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anna smith sparkHailed 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. Anna published two new novels last year: the standalone grimdark fantasy, A Woman of the Sword, and the epic folk horror fantasy, A Sword of Bronze and Ashes, both of which we discussed in an interview last fall. Her latest work is In the Shadow of their Dying, a grimdark novella coauthored with Michael R. Fletcher.

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 catching up with Anna to discuss the writing process for her new novella and more.

[John Mauro] Congratulations on the publication of your new novella, In the Shadow of their Dying. Could you tell us the origin story of this novella and how you decided to coauthor with Michael R. Fletcher, fellow grimdark author and esteemed proprietor of the Dripping Bucket tavern?

[Anna Smith Spark] Hello and thank you for having me back!

The novella was forced upon Fletcher and me by Adrian Collins, founder and editor in chief of Grimdark Magazine. He invited the two of us to collaborate, set out the basic brief of a city under siege, and we went from there.

I’ve been a massive fan of Fletcher’s since Beyond Redemption, and we seem to think in pretty similar ways. So it was brilliant to work together. I was thrilled at the chance (and terrified). It sounded like an opportunity to have a lot of fun as well.

In the Shadow of their Dying[John] What was the process like writing with Michael R. Fletcher? Sometimes I felt like you two were playing a game, intentionally trying to write each other into a corner just to see how you would break free.

[Anna] My motto for the book was ‘let’s see how far too far can go’. I mean, you put people who refer to themselves as Fletchgod Apocalypse and Queen of Grimdark together, you’re expecting them to try and break themselves and everything around them, aren’t you? I’m not sure we were quite trying to force each other into a corner the other couldn’t get out of (we think very similarly, as I said, and we’re both used to killing characters off, bringing characters back to life, having characters quadruple-cross each other…), more we were trying to see just how OTT things could get before we broke our editor.  The collaboration was originally pitched as a serial, we’d respond to each other’s last episode, build up the story organically kind of like a game of consequences, that was part of the appeal of the project.

[John] I love the voice that you brought to Iananr, the demon who haunts In the Shadow of their Dying. When did Iananr first come into your life? Was her voice already fully formed, or is that something you developed over time?

[Anna] Iananr has been in my head since I was a teenager. I wrote a lot of, um, high-art torture porn graphic novel scripts, often with Iananr’s voice. No one can remember at what point a demon character was suggested or by whom, but as soon as I wrote her first paragraph I knew her completely.

She’s influenced by the radical feminist Kristevan readings of Lovecraft that I was completely obsessed with as a teenager. I always read Lovecraft with the assumption that the chaos gods are the good guys, I genuinely thought until very recently that the moment the protagonist realizes the unspeakable truth was meant to be a positive revelation a bit like ‘you’re a wizard Harry Potter’. The disgust/desire/eroticism/decay links with the female body, sexual pleasure and death are there in Empires of Dust, Iananr is linked with Marith and Thalia and both the Queen of Turain and the unnamed woman nursing the dying in The House of Sacrifice.

It was an absolute joy to really go with the stream of consciousness way of writing. Totally let rip kind of free of any thought of commercial requirements.

 [John] Are there any other authors you’d be interested in collaborating with, either within or outside the realm of grimdark fantasy? Or did Fletcher scare you away from future collaborations?

[Anna] Ummm…. This is awful, but not many people. Fletch and I just get each other in our writing. I suspect I’d be a nightmare with most other people, trying to rewrite their work.

I am doing a very different form of collaboration at the moment – I’m writing a novel in the Judge Dredd universe, about Judge Anderson and Judge Death. It’s brilliant fun, I’ve loved 2000AD since before I was old enough to read it (a school friend’s older brother was a huge JD fan, I’d stare at the fan art on his school books every morning in the car) and Anderson and Death were always my favourite DJ characters. But it’s a very strange and honestly quite daunting experience writing in a world that so many other astonishing writers and artists have built up. I can’t write in quite my normal way.

The Court of Broken Knives[John] Let’s go back a bit to the Empires of Dust trilogy. The unstable relationship between Marith and Thalia is at the heart of this story. How did you strike the right balance between love and hate or between collusion and madness?

[Anna] Marith and Thalia have been in my head basically my whole life, the central characters in every story I told myself as a child. I knew and understood their relationship intimately. Thalia is ultimately the more complex of the two, she starts out as the very traditional ‘rescued princess’ heroine of a great many of the classic fantasy novels and films I love. Her struggles with why she stays with Marith, the question of whether she loves him, has the futile ‘women who love too much’ idea she can ‘save’ him, is simply and obviously enjoying the lifestyle he can give her is something I think I’ve always thought about around the traditional heroine. All those girls in James Bond films who respond to a hot guy flirting with them and end up helping him defuse a nuclear bomb while the building collapses in flames. Even in Lord of the Rings, I’ve always wondered about Arwen and Aragorn. What if he wasn’t the Chosen One? Of course, that destiny is a huge part of his character, thus it’s not fair to say she’s only interested in him because he’s Special. But … It’s an obvious narrative point, the Great Hero needs a very special love interest reward for his labours.  But what does the love interest herself feel? What’s her sense of her role and relationship to the hero? Not rewriting her as a kick-ass equal to the Great Hero but looking at how she negotiates her love interest reward role as his paramour and what that status means for her in her relationships with others.

As I was writing the books I also got more and more interested in Melania Trump on the one hand and Grace Mugabe on the other. Both beautiful, much younger ‘reward’ trophy wives who very obviously take secondary status within the relationship (Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, allegedly chose Grace, then a young junior worker in his office, to replace her after her own impending death). But whereas Melania was portrayed as Trump’s victim and desperate to leave him– remember ‘blink if you need help, Melania’? – but Grace was read as being a manipulative gold-digger responsible for Mugabe’s fall from liberation hero to tyrant.

The Tower of Living and Dying[John] Thalia is my favorite character from the Empires of Dust. I’d also argue that she has the most distinct voice in the series. How did you decide to shift your narrative style so markedly for her point-of-view chapters to capture just the right tone?

[Anna] Honestly, it just happened. I started writing from Thalia’s perspective and she was speaking in the first person present tense, commenting on herself, her interactions with the people around her, talking directly to me as the reader. It just made immediate sense. As I said above, she is engaged in a struggle trying to understand her role in the story, she is in some ways commenting on the story and the other characters, and in reader expectations, as they unfold. Empires of Dust is a very male dominated world, most of the women are ‘just’ defined by their relationship to the men in the world. So it’s very important that the only voice we hear directly without the mediation of the narrator is Thalia’s.

[John] Was there a real-world inspiration for Sorlost, the decaying capital of what had once been the greatest empire in the world? Could you tell us how you conceived and developed this grand world of the Empires of Dust trilogy?

The House of Sacrifice[Anna] Not so much a real city as poets’ dreams of real cities … Flecker’s The Golden Road to Samarkand and The Golden Journey to Samarkand, poems that I love beyond all reason; Yates’ Byzantium; Eliot’s London in The Wasteland. And my life-long dreams of Persian cities and the Silk Road cities of the Central Asian deserts, Isfahan, the ruins of Persepolis, Samarkand, Tashkent, Balkh, Dunhuang, places that have obsessed me since childhood. The smell of the air comes from getting off a plane at Cairo airport at dusk, the scene where Orhan smells the damp air after rain and after women have been pouring water to keep down the dust comes from walking down a street in Cairo after some women had been watering pot plants. There’s elements of Xian, the old Silk Road capital of China, as well, a night market I went to there where people were communicating in writing as Mandarin and Cantonese are the same written but mutually unintelligible when spoken. Places I’ve only visited for a few days, and therefore places that I only remember in quite a dreamlike way.

The world emerged as I was writing the books, I didn’t plan it, rather, I was exploring it and creating it as I wrote. There are a lot of the places I love from books and from real life in it – the marshes Marith and Thalia ride through in The Court of Broken Knives, are the salt marshes outside Dunwich in Suffolk; the mountains and valleys filled with fruit trees in the south of Irlast in The House of Sacrifice are based on one line describing a woman’s eyes as ‘blue as the sky over Kashmir’ in Midnight’s Children.  I read a lot of history and travel writing, my love of fantasy and my love of travel writing are from the same source, a love of reading about places I’ll never visit, building dreams of places.

[John] I adore the mic-drop endings of both The Tower of Living and Dying and A Sword of Bronze and Ashes. Is there an intentional parallel between the endings of these two books?

A Woman of the Sword[Anna] Yes! And between the endings of A Woman of the Sword and both books – and also Thalia’s almost the very final chapter in The House of Sacrifice (which in some ways should have ended with Thalia ‘living in quite peace’ but had to end with Marith’s tragedy as it’s ultimately his story not Thalia’s). Women trying to live in their different ways with all the crap that life throws at you – and yes of course life throws crap at men as well [you’re a father, obviously I am well aware that life can absolutely crap on fathers as well as mothers], but it was important to write my experiences of life as a woman into my novels. Especially as epic and grimdark fantasy and swords and sorcery are traditionally very male-dominated narratives and genres, exploring the way women make lives for themselves in these violent, masculine worlds was hugely important. That statement, ‘A woman, living’, is so important to me as a political statement of so many things.

Kanda and her world was very much written as a counter-point to the world of Empires of Dust and A Woman of the Sword, a more hopeful, more feminine or least less toxically masculine world that engages with it. There’s a reason the series title is The Remaking of This World Ruined.  You could see the antagonists in A Sword of Bronze and Ashes as the last vestiges of Marith’s army, unable to stop killing and destroying. Or you could see Kanda’s world as a story told in the White Isles or Illyr about a better time and place, a different way maybe they could once have lived or even did live, the story as White Isles’ folklore. Even as a hatha dream of Marith’s.

[John] Your prose is so uniquely lyrical across all your works. Who were your influences in honing your style? How have you seen your writing style evolve in the years after your original publication of The Court of Broken Knives?

[Anna] Goodness, thank you! The prose is everything to me, what I care about is the responsive the language evokes, the poetry, the beauty, the horror – I’ll spend ages going over a comma or a line break to get the thing exactly right, then sometimes it comes out whole paragraphs in a wild rush of just seeing it, feeling it, the language pouring out of me. At those moments I think it’s possibly somehow a part of my autism. I can see the whole work, every word of it, like a landscape in front of me. I suddenly realized a few years ago that that’s exactly how an austic savant who could recite Pi to 3,000 digits I once met described how Pi looked to him, he saw it as a landscape he was inside. For him it was a matter of saying it aloud as digits in a number, for me it’s typing it out on a keyboard as words and spaces.

Which doesn’t answer your question really, except to say that I think it’s partly innate in me to write like this. (But I can only write on a computer keyboard hitting keys with one finger of my left hand. Seriously. I can’t write flaunty prose with a pen and paper).

My influences are probably all from my childhood. I had an incredibly privileged childhood, my father is a poet and FE (that’s college and adult education, for anyone outside the UK or under 40) English teacher whose life really revolves around literature and film and who has a great love of fantasy and science fiction, my mum is an infant school teacher. My life was absolutely full of books and language, most of my parents’ friends were writers, artists, critics … I grew up surrounded by people having serious discussions about literary criticism, I was taken to see a lot of plays, films, poetry readings. I soaked it all in.

I think my prose has improved since The Court of Broken Knives. The first half the book has a certain hesitancy to it, a slightly rough sense of ‘I seem to be writing a fantasy book, I’m feeling very self-consciously aware of myself writing here’. I can probably pinpoint the page, even the paragraph, I think my fully-developed abilities kick in.

I think my prose is changing and arguably improving with everything I write.  Certainly A Sword of Bronze and Ashes is, as you said yourself, John, far more complex in its language and themes than The Court of Broken Knives. And In the Shadow of Their Dying has bits where my prose goes bezerk (in a good way) and bits where I was really enjoying myself being extremely puerile (also in a good way, I hope). It’s like music – Peter McLean wonderfully described Empires of Dust as black metal opera, I might want to write something very rococo in future, or something absolutely minimalist and pared back  to the bones.

A Sword of Bronze and Ashes[John] How are things going with your sequel to A Sword of Bronze and Ashes? I’m very eager to see what happens next with Kanda. Are there any other future projects that you’re able to share with our readers?

[Anna] The sequel to A Sword of Bronze and Ashes has honestly been one of hardest things I’ve ever written – I’ve been pushing myself in terms of a slightly different way of writing and thinking, also I’ve had a very tough year… It went to my publisher a few days ago, finally. So fingers crossed.

I have another series building itself in my head, a slightly different prose style again, which I am letting rest and build itself. Empires of Dust is the product of everything I’ve read and seen and dreamed, The Remaking of This World Ruined responds to that – I’ve collecting and building a new world in my head slowly that I can get down in words in a while.

And, excitingly, I’m part of the team for WorldFantasyCon 2025, which is taking place in Brighton, UK. It has the twin themes of ‘50 Years of the British Fantasy Society’ and ‘Lyrical Fantasy’ – I’m very excited about the latter, particularly (might have had something to do with it being selected as a theme); the lyrical fantasy tradition in Britain going back to the Romantic poets is, fairly obviously, very important to me. I love Brighton as a place as well: the Pavilion, the always grey and freezing seafront, the connection to Jane Austen… Memberships are on sale now at https://worldfantasy2025.co.uk/ if anyone wants to sign up. The sea, history, poetry and fantasy in one of the most diverse cities in the UK, famed for its nightlife and shopping! (And a quick train link to London and to Gatwick airport).

 [John] Thanks again for doing this interview with me, Anna. Let’s end on a fun note: tuckerization. I think Adrian Collins from Grimdark Magazine makes an appearance in all of your work, and I’ve noticed nods to several other authors and members of the fantasy community therein. What is your approach to tuckerization, and how much do I need to bribe you for me to make an appearance in one of your books?

[Anna] Yes, Adrian is in virtually everything I write because he’s been such an amazing support to me and I really owe him a lot. And a couple of other people crop up, some multiple times, yes, for similar reasons. It’s a very personal thank you and tribute. And John, I’d be honoured to put you and your daughter into a book!

A lot of my characters have names that mean something to me as a nod to someone I care about or who gave me help and support at some point. Landscape features are the same – there are some place names that mean something personal to me, very few people will know why or what the reference is to but it matters to me. It’s a really important part of my world building as I’m writing, because it inscribes meaning to people and places in a similar way to the way we feel about people and places in real life. If I name a character or a place in a way that means something to me, it gives them a richness in the world. Not ‘this character is based on X so they look and talk like X’ but more just a sense of meaning, that’s there’s more than just a name on the page there in my head. So a city has a name that’s a tribute to a boss who was very supportive of me, uh, writing my novels on work time, there’s an immediate sense of warmth in my mind about that city, if you see what I mean, if I wrote about it I can see it as somewhere that has meaning to me and therefore to the people who live there. Then it gets sort of richer as the story develops – my dear friend Tom Clews liked the porridge scene at the beginning of The Court of Broken Knives, so when his character was in a scene involving cooking breakfast I had to throw that back at him.

I’ve also offered several tuckers over the years for Kickstarters or charity. It’s lovely getting a little connection between the purchaser and the character, I try to do that where I can, even if it’s just a little thing.

I also just love the idea of certain people existing in different form in every one of my books! Philip Pullman something similar, in every book of his that I’ve read there’s passing reference to a particular name – which I cannot for the life of me remember, sadly. Like in one book a shop sign might say ‘J. Jones and Daughter, butchers’, in another a dodgy lawyer’s signature on a document might be ‘J. Jones’. I do wonder what the name means to Pullman (from the context, either someone from his past he strongly dislikes or someone who’s a very nice person; actually, thinking about it, it’s very possibly his agent).

And 2000AD comes back here, all the joke references to popular culture and UK and US politics. All the Easter eggs. There are loads in my books, many of which will mean nothing to anyone apart from me but it matters to me to put in there.

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

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