately. I know how everything works in Rilpor and I could write in that world forever, probably.
No complaints here!
That was definitely not the case for Ixachipan. It was a weird combination of “wow, look at all these toys I get to smash together until I’ve created a whole world!” and “Oh my god, look at all these disparate elements I suddenly need to bring together into a cohesive whole that feels real and grounded in history and mythology”.
As for too-familiar territory, that was a real worry during the first draft. I’d write a scene and then panic, thinking, that’s Tara, not Ilandeh, or that’s Mace, not Pilos. And then I’d worry that I was just rehashing my old characters into new ones. So I had to spend a lot of time really getting under the skin of these new people and making sure they were sufficiently individual and unique. So, I suppose you could say blind panic and obsessive over-analysis are my writerly hacks? Which … doesn’t sound particularly healthy, now that I write it down.
It does sound familiar though, I don’t think those hacks are unique to you alone!
Did you have anything in particular you were aiming for, with this story? There are strong themes running throughout of religious representation, colonialism, queer representation, social class hierarchies and class mobility, the roles of disabilities within communities…
Which of these themes did you seek to draw to the forefront of the novel?
Well, you know earlier where I said this book was ambitious? Yeah, that. Because ALL of those themes were really important to me. What I didn’t want to do was take just one of them and focus on it but in a world where everything else was the same. For example, make it equal in terms of gender roles, where anyone can do any job, but then the rest of it was just an imitation of Western society.
I wanted to imagine a whole new world where some things were wonderful, but other things were awful (because conflict equals story). And that ended up being an equal society in terms of gender, but not class; a society that held absolutely no judgment in terms of sexuality or identity, but prioritised one tribe and religion over another; and a world where one set of people included those with disabilities, and another set discarded them.
I wanted it to be both familiar and strange to as broad a spectrum of readers as possible, and so I wanted to have a different sort of society but relatable emotions and struggles.
And, I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been watching a lot of K-dramas and C-dramas lately…
You don’t say??
What, you haven’t heard me mention it? Do we have time to digress a little?
Anyway, I’ve been really enjoying how, for instance, duty and honour and family are portrayed in Goryeo-era Korea and comparing that with those same sentiments in medieval European knightly society. The ideas are the same, but they’re presented in an unfamiliar way (to me, as a white Westerner), and that heightens the focus on them and the impact they have. It makes me think about things in a slightly different way, which is always good brain fodder for new ideas and stories. It’s a bit like the recommendation to read outside your genre – it stretches your brain in new ways, and I like having a stretchy brain.
The Stone Knife clearly draws inspiration from ancient central-American civilisations, but although its flavour is present, it doesn’t define the work.
What was your approach to combining research and the historical with your elements of the more fantastic?
Right back at the very start, I didn’t know what sort of world I wanted, other than NOT the same as last time, NOT ‘traditional Western fantasy’, so I spent a lot of time thinking about other environments I could use. Glaciers and ice sheets, deserts, barren mountains… and then one day, I got an image of two bare feet standing in rich soil at the edge of a river – and that image went on to become Xessa, one of my protagonists. So then I knew a few things about my world – the climate needed to be good enough that my protagonist could go barefoot all the time; and the soil needed to be rich and plentiful.
From there I settled on a jungle or rainforest environment, as I thought that would provide a whole host of challenges for the characters on its own, before I introduced the, you know, stabbing. Only I knew nothing about that environment, so I had to research geology, climate, flora and fauna, agriculture and architecture. I went to the British Museum and spent an entire afternoon in the Central America exhibit, which was amazing, though yes, we should absolutely repatriate everything we’ve stolen over the centuries. I watched a lot of archeology documentaries and read a lot of books.
I was not expecting that you settled on climate and built your world up from there, but now it makes so much sense, looking back at the story – I can’t imagine a lot of it would have worked on an ice sheet? It’s certainly difficult to picture!
Ha! Exactly. I remember Jen Williams said something really similar about her inspiration for Fell Noon from the Winnowing Flame trilogy – to paraphrase (also: hi Jen!) she looked out of her window one night and saw someone walking under a streetlight and it looked like they had a layer of ash over their face and that inspired Noon.
For me, I sometimes get a flash of an image or a line of dialogue or even just a name, and that starts a complicated series of cogs spinning that ends up with a character, and from character to … everything else.
It was really important to me to get a thorough knowledge of the societies so that I could understand how they lived and moved in their environment, what they believed, how they conducted warfare and built cities.
I was very lucky that my research led me to the works of David Bowles, who translated a lot Mayan and Aztec Triple Alliance myths and histories. His book Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky is excellent, and I also really enjoyed Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for a more general look at the American continents and cultures, as well as the destruction wreaked by colonisation.
David was also gracious enough to provide me with a sensitivity read to ensure I wasn’t unwittingly importing anything in a harmful way, and to that end, I stayed away from the religious and cultural aspects and focused on farming and building methods to ground the society in realism.
From there, I created a society that would both shape and be shaped by the landscape and the seasons, and because I was building my own religion, so to speak, that allowed me to weave the magic and the monsters in in a way that is hopefully cohesive and doesn’t feel like I just jammed some magic in.
Let’s talk about research for a moment. You’ve mentioned in past interviews that one of the most interesting things you’ve discovered through research were the rather grim symptoms of scurvy.
Did you find out anything new this time round to top that?
THE TREE THAT CAN KILL YOU!
An actual tree, that can actually kill you – and not by falling on you, har har, yes you’re hilarious.
Not where my mind went. At all. Nope.
Do not eat these apples (they’re not apples. Or maybe they’re DEATH APPLES).
This is the manchineel tree, a member of the rubber family. The sap causes a violent burning sensation after approximately half an hour. If a drop of the caustic latex or the smoke of the burning tree gets into the eyes, blindness can be the result.
Even raindrops falling from a manchineel tree can cause skin damage and severe eye irritation.
All parts of the plant are also very poisonous and carcinogenic when ingested.
There is also the sting of the warrior wasp. An entomologist called Justin Schmidt allowed 83 different types of stinging insect to sting him and then rated the results with a pain level going from 1 up to 4. The warrior wasp came out at the very top, and he described it as: ‘Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?’
So I mentioned those suckers a few times because wow, too cool not to, amirite?
The wasps are one thing but that tree has genuinely left me concerned.
If it learns to walk like a triffid, we’re doomed…
Speaking of influences, and research, I’m going to dive a little deeper into the actual story and take a look at Enet and Xac. To begin with, I was really struck by how much their relationship reminded me of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Enet insinuating herself by way of her intelligence, but ultimately forcing so much change as to create a monster…
Were you influenced by any figures historical or otherwise when creating these new characters and their relationships?
Oh no, that’s a really good question and I don’t have a really good answer for it. I guess I’d have to say: not consciously.
Is this one of those “the reader has read more into it” moments you mentioned in your interview with Stephen Aryan?
Hey, look, if you want to decide I can just spontaneously pull historical figures out of my metaphorical arse and jam them into your books, I’m not going to disabuse you of the notion, okay?
[We do not advise you jam Henry VIII up your arse, metaphorical or otherwise]
But I do try and read some non-fiction, biographies and historical fiction now and then just to broaden my basic knowledge base, so it may be I’m unconsciously channelling someone.
I specifically researched colonisation and slavery for this series – I mentioned the book 1491 above, and that’s really great to throw things into context. Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky had a section on the legends and histories of the period of the Spanish Conquest. Both books had some truly awful statistics and stories of atrocity (for instance, a research paper from Berkeley University * put the indigenous population of Central Mexico – 200,000 square miles – at 25.2 million in 1518. After the invasion of Cortes, by 1625, they estimate that number to be 730,000 – a death rate of 97%) and this definitely informed my writing of the Pechaqueh, and of course Singer Xac and Great Octave Enet are two of the most important members of that society.
Those are some absolutely harrowing figures.
They’re probably some nebulous distillation of “the British” and “the Spanish” who thought it fine to discover a coastline and decide it belonged to them, regardless of the people already there.
Similarly, parallels can be drawn between the Pechaqueh thirst for expansion and control of resources under the guise of religious growth and – well, far too many nations spanning humanity’s history. Did you set out with this passionate attack on colonialism from the start, or is it something which grew organically as you planned? Why did the topic draw you in?
I specifically wanted to talk about Empire and colonisation, because as the West shifts further to the right with every terrible political leader elected (looking at you, Britain and US – election result dependent) we seem to be erasing even more of the horrors that we perpetrated and replacing them with outright lies or obfuscations.
But writing about colonisation is more nuanced than just ‘Empire bad, leaving people alone good’. Because obviously, indisputably, and eternally, colonisation is bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the people who colonise are. It’s a really, really fine line, trying to show the horrors of cultural genocide and colonisation without condoning it, but also to create relatable characters who benefit from that very power structure.
You know me: my villains are as much people as my heroes, as capable of goodness and kindness and humour as everyone else. With the Godblind trilogy, they were far more clear-cut as villains than they are here, in my opinion.
I agree! For some time, I was looking for the villains. You really make your reader question what makes a character a villain.
I wanted to allude to the issue of white supremacy – not the Holocaust-denying, seig heiling, hood-wearing White Supremacists (™) but the power structures that benefit white people over people of colour – and how insidious it is, how invisible, which is why I wrote the Empire of Songs the way I did.
It’s also why I very consciously chose to use the word ‘stolen’ whenever characters spoke of their land and people being conquered, and contrasted it with the Empire’s use of ‘civilisation’. It’s what we did, after all. We need to face up to it.
Anna we need to talk about the Drowned. As far as fantasy monsters go, they’re certainly on the creepier end of the scale – some kind of mix of sirens with frog-like throat sacks and piranha teeth… I guess what I want to ask is, you ok hun?
Hey, look, it was my first time writing monsters, so I just had fun, okay? And by fun, I thought, what would make me absolutely brown my trousers if it lunged out of a lake at me? The Drowned were the result – humanoid enough to be creepy as fuck. Because really, what’s scarier than people?
We’ve talked about how different Songs of the Drowned (kick-ass series title btw) is to Godblind, but one of the major similarities I noticed was the magic systems. Both systems eschew your usual spells and sorcery you would traditionally find in fantasy, and instead present magic systems based on spirituality – through gods and/or ancestors. It lends a strong sense of mythology to your stories, linking them to something recognisable for the reader.
Do you see yourself one day flinging fireballs in your work, or is there more to be explored in spiritual magic?
Hmm, I’ve always been drawn more to natural magic and the things that can be accomplished by the body, mind, spirit, rather than hey, if I memorise this cool little ditty I can make their entrails become their extrails (shameless plagiarism of A Knight’s Tale there).
We’ll allow it.
Much of this magic system is actually based on Celtic shamanism (The Celtic Shaman by John Matthews is an excellent resource for anyone interested in exploring pre-Christian Europe’s religions) with some embellishments of my own.
I like the idea of everything you do being taken from you as a person, rather than an external force, as external power gives the illusion of competence. I guess it’s like learning self-defence versus learning how to shoot a gun. A gun gives the illusion of power and control, but if you don’t also know how to defend yourself, then once you’re out of bullets, it’s nothing more than an awkwardly-shaped bludgeon.
Finally, I think we’ll end on an important one.
Who’s the goodest doggo Anna??
Ossa is the goodest doggo! But Ekka comes a close second.
A massive thank you to Anna for these insights into her dark and insidious new novel THE STONE KNIFE – available today!
“Come for the genital mutilation, stay for the cannibalism.” – Anna Stephens, 2020.
*The Population of Central Mexico in 1548. An Analysis of the Suma de visitas de pueblos. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ibero-Americana: 43, 1960