Interview with Anna Stephens (THE JAGUAR PATH)
Anna Stephens is the author of the Godblind and Songs of the Drowned trilogies and also writes for Black Library and Marvel Comics.
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Welcome back to the Hive, Anna!
Thank you for extracting yourself from the quagmire of edits to join us for Women in SFF. Tell us, how goes book three of The Songs of the Drowned trilogy?
Thank you, always a pleasure to talk to such fine and admirable Hivers.
Ah, sorry if you were expecting Nils or Jonathan, you got Beth.
Ugh. Well, we work with what we’ve got, I suppose.
I’ve just turned in line edits for Book 3, which means we’re pretty close to completion! I’m quite nervous about this book, though; I really want to do justice to the themes and characters created over the last two books and there’s always the lurking fear that I haven’t quite managed it.
And yet you always do!
My previous comment seems somewhat mean, now. I apologise. Flattery has won me over. Other forms of winning me over are also quite popular – buying my books, buying me drinks…
Back to the question! What I can say is that I’ve done the best I can. As soon as I know the release date for sure, I’ll splash it about on social media.
How much are you actually allowed to tell us about book three?
In true, classic, Anna-the-pantser Stephens style, I introduced a plot twist during the last round of edits that required some considerable reworking but actually made everything better. If I’ve done it right, it’ll be one of those moments where you think, “OH MY GOD, OF COURSE! THAT’S SO OBVIOUS FROM PREVIOUS BOOKS!”
It wasn’t obvious from previous books – it took me until editing the damn thing to even realise it.
Oh, and then I added another in right at the end just because.
I also noticed an enormous, glaring plothole that neither I nor my editor had picked up on, which required a reworking of the timeline of the entire first half of the book. That was fun.
I realise these are editing comments and not actually about book 3. Erm, what else? Oh! I guess as it’s already showing on the pre-order form, I can announce that the title is The Dark Feather.
Oh that’s a huge thing to tell us (eventually) – THE DARK FEATHER… Ominous!
The dogs are ok though, right? RIGHT?
For a given value of ok, yes.
What… what does that even mean Anna?!
Read it and weep–I mean find out. Read it and you’ll find out.
Xessa, Lilla, Enet… fuck marry kill? Show your workings.
Pretty much in that order. Xessa would be a good time, but boy is she complicated. I actually really enjoyed writing someone who’s ostensibly a hero character but is also proud, arrogant, spiteful and cruel. It made her, to me, much more human.
Lilla is just a weary sweetheart who wants to go home. Not quite a cinnamon roll, but possibly cinnamon-adjacent. A warm buttery croissant – soft on the tongue but actually quite hard to bite? I have no idea what I’m saying.
Readers: please note Beth suggested an Eccles cake. Neither of us are handling this interview well.
There are, especially in book 3, moments where Lilla has to do the unthinkable knowing it will haunt him for the rest of his life that were that special kind of masochistic joy to write: oh yeah, this is the good in stuff. This is the emotion juice.
And Enet? Well, obviously there’s a massive spoiler about Enet in The Jaguar Path that I won’t go into, but you do just have to marvel at her drive and ambition. Her wilful self-deception is kinda breathtaking in its scope, but she got the job done. But yeah, absolutely deserves the kill label for what she did.
We had great fun discovering your dream cast for the Godblind trilogy (still waiting for this Netflix please thank you) – do you have a cast list for The Stone Knife if that was ever optioned??
Ah, I don’t, or at least not in its entirety. As it’s set in a fantasy version of Mesoamerica, theoretically the cast would all be indigenous to Central America, which immediately makes my brain go “Apocalypto”, despite the glaring historical and cultural errors in that film.
I would like to make a strong case for Lauren Ridloff as Xessa, though. And my audio narrator, Joseph Balderrama, should absolutely be in it. I could actually see him as Pilos.
You write extremely convincing (read: f*cking scary) villains: but who’s more dangerous? Singer Xac or Godblind’s Dark Lady?
Oh, the Dark Lady without a doubt. She’s an actual goddess – Xac was just a madman with too much power. Or, indeed, a man driven mad by his power. Though, now you mention it, it’s interesting that I subconsciously wrote both of them as being trapped – the Dark Lady beyond the veil, unable to truly enter Gilgoras (at least at first) and Xac in the great pyramid. I wonder why I did that… Maybe I think people with too much power should have limits put on it.
Well, there’s no maybe about it. I absolutely do think that.
It says a lot that the true horror starts when they break out of their traps…
We’ve been having fun this Women in SFF asking authors to describe their books as 1* reviews – could you describe one of your books as one? Or share a particularly memorable real one? (Only, of course, if you know of one already. If you’re a Good Author who doesn’t go looking for such things, good job, don’t do it. If you’re Human, share with the class)
Ha, I don’t (often) check Goodreads, but I do remember being tagged in a discussion in a Facebook post about the Godblind trilogy, and someone said something along the lines of, “don’t waste your time, it’s just torture-porn”. I can only imagine he (surprise) got to That Scene and gave up out of being a coward.
I suppose the fact that The Works put Darksoul on a shelf in the kids section is a bit insulting – Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, murder and psychotic deities and the harrowing relentlessness of battle… seems legit.
You have a woman’s name, my lord! Not to mention a wolf on the cover. Obviously some sort of werewolf romance.
YOU ARE A BOOKSELLER, BETHAN. IF I EVER SEE YOU MAKING THESE SORTS OF SHELVING DECISIONS I SHALL COME TO WALES AND SHOVE YOU IN THE SEA.
I WOULD NEVER OMG ARE YOU FOR REAL.
Ah hem. We’ve learned lots of fascinating things from your research stories in the past: any updates on this front?
Well, I’m currently researching a particular sub-genre of fantasy for future novel purposes, but if I tell you what it is, you’ll know what I’m planning…
Dammit, you’re starting to work me out
One thing that has been a joy to write in the last couple of years is Ossa. When I wrote The Stone Knife, we didn’t have a dog, and now we do, and that’s absolutely changed how I write him, not as a character, but in the things I know he’d do, the little doggy behavioural traits, their weird obsession with licking eyeballs, how you can always encourage a dog to play just by rolling around on the floor etc.
Licking Eyeballs?! Out of the five dogs we’ve had not ONE licked a f*cking eyeball Anna what the f*ck
It also made several scenes in The Dark Feather absolutely fucking brutal to write, and I still cry every time I read/edit them now. I think they’re going to stay with me the way Tara’s fate in Bloodchild still haunts me.
I feel like that revelation needs a response but it’s genuinely made me so worried…
Outside of your trilogies, you’ve also written for Marvel and The Black Library. How does it differ writing within an established world? Is it harder because there are constrictions to work to, or is it easier because there are constrictions to work to?
Hmm, at first it was definitely harder. I kept being told ‘no, that’s not consistent with the world or the character’, but once I understood those parameters, it’s actually very freeing. I know what I can and can’t do, and that takes away one level of – how can I put this – there’s less pressure to come up with a truly unique character because you’re usually given a character type to work with.
In Warhammer Horror and Age of Sigmar, I wrote to a set of established archetypes – in Covens of Blood, I knew I was writing a witch-aelf who commits mass murder for her god (making her a hero was quite the challenge!); in Gothghul Hollow, the publishers wanted a book about a Sorcerer, a Scholar, a Hunter and a Priest, so I already had those parameters created for me. And of course, for Marvel, you can’t suggest anything that would be out of character for Sif, Valkyrie, Hela etc.
So the joy and the fun of that kind of writing isn’t in “creating” characters, but in what you make those already well-formed characters do and go through. At the end of the day, I’m a lazy bastard, so not having to do all the hard work of character creation is actually quite a relief. I can save that for my own original work.
Are there any other franchises you would love to write for? Any characters you would love to give your take on?
Well, Tasha Suri just announced she’s done a Doctor Who novella, which made me positively green with envy. I think that would be an amazing gig. Of course, there’s the kudos of having written a Star War. I’d love to have a crack at a Firefly tie-in.
Other than that, it just goes into my anonymous horny fan-fic.
You’re going to need to tell us more about this anonymous horny fan-fic and where we can find it?
It’s anonymous, I can reveal nothing. Though the characters regularly reveal EVERYTHING.
As it is Women in SFF month, what are some great female-authored books you’ve read recently? Any gems we should be aware of?
Ooh, I’m going to go wildly off-genre here and recommend All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami. I don’t know what it is about her writing, or perhaps the translator she works with. On the surface, her books shouldn’t work for me; in my experience so far, all Japanese literature is written incredibly sparingly and usually with weird time jumps you don’t expect. There’s never anything to get your brain-teeth into. Kawakami does something I can’t even articulate, but it haunts me.
On-genre, I finally got around to The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, which needs no plugging from me because it’s absolutely brilliant. There’s also Talonsister by Jen Williams, which is out soon, and The Surviving Sky, by Kritika H Rao, both of which blew my tiny mind.
Some excellent recommendations there, thanks Anna!
What’s next for Anna Stephens? Are you working on anything currently? (Outside of edits)
I’m just about to sign off on a contract for a Warhammer novella, and I’m really very, very excited to get back to worldbuilding for my next book/series. The characters have developed voices and are bugging me on the daily to write them, and I’m starting to get them commenting on everyday activities, which is usually when I know I need to start drafting.
Are you telling us your books start as the recordings of the voices in your head??
Nooo. They start as interacting humans who talk to me. Obviously. That’s normal.
I want to make sure I have a solid world built first though, as I’m still a little hazy on actual plot and there are going to be some set pieces that need really careful planning – ugh, planning. The Worst.
It’s still very firmly fantasy, but it is a departure in theme and setting and style from my previous work. One thing I think my tie-in work has done is confirm that I have more breadth than I thought I did. There were times I thought I was destined to write war books forever, but the Warhammer Gothic horror and the bloodless violence of Marvel have shown me otherwise. I’m not sure I’d be contemplating this book if not for them.
Don’t get me wrong, there are going to be stabbings aplenty, so you can still get your freak on. There just won’t be stabbings on a mass scale, all at the same time. Probably.
I’d like to get close to a finished first draft done by the end of the year – edits and novella and conventions and, oops, day job, permitting. Then we just have to try and sell it!
Can’t wait to discover another new world from you!
Thanks so much for coming back and subjecting yourself to more of our questions!
Thank you for having me!
You can find all of Anna’s books on Bookshop.org