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, described as “game of literary thrones” by the UK Sunday Times and “like early Moorcock and Le Guin” by the UK Daily Mail.
Welcome to Parallel Worlds, Anna! Your writing has been described as grimdark fantasy. You’ve been asked “what is grimdark” before, but what makes it distinct from other dark fantasy?
Grimdark for me is fantasy with a strong element of political complexity and self-awareness. Romance, wonder, beauty, yes — obviously, that yearning for impossible far-off distant things. But also, a strong sense of what that romanticism is, and where it can lead. The awareness of the world as a brutal, ugly, amoral place. Intellectual complexity — the interrogation of power structures, of justifications for violence. When someone says they are a ‘good ruler’, that they will ‘save us from evil’ — what does that mean? The simple notion of good versus evil is vastly problematic. But it’s equally problematic to say that all things are truly relative, that good and evil don’t exist. If fantasy is the great genre of power and of mythmaking, grimdark fantasy interrogates power, tears apart the myths. My writing has been described as ‘nihilistic’. It is. But there’s a strong political hope in nihilism. If one believes the world is fundamentally good and positive, there’s little impetus to change it. If one is suspicious of the world, one is less likely to accept a lie.
I think ‘dark fantasy’ is sometimes used as more a literary term to mean something similar, ‘grimdark’ being seen as a negative term (it was originally coined as an insult). Or perhaps some dark fantasy is less politically nuanced — the violence and horror and sex is ramped up but ultimately the warrior hero uncomplicatedly wins.
hy do you write grimdark? Do you think the darker end of the fantasy genre still has popular appeal when real life can seem quite dark?
I can’t help but write it. I write what I see, what I feel, what I find beautiful. The great myth stories that I grew up loving, that I’m writing fanfic to, the Iliad, the Eddas, the Tain… they are dark and terrifying and strange and bleak and absurdly, impossibly beautiful. I… may have something of a gothic imagination.
I think that grimdark is more important than ever as a way of questioning political authority, interrogating what political power structures and political decisions mean. If one person reads the Chain of Dogs sections of Erikson’s Deadhouse Gated, for example, and maybe takes from that some vague hint of what life might be like as a refugee fleeing from bombings in Syria and Yemen, they may feel a little more compassion for people trying desperately to get away to Europe as a result… But, sadly, I do understand why people are turning away from reading and watching darker things, going back to narratives that offer a more obviously optimistic view of ‘good’ as overcoming in the end… I yearn for an Aragorn to offer us something to fight for, even as I rage against how problematic any unquestioning faith in leadership and ‘good versus evil’ might be.
How do real-world politics influence your work?
It’s impossible not to write politically. Writing is articulating the world around you. It’s inherently, massively political.
I love high fantasy but — as may be obvious from the above — I have huge political issues with it, which I don’t think I realised until recently were perhaps not shared by everyone. The story of a glorious, shining hero with special talents and bloodline who will save his people from overwhelming, vile, unnatural evil and give them hope and freedom…. Um, I think I’ve heard that before — in history lessons or recently on the national news. Fantasy retells the great myths that have always legitimised the Trumps of the world. That’s what those great stories I love are, at least in part, and what their purpose always was — but equally they also critique it, they’re stories retold and reframed endlessly, filled with multiple meanings, used by the elite to legitimise their rule and the ‘people’ to negotiate with and undermine that. So, fantasy inevitably engages with politics. I am very aware of that, always have been. It’s one of the things I love about fantasy, in fact, that ambiguity, that engagement.
Your writing is very flowing and visually evocative. When you write, do you ‘hear’ the words in your head or picture the scene which you then write?
I hear them and I see it. It’s absolutely real to me. I can see the whole book, every tiny detail, the whole scope of the world, I can see all of that in my mind, and I’m trying to grasp it and write it down right. It feels like I’m staring at a picture and I’ve got a few seconds to describe it, or like someone’s dictating and I’ve got to copy their words down as they speak, or like I’m doing an exam I’ve revised for until I have the answer word-for-word but now in this moment I have to get it exactly right. I can see it and feel it — I look up from the writing and I’m shocked I’m not there.
I write half to be read aloud. It’s not a conscious style thing, simply that a lot of the literature I’m influenced by was, is, written to be performed — the cadence and the rhythm, the aural sense that’s created, is as important as the plot. How the words sound, make you feel, is a way of conveying what the story is about. I want you to see it, taste it, feel it, smell it.
How do you feel about representation in fiction — do you see yourself in your own characters or in other people’s work?
All my characters are me. Parts of me. Marith and Thalia, in particular, have been with me always, live in me. It’s very strange, in fact, now that their story is told. Like a part of me is told and gone.
I think I’m trying to answer this question in two different ways at once. One, as a reader devouring books and seeing elements of myself in any number of characters without necessarily having anything in common with them except that I felt somehow they would understand me or be like me if I could meet them, or that I saw the world like them. Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea. Jonny in Jonny the Homicidal Maniac. The chap in The Shadow Over Innsmouth until I was shocked to realise a few years ago that he’s overcome with horror, not delight, when he discovers he’s part fish. That’s the wonder of reading, the totally different, alien other lives that one can live, so far apart from anything in one’s own possible experience. Two, as a dark-haired, part-Chinese woman who has Asperger’s, there aren’t that many characters who remotely resemble me, no. And when there are, they’re inevitably bad, bad women who come to a bad, bad end. I’m never the heroine who gets the prince, saves the world and lives happily ever after. I’m always the satanic half-naked half-mad evil seductress and Dark Lord’s sidekick. Which explains so much.
I’m not objecting, per se. Just saying maybe it would be nice to be able to survive to the end and save the world occasionally while slinking around half-naked doing exotic things with knives and snakes.
In particular, how do you feel about the representation of disabled people in fiction?
I’m Asperger’s, dyslexic and dyspraxic, with mental health issues arising from late diagnosis of all of the above. So yes, representation of disabled people is a big thing for me.
What really makes me angry is the use of disability as a metaphor for victimhood and suffering. People in fiction can’t just have a disability and get on with being alive, so often their struggle with disability is their whole story arc.
Take the brainy, physically disabled warrior’s son trope, for example. His dad hates him for being a failure because he’s not a great swordsman like his ancestors, he can never be king because his people despise him for his physical weakness, he’s so ashamed of what he is. But one day, after much suffering and rejection, our unlikely hero will overcome his self-hatred, prove to the world he’s not a failure, and finally forgive his father for being ashamed of him!
One — yes, that’s a very nice illustration of how brute strength isn’t always the answer, and yes, it’s a very nice metaphor for teenage angst and estrangement and not fitting in. Except that disability is normal boring daily life for a lot of people, not a useful way of talking about other stuff.
Two — because, actually, really, life for people with disabilities isn’t like that, and never has been. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred someone’s family loves them, supports them, their disability is just another part of family life, probably far less of a thing than a lot of other family life stuff. People didn’t generally expose their disabled children or lock them up or hate them or all that rubbish. They just got on with everyone living their lives and maybe it is tougher at times than for other people but that’s called ‘life’. And most people with disabilities don’t spend their whole time feeling crushed by their disability, hating themselves and those around them, burdened by shame and envy, trying valiantly to overcome. Yes, at times having a disability is tough (that’s why it’s called a disability — I hate that whole ‘it’s not a disability it’s a superpower’ narrative too. It’s patronising rubbish). But we’re not outcasts and victims. We’re just people in all the myriad ways of human life.
What I want in fiction is more characters whose disability is simply a part of them. I don’t want ‘Harry Motter and his heroic struggle to be accepted into wizard school despite being in a wheelchair and it’s all so hard and everyone laughs at him but he knows he can do it in the end and overcome his tragedy and show them he’s as good as them’. I just want Harry Motter in his wheelchair, having adventures, battling evil, and hanging out with his friends, and we just assume magic school has got ramps and accessible loos. That’s hardly a big ask, is it?
Especially in epic fantasy. Most of the cast of an epic fantasy will ‘realistically’ be in constant crippling physical pain by midway through book two, several quite possibly missing an eye or even a limb. So, write it as normal. Because disability is.
At events and conventions your shoes have become quite a talking point! How do you feel about that, and which is your favourite pair?
The shoes thing is getting slightly out of control. I think there are more photos of my feet on social media than my face. It gets a bit bizarre; I walk into a room and everyone looks at my shoes. Or heartbreakingly — or at least egobreakingly — someone will come running up to me at a convention, really excited, I’ll think ‘oh my god, a fan!!!!’ and they’ll be telling me what cool shoes I have. I had the most bizarre thing at WorldCon Dublin when I was talking to Steven Erikson and someone rushed up, virtually shoving him out of the way, to tell me what great shoes I had on. He looked a bit surprised…
My favourite pair are ‘the shoes of broken knives’. No-heel high heels (they’re cantilevered), covered in metal spikes. They’re made from the broken blades of Marith’s enemies. Google ‘Anna Smith Spark shoes’.
What do you love about being an author and what do you hate?
Being a published author is an incredible thing. It astonishes me beyond words when someone comes up and says they enjoy my books. I was asked to sign a book as a birthday gift for someone’s partner recently, which was mind-blowing. If I ever stop feeling that exhilaration about being published, that’s when I will stop writing for publication.
The worst thing, I suppose, and this is pretty much the definition of first world problems, is the fear that I can’t write any more, that Empires of Dust was a fluke and I’ll never write anything that good again.
What are you reading now? What authors have you found recently that you would recommend?
I’m rereading Moorcock’s The History of the Rune Staff. As are several people I know. It’s beautiful, so high fantasy it hurts, completely insane… and the Dark Empire is Granbretan, under a grotesque, inhumane Emperor and the commander of his armies the Duke of Croyden. The hero is German, the heroine French. No reason why lots of people are reading it at the moment, obviously.
Two current authors I have to recommend are Michael R Fletcher, my very good friend, partner in crime over at Grimdark Magazine, and one of the authors I admire the most. His books are grimdark splatterpunk fantasy insanity — he takes narrative to places I wouldn’t dream of, he has the most perfectly cynical yet totally humane and romantic understanding of the abyss of human life. Also, his battle scenes are brilliant. And Sam Hawke whose debut novel City of Lies won every award Australia could give her last year. It’s exactly what you want in modern (non-grimdark) secondary world fantasy: immersive world building, a great fantasy city, action and intrigue, beautifully written. It has those touches that make it special, transport you to her world and make you want to just wander there for a while, like the perfectly written extracts from a pharmacopeia that open every chapter, that make you yearn to read a whole book about the city’s natural history. Science fiction and fantasy (SFF) as travel writing is something I talk about a lot – I want to visit these places, wander in them, study their history, botany, architecture, literature, and Sam really brings that across.
What’s your favourite film?
David Lynch’s Dune. Visually astonishing, a hugely rich experience. I love the use of music and of voiceovers, the vast scope of it. I enjoyed the books, obviously, but the film is something else. Just don’t watch it thinking of it as a straight adaptation of the book.
I also love Time Bandits. I’ve seen it a huge number of times, it gets better and stranger every time I watch it. The scene with Napoleon is the most perfect evocation of war and power; the scene with Agamemnon gripped me when I was a child and had a huge impact on my aesthetic sense, you can certainty see elements of that scene in my writing. And The Thin Red Line, which is the most beautiful, haunting cinematic poem to the horrors and beauty of war.
A film that I love that I think also influenced me greatly, but which I don’t think is easily available, is Michael Mann’s The Keep. It’s a WWII horror film set in the Carpathians, again visually and aurally stunning (the soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream) with some very powerful discussion of war and morality. The hero is an anti-fascist German officer, caught totally between his disgust at what he’s doing and his lifelong commitment to his military career and ‘his country’.
What games do you play?
I used to be an obsessive D&Der, but if I went back to it now, I’d have no time to write — it would take over all my spare time. I played for two years at university and lived it; we were all in the same house basically living our daily lives as our characters. I played a chaotic neutral/evil tiefling Priestess with charisma 30. Obviously. The high point of the whole game, possibly of my life, was when she seduced a non-player character who turned out to be Nylarthortep.
I’ve never played tabletop, but I love the miniatures. I’m obsessed with Warhammer 40,000 Plague Marines. My brother had a Warhammer goblin army and I spent many happy hours in branches of Games Workshop and reading White Dwarf. I recently had custom-made figures of Marith and Thalia done — it was glorious creating them and now having them sitting in my mantelpiece.
What advice would you give a new author starting out?
Keep going. The only advice anyone can give. Everyone can start a novel — hell, many people have started multiple novels. It’s finishing it that’s hard. There will be days you’d rather gnaw your own arm off than write. There will be days you feel such revulsion at what you’ve written you want to take a cricket bat to your computer. There will be days you have no idea what should happen next. But keep on. It’s like anything: exercise, learning a language, studying for a degree, quitting smoking — keep on at it. And don’t spend ages fretting over the perfect first chapter, write the book to the end. It might be the most rubbish book ever written, but you will have finished a book, which is more than most people can say. You can then rewrite it, fine tune it, scrap it and start again.
But, if it ceases to be enjoyable at all, if you realise you dread the thought of writing and it’s painful — stop. If writing isn’t fundamentally pleasurable, even in some weird masochistic way like fell running is, then stop. Life is short, and also if you’re not enjoying it it’s likely no one else will. Writing has to be a pleasure, something you find gives you a sense of happiness and pride in yourself.
Also, write when you can, in short bursts in a notebook on your bus journey into work, for just half an hour after you get home from work if you don’t have any more time. I wrote The Court of Broken Knives while working and looking after a toddler. I didn’t have days of silence in which to do nothing but write. There are days when I have no time to write at all, days when I only snatch an hour or so in two short chunks. The saddest thing I ever heard about writing was someone saying they wanted to write a novel but felt they’d need to wait until they retired to have the time. If you want to write, it’s almost painful not to be able to. Just half an hour a day can build to a story if you keep thinking about it when you’re not writing.
My dad has a sign by his desk: You must write as if your life depended on it.
Find out more: www.courtofbrokenknives.org