is published on August 15th by Orbit.
: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?Anna
: Hello, and thank you for inviting me here.
I’ve always written, I’ve got strange scribbled things from when I was a child, totally illegible. I used to play on my own as a child telling myself stories, creating whole worlds in my head. My father and many of his friends write, I grew up with poets, academics, novelists, playwrights. It just seemed entirely instinctive to write
I stopped writing for a long time as an adult for complex personal reasons (depression is a bad thing and blocks creativity. Medication is a good thing and helps creativity. The myth of the tormented artist is a myth. I’m just going to drop that in here because … ). I finally started writing properly again a few years ago. Broken Knives was the result.TQ
: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?Anna
: I’m something of a mix. I have a very clear idea of how the whole Empires of Dust trilogy will end, but unravelling how exactly I get there is something that slowly happens as the story progresses. Actually, it’s rather like writing history – I have a strong sense of the bones of the story arc, what has to happen, but the detail and the emphasis is evolving as I go along. Often it’s only when I written something that key themes emerge, and I have to go back and make changes as I understand what’s happening and why. Like the way you have to go back and reconsider things that happen in your own life. This sudden realisation: that’s what that means! That’s what that was about! That’s why it was! In some ways, I’m writing a very simple story, in the way myths and legends are often simple. I don’t write complex plots, I’m rather in awe of those writers who do, who can hold an intensely complex plot in their head. I’m trying to tell a simple story in a beautiful way.TQ
: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?Anna
: I get very up and down about my writing. I can write for days obsessively, pouring it out, so breathless with excitement. Then I despair and want to abandon everything as terrible and a waste of my life. Writing is a painful, emotional thing. Most writers probably shouldn’t be writers, if that makes any sense. One bad review and we’re emotionally broken.
And sometimes I want to scream at the computer, because the words are in there but I can’t get them out.
And I tend to snack while I write.TQ
: What has influenced / influences your writing?Anna
: Influences…. Where to start? The Court of Broken Knives
is hugely influenced by Norse and Dark Age British mythology and folk lore, 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 Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy or Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. I love historical fiction and academic history books; I draw a lot from historical biography and social history. I don’t really see a difference between fantasy and historical literature – they’re both creating alien worlds, presenting characters so very like but also so utterly distanced from our own lives.
Also travel writing, the way travel writing builds a world for you in your mind through landscape, daily experience, the local history of a place. I grew up walking the British countryside listening to my father talking about folk lore, history, literature. Then I’d go home and read Tolkien, Norse mythology, the Mabinogion, see the stories set in the landscapes I’d been walking in. That sense of the world as numinous. That’s what I’m trying to evoke.
As a child, I remember telling myself stories based on the great myth cycles, the Eddas or the Tale of Troy – kind of like very pretentious fan fic, I suppose. And, lo, I’m still writing stories based on them. That’s what fantasy is, really, maybe. Illiad/Beowulf/Gilgamesh fan fic.
In terms of my literary style, the authors I’m probably most influenced by are Mary Renault, M. John Harrison and James Ellroy. Renault just gets absolutely inside these astonishing people, Alexander, Plato, Dionysus of Syracuse, and makes them both real people (they were real people, they were petty and weak and sometimes unlucky and did really nasty bowel movements, same as we all are) and astonishing, titanic figures of myth (which they also were, somehow. I mean, how could Alexander have been a real person? Really?). Harrison’s style is astonishing, his Viriconium
is a sublimely beautiful book. The way Ellroy writes violence is astonishing. In White Jazz
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.TQ
: Describe The Court of Broken Knives in 140 characters or less. Anna
: I’m going to cheat and base this on a line in a review I got on goodreads, because I love that review:
Violent, grim but bright with glaring desert sun and wide clear northern skies. Bleak, cynical, filled with beauty and love. Contains poetry.
The joke description is: Joe Abercrombie meets Leonard Cohen in a particularly filthy public toilet.TQ
: Tell us something about The Court of Broken Knives that is not found in the book description.Anna
: Warning: contains poetry. And romance. And shopping. And there’s this 500 word description of some rain. Two 500 words descriptions of some rain. Repeated references to bird shit.TQ
: What inspired you to write The Court of Broken Knives? What appeals to you about writing Grimdark fantasy?Anna
: I have no clear idea what inspired me to start writing again. I didn’t write for a long time, and then one day I just started writing. A scene of some men in the desert, soldiers, the sun reflecting on their swords. Then violence. That became the beginnings of the book. Tobias emerged very clearly, right back that first day, he was there with me completely real from the start. Orhan also. Marith and Thalia have been with me in one form or another my whole life, they’re essentially the heroes of the stories I used to tell myself as a child. So the characters were there, but it took a long time for me to really understand what I was writing about, what the key themes and ideas were.
Why grimdark fantasy? Because it’s the closest to myth, to the strange old tales of the Iliad
, the Eddas, Anglo-Saxon poetry. Those stories are savage, bloody, very brutal, often immoral, ultimately tragic - but shot through with utter, astonishing beauty and joy in life.TQ
: In your opinion, what are the essential ingredients for Grimdark?Anna
: Cynicism. Not nihilism – indeed, I suspect many of us grimdark types are deeply romantic at heart. But an awareness that there’s no easy good or bad, just life in all its myriad forms. That’s not to say that there’s no evil in the world, because the more I see of life, especially now I have a child, the more terrible and cruel the world seems to be. But that cruelty and evil are not simple things. Some people think that grimdark is ‘goodies and baddies with hyped-up violence’. I don’t see it in those terms at all. That’s so pointless, just gore for the sake of it. Grimdark to me is the self-awareness that we all have the potential to be monsters. That our choices can destroy others’ lives. That we are not good people and the world is not a good place. Or that one can be a good person and still inflict great harm. And to go on living with that.
Grimdark does also need a huge dose of entirely gratuitous violence, though. I do like a spot of entirely gratuitous violence in my books.TQ
: Please tell us about the cover for The Court of Broken Knives. Anna
: The US cover shows the figure of a man, back to the viewer, looking off into the white distance, a sword in his hand. He looks somehow lonely. He is surrounded by clear white light, or white mist covering his vision to blind him, or snow, or smoke. His name is Marith. He’s the love of my life.
The tag line is ‘Blood never lies’. What this means I leave to the reader to find out.TQ
: In The Court of Broken Knives who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?Anna
: Weirdly, the easiest character to write is Tobias, who’s a grizzled, aging sellsword bloke (clichéd? Moi?). Beneath the ex-fetish model female exterior, I would seem to be a grizzled, aging sellsword bloke. His voice just pours out of me. A friend who was in the Special Forces says I capture that soldierly voice perfectly, which is kind of weird seeing as I’m a liberal arts graduate who worries about doing the washing up in case it chips her nails.
The hardest character to write is probably Thalia. She is me, essentially. She’s been with me my whole life in one form or another, she’s the heroine I told myself stories about as a child, the D&D character I played for years. So she gets emotionally complicated.TQ
: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in The Court of Broken Knives?Anna
: All books are profoundly political. All say things about society and human life. And fantasy is ultimately about structures of power. Thus fantasy is profoundly political. It cannot but be political.
Yes, I do have a Masters in Cultural Studies. How’d you possibly work that out?
Broken Knives is explicit in its social critique. I’m a cynic, and that cynicism does I think come across. That wonderful line from Leonard Cohen, ‘Everybody knows the war is over/Everybody knows the good guys lost’
but yet we go on as if it’s not lost, as if we can still win. I rather believe that and I’m certainly writing that. Fighting the good fight even though it’s hopeless. Showing how unjust the world is.
Ultimately, I’m exploring the nature of power and of violence. Why do we fight? Why do we kill? Why are we prepared to die for something?TQ
: Which question about The Court of Broken Knives do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!Anna
Question: Did you really mean to change tense three times in the same sentence?
: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Court of Broken Knives.Anna
- So much life. So much life in this dead place. The air smelt of life. The stream sang of life. The sky was luminous with life, colourless, liquid.TQ
- Killing and killing and such perfect joy.
- Who can tell what it’s about, or when it was written? Just men who died.
: What's next?Anna
: The Tower of Living and Dying
, book two of Empires of Dust
, is currently with my editors. To blow my own trumpet very loudly, I’m extremely proud of it.
I’m writing book three at the moment. It’s a painful thing to write: it’s the end of a story I’ve invested so much of my life in. I’m really struggling with it, because when it’s done … it’s done.
I’m also involved in a very exciting new Kickstarter project, Landfall
. It’s a fantasy serial, a series of written episodes that will work rather like a television show. It’s dark fantasy with a 16th/17th century New England flavour to it. An epic fantasy version of Jamestown, maybe??? I’m one of the writers, alongside Michael R. Fletcher and Jesse Bullington/Alex Marshall. It’s launching this summer, I’m very excited about it. Mike and I are good friends, I love his books; I’m a big fan of Jesse’s/Alex’s writing as well. I think our writing styles will work beautifully together. BUT IT’S A KICKSTARTER, GUYS. YOU WANT ME TO EAT NEXT YEAR, YOU NEED TO FUND IT. Ahem, I mean: if anyone’s interested, the kickstarter info will be going out soon. TQ
: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.Anna
: Thank you for having me.