Author Interview: Anna Smith Spark, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’

To follow up my review of ‘The Court of Broken Knives,’ I invited Anna Smith Spark to answer some questions about the book and herself. The story, and its style, was refreshingly different, and a welcome change from the norm. Whilst I admitted to struggling with the voice at first, once I started listening to it, I was fixated.

To me, having finished it, I can say with all certainty that I will remember ‘The Court of Broken Knives’, for years to come, because it made me see, and think, a little bit differently. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things about books – how they can influence you as a reader. Think about it: it’s just you and essentially words on a page, but it’s the voice of the writer in your mind that speaks volumes.

And that’s why I wanted to speak to Anna, and share with you what she had to say.

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Hi Anna! We’ve spoken before, (during a previous interview mini-series on 2017 debut authors) but for those that have yet to come across you, in 50 words or less, introduce yourself.

I’m a grimdark fantasy novelist. I have a background in classical history and English literature, and used to be a petty bureaucrat. And a fetish model. I have dyslexia, dyspraxia and Asperger’s Syndrome. I wear extreme shoes.

My favourite authors are Mary Renault, R. Scott Bakker and M. John Harrison.

And, in the same spirit, introduce your debut, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’, in 50 words or less.

The Court of Broken Knives: either a brutish violence fest written by someone with no ability to use punctuation, or a lyrical masterpiece of profound depth and complexity. Depending on who you ask.

High fantasy, stream of consciousness prose, poetic interludes, extreme violence, tit jokes.

Possibly not for everyone.

‘The Court of Broken Knives’ – Why THIS story?

I honestly don’t know. I started writing and this is what came rushing out. I read a lot of military history, I’ve always been fascinated by the reasons (excuses) why people go to war. And the great myths and hero tales, that have a complex relationship with the violence they describe. History’s attempts to understand Alexander the Great, for example, or the Mongols. Why people do these things, what the allure of the hero is, that we call Alexander ‘the Great’, that people would follow him so far, through so much.

The Court of Broken Knives is an attempt to explore the urge to violence inherent in our culture. To explore what violence between men means.

 As a child, I remember telling myself stories based on the great myth cycles, the Eddas, the Tain, the Tale of Troy, Beowulf. The Court of Broken Knives is basically very pretentious fan fic, I suppose.

For me, ‘The Court of Broken Knives’ is truly unique. I’ve read some reviews that call it ‘art’ as much as it is a story. Your voice – your vision as an artist – is breath taking. In my review I admitted to having to restart the book to truly relish what was being said, and how. And as the story develops, the PoV shifts from third and first and back again.

My question to you – did you set out to tell the story in this way (as art)?

Uhhh….

I probably am quite a literary author, yeah. I grew up with poetry and literature (I have a PhD in English Literature, after all). But this is just how I write. I don’t really think about what I’m writing as I write it. It surprises me, sometimes, where it’s coming from, how I hear the voices coming out of me, I don’t think about them as I write.

I think it’s very important, for example, that a particular character speaks to the reader directly in the first person, comments on the action without any narrator mediation. But I didn’t decide to do that, it happened as I was writing. The story demands things. In fact, when I find myself consciously trying to write ‘for effect’, I almost inevitably delete it because it’s crap.

But I do obsess over my prose after I’ve written a passage, I think about the rhythms and cadences and line structure all the time, in the shower, in bed at night, constantly. The plot is important, of course, I think about that a lot too, but the words, the emotional responses of the different characters, how I convey that, that’s what matters to me when I’m writing.

I did very consciously use the language of the old hero tales. The Court of Broken Knives is hugely influenced by Norse and dark age British mythology, and by Classical Greek literature. I suppose in some ways it’s a mythical book as much as a fantasy novel. Or a historical novel in a world where the old gods are real, like the Iliad.  I grew up walking the British countryside listening to my father talking about mythology, history, literature, folk-lore. Then I’d go home and read Tolkien, Norse mythology, the Mabinogion. I wanted to capture that sense of the numinous, of a world haunted by stories, of people within a landscape, trapped within the stories of their lives.  As I said, myths and legends fan fic.

The other big influences on my literary style are probably James Ellroy and Edna O’Brian. The way Ellroy writes violence in White Jazz is astonishing. He’s writing beyond language, just words as pure utter physical experience of pain. I binge read his books in my teens and they had a vast influence on me and the way I write. O’Brian’s The Country Girls is pure pastoral, about young women in 1960s rural Ireland. She links the landscape and the protagonist’s emotions so powerfully, her descriptions of the land and the characters relationships with it, their existence within it, are haunting, very beautiful and complex. When she writes about a young girl gathering lilac blossom, the petals staining her dress with last night’s rain, when she describes the old man with whom our heroine thinks she is in love as having ‘lips as cool as cocktail ice’ … ah, it’s so beautiful, such a powerful use of language.

There’s a belief that authors put ‘a little bit of themselves’ into their stories. Is this true in your case?

Gods, yes! I pour my heart and soul and life into my writing. All of the characters are me.

There’s a wonderful line in Lovecraft’s Dream Quest that sums up the creation of a story:

For know you, that your gold and marble city of wonder is only the sum of what you have seen and loved in youth. It is the glory of Boston’s hillside roofs and western windows aflame with sunset; of the flower-fragrant Common and the great dome on the hill and the tangle of gables and chimneys in the violet valley where the many-bridged Charles flows drowsily. These things you saw, Randolph Carter, when your nurse first wheeled you out in the springtime, and they will be the last things you will ever see with eyes of memory and of love.

Bringing this back to focusing on you- how did you get into writing? What made you want to write? And how long have you been writing for?

I have always written. Reading and writing are the centre of my life. My earliest memories are of reading and telling myself stories. My father and many of his friends write, I grew up with poets, academics, novelists, playwrights. It just seemed entirely instinctive to write.

I love words. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I do sometimes wonder whether there is some relationship between that and my writing. I could probably be very happy as a brain in a jar communicating purely through written text. And the thought of going blind, of not being able to see written words, terrifies me.

I enjoy art and music, but I can’t draw or play; what I enjoy most about both is talking and writing about them. Describing what a piece of art or music evokes. When I say ‘I love this song’, what I actually mean is ‘I love the words’.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I stopped writing for a long time in my twenties. I was extremely unhappy at that time, really not at all well mentally or physically. I feel a lot better now I’m writing again.

What was the hardest thing about writing ‘The Court of Broken Knives’?

Keeping going. That famous fatuous adage about genius being 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration is true. It’s fairly easy to start a novel / a band / painting the Sistine Chapel. It’s carrying on doing it for long enough to finish it that’s the hard part. You know how easy it is to lose interest in a tv series after a couple of series? To vaguely tell yourself ‘I’m a bit skint at the moment, I’ll buy that must listen album next month’? That’s the hardest thing, not doing that.

What did you learn from writing ‘The Court of Broken Knives’? Either about yourself, or about the publishing world?

About myself – that I swear even more than I thought I did.

About the publishing world – that everything everyone says about the publishing world is Gospel truth true.

If you could change anything, anything at all, now that the book has been released, would you?

No.

Well, maybe I’d edit like one word in a sentence, somewhere. Move some commas around. I spend weeks moving commas around. ‘Dark, and old, and weary’. No, it’s ‘dark and old and weary.’ No, it’s ‘dark, old, weary’. Maybe ‘dark old weary’? Try ‘dark and old. Weary.’? Or ‘Dark. Old. Weary.’? STOP AND GO TO BED FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.

No.

So, before we finish up, I need to ask – how does it feel to be one of two leading ladies (one of two Anna’s from Harper Voyager in fact) of grimdark in 2017? I for one am really looking forward to seeing more female authors on the grimdark scene.

Three! You forgot Deborah A Wolf, author of The Dragon’s Legacy. (Harper, Anna, Harper! But yes, the more the merrier 😀 – Mike) We’re the bloody triumvirate, the Three Goddesses of Grim. Here’s us on our last ladies night out:

Anna Smith Spark graphic (Ah, yes, do I spot Anna Stephens, there, wielding a hammer? – Mike)

To be serious, I’m a bit ambiguous about it. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that there are more female epic fantasy novelists getting big publicity.

The fact that two of us have the same name makes a bit of a point: there was another of those absurd ‘I’ve never read a book by a woman writer’ things on twitter the other day, and being able to shout ‘I’ve read more epic fantasy books by brunette British women called Anna than you’ve read books by all women ever in the history of the world? Seriously?’ does kind of ram home the point. Also people seem incapable of not mentioning both of our books if one is mentioned, so it’s free advertising….

But …  both Peter V Brett and Peter Newman write epic fantasy with demons and are published by HarperVoyager UK. They’re both white guys with short hair. No one makes a big thing about ‘the two Peters’. Anna Stephens and I are both fantasy novelists, so our books are similar in some respects, but very different in others. I dislike the idea that we’re two ‘women novelists’ like that’s wildly different from all the male ‘proper novelists’. Two women both wrote books! Woah!  Amazing! How crazy is that?

What is interesting is seeing more women writing about war, sexual violence, cynicism. I read a lot of historical fiction and the gender split between courtly intrigue (women) and war (men) is even more marked than in fantasy. Unpacking women’s critical perspectives on male violence is particularly interesting.  In Tehanu, for example, Ursula Le Guin goes behind the violence, looks at women’s experience in a violent society. Mary Stewart did a similar thing in her Merlin trilogy, writing about the domestic backdrop to Arthur’s wars against the Saxons. Elizabeth Moon writes about a female soldier, Paksennarion, but ultimately from quite a romantic, heroic perspective on noble or good war. Anna and I are both writing much more brutally – are our perspectives as feminist women different to male grimdark writers? I don’t know. I’d be interested to hear what people think, if our gender does seem to have any bearing to the way we write.

Any advice to would-be writers out there?

Keeping going. That famous fatuous adage about genius being 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration is true.

I stopped watching TV to write Broken Knives. I haven’t even taken the wrapping off the last two series of Game of Thrones. I haven’t seen a single episode of Poldark, not even the one with the topless scything scene.

Write in the evenings. Write on the train going to work. Write in your lunchbreak. Write when you should strictly speaking be working, send yourself long emails or something. Write when you can, and keep going, and don’t give up until you reach the end. It might well be crap. But at least you’ve finished it.

And finally, in 10 years’ time what’s the one thing that you want readers to remember from ‘The Court of Broken Knives’?

I’d hope readers might have thought a bit about the complexity of masculine violence and our cultural response to it.

Also, that Marith has better hair than Jorg Ancrath.

Last but certainly not least – THE LIGHTNING ROUND! No more than 3 word answers. Answer with the first thing that comes into your head – no cheating!

  1. Which RPG character class would you be? Cleric.
  2. Ebook or physical pages? Physical pages.
  3. Which of your characters are you most like? Head – Orhan. Heart – Thalia.
  4. If you had to choose another author to re-write your book, who would you choose? Fuck off.
  5. Deity of choice? Dionysus or Nyarlathotep
  6. Perfect first date? The Egyptian rooms at the British Museum, followed by afternoon tea at the Ritz.
  7. Music to listen to whilst writing? Industrial folk.
  8. Who would play you in the movie of your life? Monica Bellucci.
  9. Which is mightier – the pen or the sword? Depends.
  10. If you weren’t writing fantasy, what genre would you write? Historical fiction, natch.

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Anna Smith-Spark lives in London, UK. She loves grimdark and epic fantasy and historical military fiction. Anna has a BA in Classics, an MA in history and a PhD in English Literature. She has previously been published in the Fortean Times and the poetry website http://www.greatworks.org. Previous jobs include petty bureaucrat, English teacher and fetish model.

Anna’s favourite authors and key influences are R. Scott Bakker, Steve Erikson, M. John Harrison, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Stewart and Mary Renault.  She spent several years as an obsessive D&D player. She can often be spotted at sff conventions wearing very unusual shoes.

Her debut The Court of Broken Knives is available now.

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