The Queen of Grimdark is a very busy woman.
On top of just finishing up the final book in her critically lauded Empires of Dust trilogy—which by necessity included appearances at this year’s WorldCon and Gen Con, where she appeared on several panels, in addition to author events around Britain—Anna Smith Spark is also, “a very minor cog in the British government,” which, as you can imagine, comes with its own set of problems and stresses these days.
“I’ve been on holiday the last couple weeks,” Spark told me, sounding somewhat exhausted by everything going on in her life. “I’ll be going back to work once Parliament comes back and…people are talking about things happening in the British constitution that haven’t happened since the civil war. The next couple of months my mental focus may not be on the writing, it may be on actually sitting…watching things happen and trying to keep any kind of grip on anything because it will be absolutely fascinating in a truly terrifying kind of way.”
Knowing this lends a bit of weight to the political musings of her epic grimdark trilogy, which feels like something of a dark mirror of our own world. A sprawling meditation on the nature of power, Spark evinces a sharp political focus in the midst of the gore and violence of her fantasy world, which heightens her work, transcending the boundaries of both modern fantasy and the grimdark subgenre.
Despite her busy schedule (and the six-hour time difference between us) I got the chance to sit down with Spark and discuss the emotional toll of finishing her trilogy, classical heroism, politics, and the utopic dream of Star Trek and how all of which, surprisingly, play a role in her writing career.
As a reader it’s always a bit bittersweet when you come to the end of a series, but I imagine it’s even worse for an author. How are you feeling in the wake of the completion of Empires of Dust?
Anna Smith Spark: Oh, it’s been really difficult actually. The books kind of came to me, it’s not like “Oh I should start work on something interesting, I’ll write this series.” The books came to me very much as kind of, the first one was just kind of a burst of inspiration. I had no idea what I was writing at first, I just started writing it. And the story just came pouring out. I hadn’t done any planning for it, had no idea I was writing a story, let alone a fantasy novel, let alone who the people were, what the world was, and the whole thing just came out. In those three books, I have emptied everything that has ever mattered to me, I’ve emptied out all of my feelings about all the worlds I love and the fantasy worlds I love, and all the philosophy of every beautiful, amazing, fantastical city I’ve ever loved. And everything I ever felt about the British countryside, and walking the British countryside, Cornwall, Wales, the Peak District.
The story is done, and I feel really strange because I feel like I’ve written down a huge part of myself in that story, and the story is now told, it’s a very strange feeling. Marith and Thalia have been with me my whole life, have been the hero and heroine of every story I’ve ever told myself. And I’ve told their story, and their story has ended, and it’s a very strange feeling. It’s really been unsettling for months, finishing it. And I’m so proud. It’s quite incredible that I’ve written that series. I’ve done it, I’ve written three novels. I’m really proud of it but it just feels strange and emptying as well.
You were saying that when you were writing the first novel it was just coming out of you and you weren’t sure what you were writing yet, and what the scope of it would be. At what point did you realize that you were writing a trilogy?
Anna Smith Spark: Really quite late on actually. I wrote the first book, called The Court of Broken Knives, in a year. And I kind of knew, I always knew what would happen to Marith in the end. I always knew what the story would be. But, at the same time, it wasn’t really until I was writing book two that I really understood how the whole story worked. I always knew how the whole story would go in outline. It’s basically a classical tragedy. It is the life of the hero, and that has a particular story arc to it, which I’ve always known. It’s a really classical story of a hero’s life so it has a particular shape to it and I always knew it had, but at the same time it wasn’t until really later on when I was writing the first book that I really understood what I was writing about and what was going on. I was really discovering all the things the characters discover about themselves in the first book. I was really discovering that as well. In a weird kind of way, it’s a kind of prequel to the story. And the second two books are kind of the story of what’s happened after the becoming. I didn’t have any sense of how it worked until I was at least halfway through the first book, it was just pouring out.
It’s interesting. You’ve referred to Marith at least twice now as a hero but reading it, it’s hard to see him as a hero. I didn’t know how I felt about him reading it. “Do I hate him? Do I like him? Do I like hating him? Do I hate liking him?”
Anna Smith Spark: [laughs] Yeah, I’m using “hero” in the classical sense. In Greek tragedy, the hero is the great protagonist who has a story where he’s more than human. The heroes are a kind of race apart, they usually are the children of a god, so they’re kind of half mortal, and they stand between humanity and the gods. They’re kind of, they’re not quite human and they’re not necessarily forces for good. They’re forces of power, it’s a classical Greek – my BA was in classics – same in Norse mythology, most of them do appear in mythologies. So the hero is not kind of the force of good, he’s just a force of, kind of, extreme power and destiny and different to the normal people around him. So, a lot of heroes actually have really quite horrible trajectories and do deeply unpleasant things. A lot of the Norse heroes are thoroughly unpleasant characters. But it’s about how they deal with being kind of more powerful than everyone else around them, or put in these incredible extreme positions, or having terrible things done to them. And that’s the kind of thing that’s happening to him. He’s not the hero in the modern sense, but it is very much his story. He’s kind of modeled around Alexander and Achilles, he’s kind of strange. I mean he, all the characters in the story, think he’s a hero. I almost kind of explore that notion of the kind of leader hero, the war hero, very similar to what Scott Baker does in his novels, where he takes the Aragorn figure, this great savior figure, and he’s going to save the world from the terrible indescribable evil and actually kind of points out all that’s actually saying and all that’s about.
That notion of a man standing up and saying follow me to glory and follow me to make everything great again, and my rightful place is to conquer the world, I wanted to really talk about that and really sort of look at that kind of myth of the hero that we have.
I know that you were a student of history and mythology and the classics, and that you clearly drew on all of that in your world creation, and like you said, there’s a clear connection between Marith and Alexander, but it was really hard to not see the connection between the modern world and what you were talking about, especially given everything that’s happened in the UK and the US in the last few years. How much of that was intentional, or did it just kind of come out as the nature of the story itself?
Anna Smith Spark: It was really intentional, not in the sense that I thought I would write this and it’s going to be political, but in the sense that everything I think about—I’ve been brought up in a very political family. I was brought up studying English literature and my family are kind of very politically active and aware. It’s just kind of, when people say they’ve written a book that isn’t political, that generally means it’s conservative. It’s very much kind of, quite traditional in its politics shall we say? Everything I write can’t help but be political, because fantasy is a political genre. It’s about power. High fantasy is about kings and wizards and godlike beings and priestesses. It’s about these incredibly powerful figures who are shaping the destiny of the world. People will say “oh fantasy isn’t political” what they actually mean is a lot of fantasy is mostly conservative, which it is.
All the kind of great works of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, is profoundly political. It’s a huge comment on the first World War. It is a thesis of war literature. I didn’t intend to write a political fantasy novel, but I’ve always read fantasy in a political way, and it’s always just kind of come out. There were bits that were deliberate, there’s a big where Orhan actually says “I will make this country great again.” And thank you so much for noticing, because very few people, weirdly, have picked up how political the novel becomes. And weirdly few people have noticed or somehow really want to engage with that, which is sort of depressing, But it was totally.
It’s always been much more complicated than just “I’m going to write a story about some goodies and some baddies” but it was very intended. I was thinking Orhan is, fundamentally, kind of the most decent man of all of them, and the fact that he’s the one who says, “I will make us great again” [was] because I needed someone to notice this. When it gets really intense at the end of book three, that’s me just raging about the politics of the world and me just actually raging about the way the world is and the way the world has always been and definitely trying to make people reflect a bit. If one person starts to think that maybe things are slightly more complicated than they thought they were, and that some of the stories that we’ve been told is more complicated than they think, that would be – what I wanted to do really.
As a fan of horror and dark fantasy, I understand how these genres do serve as a mirror of our own world and our problems, and they give readers a “safe space” to explore these fears and come to terms with them, but reality these days seems just so particularly grim. As the Queen of Grimdark, do you think that grimdark can survive in a real world that is itself so grim and so dark?
Anna Smith Spark: Yeah I was having a conversation with Michael Fletcher about this actually, because we were both feeling extremely kind of…we’re both incredibly depressed at the state of the world anyway, but yeah it’s actually, I’ve been told by people in publishing that they’ve had a huge upsurge in books that come into them about unicorns, and elven princesses and things. I can really understand why people are reading escapism. There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day about how actually if you look at what everyone is watching on Netflix, they’re not watching Stranger Things, they’re not watching Russian Doll, they’re not watching all those incredibly complicated commentaries on dystopian countries. They’re watching old reruns of Friends and Cheers because they want to watch nice, safe, lovely, fluffy things where nothing bad happens. And I can totally get that. I’m watching Star Trek, the original series, at the moment actually because it’s just – it’s almost making me weep. This vision of the future they once had, where technology would be used for good and people would be nice and the human race would spread across the galaxy telling people, “Hey, just, like, be nice to each other”. And it is really, it is making me almost weep on episodes of Star Trek, when you have this vision of the future and how good it could be and how simple it all seems, that we can just be nice to each other and use technology to overcome problems.
But I think probably fewer people are reading the books now. I suspect the books would have done a lot better if they’d been on sale maybe six years ago. I was actually wondering the other day whether if Game of Thrones had launched now, anyone in the world would be interested in watching a load of power-crazed white guys sexually exploiting women and stabbing each other in the back. Because I really don’t think anyone would want to start that now. But I think it’s more necessary. I think it is more necessary than ever to remind ourselves where this stuff leads and to try to remind ourselves that we don’t fight and we don’t keep remembering and we don’t keep trying to voice out to people what power means and what people claim to be a leader means, and actually if we try to point out to people that it’s more complicated than people being stupid.
If there’s one thing I would really want people to take from the books, it’s this notion that the foot soldiers in Marith’s army are not evil. They are doing terribly evil things, and they are enjoying it, but each of them on an individual level, there might be reasons. It’s not as simple as, “if they were educated they wouldn’t be doing it,” or, “if they were good people they wouldn’t be doing this,” or, “they’re only doing this because something terrible happened to them.” It’s so much more. It’s so easy to either just take a moral position or high ground, which, I take a position of moral high ground with people almost every day when I read the newspapers with despair as do most people in Britain. But it’s so easy for us to just have this, “Oh people were lied to and they’re stupid and they don’t know what they’re doing and the decisions people made in voting the way they did were just wrong and misguided” [attitude]. If we just start saying “someone good will come along and make it all better again” we’re just falling into a trap. We shouldn’t demonize other people just because we know that they’re making stupid decisions, and we need to be reminded of that as well. And so, I think the kind of complicated shades of grey mirror pointing out just how complicated it is and just how difficult it is. I think that’s more important than ever. Because most people don’t want to hear it. You don’t want to hear how complicated it is when it’s just so horrible anyway.
I don’t know how it is in Britain but here we’re very much politically a culture of soundbites and bumper stickers. If you can’t fit it into five seconds or on a bumper sticker then no one cares.
Anna Smith Spark: In Britain the whole narrative is that the people who voted for Brexit are stupid, basically. And they were lied to and they are stupid and they are wrong and that’s such an injurious thing to start saying. And it’s rough. They can just point out and call us that liberal elite callout stuff. If we basically start saying that’s true, and people who disagree with us are stupid, where does that get us? I really do despair. I just feel absolute rage and grief about what’s happening. Which I think comes across really clearly in the books as well. Once we seemed to have a dream, as I said, in Star Trek, that technology will solve all the problems, and the future will be wonderful, and what happened to that? It kind of feels like this is going to be so hard to get out without people being so angry.
I didn’t mean to veer this towards the melancholic. [laughs]
Anna Smith Spark: We have these conversations all the time, this is sort of standard British conversation at the moment.
I did want to try to end I guess a little bit on, I don’t know if it’s happier, but veering more towards your writing itself, but have you given any thought as to what you’re planning next?
Anna Smith Spark: I’m beginning to work on something which is actually more hopeful. It is more hopeful and redemptive on a personal level. It’s a much more human scale piece. I’m writing very personally about people in the same world [as Empires of Dust], but very kind of personal. A thing about people who are the little people essentially, not the great, world-bestriding figures, but the people who are trying to make their best the way they can. I’m trying to write something that’s very, much more hopeful and much more redemptive because it’s about a family caught up in this situation and about kind of their family feelings and about women’s feelings in all of this. So that is the kind of pointing out that love and tolerance within the family unit and acceptance of different exceptions of the way people are in the family and trying to make things better. Just trying to build a better world for your children. There’s a lovely, lovely line at the very ending of Middlemarch, one of my favorite books in the world, which is not an epic piece of fantasy, it’s a Victorian doorstop novel about people’s daily lives, but it’s a wonderful ending about Dorothea, how everything that’s good in the world is built on people like her. They aren’t remembered, they have no great name, they do nothing of heroic importance, but they just make the world slightly better for those around them, and the whole world is just built on people like that, and everything good in the world is just built on totally unimportant insignificant people just leading their lives in a way that means that their children’s lives and the people they love’s lives are just slightly better. And that’s something that gives me hope, I think. That sense of people who don’t want everything, who don’t want to rule the world, who don’t want to change the world, who don’t want to be heroes, people who just want normal, peaceful lives. That would be the hope for all of us. So that’s what I’m writing about at the moment.
But with lots of big grimdark battles, because I love writing those as well.
Is that a longer work, a shorter work? I imagine that finishing a trilogy, a nice novella would sound good.
Anna Smith Spark: It will probably be a standalone thing. I’m not ready to try and build up another great vast world. I want to write something that’s much more personal and not a vast epic heroic scale but the little scale, the scale that’s actually important in life. I need to get my head together. I’m not a super productive writer. I definitely don’t pour out thousands and thousands and thousands of words a day, I don’t write every day. The books were pretty intensely written and that was very, very mentally tiring for me. I’m really mentally worn out now. I need to kind of get my head a bit together. When I write I have to see it all and feel it all and know what this new thing is. I can see the way it’s going to go, I can see the shape of it. I really understand it, but I’m not just going to sit down and say, “Oh I shall write this whole new plot for this whole new series” because I couldn’t do that. I need to see what happens. I’ve got an idea for a novella just writing about the cities in the world and how someone might see them, like a travel piece about reflections on my fantasy cities., but that’s something that’s completely in my head at the moment.