Please welcome Anna Smith Spark to The Qwillery. The Tower of Living and Dying, Empires of Dust 2, was published on August 7th by Orbit.
TQ: Welcome back to The Qwillery. Your new novel, The Tower of Living and Dying (Empire of Dust 2), was published on August 7th. Has your writing process changed (or not) from when you wrote The Court of Broken Knives (Empire of Dust 1) to now?
Anna: Thank you so much for having me back!
Good question. The writing process for the two books was totally different. They were both incredibly interesting to write in very different ways.
The Court of Broken Knives was written in a mad blast over a year, with no thought of publication at all. It wasn’t even written as a novel, in fact – I sat down one day after not having written fiction for well over ten years, started writing and things came unstoppably vomited out. Men in a desert, heat, violence: I had no idea what was happening, who these people were, where they were, why. Then next thing I knew a dragon had turned up. It really wasn’t until I’d written maybe 50,000 words that I had any idea that I was writing a fantasy novel; I finally worked out what the book was about clearly in my mind, uh, when I came to edit it for final publication. It was a journey of discovery for me, a world to explore and a group of people revealing more of themselves as I travelled with them.
The Tower of Living and Dying was written after I had an agent and a book deal. So I was writing ‘book two of a big new fantasy trilogy’ with a plot synopsis I vaguely needed to follow, characters I knew inside out (virtually literally, in some cases), a world who’s geography I could follow on a beautiful map. There were far more limitations in some ways, I’d be cursing Sophie my amazing map artist for putting a river just here rather than a smidge more over there, suddenly things like a character’s family background, life goals, chances of surviving the next twenty pages with a head and at least one working limb, were rather more fixed. And I had my editors’ voices whispering in my ears: ‘that’s not a commercial move to do that’, ‘that’s not persuasive motivation’, ‘no no no no no we’ve literally just discussed this as a problem in book one’.
But – the confidence! The joyous pleasure of feeling ‘I’m a writer! A writer! Me! So ... I can write!’ After a lifetime of not having much confidence in myself, mental health problems, a depressing day job stretching on into eternity as my one purpose in life, suddenly I was a writer with people saying very nice things about my writing. The confidence to really explore how far I can go with it, push my prose to the limits. I knew I could do it. The Tower of Living and Dying was a sculpture in a block of marble, in there waiting for me to hack it out. Perhaps it wasn’t as exhilarating as a whole as writing The Court of Broken Knives, finding out that I could write every day as I wrote. Certainly it was more exhausting. But it felt more stable. In the end I think it produced a stronger result.
Book three, however, is bloody killing me. The one thing about the kind of reviews I’m getting is the amount of pressure they pile on for book three.
What’s that sound I can hear? Is it your heart bleeding for me as you read this? Please don’t feel you need to cry for me either, it’s getting your computer all wet. But you have no idea how tough it is. It’s right up there with ‘I’m struggling to find ways to spend my money’, ‘the thing about being this beautiful is how difficult it is to get my PhD supervisor to take me seriously’ and ‘I have a metabolic condition where I lose more weight the more chocolate I eat’ as a tragic but often misunderstood life problem. It’s hard but I’m heroically trying to cope.
Seriously, I am humbled and awed and wonderstruck by the response to The Court of Broken Knives and The Tower of Living and Dying. It’s difficult to put into words how it feels when I get a good review, how grateful I am when people say they’ve bought my book. I regularly cry when I hear from people who enjoyed it, then phone my dad to tell him and he cries too. But the pressure I feel not to disappoint people is pretty intense now. Book three is the end of the story, the summation of the ideas I’ve explored in the first two books, the culmination of my and my readers’ hopes, potentially the last book of mine people buy and the last book I write for HarperVoyager and Orbit. So … no pressure there.
TQ: What do you wish that you knew about book publishing when The Court of Broken Knives came out that you know now?
Anna: Hmmm… I know a lot about the publishing industry anyway, to be honest, my father is a writer and small-press publisher, as are many of his friends, I have several old family friends who work in publishing, journalism, arts administration and so on. Also I did a PhD, so the process of structural editing, the polite comment that asks you to entirely recast the structure of the book, was nothing new to me. I rather enjoy being edited, actually, it’s familiar, and nice to have someone telling you what to write for a bit. Also if everyone hates that bit I can feel vindicated at my editor.
TQ: Describe The Tower of Living and Dying using only 5 words.
Anna: War sorrow landscapes beauty death.
TQ: Which character in the Empires of Dust series (so far) surprised you the most? Who has been the hardest character to write and why?
Anna: Another good question. One I think about a lot.
Marith is always the hardest character to write because he is both the depths of my soul and the one great love of my life. He gets out of control and has to be reined in to make him readable, I have to check myself to try to understand him in the way we have to try to understand ourselves sometimes. It can feel very raw writing something that intensely about parts of myself and feelings I’ve had. He is toxic and vile, I’ve fallen into the fucked up romantic trap so many times myself and it’s important to make clear that he’s poison. But the lure of what he offers, him as something attractive despite or because of it, a leader, a dreamer, why people might follow him … that has to be important too. So many times, over and over, people have followed to the bitter end. Some blithely, some pitifully, some out of their own evil, some horribly aware of how fucked up it is. Trying to embody any of that in a character is emotionally draining.
I have to rein him in for other reasons too, reminding myself I’m writing grimdark fantasy not, uh, the other kind of fantasy. Although several people have said they’d love to read some of the other kind of fantasy about him and Carin, so…
Raeta was one of those delightful surprise characters that hit you from nowhere, more like the experience of writing The Court of Broken Knives had been. She really came out of nowhere at me, and I fell deeply in love with her. She was originally introduced as a very minor cameo role for a friend of mine in Broken Knives and blossomed from there.
Also, the increasing depth of heart and humanity I find in Bil Emmereth as she opens herself up to me as Orhan more is delighting me.
TQ: Please give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Tower of Living and Dying.
Anna: Out of the chaos an army forming, eight thousand men armed and ready, horses, ships, supplies. Tearing its way to life like a child birthing. Coalescing like bronze in the forge.
We worship the sky and the trees and the earth and the sea and the rocks we walk on. We dream of light and shadows and the glory of something far greater, the old wild powers of the world. Gods and demons parading. The secret things we cannot see that fly somewhere far beyond our human eyes.
Salt-soaked pitch-soaked well-seasoned damp wood is … astonishing when it explodes.
TQ: The Empires of Dust series is grimdark fantasy. Are there any other genres / subgenres in which you'd like to write? If not, why not?
Anna: At the moment, I can’t see myself writing anything other than high fantasy in one form or another. I love reading and writing fantasy, writing wonders and magic and epic war is so much damned fun. And there’s so much of Irlast I still need to explore.
There’s a lot of the stupid snobbery around ‘literary writing’ doesn’t apply in the same way it does in fantasy. It makes me so incredibly angry that literary fantasy is dismissed as a non-sequitur. Literary science fiction is a given, as is literary historical fiction. But literary fantasy is ignored. In as much as I have any goal in my writing now beyond writing for the joy of it, I want to treat the rarefied path of literary fantasy and see just how far I can take it. Explore the horrors of the human soul, the heights of love, the depths of grief, the riches of mundane life, push the language of modernism and archaicism, play delicious language games … with magic swords and chainmail bikinis and dragons.
TQ: What is the best piece of writing advice you've been given?
Anna: My father has a postcard on his desk that says ‘You must write as if your life depended on it’. I grew up looking at it. All it really means, in the end, is WRITE. Don’t wait for the right time and place, or think you’re not good enough. Don’t write for others. Don’t think about ‘will this sell? Is this good?’. Just write without restrictions on yourself.
TQ: What advice would you give to a debut author?
Anna: Honestly? You’re nothing special. You’ve written one book. Unless you’re J K Rowling or E L James, your life is not going to be forever changed. All that’s changed is that you’ve got the pressure of having a deadline for your next book.
Even more honestly? You’re really nothing special. No matter how many books you go on to write. If I ever find myself approaching book bloggers and review sites like this one with anything other than humility awe and gratitude, if I ever stop pinching myself in wonder every time anyone asks me what I do and I can say ‘author’, if I ever stop feeling like I’m going to weep for joy when someone says they liked my book, I need to stop writing for publication immediately.
TQ: What's next?
Anna: Killing myself wrestling book three into submission. It’s either the book or me. Indeed, by the time this is published, it may well have been me. Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant. Then …. who knows? I would love to write more novels set in Irlast, exploring other voices and perspectives on things. There’s a whole world there to explore, the landscapes, the people; Irlast is ultimately a map of my subconscious so I don’t see myself abandoning it any time soon. I’ve written several short stories set in Irlast, for the forthcoming Rogues, Legends III and Unbound II anthologies. Beyond that, it’s with the gods. I’ve been pouring libations to Apollo and Calliope daily.
TQ: Thank you for joining us again at The Qwillery.
The Tower of Living and Dying
Empires of Dust 2
Orbit, July 24, 2018
Trade Paperback and eBook, 480 pages
A powerhouse story of bloodshed, ambition, and fate, The Tower of Living and Dying is a continuation of Anna Smith Spark’s brilliant Empires of Dust trilogy, which began with The Court of Broken Knives.
Marith has been a sellsword, a prince, a murderer, a demon, and dead. But something keeps bringing him back to life, and now there is nothing stopping him from taking back the throne that is rightfully his.
Thalia, the former high priestess, remains Marith’s only tenuous grasp to whatever goodness he has left. His left hand and his last source of light, Thalia still believes that the power that lies within him can be used for better ends. But as more forces gather beneath Marith’s banner, she can feel her influence slipping.
Read the second book in this “gritty and glorious!” (Miles Cameron) epic fantasy series reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence where the exiled son of a king fights to reclaim his throne no matter the cost.
Empires of Dust The Court of Broken Knives The Tower of Living and Dying
The Court of Broken Knives
Empires of Dust 1
Orbit, August 15, 2017
Trade Paperback, 512 pages
Orbit, June 27, 2017
eBook, 512 pages
Perfect for fans of Mark Lawrence and R Scott Bakker, The Court of Broken Knives is the explosive debut by one of grimdark fantasy’s most exciting new voices.
Shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel
Shortlisted for the David Gemmell Morningstar Award
It is the richest empire the world has ever known, and it is also doomed–but only one man can see it.
Haunted by prophetic dreams, Orhan has hired a company of soldiers to cross the desert to reach the capital city. Once they enter the palace, they have one mission: kill the emperor, then all those who remain. Only from the ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Though he is young, ambitious, and impossibly charming, something dark hides in Marith’s past–and in his blood.
Dive into this new fantasy series for readers looking for epic battle scenes, gritty heroes, and blood-soaked revenge.
Anna Smith Spark is the author of the critically acclaimed grimdark epic fantast trilogy Empires of Dust. The David Gemmell Awards shortlisted The Court of Broken Knives is out now with HarperVoyager/Orbit; The Tower of Living and Dying will be published August 2018.
Annalives 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.