Long-term readers of Grimdark Magazine in print, ebook, and web content will know that I have a long standing love of Anna Smith Spark stories. Since The House of Sacrifice dropped in 2019, we’ve had a global pandemic with three years of lockdowns, restrictions, and deaths, multiple new wars on top of the old seemingly never-ending ones, wild increases in cost pressure on everything thanks to the aforementioned things, and amongst all this, a bit of a quiet book release period from one of my favourite authors. But thankfully, amongst all the anger and bitterness and hate this world sometimes cloaks itself in, books with Anna’s name on the spine are back on the new release bookshelves. Having read and loved both A Sword of Bronze and Ashes and A Woman of the Sword, I am certainly happier for this post-pandemic ray of sunshine, and I appreciate Anna joining us for a quick chinwag about her new releases, her reason for writing them, and some pretty damned exciting news about yet another upcoming release!
[GdM] Your latest book, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes steers away from grimdark fantasy and into what Peter McLean quite aptly labelled “heavy metal mythology”. What can your current fans, and fans-in-waiting, expect to see that’s different from your previous books?
[Anna] A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is more hopeful. It’s morally clearer than Empires of Dust, more in the tradition of high fantasy and indeed classic children’s fantasy like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen – much more good against evil, light against dark. But exploring the cost of taking that stance. It’s greatly inspired by the moment in Jackson’s film of The Fellowship where everyone is arguing over the Ring, and Frodo jumps up to say he’ll take it Mordor, and Gandalf’s face … the grief that someone so good and innocent and weak is the one offering and the only one who can do this terrible thing, Gandalf knows Frodo will be destroyed but there’s no other way. And the Leonard Cohen song The Partisan:
I have changed my name so often
I’ve lost my wife and children
An old woman gave us shelter
Kept us hidden in the garret
Then the soldiers came
She died without a whisper
There were three of us this morning
I’m the only one this evening
But I must go on
In Empires of Dust, the terrible inhumanity of that sentiment is explored. A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is about it’s necessity, that sometimes that terrible price must be paid and paid willingly, even proudly.
It’s also a book about my deep love of Celtic myth and British folklore and folksongs. The Mabinogion, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Welsh triads, mummers plays and sacred wells. Strange, beautiful, and sometimes very dark and terrifying stories that I loved even before the Greek myth and history that I poured into Empires of Dust and A Woman of the Sword.
[GdM] To me, your books are always hyper focussed on family—blood or found family—and the sweeping bloody wars of fire and iron create the colossal backdrop scenery to remind us all how small we are against the greater scene of humanity. In particular, your last two releases have focussed on the raw intensity of motherhood with all the layers of filtering we read about and see in contemporary life stripped away. What motivated this focus and why is it so important to you to portray it so vividly?
[Anna] I have two children; I’ve spoken in the past about my struggles with postnatal depression/psychosis, I’m a lot better now (my writing has helped me hugely) but it’s something that will always be inside me. So it’s very natural to write about it and try to explore it to myself in my writing.
My relationship with my children and with my own mother is absolutely central to my life, the core part of me, and was really the only part of me I had left during the covid lockdowns. Relationships and love and trust between people are in the only the only thing that truly matters, that smallness is something I want to hold on to always, that in the end all that matters is that those around us thrive and live. The sick horror and pity I feel for people like Marith who in the end can’t see that … The ending I gave Darath and Orhan in Empires of Dust sums it up, they have each other, maybe it will all crumble and they’ll fail each other and the pain will consume them, but they’ll try to support each other despite everything. Marith could maybe have had that, but he turned away … That deep unsexy entirely not tormented romantic sexual love but just people – friends, lovers, parent and child, whatever – just trying to just go on together day by day getting by and putting the bins out because otherwise there’s nothing.
There’s a tiny bit in The Court of Broken Knives where Tobias sees Marith’s father’s face when he and Marith meet and Marith’s father realises it’s too late for them, and it’s his fault … that for me is one of the most agonising moments in the series. So much of the historical and fantasy fiction I love (and real history of course) is about siblings, parents and children, in-laws, people who have known each other from childhood and whose families socialise and intermarry – scheming and killing and betraying each other for power. The Wars of the Roses was referred to at the time as the Cousins’ War because everyone was so interconnected. What it must feel like somewhere deep inside to have lived like that, betraying people you’d known all your life, your own family …
But equally the romanticisation of the family unit in fantasy, the wholesome ma and pa and Rosy Cotton ‘If I hadn’t been the Chosen One I could have married the girl next door and lived a quiet wholesome life like my pa’ / ‘if the only woman I ever loved hadn’t tragically died in my backstory I would have been a happily family man not the grimdark bastard I am today’ tropes really needed interrogating and pulling apart a bit – and looking at from the woman and children’s point of view.
Achilles in the Iliad has to chose between eternal fame as a warrior and a long, normal family-man life and being forgotten. What people forget is that he chooses the latter. It’s only Patroclus’ death that drives him to embrace Marith levels of slaughter and lust for (his own) death.
Or maybe he’s lying to Odysseus, or to himself. That’s the point, I think.
[GdM] Something that I always feel when I read your books is that as a 38-year-old childless man with very few (if any) life-or-death pressures on my shoulders, that there are multiple layers of your books that I can never appreciate to the full extent. I love your books, but I will never experience the scraping of my soul these books provide as much as, say, a single struggling mother reading about Lidae and her children from A Woman of the Sword. Have you purposefully written for multiple audiences?
That said, A Woman of the Sword is an intensely personal book written coming out of the horrors of the ending of Empires of Dust (Dion, Bil and Orhan’s son, was heavily based on my children, as was the child Emperor and the child High Priestess; Marith and Thalia’s experiences of pregnancy and wanting children were very personal to me; I think those things between them fucked me up even more than I’d realised writing The House of Sacrifice) and out of my experiences of lockdown. It was a raw outpouring of my feelings about motherhood in a way I hadn’t intended. A Sword of Bronze and Ashes (book one in a series literally called The Remaking of This World Ruined) is directly a way of trying to heal and come back from the pain I poured into The House of Sacrifice and A Woman of the Sword. I have an idea in the cupboard for another series that’s also less raw and soul-scraping once I finish The Remaking of This World Ruined.
[GdM] Reading your prose is an absolute experience. Your stories are visceral and raw and beautiful, and the way you write stands out quite clearly from the wider SFF market. How has your unique approach to delivering stories benefitted or impacted your ability to work and sell to publishers, and your interactions with fans?
[Anna] Ah ha ha ha! My prose is just getting better and better, I can see that. Bu I’m with smaller publishers now because as my writing gets more literary and complex it gets ever less commercial… Which is kind of fine, in Flame Tree and Luna (and GdM!) I’ve found publishers who value what I’m doing as literature not as a commercial product, who know what I write is never going to be a best-seller because it’s complex and literary and weird but value that. I’m very happy now where I am. I feel like I can really stretch myself to create beauty and ferocity without having to think about ‘what sells’ and that I have a core of readers who love what I do and get it. My prose is the core of everything in my writing, it’s why I write and love fantasy. It’s wonderful to have readers and publishers such as yourself who understand that.
[GdM] What books are you working on right now, and when can your fans expect to have their hands on something new?
[Anna] I’m writing away to finish the second book in the Remaking of This World Ruined series, the equal to A Sword of Bronze and Ashes. Then after that I have a significant change of tone that I’m so excited and a bit scared about – I’ll be writing in a franchise for the first time, writing …. Judge Anderson versus Judge Death for 2000AD. I’ve loved both characters since childhood, I’ve loved 2000AD since I was tiny and stared at a friend’s older brother’s drawings of DJ on his rucksack every day in the car on the way to school. Seeing my name next to the 2000AD logo will be a childhood dream made real.
And Judge Death! I mean … me and Judge Death … it’s perfect.