I wanted to follow up on our gorgeous Lost Gods anthology, a book of SFF short stories, by interviewing some of the authors (okay, whoever was willing). I hope you will find these interviews interesting, and enjoy their stories.
What’s your writing name?
My name is Anna Smith Spark, author of the Empires of Dust trilogy – The Court of Broken Knives, The Tower of Living and Dying, The House of Sacrifice.
What’s your story called (in Lost Gods) and what was your inspiration behind it?
My story in Lost Gods is called ‘Water’. It’s a story about a selkie – a creature from Celtic myth who is both a woman and a seal. It can be read as the backstory to a woman who makes a very brief but significant appearance in The Court of Broken Knives and/or as a companion story to my story ‘Stones’ in Three Crows Magazine: Year One. Or it can be read as a story about women and motherhood in any time any place anywhere.
I’ve always been haunted by folklore about selkies, mermaids, fairies who form some kind of relationship with humans. Men who follow a fairy princess to the Otherworld and return to find a hundred years have passed and everything they knew is gone and dead; fairy women who live with a human family but are unmasked and forced to flee leaving it all behind.
These stories have so any layers of meaning: otherness, cultural change, integration, immigration, xenophobia … very obvious feminist readings about power and gender, a wife’s outsider status in a traditional patrilineal family structure, men’s fear of women’s sexuality … and the universal fear of life change, moving on from the innocent time when your primary relationship is with your parents to it being with your partner, then perhaps with your own children, and you can’t go back from that, that time is gone, and then your own children too move on and you’re not their primary relationship any more, that too is forever gone …
The story looks at all these things, and at the very basic experience of being a mother to young children, how hard it sometimes is. You do feel like an alien being, sometimes, frankly, and to your child you do have this terrifying terrifying role as a god.
More specifically, the story was inspired by a stretch of the coast path between Gurnard’s Head and Zennor in west Cornwall. The ruined cottage and the stream are real places on that walk. Zennor has a mermaid legend – with a happy ending, interestingly, the mermaid comes up from the sea to the church because she’s drawn by a man’s beautiful singing, he goes with her to the sea, years later a fisherman meets him living happily as a merhusband with his merwife and merchildren. Zennor was where D H and Frieda Lawrence lived during the First World War, as written about by Helen Dunmore in Zennor in Darkness; Patrick Heron had a house, Eagle’s Nest, above the village. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, very isolated, a glorious suntrap with the sea beyond and the moors behind, and this incredible blazing white sunlight drenching everything.
The curd cakes mentioned in the story are a reference 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 www.courtofbrokenknives.com. They’re delicious.
Why do you write fantasy?
Because of all the things in the Flecker poems quoted below.
The endless possibilities. Magic. Wonder. Beauty and horror beyond mortal ken. All the dreams and fears we have as children, the terrible cosmic awe we feel standing looking up at the vastness of the stars, the sea with the sun setting into it in fire, ancient ruins against storm clouds. The re-enchantment of the world, the yearning for something more than this: on Halloween the hollow hills will open; beneath the cold Atlantic the World Serpent lies drowsing; on another distant shore dragons dance on the west wind. Fantasy makes these things real. Makes life stranger and more beautiful. Makes the world a better, stranger place. That oak tree might be the doorway to fairyland, that cloud might really be a castle in the sky – once you’ve read enough fantasy, you don’t quite know. On some deep level I really believe in fairies, selkies, dragons, magic. So obviously I write about them.
But also I have no idea why I write fantasy. I wrote fantasy stories all the time as a child, I stopped writing completely, one day as an adult I started writing a scene without any idea what I was doing, no plan at all, and it turned out to be epic fantasy because … all of the above. But it wasn’t intended. Just happened. Turned out there was a vast fantasy world in my mind. (It was what is now the second chapter of The Court of Broken Knives. The twist at the end of the first section took me by surprise as well).
What’s your writing routine?
I have two days a week to write, plus the occasional Saturday or Sunday. I write nine to five on those days and that’s all the chance I get, if I don’t use them that’s it for the week. So I tend to use them frantically. It’s quite good, actually, certainly motivates me.
I think about what I’m writing all the time, though. Listen to the cadence of the prose, think about the story and the characters, the setting, the way things are evoked … I live in the story while I’m writing it, I do see it as a whole thing before my eyes, sort of walk through it in my thoughts bending down to look carefully at details or seeing the whole and how it works as someone might look at a painting.
How has coronavirus affected your creativity?
Aha ha ha ha ha. I was homeschooling two children through it, so … creativity? You don’t know what true creativity means until you’re simultaneous teaching fronted adverbials and short division while on a teams meeting with your child-free boss while realising you didn’t get a Tesco.com slot this week so there’s nothing for lunch unless you risk death and also nasty looks from an old git who refuses to wear a mask properly by going to the shop with the kids. I have never been so creative.
Read ‘Water’. I had no idea it would be quite so prescient.
Which three books would you recommend everyone reads?
M John Harrison, Viriconium. All epic fantasy is a mere footnote to Viriconium. As I said to Steven Erickson by the pool in LA.
Astrid Lindgren, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. Wild, beautiful, mysterious all-ages fantasy.
James Elroy Flecker, Collected Poems
We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why, –
What shall we tell you? Tales, marvellous tales
Of ships and stars and isles where good men rest,
Where nevermore the rose of sunset pales,
And winds and shadows fall towards the West:
And there the world’s first huge white-bearded kings
In dim glades sleeping, murmur in their sleep,
And closer round their breasts the ivy clings,
Cutting its pathway slow and red and deep.
(From The Golden Journey to Samarkand)
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known,
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
(From The Golden Road to Samarkand)
Those lines are everything to me, and why writing fantasy is the highest and noblest purpose in life.
What’s next for you? (use this space for self-promotion if you’ve new things coming out or have other projects that you want people to know about)
Several things, but most of them sadly a deep secret that I can’t really talk about yet. As in ‘Water’, I’ m writing more and more about my own lived experience, complex, confessional book – just in a high fantasy setting because that’s the best setting there is. Elena Ferranti with dragons! I do feel a moral obligation not to flinch away from writing the bleak truth as I see it about power and political responsibility, but I’ve been consciously writing more hopefully about the world. Empires of Dust was about tearing down false narratives, critiquing everything, it is a very nihilistic, scorched-earth approach because human life is inevitably destructive. But I certainly believe that individual goodness is possible, that love and acts of kindness are indeed humanly necessary, and I’m shifting my focus more to write that too.
Less cryptically, I’ve got a short story for the Grimdark Magazine kickstarter project The King Must Fall, which is probably a last scorched-earth nihilistic hurrah to Empires of Dust (and features a cameo by Grimbold Books supremo, author of the amazing Anna (no relation), and general-force-of-good-in-the-world Sammy K Smith). I’m also down to write a story for Grimoak Press’s Unbound III next year. And God of Grimdark Michael R Fletcher and I have co-authored a serial for Grimdark Magazine that we’re finishing up, which took far longer than anticipated because neither of us plan anything, and that turns out to be more of a problem when you’re trying to follow on from something someone else wrote (Our editor: Guys, uh, did you, like, read the previous chapters before writing the next one? Us: No. Obviously. Why would we do that?)
Looking at the above – if you run a publishing house called Mundane but Ultimately Quite Pleasant, please feel free to get in touch.
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.
Facebook: Anna Smith Spark