Some thoughts with … Anna Smith Spark

18 Jul 2022

The Author/s

Anna Smith Spark

Anna Smith Spark

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 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.

The Interview

First of all, I want to thank Anna for taking the time for answering these questions and giving these wonderful answers to them.

1.- Certainly the Empires of Dust is an interesting world, from where do you pull the inspiration?

The world emerged in my head as I was writing, I didn’t world build at all before I started. It’s a mix of the historical times and places I love the most.

Sorlost is based on romantic European fantasies of the great central Asian cities, Samarkand, Balkash, Coleridge’s Xanadu, Yeat’s Byzantium, and the great cities of fantasy literature – the cities in the Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (Sorlost is Marith’s Kadath?) (c.f. the litter bearers with oddly humped turbans in The Court of Broken Knives), the City of the Singing Flame. Then my own memories of Cairo, the scene with the women pouring water to damp down the dust is based on walking down a street in Cairo, and the nightmarkets in Xiaan in China. It’s my personal dream of the ultimate fantasy city.I wrote a blog post about these cities and the way they inspired Sorlost there:

Marith’s life on the White Isles is part the Macedonia of Alexander the Great, part dark age Britain. The landscape of the White Isles is based on real places in Britain that mean something to me, his feelings about those places are mine. The saltmarshes Thalia finds unpleasant are in Suffolk around Snape and Dunwich, the headland they walk along is in west Cornwall. There are elements of the Iliad and of British and Irish mythology and folklore layered into the landscape to give it a history for the people who live there. And then lots of weird little details that mean something to me from my reading and places I’ve been – the red rock and the lilac is from The Wasteland, the scratches on the temple door are from a church door in Suffolk, the may tree with the blackbird that Marith remembers is from A A Milne.

It’s a map of the world that exists in my head, basically.

2.- As said before, if I think one aspect that shines over the rest is the excellence of your prose and your use of English, how do you do it?

Oh, thank you! The prose is everything to me. Fantasy for me is all about the language, trying to write our deepest dreams and terrors, gods and monsters, the extremes of beauty and human experience. Describing a dragon in flight – that’s everything, all our hopes and dreams and fears, trying to put that into words, make that impossible dream real in words … that’s what fantasy is about for me, and why I write it.

I’ve always read a huge amount, I spend far more time reading than writing, and in a lot of genres not just SFF, which I think is very important – read poetry, children’s books, read very dry factual history, read science, read travel writing, agony aunt columns, high literature, old classics, books in translation from all over the world, expose yourself to a million different ways of writing and expressingthings. Think about what other authors are doing, and how they create the effects they have. And think about how you would put memories, feelings, things that matter to you, into words to share them with someone else. Then write that into your stories.

I work on my prose a lot, think about a particular sentence for days sometimes to get it perfect; I edit a lot as I go along. But I also try to just go with the flow, when the prose is going well I lose any sense that I’m writing at all, I’m lost seeing the scene I’m writing without thinking about it at all. It feels like dancing to music when I’m writing really well, the prose just flows out without thinking like I’m dancing.

3.-Which ones have been your biggest challenges as a writer?

Plot! I mean .. plot for me is incidental really anyway, just a way to get people meeting, responding to things, going to new places. I certainly don’t write complex twisty plots (I could never write a crime novel, I have no idea how people go about writing something with that level of plot twists). Which is fine – the Iliad has very little in the way of plot and plot twists, Beowulf even less – but means I do sometimes have to look back and realize that very little has happened, that I need a bit more of a story arch beyond another description of a battle than a description of the weather.

4.-I find curious the appearance of a totally new language during the book, did you draw any inspiration, created it fully or just for the certain moments it appears?

The languages felt necessary – Tolkien obviously, Erikson and Bakker both have details about their world’s languages, names, and place-names and what they mean in different languages are very important in British mythology and of course world of power and magic languages/ dragon languages/ runes are so important in fantasy and mythology generally. So it seemed necessary. Also from Eliot’s use of snatches of different languages in the Wasteland.

I made up the languages as I went along. The Literan poetry Marith quotes are meaningless, it just sounds that I needed to create the sensual, complex, so esoteric it’s barely pronounceable to someone whose native language is English, sense of Sorlostian culture to Marith and hence his sense, and hopefully the reader’s sense, of Sorlost as a place and then of Thalia. But I did create a grammar and a meaning to both Itherilik and the old rune language of the White Isles. If you spent ages going through the language details in all three books you might be able to work out what Marith’s name means and a couple of other things. Maybe. If I’m as clever as I think I am, anyway, which I’m probably not. But that seemed important.

You’re obviously at least bi-lingual, so you probably understand that more – like reading a book in Spanish with a character or place with a name that means something in English. It’s perfectly fine reading the book as a non-English speaker and not knowing there’s a joke or a clue in a minor character’s name, but it’s a great touch if you do.

5.-What can we expect from Anna Smith Spark in the future?

New things!!!

I have a short story coming out in Grimdark Magazine’s The King Must Fall anthology which is the last piece in the Empires of Dust sequence. Then a novel out in April 2023 which is a kind of coda to the sequence, tells a story about Marith’s wars and their aftermath from a very different perspective. More details and a reading from it are here:

Then this November I also have a short story in Grimoak Press’s Unbound II which introduces a new world I’ve been working on with a slightly different feel to it. It’s got more of the folklore feel of the White Isles scenes in The Court of Broken Knives and it’s more personal in nature, much more focused on one woman’s experience rather than a big epic multi-character perspective.