Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Anna Smith Spark?
I tweet as QueenofGrimdark, I’m an ex-fetish model, and I have a PhD in Victorian occultism.
I’m a fantasy novelist from London, UK. I have a background in history and literature: I studied Classical History for my BA, Cultural History for my MA and English Literature for my PhD. Which really was about Victorian occultism, looking at the way it intersected with the physical sciences and with politics. My only real interests in life are history, mythology and literature. I spent several years as an obsessive D&D player, but sadly no longer play. I’m obsessed with Warhammer miniatures as well (Chaos Warriors … oh. Oh oh oh), but don’t actually play Warhammer either.
I’m quasi-famous at UK cons for wearing extremely stupid shoes.
I have Asperger’s Syndrome, dyslexia and dyspraxia. This isn’t really significant to anything writerly, but it’s important to me to be out about it, especially the Asperger’s.
Your debut novel, The Court of Broken Knives, will be published in August by Voyager (UK) and Orbit (US). It looks quite interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Argghhhh. I hate this bit. The Court of Broken Knives is the first volume in the Empires of Dust trilogy. It’s grimdark epic fantasy, high fantasy tropes (Dragons! Magic swords! Language systems!) with a very dark, cynical edge. The setting is Dark Age/Bronze Age mythic, there’s reference to the Iliad, the Eddas, the Mabinogion – but there are also lots of cheap jokes and flippancies and (intentionally) bad puns. We open in traditional fashion with a troop of mercenaries slogging through the desert, heading for the ramped up to eleven high fantasy city, and one of them is A Man of Destiny(TM). Then we start to dig away at that, interrogate what’s really going on with these people’s lives, what the great mythic storyline actually means. It’s bleak, I suppose. There’s pain in it, and grief, and, yes, some pretty hardcore violence. But there’s also hope, and love, and humour, and bad dick jokes.
At its heart, The Court of Broken Knives is about power and desire. Why do we choose to hurt others? Why do we fight and kill? Why do we risk our own lives in war? When we could be sitting safe at home making bad dick jokes?
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I don’t know where the inspiration for the novel as a thing came from… after a long time not writing, feeling very depressed about not writing, I sat down and started and this book just came pouring out. All I had at first was a scene of men in a desert, and the bleached desert light, the yellow sand, the sun setting and the stars coming out. Rain in the desert. And swords. And death. Then the characters came bursting out fully formed. They’ve been in my head a lot longer than the book. The plot, the themes, came much later. I really didn’t know where I was going until I’d finished book one.
I’m hugely influenced by myth and history. As you may already possibly have guessed. My favourite fantasy authors, and the biggest influences on me, are probably R. Scott Bakker, Ursula K. Le Guin and M. John Harrison. Bakker for the complexity of his world, the depth of it; Le Guin and Harrison for the utter utter perfection of their prose. I’m also hugely influenced by sort-of historical fiction, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault, the way they take legendary vast heroic characters, Merlin, Arthur, Alexander, and make them so real, so completely believably human, in a completely plausibly imagined world. I love historical fiction, the way it takes you backstage into the intimate, human reality of historical events. Hilary Mantel is another influence. Wolf Hall is a staggering achievement I dream of emulating. I just stick in a lot more guts and swords.
And now I sound horribly serious! I’m also very influenced by Blackadder, Asterix, Terry Pratchett – that totally irreverent, anarchic, disruptive view of myth and history, that absolute refusal to hero-worship. And the word play! The revelling in language! The goddaweful puns! I love that. I really enjoy just mucking about with language like that.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I’ve never not read and loved genre fiction. My father is a great fantasy fan, admits to having spent his teenage years making up fantasy language systems; I grew up with him reading me The Chronicles of Narnia, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Tolkien, stories of King Arthur, stories from Greek and Norse myth. Then later he introduced me to the works of Gene Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Jeff Vandermeer…
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry
I love it. I’ve never not wanted to be a writer, it’s been the whole goal of my life since I was a tiny child. It’s an amazing privilege. When I was in my teens, I spent every summer being a gofer at a big literature festival in Devon, England. Carrying authors’ bags, feeling lucky just to be near them. And this year I’m going to be the first SFF genre writer speaking at that festival. It’s special beyond belief.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
From what I’ve gathered, I write quite slowly compared to a lot of people, I really can’t manage more than fifteen hundred words a day unless I’m really pushing myself or really caught up in it. And then after three days even of that I’m shattered mentally.
I used to do a lot of the classic ‘writing in coffee shops’. In fact, I wrote so much of Broken Knives in one particular coffee shop, I ended up putting it in the novel. I’m trying to make myself work at home more now.
I have a terrible habit of chain eating chocolate while I write.
I read a lot of history, especially military history, while I’m writing to keep my mind focussed and keep ideas flowing. One thing that saddens me is that I find it very hard to read good fantasy novels while I’m writing as I tend to start pastiching the author’s style. So I have to treat myself, binge read fantasy when I’m taking a bit of a break.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. My father is a poet, I grew up with poets, playwrights, novelists, artists. Writing is pretty central to who I am. I did the classic thing of writing ‘novels’ as a child, stapling sheets of paper together to make a book. Always fantasy or horror. And, thinking back, usually pretty grim. Some of the things I wrote then, way back as a child in primary school, they’re here, now, in my books. Some of the characters, the places, the images … things that have haunted my imagination my whole life.
I stopped writing fiction when I was in my early twenties, for nasty personal reasons I won’t go into here, and only started again when I wrote Broken Knives. But I did a PhD, so I was certainly writing. I was cover article of The Fortean Times arguing that Erich Von Daniken is more of a scientific rationalist than Richard Dawkins. I’m very fond of that.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Oh gods. Oh gods. Noooo … <ducks and runs>
Okay. So. I’m very much a part of a community of grimdark writers. We hang out a lot on-line. Being dark and grim. We joke about torturing kittens. We perve over edged weapons. We swap pictures of unicorns.
Grimdark. Yeah. I know the term is controversial, that some people have attacked it claiming it was originally a criticism/a joke. But I embrace it. Yes, some of the criticism is justified, some ‘grimdark’ novels can be mindless violence without meaning, just dumb look-at-me-aren’t-I-shocking? slaughter-fests. Lots of violence doesn’t necessarily make a book good, and in fact often makes it bad. And politically offensive. (Although also sometimes extremely fun).
But, at the same time, the most exciting fantasy novelists are working in what might be termed grimdark. I worship R. Scott Bakker, the man is a genius. Steve Erikson also. They’re both interrogating what heroic fantasy is, what it’s about, looking at it politically, creating such astonishing, nuanced, intelligent, self-aware worlds.
I mean, let’s look at a grimdark author I’m good friends with and admire, Michael R. Fletcher, whose Beyond Redemption is something of a cult grimdark puke-fest. His novels are so powerfully political beneath the massive amounts of entirely consciously gratuitous hilarious splatter gore. In his world, sanity is a delusion and we shape our own reality through our self-hate. About right, yeah? It cuts to the heart of everything in this fucked-up world. The certainly that there is no hope, it’s just pain and filth and pointless death. But his characters try to love. His characters try to be better than they are. They try to go on. They’re not ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They’re just people. Dumb and ignorant and self-deluded and desperate to love and be loved.
I love the old heroic tales. And there’s a place for heroes, maybe now more than ever. But what I love about grimdark is that it shows the faultlines. The pain, the reality, that there is no hope and no glory and no god. But that we go on, and we try to make a world, and we try to hope despite everything. Not some fantasy of a Manichean world where there are clear-cut goodies and baddies. But people trying to live, loving each other, wanting things, and the terrible consequences of that. That’s grimdark. That’s where I belong.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on book three in the Empires of Dust series. Then that’s the end of the trilogy… gods, already. It goes so quick. But luckily I have at least book four planned, assuming the gods of publishing keep smiling on me. And I have a short story set in the Empires of Dust world in July’s Grimdark Magazine.
Outside of my own world, I’m part of a very exciting new Kickstarter fantasy fiction project that Grimdark Magazine and Dirge Magazine are setting up. I can’t say much about it at the moment, the Kickstarter will be launched soon and it’s under wraps till then. I can say that it’s epic fantasy with a 16th/17th century New England feel to it, something a little different, maybe a little gothic in parts. The three main authors involved are me, Mike Fletcher and Jesse Bullington/Alex Marshall, and I think it will be great fun. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
None fiction: Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy. This is a pretty definitive English-language history of the period. It’s massive, incredibly thorough, well-written, clear, balanced, humane – and I still have no idea what the Thirty Years War was about, because absolutely no one does. It’s a horrifying, inexplicable period in Europe’s history. Before that, Grahame Greene’s monograph on/biography of Lord Rochester.
Fiction: my TBR pile is threatening to collapse on my bed and kill me… I recently finished Graham Austin King’s Faithless. This is a fantasy novel set in a vast mine and forge complex, the arts of mining and metal working are very powerfully evoked. I really enjoyed it, it’s dark and claustrophobic, raises some interesting moral questions too. I’m now thinking of taking a break from fantasy (horrors!) to reread Edna O’Brian’s The Country Girls novels. Her prose is sublimely beautiful, and has had a great influence in me.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Uhh… Uhhh… <Weeps>
All other genres: Eliot’s Middlemarch. The greatest achievement of English language long-form prose. The greatest novel of the nineteenth century, which is saying something.
Or possibly James Ellroy’s White Jazz.
Or W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.
Or Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll.
I think I hate you.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Um… That I’m a very nice person deep down?
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
The Court of Broken Knives is published this summer. Take a wild guess.