Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed, Gemmell and BSF awards shortlisted Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series. The interview was conducted via email a couple days before the publication of her second book, a continuation in the Empires of Dust series, “The Tower of Living and Dying”. Interview by Alex Khlopenko.
I’d like to start with a question regarding your new book – The Tower of Living and Dying is almost out. How would you entice a potential reader to dive into your series?
Extreme violence, tender love poetry, political critique, Joycean stream-of-consciousness, Homeric references, bad jokes. Waterstones Gower Street, one of the most elite academic bookshops in the UK, described The Court of Broken Knives as ‘Joe Abercrombie meets Leonard Cohen in a particularly filthy public toilet’. It was a close second in the David Gemmell Morningstar Award and has two British Fantasy Society shortlists. It’s certainly not for everyone, as many, many Goodreads reviews make clear on a daily basis (‘I took it back to the store after reading one paragraph – the woman doesn’t know how to use a full stop’). But if you like dark, complex, literary fantasy in the tradition of Mary Stewart, Mary Renault and R Scott Bakker, I personally think it’s worth a look.
Empires of Dust is a grimdark series to the fullest extent. As a writer working in grimdark and epic fantasy—a niche full of intricate political intrigue, backstabbing, bloody massacres, and morally ambiguous characters—do you see the news coverage of Donald Trump, Brexit and other current topics as a competition?
I was having a conversation about this with Michael ‘Beyond Redemption’ a while ago. What’s the point? What’s the point? And a hilarious night out where, as one, a whole table of drunk dystopian SF writers banged their heads on the table and started to cry.
Not as competition, no. One of the central themes of fantasy as a genre is structures of power; I see my writing as very much a political critique of power. So Trump; Putin; Brexit; the West’s blind refusal to engage with global warming, with Syria and Yemen, with yawning economic inequality worldwide – these are all things I write out, try to explore in my own mind and articulate in my writing. It’s more complicated than just ‘Trump is wrong’ and ‘people in the west are selfish fuckers’ (although both of those things are self-evidently true, for the avoidance of doubt).
I want to use my writing to explore the extremes of power and violence, to try to look at why people might make the decisions they do. And to humanize the way those decisions are made, also – it’s so easy simply to think in terms of right and wrong, informed and uninformed, selfish and ‘good’. I want to go beyond that, try to think about what it might be to be in that position and do it.
For example, the character of Thalia is very influenced by women such as Melania Trump or Grace Mugabe: women who are vilified and/or victimized because of their relationship with a man of power, whom we seem to be unable to look at except in terms of who their husband is. We’re so busy assuming Melania must be trapped in her marriage, unhappy, desperate to leave; we were so quick to blame Grace Mugabe’s pillow talk for the worse excesses of the Mugabe regime.
But in the end the reality must be more complicated: these are real women in real relationships, trying to balance all kinds of conflicting feelings, responsibilities, needs, dreams, just as any of us have to do in our personal lives.
To continue on the influence of politics on literature, do you expect the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, to influence the fantasy literature and publishing market? Newspapers talk about stocking up on food and medical supplies, bringing back memories of rationing. Combine that with constant bombardment of news on climate change, refugee crisis, and all the rest happening in the world, will your audience still have a taste for darkness and violence in literature if these things turn into reality?
Ah, gods. Again – part of me feels that it really is a bit of a bad time to be publishing what I write. I remember joking ages ago that grimdark as a genre would die quickly and horribly the day my first book was published, although even in my most pessimistic moments I never expected it to happen in quite such a specular fashion. So maybe it’s all my fault.
I think that some people will probably read less dark stuff. Nick Eames won the Gemmell Morningstar this year with Kings of Wyld, which is a laugh-out-loud glorious escape from it all book and I think that’s very emblematic of things. And GoT has I think passed it’s time now, it’s lucky for the series that it’s winding up when it is. The idea of a Lord of the Rings based series, much more uncritically heroic, seems prescient.
There is a strong desire at the moment to see a wish-fulfillment hero like Aragorn, a hero who is uncomplicated, uncritically just good. But, at the same time, dark fantasy is hugely important now for all the reasons I outlined above.
Fantasy and historical fiction are two key genres in which power and political decision-making can be explored, and I think that there is an increasing need to read and write in these areas. Concepts such as leadership and resistance are so central to fantasy; a grimdark fantasy in particular really forces the big issues around the consequences of power by showing how flawed and morally compromised all decisions must be.
Resisting the Dark Lord seems morally necessary – but grimdark shows the horror even of the just war, suggests that the notion of the enemy as evil can only ever be a simplification, challenges one to address what side one is actually on. If you think about The Handmaid’s Tale, say – the horror in the book comes from the questioning of whether this could happen, and how the reader would actually respond if it did.
Most of us would be the people who collaborate, keep their heads down, go along with it, hope that somehow it will all be alright. Or even believe, deeply, truly, that it is right. Because historically, in the face of atrocity, most people have gone along with it. Are going along with it now, indeed – what exactly do we think people’s lives are like right now in Yemen?
So I think fewer people might read it because it’s so raw right now, but that more people probably should.
What I hope there might be less of – although I’m probably sadly wrong here – is morally simplistic nastiness for nastiness sake, those books and films that are just violence and rape and gore for the sake of being ‘shocking’, with a very basic sense of morality that somehow in the end makes it all okay cause the violent rapist murderous bad guys are bad, yeah, and all deserve to be wiped out. Series two of The Handmaid’s Tale – abusing women is a bad thing. Gee, really? Those ‘revenge’ kick-ass heroines – I went out and killed my rapist and all his friends, hurrah what a great strong person I am, give me a feminist round of applause. I’d like to think there’d be less appetite for that kind of unthinking schlock. I assume I’ll be proved entirely wrong.
Since your books are often compared to Joe Abercrombie’s, let’s take a closer look at the structure of the two famous trilogies. A lot of critique for the First Law trilogy that we’ve (I’ve) seen, mentions the three-act structure. In some interviews, you said The Court of Broken Knives is a prologue or an introduction, and the real adventure begins with The Tower of Living and Dying. Have you been criticized for using this structure, and why did you choose to do it in this way?
Argh, talk about trying to be pretentiously arty and it comes back to bite you… The story was always a trilogy. It is a very simple story, okay, yes, I admit, it is basically a hero’s journey, and the tri-part structure reflects that [insert heavy irony and little speech-mark hand signals while I say that like I’m giving myself rabbit ears]. The Court of Broken Knives is the strivings of youth.
Who am I am? What do I want to do with my life? The Tower of Living and Dying is full adulthood. We’ve got where we want to be so … now what? Or, as Pope Leo X said, ‘We have the papacy… now let us enjoy it’ – but what might that cost? The poetically-named Book Three is … well, take a wild guess at where we might go after the hero has done some things. Both Marith and Orhan Emmereth ended The Court of Broken Knives having made some huge and irreparable, literally life-changing, decisions: The Tower of Living and Dying and the final book deal with the consequences of that for them and everyone around them. So Broken Knives is kind of the prologue, the story of how things came to be, yes. But, equally, Broken Knives and Living and Dying form a coherent pairing with book three as the coda to that. And book three loops back to book one, mirroring its patterns. It’s an arty structuring thing. Made sense to me.
If you think of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, for example, The Crystal Cave is kind of the origin story for Merlin, and then The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment are the story of Arthur. But, equally, the story that starts in The Crystal Cave culminates at the end of The Hollow Hills with Merlin making Arthur king; The Last Enchantment is almost the epilogue, it’s no longer about Merlin but Arthur.
It kind of wasn’t a conscious decision to structure the books that way. But 1) I’ve read Mary Stewart and Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy and the Earthsea trilogy and a whole lot of life-cycle trilogies to the point I know them off by heart, so I guess it was inevitable; and 2) I’m an arty literary pretentious tosser who likes doing structural things like that.
I’d love to explore far more of the world, look at what happens after the trilogy ends, what’s happening in other areas of the world, look at the lives of other, totally unrelated characters who are living through the events set out in Empires of Dust. The world of Irlast is a part of my subconscious, it’s formed from my deepest interests and loves, and I don’t see myself abandoning it any time soon. Discovering more about this world I’m created, just wallowing in exploring it, is a huge part of the writing for me. I’ve written several short stories set in Irlast, for the Knaves anthology from Outland Publishing, and for Grimdark Magazine, among other things; I’m planning to write more. And I’d love to write another trilogy set in Irlast.
Some criticized the style of your prose in The Court of Broken Knives, saying it distracts from the plot and characters. While reading, I constantly thought about the likeness to the highly praised “literary” and “muscular” prose of Cormac McCarthy—realistic inner and external dialogue, detailed descriptions, use of repetitions, and jumps between tenses and point of views. Are fantasy readers simply not expecting a more “literary” prose in their books or are they not yet prepared for it?
This whole issue about my prose depresses me so much. I write literary fantasy. That’s the end of it. There’s a whole bunch of very literary sff out there – M John Harrison, Gene Wolfe, Alasdair Gray, Hesse, Lessing, Mitchison, Le Guin, Borges, one could probably include Eco, Calvino (I loathe Calvino, but that’s another matter), Mantel (what is Beyond Black if not urban fantasy?) I know that many people do find my work difficult and not for them, just as people find McCarthy difficult, or Wolfe, or James Joyce for that matter. That’s fine. Different books are for different people.
The purpose of Broken Knives, in as much as it has one, is the prose and the ideas that prose conveys, that’s what I value about my writing, and about most of the books I read. In fact, there are loads of fantasy novels I find unreadable because they’re so badly written. And that’s no big deal either. I just … quietly stop reading them.
What is depressing in that this kind of debate doesn’t seem to happen in other genres. Literary crime fiction is a given, as is literary historical fiction (most of the great classic novels from Middlemarch down are historical fiction, strictly speaking), while literary sf is a given. Those genres get serious literary reviews. But literary fantasy is ignored in the mainstream literary press, which further perpetuates the idea that it doesn’t exist.
High fantasy, interestingly, is possibly the most creditably literary form of writing for children – most of Puskin Press’s children’s titles seem to be very serious intellectual high fantasy, most of the LRB bookshop’s children’s section ditto. But as soon as literary readers grow up, they’re supposed to put away the dreams and read only real things. Bah! How dull.
Another question about the craft of writing. In the words of Brandon Sanderson: are you a gardener or an architect or something in-between?
To be honest, I’ve never really understood either of those terms. I think of it as like Michelangelo’s block of marble: the whole story is there, somewhere, struggling to get out, and I have to find it. Painfully, exhaustingly, at length. What rough beast is this? I cry with rage sometimes because I can’t get it out.
Are you planning on branching into other genres in the future? Or is fantasy your passion?
Fantasy is my great passion as an author. Right back when I was first telling myself stories as I child they were always fantastical. I’m steeped in myth and folklore and history, I live in a dream that one day I’ll step through into the real, magical world, and writing fantasy is my escape into that.
My writing is my way of exploring my own psyche – and so the great archetypes of myth and legend, the monsters and the wonders, inevitably appear. I didn’t even set out to write ‘fantasy’ when I started what became the Empires of Dust series, I started writing what was in my mind, and the dragons, the wonders, came pouring out.
Dragons are good to think with, as Levi Strauss might say. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe …. Gods, if I’m trapped in this mundane disenchanted world, I can at least pretend I’ve seen those things, write them in my head.
As for the future – do you imagine Empire of Dust will be turned into a film/series? Would you like to be involved in the process?
I’m an absolute control freak. I see every moment as I’m writing it. If someone was to change that… one tiny detail of that… I couldn’t do it. I really couldn’t. I’d have to do it all myself. I suspect the books would make crap films anyway.
Without the language, it’s people wandering around aimlessly and hitting each other with swords a lot.
The exception would be if an auteur like Lynch or Greenaway (is Greenaway still alive?) was to want to do as a vision thing. Like Lynch did with Dune, Fellini did with the Satyricon. Bugger all to do with the original text, but an amazing, sumptuous, haunting vision that captures the soul of it. Fellini or Greenaway (is Greenaway dead?) get raised from the dead to make Empires of Dust the eight-hour pornographic art house impenetrable masterpiece. Hell yeah!
Or if someone offered me a few grand and a chance to meet the guy playing Marith. I’d probably sell-out for that.
What’s your thoughts on the WorldCon controversy this year and how it has been handled so far?
Aha ha. I got caught up in it, had a rant online, got an apology from the programming team, as I write this I’m crossing my fingers hoping to get some interesting panel slots.
I was astonished, to be honest. I have several friends who organize UK cons: it amazed them that something like this could happen. The whole lovely point of con running, as far as they’re concerned, is to facilitate exciting discussion, get people listening to a range of perspectives, introduce new voices and get them heard. And certainly one of the main reasons I attend cons myself is to have those discussions, hear the new voices. There’s such a joy in attending a panel and being grabbed by a really interesting new author you absolutely have to check out.
The political dimensions to what happened …. I’d like to think it’s obvious where I stand on this. Again, I’d really like to think this couldn’t have happened in the UK. Perhaps I’m wrong. That said, I think a lot of people showed their mettle over it. People with slots pulling out in favor of those who had been excluded (this happened to me, which was wonderfully kind of the person), a lot of people who weren’t negatively affected and could have ignored it all joining into flag just how important this was… That was encouraging.
I hate the term ‘inclusion’, in fact. Why should anyone be ‘included’, like it’s something especially nice, someone kindly inviting them in? If you list off the categories of ‘marginalized writers’ we need to ‘include’, it’s like most of the population of the world. It shouldn’t be ‘inclusion’, it should be not bloody well excluding anyone. Worth noting, perhaps, that I’ve literally never come up against this kind of stuff apart from in my writing. It’s not an issue in my day job, my children’s school, my local hangouts… And in the hardcore grimdark crowd, the group of writers and readers who get accused of all sorts of things because we spend our time perving over axes and making undead unicorn bestiality jokes – never. I’ve never encountered misogyny or homophobia or racism there.
And the last one – with two books under your belt, and many more in the future is there something you wish you knew before starting your first book?
Don’t read your reviews.
The bad ones eat your soul. The good ones are like a burden every word you then write. When I get a bad review I cry. When I get a good review I start feeling agonizing guilt the reviewer will then feel disappointed in my next book. Adrian Collins from Grimdark Magazine didn’t particularly like a short story I wrote for an anthology called Art of War and I wanted to personally apologize for letting him down.
This is hardly a dazzling new insight. But your first really bad review is the worst thing for a writer to deal with, and no matter how prepared you might think you are for it – you’re not.
Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed, Gemmell and BSF awards shortlisted Empires of Dust grimdark epic fantasy series (HarperVoyager US/ Orbit US/Can). 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.