Author Spotlight – A. F. E. Smith (DAWN RISING)
A.F.E. Smith’s first published book, Darkhaven, was one of 15 chosen from more than 5000 fantasy and sci-fi novels that were submitted to Harper Voyager during a two-week open door period. It was followed by Goldenfire and then Windsinger. Her debut young adult fantasy, Dawn Rising, has just been published. When she isn’t writing, Smith is an editor of academic texts and the mother of two children.
Welcome back to the Hive, Anna. Let’s start with the basics: dazzle us with an elevator pitch! Why should readers check out your work?
My newest release, Dawn Rising, is the book I wish I’d read when I was sixteen. I think a lot of authors write that one book that’s kind of a reply to who they were, like a gift to themselves from the future. And Dawn Rising is that for me. It’s the most personal book I’ve written. But I guess that only answers why I should read it, so … if you like young adult fantasy, or any kind of fantasy really; and if you have at any point in your life felt like you don’t quite fit; and if you enjoy reading about magic and other worlds and girls who will do anything to rescue their friends, then you should read Dawn Rising.
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 don’t D&D. I would like to, but I don’t have the time, or anyone to do it with (sad eyes, tiny violin). So my answer to this will probably make some rookie mistake that the proper D&Ders will find laughable. Still, I looked up the classes and I think I’d be a Druid. I like their affinity with nature and the fact that they can do a bit of healing, which is a key and often overlooked skill in battle. Plus I like the idea of playing as True Neutral – bringing balance and all that. And … OK, mostly I like that they can shapeshift into giant and terrifying beasts, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who’s read any of my Darkhaven books.
So, yes, a Wood Elf Druid. Armed with a quarterstaff and the ability to tear orcs apart with my teeth. I suspect that this dungeon is not my preferred location, but I’ll give it a go.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (For example, in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Intense planner or is your system more organic?) Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I feel it would be incredibly inspiring to be serenaded by the thin, unearthly music of damned shrimp-souls. But they’re hard to come by in such numbers, so mostly I make do with silence.
Generally, I find it’s not so much a question of how I like to work as whether I’ll be able to work at all. I have to fit my writing around a job and kids, so it happens in little pieces – preferably typing, but lately (because I’ve been banned from screens in the evenings; curse you, insomnia) in a notebook. I do some planning, so that I know where I’m going, but I tend to leave most of the details to reveal themselves along the way. The plot happens more naturally that way. Besides, it would be dull if there was no room for surprises.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy influences?
I grew up reading Diana Wynne Jones. She’s probably my earliest influence. [Editor squeal of approval] Then, as I got older, Anne McCaffrey. As a teen, I loved Robin Hobb and Juliet Marillier. As a twenty-something, Jacqueline Carey.
I also own pretty much everything that Terry Pratchett ever wrote. I’m not a comedy writer, but I think any author in existence could learn from the intense humanity of his characters. He saw people very clearly. And as a result, his fantasy felt more ‘true’ than a lot of books that are set in the real world.
That is the exact same reason why I love his books so much also!
Are there any writers or creators whom you’d love to collaborate with?
Noelle Stevenson, creator of Nimona, Lumberjanes and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Though I suspect it would be less a case of collaborating than Noelle being awesome while I babbled incoherently.
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 mean, I try not to put myself under too much pressure, because I am an anxious and stressed person at the best of times (hello again, insomnia). If it’s not going to happen then it’s not going to happen. But generally, I find that I want to write something; it just might not be the thing I’m meant to be writing. I think that’s OK. It’s better to write something than nothing at all. So I skip about a bit and write the fun scene, or the scene that appeals to me that day, or the scene from a completely different book that popped into my head while I was taking a shower. It’s all good. It will all go somewhere in the end.
Your Darkhaven books have some beautiful covers! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I can’t take any credit for their beauty, but I did get to have quite a lot of input. I was given several initial designs for the Darkhaven cover; then we went through a couple of rounds of tweaking once I’d picked the one I liked most. With the other two covers, the overall look was obviously set, but we still went through a couple of rounds on each one. They’re meant to feel steampunkish, I suppose, or at least industrial as well as fantasy. The Darkhaven novels are set in an Industrial Revolution era. I think the black smoke on each cover works really well to suggest that.
Your new novel Dawn Rising has just been released: how was it moving away from your Darkhaven series and into a new one? Were there any particular challenges you faced?
In fact, I wrote a draft of Dawn Rising before I wrote Darkhaven, but I decided it was too complicated and put it aside for a while. Then, after I’d written Windsinger, I returned to Dawn Rising and found an agent on the strength of it. So really, it was a case of moving into an old series 🙂
I think the main challenge when moving between series is that you become attached to the characters in one series. For a little while, you’re very invested in their happiness (or misery, depending how cruel you are). So when you switch to another series, it takes you a while to like the new characters as much as you do the old ones. But I already knew the characters of Dawn Rising very well when I came off the Darkhaven series, so that wasn’t a problem.
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?
That’s a really hard question at a time when I basically haven’t left the house for nine months except to take my daily walk or go to the doctor! Assuming this fantasy day is taking place in a world where there is no virus, I think I’d go to the beach for the day. Build a sandcastle. Paddle in the sea. Eat chips and ice cream. Then spend the evening at a fancy restaurant with all the people I haven’t seen since March, before watching a movie on a proper cinema screen. And best of all, not have to wear a mask.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Ayla Nightshade, the protagonist of the Darkhaven novels, can turn into the alicorn that you see on the first cover. In Windsinger she goes to war, and she’s pretty damn good at it. So I’d have to pick an alicorn. Advantages: can fly, virtually indestructible, horn that can pierce airships and rip them from the sky.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
More people should read Harriet Goodchild’s books. She writes very atmospheric epic fantasy that feels like poetry, with all the bloodshed and romance and dreamlike logic of the very best folk tales. Look for After the Ruin or The Crooked Path.
Finally, can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’m finishing up the second book in the Marked series (after Dawn Rising): The Dark Knife, which will be out next year. And I’m also working on a completely different YA fantasy that’s a murder mystery, like Darkhaven, but set in an underground city in a bloodthirsty alternative future.
That sounds amazing!
Thank you so much for joining us today Anna!