Lost Gods author interview: Anna Smith Spark

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?

Just three????? 

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.


Twitter: @queenofgrimdark

Facebook: Anna Smith Spark


Problem Daughters Anthology: an interview with the editor

I interviewed Rivqa Rafael, one of the editors of the upcoming Problem Daughters anthology. It’s an amazing, worthy project. I hope you will find this interview both interesting and useful. Please do spread the word about this anthology.

Problem Daughters will amplify the voices of women who are sometimes excluded from mainstream feminism. It will be an anthology of beautiful, thoughtful, unconventional speculative fiction and poetry around the theme of intersectional feminism, focusing on the lives and experiences of marginalized women, such as those who are of colour, QUILTBAG, disabled, sex workers, and all intersections of these. Edited by Nicolette Barischoff, Rivqa Rafael and Djibril al-Ayad, the anthology will be published by Futurefire.net Publishing and is currently being crowdfunded.

DG: Problem Daughters. Let’s talk about the name first.  Why this title? And why “Daughters” specifically, as opposed to women, mothers, sisters etc.

RR: We put a lot of thought into our title; of course we wanted something that would make people curious about what we had to say, as well as something that accurately reflected our aims. So it’s “problem” in the sense of not being accepted by mainstream feminism, and that could be for any number of reasons. Mainstream feminism doesn’t respond well to difference; it expects all other concerns to be put on hold for the cause. Race, ethnicity, religion, ability, choice of profession (most notably sex work); these and other intersections can make feminism a less accepting space. We’re a problem to feminism; feminism is a problem for us. The anthology is both of these aspects.

“Daughters” felt like another interesting way to engage with our topic. “Women” would fit, sure, but having a different word in there makes our descriptions less repetitive, so there was a practical angle there. Not all women are, or can be mothers; the concept of a feminist “sisterhood” and the shared experience it implies is part of what we’re critiquing. But we’re all daughters, in one way or another, and responding to the past is another key element here.

DG: Why do you think this anthology is needed? Why not just standard BAME submission as many publishers tend to do these days?

RR: Anthologies can be anything from a completely open call to a most narrow, almost bizarrely specific theme, and I think this range is a great thing. I’ve written some of my best work (in my opinion) in response to calls for submission to anthologies; something about a theme can spark something I might not have considered. Problem Daughters falls somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of specificity. Hopefully, this keeps the topic broad enough that authors can play with it in interesting ways, but specific enough to be inviting to the marginalised authors we’re hoping to attract. Of course, this anthology doesn’t stand in isolation, and I hope it complements past and future diverse works.

DG: As a woman from an ethnic minority, and as a writer, this idea excites me. You see in fiction, Indian women often depicted a certain way – exotic beauties, or sari wearing domestic goddesses, or whatever. I have a problem with that. I am sure this happens to other cultures, and other voices too. So I love this idea that you’re trying to find voices that are even more ignored than “minorities” in general because let’s face it, minorities can be snobby too about inclusions and representation. My question is – how do you define these women? How do you define “feminism” in this selective context?

RR: I’m so glad it excites you! That’s definitely part of what we’re trying to address. Even just the tiresome concept that a single white woman can be a stand-in for diversity (Star Wars, again? Really?). What you say about inclusion is such an important point; this has been my almost constant experience, being at turns “not Jewish enough”, “too Jewish” or my personal favourite, “Jewish in the wrong way”.

But in terms of the anthology, we don’t want to define these women too closely; they will be marginalised in some way, and we’ve given examples, but mostly we want the reaction you’ve given – an individual interpretation, written as a story or poem. Likewise, our definition of feminism is as broad as possible; our stories might come from womanists or authors who don’t self-identify with any such movement at all. Mostly, we want to see how our potential authors choose to engage with the topic, rather than define it for them.

DG: I believe three of you are editing this anthology, Djibril al-Ayad, Nicolette Barischoff and you. Would you say your experiences in fringes, or perhaps outside of mainstream voices helps you be more sympathetic or empathetic to the voices you seek to represent?

RR: I hope so. I can only speak for myself specifically, of course, but I really hope so. I’m white, able-bodied, queer and Jewish; I have a lot of privilege, and more passing privilege now that I’m no longer religious. But I also had a very different upbringing from the average white Australian, which stands out very starkly in certain circumstances. And within that very insular community, that “not Jewish enough” I mentioned before was often at play. There’s a bitter advantage to always being an outsider, but yes, I think it does force one to develop empathy. It’s much more pronounced for people with more prominent marginalisations, but hopefully, it’s a starting point.

DG: You have created an Indigogo crowdfunding campaign to support this anthology. Tell us more about this, and how would this help the anthology, as well as usually unheard voices?

RR: Our campaign can be found at http://igg.me/at/problem-daughters, and runs until 14 February. We’re running a flexible funding campaign; once we reach our halfway point of $4,500, we’ll be able to guarantee professional payment rates to our authors. Our second goal of $9,000 will allow us to publish a longer anthology, including essays and internal artwork; we very much hope that we can make this more beautiful, substantive version. If we’re funded beyond that, we have other ideas of how to make Problem Daughters even more special.

We’ve fixated on pro payment because it’s all too common for labour, particularly in the form of art or writing, to be demanded of marginalised people for little or no pay. We want to pay our authors what they deserve (or as close as we can reasonably get).

DG: For the writers interested in submitting to this anthology, what is the one advice you would give?

Don’t self-reject. If you’re not sure if your work fits the brief – submit. If you’re not sure if it’s good enough – submit. If this is your first potential submission, your first in English, your first in the genre – you get the idea. We’re a team of three experienced editors, and we want to read your story.

Rivqa Rafael is a queer Jewish writer and editor based in Sydney. She started writing speculative fiction well before earning degrees in science and writing, although they have probably helped. Her previous gig as subeditor and reviews editor for Cosmos magazine likewise fueled her imagination. Her short stories have appeared in Hear Me Roar (Ticonderoga Publications), The Never Never Land (CSFG Publishing), and Defying Doomsday (Twelfth Planet Press). In 2016, she won the Ditmar Award for Best New Talent. When she’s not working, she’s most likely child-wrangling, playing video games, or practising her Brazilian Jiujitsu moves. She can be found at rivqa.net and on Twitter as @enoughsnark.