Hailed as the queen of grimdark, Anna Smith Spark is the author of the Empires of Dust trilogy, which began in spectacular fashion with The Court of Broken Knives and continued with The Tower of Living and Dying and The House of Sacrifice. This year Anna has published two new novels: the standalone grimdark fantasy, A Woman of the Sword, and the epic folk horror fantasy, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes.
Anna Smith Spark’s writing has been described as “a masterwork” by Nightmarish Conjurings, “an experience like no other” by Grimdark Magazine, and “howls like early Moorcock, converses like the best of Le Guin” by the Daily Mail. She’s aspie, dyslexic, and dyspraxic; a former English teacher, petty bureaucrat, and fetish model with a BA in Classics, an MA in history, and a PhD in English Literature. You may know her by the heels of her shoes. I recently had the pleasure of discussing with Anna about her two new novels, writing inspirations, and more.
[John] Congratulations on the publication of your latest novel, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes. Oral storytelling traditions play an important role in your new book, while also lending a folk horror aspect to the novel. What were some of your inspirations within the oral storytelling tradition?
[Anna] Oral storytelling and poetry recitation has always been a huge part of my writing – and my life. As a child, I was lucky enough to attend a lot of wonderful storytelling sessions, an old family friend was a professional storyteller specializing in ghost stories and local legends. I’ve heard the opening lines of the Iliad sung in the original Greek, Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon, bits of Chaucer in Middle English … And I’ve heard Fiona Shaw perform the Wasteland in a ruined East End music theatre. My dad used to read to me a lot, he reads amazingly – LotR and the Hobbit with different accents for the different races, he’d sing the songs and get all the elvish pronunciation right so it worked when sung. Also I’m hugely into folk music, which is often traditional stories being sung rather than told in writing. So oral storytelling, the rhythm, the way it sounds and is performed, is always something that’s mattered to me in my writing.
I recite my prose aloud as I’m writing, it’s very important to me that I get the rhythm and the cadence right. I’ll play around moving words in a sentence, putting in and taking out punctuation, until I’m completely certain the cadence is just right. And I love puns, rhymes alliteration, things that come across more when read aloud than on the page.
[John] For me, reading A Sword of Bronze and Ashes brought back so many fond memories of The Mabinogion in both its narrative style and its embrace of natural mysticism. How did you find the process of writing in this style compared to that of your previous novels? Was it challenging to capture such an authentic feel of the Celtic oral tradition?
[Anna] Oh, thank you! I’m so happy that several people have made the links there. I have very early memories of my dad reading me a children’s version of the Mabinogion called Island of the Mighty, it is a text that has been with me my whole life. I reread the great Celtic myths and poems regularly, and I read a lot of academic works on British prehistory.
I went very deep into some very dark total war places writing Empires of Dust and A Woman of the Sword. I wanted – needed- to write something brighter, yes, more about the natural world, more ‘magical’ (there’s lots of magic in the other books, but I wouldn’t say they were magical in the sense of wonder and enchantment). But it wasn’t intentional, I didn’t decide to change my style. A Sword of Bronze and Ashes was written when my world was coming back to slightly greater normality after the worst of covid, I was reading a boom on Celtic myth and symbolism, I was thinking a lot about the British countryside that I love having finally been able to go on holiday again … and I started writing a scene of a woman in a landscape I love. The story, and the style, just poured out. In two weeks, I’d written what’s now the first third of the book. All of, Roven, Kanda, the three evil ones – I hadn’t planned it all, just as I hadn’t planned a word of Empires of Dust. It’s another world that I’ve always told stories about to myself – and actually, a language I’ve always used. My dad and I used to drive my mum mad talking about the three great thises and thats of Britian – ‘pass you that roll? That roll is one of the three great rolls of Britain, better for eating with cheese is that roll than any roll yet baked.’ (My dad recently wrote some poetry in Pictism ogham sounds. It’s … a family thing).
I found the writing style very healing and comforting, after the savagery of Empires of Dust. The natural mysticism, the emphasis on death and rebirth and the cycles of the natural world, the idea that death is not necessarily to be feared, that was … not intended consciously, but certainly a thing I needed to remind myself of after Empires of Dust. I am fundamentally a pantheist, the idea of the earth itself and all life in it as a part of one great sacred wholeness is something I hold on to.
[John] With its powerful female protagonist, Kanda, who balances epic battles with real-life family struggles, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes also captures the feminist spirit of The Mabinogion. Who were some of your inspirations for Kanda as a character?
[Anna] Lidae in A Woman of the Sword is me as I fear I am, expresses my darkest fears about myself as a mother. (She originally appeared as the protagonist of a short story in GdM, very loosely me as a teenager but not described physically. The cover artist drew her looking exactly like I did at her age [okay, maybe rather better looking, but same hair, eyes, skin] It was quite frightening. She really is me). Kanda in A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is me as I’d like to be as a woman and especially as a mother. She doesn’t like me, she acts in ways I try to act, wish I could act. She has so much strength. She draws a lot on friends, and especially on my mother. People I admire, who have survived, who are strong and work to change the world or to give their families and friends a better life. I love her so much.
[John] The line between life and death is blurred in A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, leaving the door open to some unexpected plot twists. Is your approach to death in A Sword of Bronze and Ashes inspired by any particular stories from Celtic mythology?
[Anna] The story of the iron cauldron that restores the dead to life in the Mabinogion is something that has haunted me since my dad first read me that story years ago. And the weird time and person shifts in The Wooing of Etain. I’ve also always been slightly obsessed by bog bodies, barrow wrights, ghost stories where the ghosts seem almost to be ‘alive’ like James’ A Warning to the Curious – the way the line between what’s dead and what’s alive is blurred, something can be ‘dead and buried’ but still ‘alive’ in the sense of interacting with the world and causing harm. And also the way myths often contain so many incongruities , in one story a character dies in another story supposedly set years later the same character is alive. There are attempts to ‘rationalise’ it or make it fit logically (Neil Gaiman does it really clunkingly in his much overrated Norse Myths). But I prefer the readings where there is simply the weirdness, the lack of consistency, between when someone is alive or dead, sometimes someone is alive after they were killed in a different story and it’s just … there, with no sense to it.
I was also thinking about the Arthur stories and especially the Grail stories where various knights heal people. Lancelot heals someone even after he has sinned with Elaine and Guinever and been shown to be very far from the perfect knight, he’s aging, he’s horribly aware of his guilt and that the Round Table is falling apart because of what he has done, and right at the end before everything collapses into despair – he heals someone. In Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the cycle, everyone else is rejoicing, but Lancelot sits alone weeping and staring down at his hands that have healed – but that will soon kill Gareth and Gaheris.
[John] Your two latest novels, A Woman of the Sword and A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, have arguably the best representation of motherhood in the entire fantasy genre. Both are so gut-wrenchingly authentic in relating the challenges of motherhood, but in different ways. Could you describe how your approach to describing motherhood differed between these two books?
[Anna] Goodness, thank you! I wrote … from the heart, about my own children and my own parenting.
A Woman of the Sword was written during and mostly after the covid lockdowns. In the UK during the worst of it the schools closed, there was no childcare or ability to ask someone to look after your children, we were allowed out once a day for maybe an hour’s exercise, you weren’t allowed to take children to the shops with you unless it was absolutely impossible to leave them. So I was locked in the house with my children trying and failing to home school them. I’d been thinking more and more about ‘normal people’ and especially women just living through the events of Empires of Dust, the refugees, the foot soldiers, the camp followers, and the two things came together in my mind as I was struggling with this – frankly, with what for me was an absolute mental catastrophe I had to try and get through while protecting my children from everything (what do you say at three in the morning to the question ‘mummy, is grandma going to die of covid?’ when you realistically can’t say ‘no, she’s not, don’t worry, go to sleep’) and keeping them from realizing how bad it was for me.
As I said above, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes was me rebuilding myself, trying to heal – and genuinely healing, finding new hope and beauty in life. The importance of family and community was something covid really showed me, the pain I felt not seeing my own parents, the utter joy of the first time my parents could hug my children again. There’s a speech Kanda makes about all the chaos of family life, arguments, noise, mess, juggling work and everyone’s billion life interests and being absolutely exhausted, cooking a terrible dinner, your child breaking your favourite plate – and how that’s the most beautiful wonderful thing she can imagine. Because covid showed me it really is. The utter desolation of losing that … and how easily, every day, people do lose that. Kanda and Lidae both make so many mistakes, they’re both real parents in that, but Kanda is me as I hope to be.
[John] Whether it’s the Empire of Dust trilogy or A Woman of the Sword, you are a master of writing about the ruthlessness of war from the viewpoint of common soldiers. What is it that has drawn you to focus on this perspective of the ordinary person as a pawn in the larger theatre of war?
[Anna] Goodness, again, thank you! I have a background in classical history and modern social history, one of the areas I’ve always be interested in is the lived experience of ‘normal people’ living through war and change. I read a lot of accounts of daily life, dairies, letters, pamplets, things like folk songs and ballads, text that aren’t about the big political maneuverings but are the daily lives of the people caught up in things they don’t understand. I find accounts of life during war endlessly fascinating. There are some quite astonishing and horrifying accounts of daily life on both sides during Napoleon’s march on and retreat from Moscow, for example, that shed real light on what must be shared experiences a lot of soldiers would have gone through from the Bronze Age to today. Also archaeology, the material remains of daily lives, rubbish heaps, normal people’s houses, that sort of thing. It’s endless fascinating.
My parents are both very political, I was brought up campaigning for a feminist socialist republic and was always taught to think about oppression, power, the experience of the subaltern. So that sense of wanting to understand and write sympathetically about the subaltern, to integrate what power means and its consequences for different people, is something I’ve always been very aware of and seen as important in my writing.
[John] My daughter and I attended your outstanding British Fantasy Society workshop, “Creating a Deep and Rich World Through Your Prose.” We learned so much from your cinematic approach to writing: immersing yourself in a scene and soaking it up from each of your senses. Which movies have been the most influential in your own writing? Do you plan to host any other British Fantasy Society workshops in the future?
[Anna] I loved giving that workshop! My parents were both studying film when I was in my early teens, my dad studying for and the teaching an MA in film. The way a scene is composed – the lighting, the framing, positioning of props and people – was something I picked up on organically from my parents that soaked organically into how I write, I structure every element of the scene in my head as I’m writing it.
Particular films have greatly influenced my writing in different ways.
David Lynch and Peter Greenaway are both massive influence of my prose and the way I world build. Dune is one of my favourite films ever, the battle scenes and the chaos and the grotesqueness of the world he creates is something I aspire to; the use of snatches of music, sudden cuts, non-linear story-telling in Lost Highway is how I try to write (incorporating snatches of music into a book is obviously a but difficult, but I try). Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books is absurdly, utterly beautiful, that richness, the over-abundancy of visual imagery and beauty and grotesqueness, again, that’s the way I want my writing to sound. I want to somehow use just words to create something as multi-sensuous as Lost Highway or Prospero’s Books.
The Thin Red Line and Apocalypse Now are two of the greatest war films, and have shaped the way I write battles and soldiers. The Thin Red Line is astonishingly beautiful, dream-like in it’s imagery, it captures so well the terrible beauty of death and violence that I’m so interested in. I saw both films in my teens and they shaped the way I think about writing war. And, of course, the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Jackson’s The Two Towers. I must have watched that scene a hundred times, I watch it and take apart every frame, work out exactly what Jackson’s doing with sound, light, positioning of extras, try to capture that in my writing.
And a mention of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which I watched about a billion times as a child, there’s a lot in my writing and my general interests and aesthetics that go back to that film.
[John] As a university professor, I am dying to know more about your PhD dissertation in English Literature. What was the subject of your research? Did your PhD research play an important role in your subsequent writing?
[Anna] Ah ha! No, in fact. None at all. I did a BA in Ancient World Studies (classical literature and history), and an MA in modern social history and cultural theory, both of which have had a significant impact on my writing. But my PhD was … a massive mistake, basically. I did it in an English Department, it was about late Victorian occultism, Darwinism, sexuality and feminism, and Imperialism. So it was very interesting, but it wasn’t what I should have studied (I should have stayed in history looking at folk history and daily experience, the lives of ‘normal people’) and it didn’t work out at all. I mean, I was awarded my doctorate with no real problems, but I didn’t enjoy it and it wasn’t going to lead to an academic career. The writing came later, totally separately, going back to where I should have been with Classics and social history.
Although my short story about Mr Darling in the anthology The Other Side of Never draws on elements of the thesis about late Victorian sexual neurosis.
[John] Are you planning a sequel to A Sword of Bronze and Ashes? Are there any other future projects that you’re able to share with our readers?
[Anna] Yes! A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is book one in a series called The Remaking of This World Ruined. I’m writing it at the moment. And I have another series building itself in my head for after I finish The Remaking of This World Ruined, slightly different again in style as my pose develops and returning to a more epic multi-POV huge battles set-up. But that’s several years in the future, so anything could have happened to change things …
I’m writing some short stories and a novella set in the world of The Remaking of This World Ruined, about the Six and Roven. One is already out in Grimoak Press’ Unbound II, I have a novella due next year with the wonderful Dyslexix Friendly Books from Books on the Hill and a short story for Grimbold Press’ Fight Like a Girl II.
And a very exciting and very different thing – a novella Michael R Fletcher and I co-wrote for Grimdark Magazine, which is us seeing just how far too far can go. It is beyond bad taste grimdark insanity. We’re currently at the fine copy edit before we go to press, so it should be out fairly soon.
[John] Who are some of the new authors that you are most excited about in the fantasy community and can recommend to our readers?
[Anna] I absolutely loved Shauna Lawless’ The Children of Gods and Fighting Men and The Words of Kings and Prophets, historical fantasy set in 10th century Ireland about Brian Boru and the Viking kingdom of Dublin. I’d also strongly recommend J E Hannaford’s Black Hind’s Wake duology, The Skin and The Pact, about selkies in a post-apocalyptic, folklore haunted Europe. And I haven’t read them yet, but I was drooling over the covers for Ryan Carhill’s books, which are works of art in their own right.
[John] Changing topic, you have the most awesome collection of shoes, some of which feature dragons, and others that double as weapons. Where do you find such amazing shoes? Do you ever get into trouble going through airport security?
[Anna] My shoes! I’ve always loved high heels and beautiful shiny shiny boots of leather, and I do like dressing up a lot. Theming fancy frocks and especially shoes with my writing is great. I do spend quite a lot of time looking for shoes, I usually get a new pair and/or a new dress for my birthday and sometimes to celebrate a book release. A Woman of the Sword was marked with a pair red dragon stilettos, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes with a bronze dress.
I had an absurd experience at Dublin WorldCon. I stalked Steve Erikson through the massive dealers’ hall, threw myself at his feet in homage, he actually spoke to me and indeed asked me if I’d like to carry on our conversation over a coffee – and then someone literally shoved him out of the way so they could admire my shoes. Which was somewhat embarrassing.
I haven’t had security issues, but only because I have to put a lot of thought into how to get my shoes through airport security. I have a couple of pairs I daren’t take as hand luggage – I confess, I have sometimes got the train from London to Scotland and made a big deal of it being on environmental grounds when the real reason was not being able to take shoes on as hand luggage. I did once leave a bag with both my dragon pairs in at Birmingham Station. They’d been handed in, the guy at the help desk was trying to find a way of describing them: ‘the, um, the things with, um, they looked a bit like shoes????’