Anna Smith Spark Interview: “I certainly believe that small scale individual goodness is possible, love and acts of kindness are indeed humanly necessary”

18 min read

Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed, multi-award shortlisted Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice (HarperVoyager UK / Orbit US) described as ‘game of literary thrones’ by the UK Sunday Times and ‘like early Moorcock and Le Guin’ by the UK Daily Mail. Her favourite authors are Mary Renault, R Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison. Previous jobs include English teacher, petty bureaucrat and fetish model. You may know her by the heels of her shoes.

How afraid do you think we all should be right now?

Fucking terrified. 

Terrified of how this disease could still progress – it’s getting into the refugee camps /concentration camps in southern Europe now, and the gods only know how that might go, it’s in Syria, in slum settlements worldwide, we might have a vaccine next year but vaccines cost money that charity organizations in war zones haven’t got.

Terrified also of the long-term consequences – we’ve seen already in Hungary how easy it is to use a crisis as a cover for tyranny. Emergency measures, curfews, controls are absolutely vital right now. But it’s frightening how quickly we’re turning on each other, judging, reporting, spying, frankly. I have it myself – the other day I was buying ‘essentials’ and the woman behind me was buying a bottle of gin, a bottle of vodka, loads of beer. In fact, of course, if she’s at home with a partner and two or three adult children it’s hardly an excessive amount for a few weeks. And what she buys is nobody’s business but her own anyway. But I immediately found myself hostile to her – is she having people round for an illegal party, that’s really not ‘essentials’, should I say something to someone? Horrified realization of what I’d just found myself thinking.  As I’ve said before, it really is that easy.  A narrative does seem to be emerging of the ‘good’, puritanical self-isolator: combine that with increased austerity to ‘pay back’ the economic effects of this (anyone who thinks we’ll see increased spending on health, education and social security, never mind decarbonisation and the green economy, is sadly deluded, the bankers must have their blood) and the social consequences are going to be terrifying. We saw a shadow of this in the UK in references to herd immunity, the ‘unaffordable’ cost of lock-down to protect the most vulnerable/economically least productive; I can see increased discussion around rationing of health care provision, people having to prove they don’t drink excessively, do take regular exercise and so forth before they get anything but the most basic treatment.

The outpouring of support for nurses, careworkers, cleaners in the last few weeks has been wonderful. It’s also been laughable – the people who mop the shit off hospital floors are important, who knew? – and I suspect it will mysteriously disappear again as soon as this is over in favour of fiscal discipline’ and other delightful gaslighting ways of saying the poor stay poor the rich stay rich. We’ll give our medical heroes a big shiny cheer as angels and tell them sadly the need for grown-up economic restraint says we can’t give them a pay rise so f-off and stop being all girly over-emotional.

For some reason, we always talk in the dark moments of history. Last time we talked about processing collective trauma through literature and needing both the darkness and the wish-fulfillment that it offers. When do you think we will begin processing what is happening now and what forms do you expect it to take?

We always talk in the dark moments of history because we’re in a dark period of history. You know that famous Mao misquote about the significance of the French Revolution and it being too early to tell? There was no significance. Those ideals are turning out to have been a short mad blip. Liberty? Equality? Brotherhood? Reason?  What mean?

Right now my agent has already been deluged with pandemic novels. Dr Quinn Pandemic Woman, as a friend described them. And I believe there’s been an upsurge in masturbation erotica … Longer-term, possibly some pointless drivel about how we need to value carers, cleaners, nurses, those who sit and talk with the dying, lay out the dead. Written by men feeling greatly self-righteously inspired by their time as working-from-home-dads with home-schooling children and vulnerable elderly parents, filled with a new deep understanding of how much work is involved, and written in lofty isolation while their wife looks after the kids totally shattered after doing all the actual caring.

Was it hard to say goodbye to Thalia, Orhan, and Marith? Were you ever tempted to continue their stories beyond the trilogy? Do you ever think “where are they now”?

Hilariously, my day job at the moment is focused on measures to help the UK economy through this. I reread Orhan’s plague sections of The Tower of Living and Dying and laughed hysterically. The main theme of my current job – what did Orhan do?

But more generally – in some ways, I think about my characters all the time, in other ways it feels like a natural progression to be moving away from them. Marith and Thalia have lived with me all my life, were the central characters of all my childhood stories, deep, complex parts of me, and now I’ve written those stories down, removed them from myself, and they’ve gone. It’s been a hard, painful thing, I felt very emptied out for a long time.  Bereaved, almost, but also cleared out in my head, ready to move on.  I’m beginning to tell new stories now. The characters there are now what I think and dream about, live with every moment of every day.

It helps that I am genuinely extremely proud of Empires of Dust. It feels like I’ve achieved something huge and beautiful with the trilogy. I’m satisfied with it. If I never wrote another word, I think I’d be satisfied with it.

In “The House of Sacrifice” you show a firm belief in the power of the Common People to prevail, to live through the worst and rebuild after the mess created by the great men settles down. That’s a rare sight in the genre polluted with the “good aristocrats saving everyone”, “chosen ones”, and “divine rights to rule”. Why do you think this dichotomy exists and will that ever change?    

We cling to it because it’s easy. It’s such a comforting lie – someone knows what to do, can take control of things and make it right. In essence, of course, it’s pure Freud, taking one back to the prelapsarian days of childhood when one’s mother knew everything, resolved everything, made it better with a hug. The realization that one’s parents are flawed is a terrible psychological blow from which many of us never recover, it’s fairly obvious what the savior-hero fantasy is about.  Our UK Prime Minister has briefly hospitalized with the virus and it did feel very strange, almost like the UK was fatherless. And I mean ‘fatherless’, not ‘parentless’.

But the people totally fuck up all the time as well. The Left is kind of always secretly wet-dreaming about strong men because every time we try to actually embrace the people, the people turn out to be as ignorant and bigoted and self-centered as the big men, and oddly reluctant not to treat each other like shit.

There’s a passage in The House of Sacrifice where Tobias defends his decision to fight on the side of evil and fight hard on that side to defend his men. Saving the lives of his men, his colleagues, and his friends, and his concern for their families and friends, in turn, is, he argues, more moral than killing them so that the good side can win. Even though he knows what they are doing is ultimately evil, they as individuals are just people whom he can care for. If he doesn’t care about those standing beside him, fight to protect them, that’s the evil. Even though they are themselves doing evil things, and because of them, other people are suffering. 

There’s no answer, basically. I don’t know. And that’s the only answer that can keep any of us sane.

I’d like to think fantasy will explore these issues more over time. Fantasy is the ultimate genre for discussing structures of power, after all.  Many writers do explore these issues – R Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse is an absolutely terrifying demolition of the Tolkienian hero savior trope, the final chapter of Eddison’s The Worm Orouboros is a critique of the whole notion of what the heroic victory over evil means, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun gives us a flawed, toxic masculinity Christ. Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series has the most astonishing radical feminist ending.  Daniel Pollansky’s greatly neglected Those Above is heroic fantasy in explicitly Gramscian terms. It’s just those novels that aren’t hugely popularly read.

What depresses me a lot at the moment is the rewriting of the same deeply conservative trope in superficially more diverse terms.  I really don’t care if your Chosen One destined savior hero is a queer woman of colour. If she’s a special anointed leader with special inherent [sic, very literally, still, far too often – the notion of bloodlines is … well …. let’s just point out that Europe is full of monuments to the idea of bloodlines, they’ve got big metal gates and railways lines leading to them] powers, she’s part of the problem. The very notion of a Chosen One is complicit in a racialized, masculine hierarchy of power.

When compared to 3-4 years ago, it seems like the demand for ultra-violent, ultra-gritty fantasy stories is waning. Do you feel that “grimdark” as a fantasy niche has exhausted itself?

Yes and no.

Yes because I can see absolutely why people want to read something gentler, happier, more redemptive. And that’s so very important as well, to hold on to, to drive home again and again to people the message of hope and optimism and working tirelessly in the belief that we can make the world a better place.  Not in some special Destined Leader way – there’s a discourse about ‘noblebright’ that started out as a joke and then seems to have got some actual traction that’s all about the knight in white armour saving the world as he did in the good old days when he was a good old boy which bloody terrifies me – but in collaborative, critical, radical ways. Honestly, go and read Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series and weep with hope at the way it ends.

No, because grimdark has never been more important. The world is a bleak cold place and growing bleaker. If one person reads Empires of Dust and thinks for one moment about Syria or Yemen or South Sudan or Palestine, or about their local food bank … that’s why I write, and why I think grimdark is important.

If not grimdark, where do you see your creative direction evolving and developing?

My writing is becoming more and more personal. Personally honest. Even confessional. My characters have always articulated complicated parts of myself – Marith, in particular, is the darkest, nastiest part of me, while his mental ill-health is drawn directly from my own life. The scene in Broken Knives were Marith is lying on the floor watching the beam on light on the wall, in utter despair, unsure if he’s alive or wants to be alive, desperately wanting someone to help him, certain he doesn’t deserve helping – that was written from my memories.  I’ve had horrible episodes of mental collapse, I self-harmed for many years, I’ve had times in my life where I’ve seen myself as vile, cancer, where I’ve talked about killing myself because it would make the world better for those around me.  It wasn’t that I intentionally set out to write that stuff but rather that it’s inevitable it would come out in my writing. That rage and self-loathing and intense victimhood Marith feels, that’s all me. Mental ill-health is massively destructive, absolutely exhausting and horrifying for a person’s friends and family trying to survive in its shadow, and it feels important to acknowledge that, be honest about it.  

What would one do, if one’s child was like Marith, but feel rage and shame and horror?  I’m sure my parents felt that about me on some level when I was in my darkest places, and I can’t blame them.  I do feel ashamed of what I put them through. The romanticisation of mental ill-health and self-destructive behavior is something I’ve spoken about in the past, and of course it’s there in my writing, in Marith, that image of him beautiful and disheveled and just crying out for a woman to be the one to save him – but it was really important to make it clear how utterly disgusting he is, how toxic. The fucked-up alcoholic with a heart of gold is a terrifying cliché of genre fiction. My grandfather was an alcoholic. I really don’t think my mum would use terms like ‘romantic’ or ‘heart of gold’ to describe her childhood.  I spent several years in a deeply abusive relationship with someone with mental health and alcohol issues, thinking I could heal them.  It’s very seductive – I, alone out of all the world, I can save this person, I can give them life. But it almost destroyed me. And then the vicious anger it generated comes out at someone else … I think it’s pretty obvious where the themes of Empires of Dust are drawn from.

But what came out more and more in The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice was my need to write openly and personally about my own life in every way, to think more and more about my body, my identity, and explore where that takes me. The pregnancy scenes in the books are directly taken from my own thoughts about my pregnancies, Dion in The House of Sacrifice is my son.  I want to write very true to life, complex, confessional books about the lived experience – just in a high fantasy setting because that’s the best setting there is.  Elena Ferranti with dragons!

Or is the ultimate logic that even my sworn in real-life this really happened and that’s how I really responded can be policed as right or wrong? I’m a rape victim but I wasn’t a rape victim correctly? I can only speak if I was a rape victim the right way?

And the political anger too that is very obviously there in Empires of Dust. I feel a moral obligation not to flinch away from writing the truth as I see it about power and responsibility.  But I want to write something more positive next as well, fundamentally more hopeful in its presentation of the world. Empires of Dust was about tearing down false narratives, critiquing everything, it is a very nihilistic, scorched-earth approach, yes. Human life is inevitably destructive.  But I certainly believe that small scale individual goodness is possible, love and acts of kindness are indeed humanly necessary, and I want to write that too.

There’s a terrifying description I read about the Rwandan genocide – ‘the people whose children went to school barefoot slaughtered the people whose children wore shoes’. On a personal level, as Thalia points out in Empires of Dust, if I didn’t buy my children books, toys, new clothes, gave the money to charity instead, many lives would be saved. But I don’t, because I love my children too much to deprive them of things. There are so many ways one can approach that understanding. Some profoundly bleakly, as in Empires of Dust. Some more hopefully.  I want to explore all of them.

My prose is only just getting started. The landscape descriptions, the flights of word-play and puns, the long loving pointless wallows into pure joyous language …

Lately, a number of authors, for example – Tamsyn Muir and Kate Elizabeth Russel, have been forced to address the trauma of their past to legitimize the events and topics they touched in their writing to the toxic communities that wanted to “cancel” them. Has anything like that come your way? Do you think such a dynamic is a healthy relationship between the audience and the creators?

WHAT THE FUCK???? Literally, WHAT THE FUCK????  I’ve never had this personally, no, I’m glad to say. If it did … I can’t think how I’d respond.

Violently.

I talk very openly about my experiences of mental health and abuse because I feel it’s important to spread awareness.  For example, I’ve spoken publicly about the severe perinatal depression / psychosis I suffered. At the time I had no idea this was a condition, I knew something was wrong but I was terrified that if I opened up about it to anyone I’d have my daughter taken away from me. I came very close to killing myself because I thought my daughter would be better off without me, and I was too afraid to talk to anyone. I remember being genuinely afraid, right back when I was first pregnant, that I would be forced to have a termination when I failed some kind of test being made of me by my GP.  If I’d heard or read someone talking about perinatal depression, perhaps I might have understood that these kinds of feelings are actually (frightening) common and that help was available. Simply having a sense that I was suffering from a namable illness would have made things a lot better for me. So I talk about it, I’m interested in writing about it, in the hope that someone somewhere is helped. If one person is able to avoid the worst of my experiences because of something I’ve said, that’s probably achievement enough in my life.

But, for fuck’s sake, people’s lives are personal. What people write in a book is not their life. This whole notion of ‘authenticity’ is fucking absurd. I haven’t got a clue how any other mixed white-Chinese Asperger’s cis woman with a Ph.D. in English literature living in 21st century London with two children sees the world.  I have no idea how anyone else would experience the shit I’ve been through. How I’d experience it differently if I went through it again.  No one should have to justify why they’ve written something, why a character responds in a certain way. BECAUSE IT’S A FUCKING STORY. IT’S ABOUT POSSIBILITIES. How one could possibly decide what’s ‘correct’ or not about a fictional character’s response to something in a fictional situation I don’t know. Or is the ultimate logic that even my sworn in real-life this really happened and that’s how I really responded can be policed as right or wrong? I’m a rape victim but I wasn’t a rape victim correctly? I can only speak if I was a rape victim the right way?

This rather reminds me of an anthropology lecture on religious experience I once attended. We watched a video in which a young woman sat talking directly to the camera about how she’d decided recently to start wearing a hijab and how important and positive this decision was to her. She was smiling, intelligent, articulate.  Afterward, all the other women who’d seen the film argued she must have had a male relative with a stick sitting just off-camera, threatening her to ensure she lied about wanting to wear it.  Her words were being totally erased, ignored, a whole new narrative imposed on her. There was nothing she could say that wouldn’t be taken as a sign of her status as victim. The only way out was to deny her own decision, ‘confess’ to being oppressed.  That denial of her autonomy over her own body was the only way some of the women watching would have accepted her as autonomous.

At the very bottom, I suspect a lot of this is simply because it upsets people to think that the story they tell in which they would be brave and strong and fight back and survive and were never complicit and would never do it and knew what evil was and what to do …. is bullshit. The easy way to deal with that is to close down voices pointing out the obvious.

Empathy is the root of human hope. I have no idea what it would be to experience something, I pray to god I never do, but I can imagine. Pretend. Think about what it might be like, how I might respond, why others might respond in a totally different way. That’s, uh, kind of the point of fiction, I naively thought. Pretending. Asking oneself and one’s reader questions. Without that imaginative leap into another person’s life, we might as well give up everything.

You’ve talked about coming to terms with Asperger’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia. How do you deal with health issues, a job, a family, and keep a steady creative output?

I get very tired.

Very, very, very, very tired.

I neglect the housework, I shout at the children, I write when I should be working at my day job and hope nobody notices. I’m selfish, basically. I’m that dad I was bitching about in question 2.

Just do it. The dishes and the ironing can wait.  I am, I know, I thank the world every day, very lucky to have a job and a support network that means I can write regularly. If I was working three horrible cleaning jobs living in a tiny flat with my children, I wouldn’t be able to write, I know that. Capitalism sucks away at everything, turns even creativity into an economically constrained act.  But if you can make a few moments to write, drawn, paint, knit, read, whatever … seize it.

When can we expect the next fix of Anna Smith Spark and what would it be?

I have a short story out soon in Grimbold Books’ Lost Gods anthology, edited by Joanne Hall and Dolly Garland.  It’s a collection of short stories on the theme of old forgotten gods. My story, ‘Water’, is the parallel text to ‘Stones’ from Three Crows. It’s the story of a selky and her husband told from her perspective. It’s very personal to me, explores some of my deepest feelings about motherhood. I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever written.  I gave a reading from it just before the lockdown and it seemed to go down very well. Sadly I think that the lockdown has affected the publication date, though.  Fantastically meta-ly, the woman in it who might be me bakes curd cakes to a recipe that was created in honour of The Court of Broken Knives. You can find the link to the recipe on my website, they’re delicious.

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