An Interview with Anna Smith Spark

I interviewed Anna Smith Spark, author of the Empires of Dust trilogy, for the SFF Oasis discord group. Check out our chat below!

Hi Anna and welcome to Spells & Spaceships and the SFF Oasis! 

Hello and thank you so much for having me here. In a lovely cool oasis of palm trees sheltered from the searing heat. 

First off, talk to us about your moniker, “Queen of Grimdark” – is this a name you chose for yourself or one gifted to you by others?

It was given to me by my dear friend and collaborator in grimdark insanity Michael R Fletcher, author of Beyond Redemption, Swarm and Steel and many other works of baroque fantasy insanity. He blurbed me as ‘the Queen of Grimdark’ on the US edition of Court of Broken Knives and I had to adopt it as a twitter handle. So now I’m stuck with it forever and can’t write in any other genre. Thanks, Mike. 

I have personally apologised to Joe Abercrombie for all the jokes about us being married. I am totally honestly not married to Joe Abercrombie.   

What makes Grimdark writing particularly appealing to you and why do you think readers are drawn to it?

I didn’t set out to write a grimdark fantasy novel, I discovered the term when I’d virtually finished Court of Broken Knives when I stumbled on the Grimdark Writers and Readers group on facebook and found my spiritual home. 

On a more cerebral level, grimdark fantasy is far closer to mythology than most epic fantasy: Irish myths like the Tain Bo Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the Iliad, Beowulf, the Norse Eddas are very complex, grimdark, really quite profoundly amoral stories about war and violence with very flawed protagonists, they’re not at all the modern sense of epic fantasy as good against evil. I grew up reading those stories quite obsessively, my literary background is in mythological stories and then Tolkien (who is of course writing in much more moral, Christian terms – but there’s a lot of sadness, darkness, fear in Tolkien, having lived in the trenches in WW1 he is writing war stories in response to his experience of something quite beyond most of our understanding) and other darker, more ambiguous fantasy novels like The Book of the New Sun or Viriconium so that was very naturally what I fell into writing. Also I’m a historian with a particular interest in military and political history – grimdark fantasy basically fantasy actually being realistic about war and politics. Only in fantasy can the idea that the good doesn’t always win and that maybe actually life is a bit more complicated than good versus evil, be ‘grimdark’ and ‘controversial’ etc etc etc. Read Philippa Gregory, then tell me I’m especially grimdark and cynical. 

On a rather less cerebral level, I grew up always supporting the baddies. The great passions of my life – Achilles, Alexander the Great, Edmund in Lear, Mordred, Steerpike, Caligula … I mean, I probably wouldn’t exactly kick Darth Vader out of bed for farting on a cold night … The first time I met dear sweet Jorgy Ancrath was a very fine occasion for me. I always kind of want the Dark Lord to win cause he’s just so much cooler and sexier and the sexy priestess lady he’s doing always gets the best goth outfits. I mean … Evil Lynn or old school She-Ra??? Who doesn’t get a massive itch hearing the words ‘the Witchking of Angmar, the Dark Lord’s greatest servant, the one they say no living man can kill’???? Give me a book about a man with a blood-soaked, ancient cursed sword and a swirling warcloak and I’m in. 

Why are readers drawn to grimdark? Because it’s cooler and sexier and we on the dark side have muffins … There is definitely an element of that, of course there is. Think of the ending of the film version of The Two Towers, that incredible vision of Mordor with the tower and the eye, the Nazgul circling – a part of us, god, a part of all of us kind of wants to be part of that, I think.  Seriously, I think because of the moral complexity of grimdark, the way it recognises that power is complex, that good and evil are very contest terms, that there are so many layers to most stories. Grimdark grew out of a critique of elements of heroic fantasy as essentially very right wing and problematic, grimdark is very focused on undercutting the idea of ‘the hero’, ‘the chosen one’, it problematises the idea that our fight is for good and asks the big cynical questions about why we’re fighting and what the price of victory actually is. Grimdark makes pretty pointed comments about the erasure and ill-treatment of women /minorities / the peasantry in a lot of trad high fantasy – and in real life violent cultures from the moment humanity came up with words like ‘king’, ‘warlord’, ‘hero’ onwards. Honestly, I think of grimdark as epic fantasy with brains. Really bad taste jokes and a lingering slightly pathological thing about cannibalism – but more brains.     

I concluded my review of A Court of Broken Knives likening your writing to a two-sided canvas, one side carefully painted with delicate brush strokes of colour and imagination; the other side smeared with blood, scorched with flame, splattered with guts, bone and ash. Is this juxtaposition an intentional contrast between light and dark?

Kind of. I can see the balance in my head as I’m writing, I know when I need to change mood and tone – for my sanity as much as anything else after a really big dark scene. I kind of see it, or hear it like music, if that makes any sense: I know when the variation needs to come in. I don’t sit down and plan my writing at all beyond a very high level ‘this is how it ends’, it all comes out as I’m writing, and as I’m writing I can see the structure of the book. And that’s how life is – something explosive, manic, then a time of calm; absolute horror and grief but then a moment of beauty; even at the worse times, some little thing of good. There’s an astonishing sequence of images in the television serious 1864 about the second Danish-Prussian war, that I think about a lot: the Germans unleash a massive night time bombardment of the Danish troops and for a moment it’s like the most beautiful firework display you can imagine, the whole sky is filled with silver light, and then you see the carnage, the Danish troops annihilated and it’s horrifying and savage – and then the next morning at dawn, finally, it’s over, the survivors crawl out from cover to utter devastation, knee deep in blood and ruin, then there’s silence, a character looks up into the sunlight – and a skylark sings in a perfect pale sky against the sun. Those scenes obsess me, I think about how that episode works a lot when I’m writing. 

It’s also really just the things I love to read and write about. Landscape, details of clothing, food, the interior of a room, emotions, memories, and war. So I move from one to the other as I feel the need. I loved describing Thalia’s appearance and clothes (especially as Marith sees her) because I love period costume dramas and fashion; I love writing about beautiful landscapes because I love walking through beautiful landscapes. And I grew up reading and writing poetry, which is of course a lot more about sensations, feelings, descriptive details than it is narrative.

Whilst on your writing, your prose feels really unique, utilising short, sharp sentences, repetition and at times, a jarring urgency charging through thoughts, actions and vivid descriptions. There’s a visceral immediacy to it that works especially well during frantic moments such as in a battle. Is this a style you’ve always had, or one that developed over time? It really complements the story you weave in Empires of Dust.

Court of broken Knives was the first piece of prose fiction I wrote as an adult, but looking back the things I wrote as a teenager before I stopped writing were similar in style (much less developed, obviously). It’s not something I worked on, it’s a very natural way I fall into writing when I get into it. I sort of stop thinking and the words come out like that. I think my prose style is very bound up with my ASD and dyslexia, I see and feel the whole thing when I’m writing it, I don’t necessarily see the words I’m writing. I kind of write without knowing quite what I’m writing – like really going for it on the dancefloor, just letting go and following the music, not thinking about what you’re doing. I feel the text rather than see it, if that makes any sense. I can’t write with a pen and paper, only type on a laptop keyboard with a lot of text very small on the screen, because I move between lines / paragraphs / pages / chapters as I’m writing. I think that’s probably where the juxtaposition and contrast comes from, too.

Although the funny thing is that I was really scared of writing my first big combat scene for ages. The dragon scene was fine, that was more like writing an experience of a natural catastrophe, a storm or a car crash or something.  But the first big fight scene I wrote was when they attack the palace, I kept putting off and putting off writing it because I didn’t think that I could manage it. Like: I’m a mum, a girly girl who always wears dresses, I don’t even play competitive sport or violent computer games, how can I think I can write a fight scene? Then I started and it was absolutely the best hour of my life. Then I wrote what’s now the opening chapter and that was … gods that was unreal. If I never write another word again, knowing I wrote that opening chapter would be enough to make me feel I lived a full and good life.

When writing an epic three-part grimdark story with Empires of Dust, did you have some of the main characters in your head first or were they brought in after the main plot outline? What did you feel most passionately about when writing your trilogy?

The characters, the places, the plot … everything turned up as I went along. Then as I was writing them I realised they’d been with me my whole life – Marith and Thalia are the hero and heroine of every story I told myself as a child, and I do genuinely mean it when I say Marith is the great love of my life. Tobias’s voice and attitude to the world I suppose are actually my own in a weird way (even when I was supposedly young and carefree people said I was a miserable old cynic way beyond my years, yes). 

The prose was actually what mattered most, getting the words down right. Like the story already existed, every word of it, and I had to copy it out right. If the prose is right, the characters and the story must therefore be right. Out of the characters Marith and Thalia obviously meant the most to me because they are very deep parts of myself, it broke me a bit (a lot) ending the series and not having them inside me anymore. Like I’d exorcized (sic. I know in theory that Marith is a total shit and I’m better off without him, yes) something and now I was emptier. Although Tobias’s voice, the cynicism with the terrible romantic longing behind that … I loved writing him.   

I wouldn’t describe any of your POV characters as heroes; certainly not in the mould of traditional fantasy leads. And when we talk about morally grey, this is not a light grey for many of them; it’s a very dark grey. What’s your magic formula for keeping readers invested in characters that they don’t agree with (even actively hate at times!? – I’m looking at you, Marith)

I have no idea! Or rather: they just happened, through me, they’re part of me, I feel like I didn’t so much create as meet them and write their story for them,  so I’d hope they had some depth to them, and I think that’s why people invest in them, because they’re hugely flawed but complex and … not real, because Marith isn’t possibly real, but have real elements to them. There’s a bit of most of us that wants to do and be what Marith does at times, and another bit that loathes him so therefore gets his self-loathing, perhaps. There’s a line in The Tower of Living and Dying where Tobias says ‘All men long to see dragons. Dream of wonders. Hope deep down in the depths of their souls to see wonders blaze and burn and die.’ I think that is true, of me, certainly, I love reading and watching fantasy, big historical dramas, space opera to see amazing wonderful astonishing things … and then to see them explode in carnage. To be a great warleader striding across the battlefield, to be the general ordering the fleet to jump out of hyperspace … Yeah, we kind of say we enjoy reading about the hero killing a dragon or blowing up the Death Star because the dragon/Death Star is ‘bad’, but really … we want to be amazingly cool exploding some massive enormous wonderful terrifying thing in full technicolour with surround sound. We just pretend the moral stuff. Marith doesn’t pretend the moral stuff. But then he hates himself and that feels good too. 

Or the shorter answer is that I love him beyond all reason, he’s every toxic antihero with a cursed sword and great hair that I’ve ever swooned over and then some, and that passionate love comes across. 

Anna Smith Spark is stuck on a desert island for a year. She can only take 3 books with her; what are they?

Gods! No, that would be absolutely appalling. I literally cannot sleep without reading for at least half an hour first (and enjoying the book, obviously!), so only having three books would be a curse. If I didn’t feel like rereading any of the three again I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

The other problem is that I’m a terrible rereader, so the books I love and can’t live without are already so familiar to me I know bits of them off by heart. (So I suppose I could try rewriting them from memory and end up with more than three books…)

But three books, okay:

  1. Tolstoy, War and Peace. Has everything. Amazing battles. Romantic melodrama. Beautifully observed family life. Tragedy. Catastrophe. True love. And eventually on my island I’d be forced to read the loopy epilogue philosophy of history bit I’ve skipped every time without regret. Also it’s massive.
  2. Mary Stewart, The Hollow Hills. The middle book in her Merlin trilogy. My second most beloved comfort read (first is Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, the book I love beyond reason, the most sacred book to me, but it’s a lot shorter and I seriously know sections off by heart, I’ve read it so many times I’m kind of bored by it even as I marvel yet again at its perfection). The perfect desert island book as it’s about travel, quests, chance meetings, waiting patiently and alone for something amazing to happen – and about destiny, high magic, living in the shadow of a god. Stewart’s descriptions of the wild British landscape, often in winter, would keep me sane on my desert island longing to walk the moors and peaks.
  3. M John Harrision, Viriconium. The greatest masterwork of fantasy ever written. All other fantasy novels are but a footnote to Viriconium’s strange brilliance, as I said to Steve Erikson (not sure he was entirely impressed when I clarified that included MBoftF). Remembering a human being was capable of writing this book makes me want to shout for joy, cry that I’ll never write something so god myself, then write and write and write to try. So it would be good to have it with me as I paced my island bored and longing for home, it might me feel a bit better about the experience reminding myself this book exists. The cover alone cheers me up. 

Finally, Congratulations on signing with Lunar Press for your upcoming novel A Woman of the Sword. It looks fantastic! Can you tell us a little bit about it please?

A Woman of the Sword is very dark and brutal, even bleak, and very personal to me. It’s the story of Marith’s war told from the perspective of a working-class woman, caught up in the catastrophe of war but finding possibilities in it as well as ruin. It’s very much about me as a woman and a mother putting myself into Marith’s army, what would I find there? The pity of war, yes, but also other things. It’s my coda to Empires of Dust. You can watch me reading the opening chapter here:

It’s not a big commercial novel, it’s with a small press because it’s literary and doesn’t give easy answers. It’s a very important book to me personally. 


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