Welcome back to another Q&A on my blog, all for Wyrd and Wonder’s Month of Fantasy. Today I am very excited to be interviewing author Anna Stephens.
Make yourself a cuppa and get comfortable, I may have got excited and asked one of my favourite debut authors of last year a lot of questions.
I’ll be giving away a paperback copy of her debut novel Godblind, check out my Twitter page for details.
Anna Stephens is the UK author of gritty epic fantasy, the Godblind Trilogy. Book One, Godblind, is available in the UK and Commonwealth, North America, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Book 2, Darksoul, will be published on 23 August 2018.
She is represented by Harry Illingworth in the UK and sub-agented by Cameron McClure in North America. Along with the territories mentioned above, further publishing deals have been struck in Poland and the Czech Republic.
A literature graduate from the Open University, Anna loves all things speculative, from books to film to TV, including classic Hammer and Universal horror films, as well as the chameleon genius of David Bowie.
As a beginner in Historical European Martial Arts and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being punched in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.
“There was a time when the Red Gods ruled the land. The Dark Lady and her horde dealt in death and blood and fire.
That time has long since passed and the neighbouring kingdoms of Mireces and Rilpor hold an uneasy truce. The only blood spilled is confined to the border where vigilantes known as Wolves protect their kin and territory at any cost.
But after the death of his wife, King Rastoth is plagued by grief, leaving the kingdom of Rilpor vulnerable.
Vulnerable to the blood thirsty greed of the Warrior King Liris and the Mireces army waiting in the mountains.”
Hi Anna, welcome to my blog and thank you so much for joining me. Before we dive into all the serious questions, let’s have a little fun to get us started;
could you describe your novel Godblind using song lyrics?
Hi, thanks so much for having me – I can see you’re not starting with the easy questions!
Okay, I have a couple that I feel suit Godblind. The first is from Into the Valley, by The Dead South, which my good buddy Kareem bought for me:
“And we’ll walk into the valley where the Piper Man will play
And you’re looking for some answers
But that’s where the gallows wait”
I love this song and I think these particular lyrics relate quite well to the character Dom Templeson, the Calestar or seer, who is cursed/blessed with visions from the gods, which draw him deeper and deeper in Their power and further away from free will or the support of his friends and family. He’s in the valley, and it’s the last place he wants to be.
The second set of lyrics is from One by One, by Alter Bridge. Actually, this entire song has really resonant lyrics for Godblind, I think, but I’ll go with these lines:
“And they gave it all
A price we can’t ignore
Is there hope in what they’re dying for?
For every hero born
From every family torn
We will honour you forevermore”
I like the idea here that war is pointless but necessary, and that everyone who fights, no matter which side they’re on ultimately, is worthy of remembrance and honour. This fits nicely with the central theme of Godblind and the fact it’s about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they deal with that, what they’re willing to do for those they love.
Those Alter Bridge lyrics suit Godblind perfectly, your characters certainly pay some high prices. Let’s explore the book in more detail. You’ve said it took you thirteen years to write Godblind, what was it that kept you going? Was there a process you used?
I’m an idiot, simple as that. Every other author I’ve spoken to about this has said they’d have treated it as a trunk novel and moved on to something else, used it as a learning experience and then locked it away in the dark.
I couldn’t do that because I knew, deep in my bones, that this was the story I needed to tell. To this day I don’t know why the compulsion was so strong, and during those thirteen years and particularly during the editing process, the story has changed beyond recognition. But still, for me, it had to be these characters and this story that I told first. So that, even if I never publish another book, this was the one that made it into the world.
As for a process, it was pretty simple (and soul-destroying). Write it, send it on submission, get it rejected. Reread it and realise it’s bloody awful, rewrite it, send it on submission, get it rejected. I estimate I probably rewrote it ten times during that period, only taking time out when I was doing my degree. It’s actually a little hazy, if I’m being honest – all those drafts sort of meld into one another.
In the end it was rejected 36 times before Harry Illingworth picked it up. And every one of those rejections was valuable and necessary, because each one spurred me to make the book better.
I still have a lot of the old versions. And no, you can’t read them. No one can ever read them. I have some professional pride.
I am so glad you didn’t “trunk” this book! You’ve confessed to having an “organic approach” to writing; back in the ‘Grim Gathering’ literary event with Fantasy Faction last year you talked about getting to the end of a scene to discover you’d killed a character! Were there any particular aspects of your book that surprised you, that you didn’t see coming?
Um, most of them?
Learning to plan has been a long and painful process for me, so in the early drafts I’d very often have only the vaguest sense of where the book was going. I think I’m so attached to the characters (and hence so stubborn about this being the story to tell) because it felt as though they just made their own decisions all the way through. They went off and joined a war, or a cult, or got married, or got themselves killed, and I was just the helpless typist with no control over what they did.
As I became a better writer, though, I started to see myself foreshadowing future events, which was really exciting because I knew where things were going.
One of the biggest surprises for me though came right in the penultimate draft – when I’d already got both an agent and an editor. Dalli Shortspear, a Wolf warrior, originally had her own point of view, and my editor wanted me to take it out. I was really conscious of evening up the ratio of male-to-female POVs at that point, so I agreed on the premise that I was allowed to change the gender of another POV character to female. My editor agreed and that’s how Captain Lars Carter became Captain Tara Carter of the West Rank.
And the weird thing was, as soon as Lars became Tara, her voice just exploded out of me. She leapt off the page like Athene from Zeus’s head (I don’t think of myself as king of the gods; it’s a simile). She was vividly alive and that led to me rewriting all her chapters, not just to change the pronouns but because she insisted on turning up in chapter after chapter, in completely doing her own thing. There are a few scenes where she acknowledges she’s not following orders and she’s likely to get into trouble for it – a refrain that continues for her throughout the whole trilogy, in fact – and that was a little homage to her not doing what I wanted her to, let alone doing what her commanding officer wants her to!
That’s certainly a surprise, Tara is such a distinctive character! I’ve read that, like me, you enjoy hand-writing some aspects of your work. In your interview with The Fantasy Hive you mentioned that you’ve sometimes written a scene with different outcomes. Are you able to share your favourite one with us?
Yes, for me hand-writing helps to free up a creative block. I know what needs to happen in the broadest sense, but what I’ve typed isn’t quite right. By sitting down and brainstorming lots of different possible scenarios, I’ll come across the right one eventually.
Favourite alternate ending? I did have a lot of fun writing the scene in a previous version where Prince Rivil tries to assassinate his father King Rastoth with poison, and the physician, Hallos, is tasked with saving the king’s life as he makes a determined effort to shit himself to death.
Of course, the major plot problem with that is Rivil then wouldn’t need to do any of what he does in Godblind to find new allies to bolster his claim to the throne, so it had to go.
That’s quite a way to kill off a character. Godblind is an incredibly intricate book; from the multiple POVs, the twisting threads of political intrigue, to outright war and some incredible battle and fight scenes.
With so much going on, how were you able to keep track of it all?
I’ll be honest, it was such an organic process over so many years that really, I just remembered it all. It grew slowly and changed slowly, so it wasn’t too difficult keeping up with the changes. What I’ve found incredibly exciting though, with writing Darksoul and now drafting book three, is there are seeds in Godblind that I didn’t even know I’d planted and that only find their conclusion in the sequels.
So things that characters reveal in Godblind drive their actions in Darksoul and beyond.
It was a different process with Darksoul, though, because it was written over a standard time-frame – nine months. So now that I’m drafting the final book I find I have to keep returning to Darksoul’s manuscript to remind myself what actually happened. Which is a strange sensation for me.
Were there any aspects of the book influenced by historical events? Are there any other influences on your writing style?
Yes, definitely. Some readers who didn’t like the book said they just don’t understand why anyone would worship the Red Gods when They’re so horrible, so I always like to point to the pre-Columbian South American gods and civilisations. The ancient Maya and Aztecs practiced human sacrifice on a massive scale – tens of thousands of victims per year at some points. No one in those civilisations – as far as we’re aware – said, “you know what, I think this is a bit cruel. Let’s not do it”.
There are influences as well of the Crusades, the intention not just to force religious conversion on a population but to subjugate that population and seize their resources. With growing religious extremism in both the West and the East these days, that was something I wanted to address, along with gender and LGBT equality, because issues absolutely infuriate me. I wanted to show them in their real world context and then show why they’re absolutely insane through well-realised characters.
And I made extensive use of a book called Infantry Warfare in the Fourteenth Century to help me craft effective and accurate battle scenes.
As I mentioned above, Godblind is told from the perspective of many different characters; its cast is wonderfully diverse and yet I found it was never overwhelming or confusing.
Do you have any advice for writing such distinctive POVs?
For me, character always comes before story or setting, so my advice is sit with your characters for a while and chat with them (in your head, obviously. No need to get weird about it). As I mentioned, there were originally a lot more POVs in Godblind which I had to trim down, but they still show up as vital minor characters with voices of their own – just seen through someone else’s eyes.
Make sure each POV character has a different perspective on the world. I have four military POVs – Crys, Tara, Mace and Durdil – which might seem like too many, but each of them brings something unique to the narrative.
Tara’s gender and how that impacts her career – she just wants to be a soldier but has to be twice as good as the men to gain half the recognition; Crys’s up-and-down military career, penchant for getting into trouble, and burgeoning understanding of himself as a man, plus the ‘other thing’ that’s going on in him (more in Darksoul); Mace as the idealistic but practical senior officer who has to send his men to die knowing it’ll haunt him; and Durdil as the hard-bitten, seen-it-all-and-bought-the-hauberk commander who’s task it to be able to see that country-wide big picture and act on it.
That is excellent advice Anna, thank you!
One of my favourite characters was Rillirin; she goes through some quite harrowing events, her development is moving and sympathetic. You’ve quoted the saying before “No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader”;
to what depths did creating a character like Rillirin and her story arc take you?
It certainly wasn’t an easy place to get to in myself. I haven’t experienced anything like Rillirin’s backstory, though, of course, #MeToo. My biggest desire there was to handle it sensitively, to acknowledge that the years of abuse she put up with did not make her weak; it made her a survivor. It was a joy to write her coming out of that, learning who she was and what she was capable of, finding her voice. There were many moments where I’d be pounding my fist on the desk as she made an emotional step forward, whether that was an unguarded smile or an unthinking quip that showed a little of the fire inside her.
I wanted to show her absolute fury about what had happened, fury she’d never been able to express when she was in that life, but also the grief for the person she could’ve been and who she is instead. There definitely were a couple of moments where I shed a few tears with her, either when she relives her past or tears of triumph when she finds the savagery inside herself and gives it free, ecstatic rein on the people who hurt her so badly.
Those moments where she was rediscovering who she was were what got me! Godblind has been hailed by many as a “grimdark” novel. In your interview with Breaking The Glass Slipper you said “There’s no limit to what you can do with fantasy.” Considering how raw and dark some elements of Godblind are,
did you ever worry, when writing it, that you were reaching a limit or crossing a line?
This is probably where I should talk about the hammer scene, isn’t it? That scene is somewhat notorious among those who’ve read Godblind. Did I expect it to become so? Absolutely not.
There’s a reason for that particular scene and what happens in it, and it’s simply this: I was so sick of seeing films, TV shows, and books in which women suffer rape or sexual violence to provide agency for a male hero to rescue her or take revenge on her behalf. I’m sick of female genital violence being the norm. Yes, I know I discuss rape in Godblind, but it happens ‘off-screen’ and the women to whom it occurs take their own bloody vengeance, thank you very much.
And I talk about it for the same reasons I talk about gender and LGBT inequality – because it still happens, and not acknowledging it won’t help us to stamp it out.
In so many stories these days, women are raped, gang-raped or otherwise brutalised, and I basically just wanted to turn the tables on that, have a woman committing that act of invasion and violence on a man instead. It was an absolutely gratuitous depiction of the worst thing I could think of, and it was done deliberately as a response to that prevalence of violence against women.
So, I was sort of aware that I might be approaching a limit with that scene, but I also made the decision to include it because to me, it was an important point to make. I wanted men to be horrified by that scene, the way I find my heart pounding and my palms slick with sweat when I watch yet another rape scene on TV.
I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone other than me, though.
It absolutely makes sense Anna, facing the inequality head on.
You wrote an inspiringly heartfelt blog post about your experiences writing the sequel to Godblind, Darksoul, and the dreaded “Second Book Syndrome”. Coming through the other side of this, what do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of writing?
Understanding – probably deeply and for the first time – that writing is a journey, and that that’s not a bad thing. We learn, we grow, we hone our craft, we experience life and bring it into our work. Write from the heart, the soul, the gut and acknowledge that those things will change with time.
Godblind will always be my favourite book because it’s the first to be published, but I expect I’ll look back on it in five years and know I could’ve written it much better.
You’re not supposed to have a favourite baby 😉 You’re a big advocate for libraries and you’re an active member of the Birmingham Writer’s Group; what resources out there would you recommend to aspiring writers? How have they helped you?
Libraries really are so important – want to learn about characterisation? Take out a dozen books from different genres and a few on the craft of writing. None of them will cost you a penny. Libraries are fonts of free knowledge, and the more they’re used, the longer we’ll have access to them. Don’t waste such a precious resource.
The writing group has been good for me on many levels – a group of like-minded people who are all struggling with the same demons of craft and characterisation and plot – but also someone I can ask advice from or just hang out with. Someone I can try out experimental bits of plot or dialogue with.
My Open University degree in Literature was also really helpful – not just the creative writing modules I did, but all of them. Learning to analyse text, dialogue, characterisation, learning to recognise narrative tropes and constructs, learning about different approaches to rhythm, structure, plot were all invaluable.
For people who can’t afford something like that, I always recommend picking up your favourite book and analysing it: exactly what is it that you love so much? The character? Alright, why? How are they presented, how to act or speak etc? Get all the way down to the nuts and bolts of what it is you love. Understand why they affect you, make notes – then implement the same approach.
What are you currently reading and what do you most anticipate reading this year?
I’m currently enjoying an ARC of Lancelot by Giles Kristian, which is due for publication in May 2018. It’s a glorious, mystical retelling of the Arthurian legend through the lens of Lancelot.
I’m also looking forward to Darkdawn by Jay Kristoff, the final instalment in the Nevernight Chronicle and, although The Bitter Twins is only just out, I’m really excited for the third book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy by Jen Williams, which I believe it called The Poison Song.
The Poison Song is high on my list of anticipated books, along with Darksoul; it’s expected to hit our shelves in August this year (barely contains her excitement); please tell us a little about what we can expect.
Things get worse before they get better. In fact, they might not actually get better ever again.
Beloved character deaths, breath-taking betrayals and an epic, desperate fight for survival. Gods take an even more active role in the world, acts of astonishing heroism rub shoulders with acts of petty revenge and two men, formerly friends, face each other across the torturer’s table.
“Beloved character deaths”? I’d better start stocking up on tissues!
Thank you so much for joining me on my blog today Anna, and for all your wonderful insights into writing!
You can read my review of
Godblind here, and don’t forget to check my Twitter page for the giveaway!