Writing Journeys – Anna Smith-Spark
Today we have the soon to be published author Anna Smith-Spark. Anna’s debut The Court of Broken Knives will kick off her dark fantasy trilogy this summer. This time next year, you’ll know her as ‘Queen of Grimdark.’ Anna also wins the contest for most bad ass convention wear! Spikes, spikes and black spikes! So, over to Anna….
The short answer is that I’ve always written. From the evidence of the illegible notebooks I filled with… something as a child, I’ve been writing since before I could actually strictly speaking, you know, write. Other children played with toys. I ran around making up stories. In the best fantasy tradition, the characters in them often had names so baroque I couldn’t remember them. Sometimes I had to write the names down on scraps of paper and pin them to the inside of my coat. And they were always fantasy stories. I grew up reading ancient history, Greek and Norse mythology, Alan Garner, C S Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Joan Atkin, watching the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, playing endless games of Kingmaker and Talisman. Fantasy soaked into me. Looking back, I suspect some of the characters in The Court of Broken Knives have been there in embryo in my mind since primary school.
So: I didn’t come to writing. I’ve always written. My father writes. Most of his friends write. There’s never been a time I didn’t see ‘being an author’ as the ultimate goal of my life. You grow up seeing a postcard on your father’s wall saying ‘You must write as if your life depended on it’, writing just kind of happens to you. Poetry. Stories. Graphic novel scripts. Anything. Everything. Pouring out like water in the desert, to quote my own book. Epic fantasy. Urban fantasy. Horror. Sci fi. Reams and reams of it. Worlds upon worlds upon worlds upon worlds.
Same old thing most writers say, yeah? Probably really making any aspiring authors out there feel hopelessly depressed. Oh, darling, writing, it’s not something I ever had to work at. Easiest most natural thing in the world. Oh, really, honestly, it’s a frightful bore sometimes, to be honest, this whole needing to write thing. A feeling comes over me. I can’t control it. I simply have to ignore trivialities like going to work or cooking the dinner, run to sit down in my beautifully appointed private writing chamber, and before I can even think I’ve written the complete Malazan Book of the Fallen and The Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. It’s all just so easy, yes?
Except that then…. it stopped.
I still don’t know why I stopped. The usual things, really, I suppose. A boyfriend who hurt me and called me filth and nothing; another boyfriend who sneered at me for liking books with nice bright shiny covers with pictures of dragons on them; another boyfriend who sneered at me for thinking and writing and generally having a mind. And then life, work, money worries, needing to try to get on and get by in an increasingly frighteningly complex world. But more than that, the idea of me writing somehow became something impossible to contemplate. A thing better, more beautiful, more capable, more deserving people did. Not a thing for people like me. From being as natural as breathing, writing became unachievable. Like if I said to you ‘tomorrow I’m going to win a Nobel Prize and become Prime Minister and fly a rocket to the moon’. Not something that happens. Like becoming a film star or a Premiership footballer or something. Like winning the lottery. Like finding out you’re actually the thousand years’ prophesied Chosen One.
So I stopped writing. And little by little I stopped reading fantasy. The utter grief that these books I loved had been written by someone blessed enough to actually be the Chosen One, and I was there a nothing person looking up at them all shining and beautiful and godlike and they’d been chosen and I wasn’t worthy of anything. Going into the fantasy section in bookshops hurt. Pain and guilt welled in me, for being a failure, for not being deserving enough to be able to write. All these people who had written something! Actually been worthy of writing! Every one of them like a rusty knife blade twisting in my heart. I read and reread thick nineteenth century novels by acknowledged geniuses. It doesn’t hurt quite so bad that you’re never going to be George Elliot, now, does it? Nobody’s ever going to be George Elliot. Also, George Elliot probably really did have a beautifully appointed private writing room. And servants to do the work and cook the dinner and wash up.
You might have already worked that out from the above paragraphs that various things were going wrong in my life at this point, possibly rather more fundamental even than not being able to write. In which case, congratulations, you’re about ten years quicker on the uptake than I was. Depression and anxiety and all that jazz. In fact, thinking about it, while I’m on the subject here, really, believe me, don’t listen to anyone ever who tells you it’s creative and interestingly artistic and all romantic, like, to be depressed. It’s not. Depression’s a tiny dark room shutting your mind in. A stinking corpse tied round your neck. It fucks you up. It fucks up everyone you love. Oh, there were good bits, of course. Happy moments. Beloved family and friends. Educational successes. Work successes. I think I even wrote one poem. Prozac, psychotherapy, CBT, etc etc, slowly starting putting me back together again. I got diagnosed as having Asperger’s syndrome and that was a huge thing. All the weird bits of my life where I felt totally alone and inferior suddenly making some sense to me. Some of the things wrong in my life slowly getting better. Some slowly stopping hurting quite so badly. Some at least having an explanation for why they hurt.
And then one day, in a bookshop…… I owe a huge debt to Mark Lawrence and his agent Ian Drury and his publisher HarperVoyager and his cover artist Jason Chan, because one day in a bookshop I was walking past the fantasy display heading for ‘Very Serious Old Novels’ and I saw Jorge Ancrath brooding at me from the cover of Prince of Thorns and my knees buckled and my heart leapt in wonder and it was like the sun coming up in the sky after the dark of the night and nothing was ever the same.
That’s me all over. Never mind elven wisdom and high enchantments and the last desperate struggle for mankind. What finally brought me back to fantasy and to writing was getting a big crush on a small picture of a fucked-up underage fictional sociopath.
You thought the whole Queen of Grimdark shtick was an act?
So I burned through young Jorge’s jolly adventures, and I moved on to Jo Abercrombie and R Scott Bakker and Kingkiller and ASoIaF and Malazan. But somehow things were different now, reading. The influence of the Prozac, maybe. Or the Asperger’s diagnosis. Or sweet dear Jorgy. Or the gods alone know what. These were good books. Great books. But…. not that great. Not like the authors were really all shining and beautiful and godlike and so so so so much better than I could be. They’d done it. I could. Maybe?
Words started coming into my head. Stories. Scenes. I wanted to write.
At first there were always excuses. There are always excuses for not writing. I have a job, I have responsibilities, I’m tired, if I’m going to write I need to take years away from everything, write in silent isolation, sit alone with my inspiration, commune with the written word. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t. I finally started writing one day after semi-pulling a sicky, in bed, alone, in silent isolation and all. The next day I carried on writing, on the train into work. On the train home again. Hunched up on the sofa when everyone else had gone to bed. I started writing at work, pretending to be doing my emails. I remembered that you don’t need years away from everything, alone with your inspiration. I remembered that there’s not some special magic calling, like you get a magic glowing letter letting you into the special people club like Harry – may his name be cursed eternally – Potter, does. You just write. You delete a lot. You rewrite a lot. You bang the keyboard. You’re finally actually getting somewhere when you have to stop to go to work, cook the dinner, wash up the dinner, look after your family, go to bed. Unless you bought a house twenty years ago, you definitely don’t have a beautifully appointed private writing room. It’s not easy. It’s not always enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t just unstoppably come. Mostly you think everything you’ve written is rubbish. You force yourself to write through it and carry on.
In a year writing on the train and at work and on the sofa after bedtime, I wrote a book called The Court of Broken Knives. It was taken on by Ian Drury as my agent. It will be published in June by HarperVoyager. I haven’t seen the cover yet, but I guess there’s a remote possibility it might be drawn by Jason Chan.
And ain’t that absurdly neat?
And that’s how I came to write.
There are lessons you can learn from all this. So obvious I won’t bother writing them down. All I will say to anyone who dreams about writing is: Write.
Write. Write. Write.
Go to work and cook the dinner and wash up the dinner and look after your family and somehow in between all that, you can and will find time to write. There’s no magic. No secret. No divine special higher thing.
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 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.
Join me tomorrow to hear from author and FantasyFaction reviewer G. R. Matthews!
anna smith-spark, fantasy authors, writing journeys