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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Interview with Anna Stephens (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website

Order The Stone Knife over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)

Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of The Stone Knife

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Godblind

Today as The Stone Knife is released into the world. We are very lucky to have Anna visit us at FBC to chat about her new epic fantasy story. So read ahead to know more about the peninsula of Ixachipan, the Songs Of The Drowned series, & what you can expect from this new amazing saga

Q] Anna, welcome to Fantasy Book Critic and thank you for your time. How are you doing amidst these troubled times?

AS: Hi Mihir, and thanks so much for having me! I’m not doing too badly, thank you. I have lots of projects to keep me busy – in fact, I probably have a few too many! The pandemic and lockdown hit my productivity pretty hard and I’m not managing as many words usual, but I’m still writing and spending far too much time goofing off on social media. Whoops. 

Q] Could you please tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author?

AS: I was raised with a love of books and some of my earliest memories are of bedtime stories and our weekly trip to the library every Saturday morning, so I’ve always loved the written word and its ability to transport you out of yourself and somewhere else. I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and a strong creative streak, and I love the idea of being able to entertain people but without actually having to be in their presence to make a fool of myself while doing so! (Not that I mind making a fool of myself; you should see me at book conventions. I’m a one-person car crash most of the time.) 

Creative writing was my favourite part of English lessons, and when I was 14 I told my best friend my dream job would be as an author, and she always encouraged me to pursue that. It was a long and arduous journey, involving some truly terrible drafts of truly terrible stories, a lot of rejections from literary agents, a few short story successes, a part-time Literature degree, and an awful lot of luck. My agent, Harry Illingworth, tweeted he was looking for Joe Abercrombie-esque epic fantasy just at the point where I’d completed a good draft of Godblind – so the stars aligned and the gods smiled and I submitted it to him. We went through a round of edits before he sent it out to publishers, and here we are! 

Q] While most fantasy writers are comfortable writing in their debut milieus, you have gone against the grain and are writing a new story set in a completely different world. What was your line of reasoning behind this bold step? 

AS: Sheer stupidity. 

I love the Godblind universe and a lot of my best friends live there (the ones that are actually still alive) but I’d spent so much time writing in that world – I wrote the first draft of Godblind 13 years before it was published – that I was honestly worried that I didn’t have any other stories in me. That I’d write this one trilogy and then never be able to move past it. So I wanted to challenge myself and, wow, did I ever do that, because a new universe is hard.

I wanted to stick with what I’m good at – the stabbing – but put it in a bigger, more ambitious setting. I wanted to experiment with magic and monsters; I wanted to draw out bigger, more important themes; and I wanted to challenge myself. 

I spent most of every day of drafting The Stone Knife cursing myself for attempting something new, but now that it’s done, I’m really proud of how it turned out. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m glad I persisted.  

Q] Please elaborate how the genesis of the Songs Of The Drowned series occurred. How long have you been working on it? What were your inspirations for the story and what were you aiming for with it?

AS: I had a vague pitch – which turned out to bear little resemblance to the finished book – in 2018, and I started working on it in between drafting and editing Bloodchild, so it’s still pretty new in my head and while I know the ultimate ending for the next two books and the shape of the overall story, I’m still feeling my way through exactly how it will look and how we’ll get there – which is always the most fun and yet the most frustrating part of writing for me. 

I wanted to write something that wasn’t ‘white, medieval Europe with magic’, because I’d sort of done that with my first trilogy. I wanted a different environment with challenges of its own, that forced people to live in a different way, a different form of symbiosis with their environment. 

And I wanted to examine Empire and colonialism from both inside and outside those power structures and look at how people with privilege are blind to it and how it skews their thinking and behavior. There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, where Granny Weatherwax says “sin, young man, is when you treat people like things” and that’s always stuck with me. 

But I also wanted to examine a different sort of society, separate from the issues of colonialism. I wanted to see what a society that didn’t have defined gender roles looked like, a society that didn’t even understand the concept of homophobia or patriarchy, and those themes became some of the most rewarding to write. It was also interesting to see how the Empire of Songs could still be a horrific place despite holding these same values, and that made them a far more complex and nuanced enemy. 

Q] The Songs Of The Drowned while being a bit dark is so much different than your grimdark debut with regards to characters, plot bleakness and language. Did you feel that this story needed to be drastically different from your debut or was this just what the story required? 

AS: I think it’s partly a result of my evolution as a writer and partly out of a desire to write something with a much broader scope. The Godblind trilogy was quite small, inasmuch as it focused on Rilpor and Mireces. The Stone Knife covers an entire peninsula, a dozen different peoples and customs, and much bigger themes. 

With the idea of the song running through the narrative, I wanted to allude to it occasionally with richer descriptions than I’ve used in the past, and to really draw out the relationship between people and nature by focusing a little more on the environment and how characters live within it. As a result, the language I use in various places is definitely different to how I wrote the Godblind trilogy, and it was a nice challenge to stretch my writing muscles that way. 

Q] Once you started writing this trilogy/series, how much of the entire journey was planned and how much of it evolved organically? Was the ending planned from the very beginning? 

AS: I’ve got a definite end point for the main plot, and for how book 2 will come to its conclusion. There are certain events I know need to happen to push the narrative along, and broader themes and character journeys I want to explore, but other than that, everything is up for grabs. 

Up until a month ago, I was sure of which characters would live and which would die and when, and I’ve completely revised that now in a bout of feverish excitement about how many readers I can make cry this time around. So it’s fair to say, everything’s pretty fluid at this stage. 

Q] Could you give us a progress report on book 2 and outline your plans for the series as a whole (will it be a trilogy or longer)?

AS: I’ve got a rough draft of book 2 finished, and I’m in the process of refining and rewriting large parts of that in line with the edits we made to The Stone Knife and how they’ve impacted the plot and timeline. This is pretty common for me, in that the draft I’ve already got will undergo extensive changes based on ideas or edits to the previous instalment. 

The plan is for the overall narrative to be completed in three books, and I don’t think that will change until something goes drastically wrong – or perhaps drastically right! 

Q] Can you tell us more about the world that The Stone Knife is set in and some of the series’ major characters? What are the curiosities (geographical, mystical, etc.) of this world?

AS: The Stone Knife is set on the peninsula of Ixachipan, which is a hilly, heavily-forested tropical environment. The Empire of Songs has slowly conquered all but two of the lands and peoples of Ixachipan, and have finally set their sights on Yalotlan and Tokoban. If they can conquer these lands, they will have brought the whole peninsula under the song. At that point, their ruler, the Singer, will cast a great magic to wake the world spirit. 

In the Empire, the holy Setatmeh are water-gods who control the rains and the crops and the harvest, who keep the world in balance and are a link with the world spirit and the song. They are worshipped and sacrificed to. In Tokoban and Yalotlan, however, they are known as the Drowned, and they are the peoples’ greatest threat. 

The Stone Knife follows the Tokob characters Xessa – a warrior against the Drowned; Lilla – a warrior against the Empire; Tayan – a shaman; and the Empire characters Pilos – commander of the army; Enet – an ambitious politician; and the Singer himself. There’s one other point of view character, but I can’t talk about them because spoilers!  

Q] I want to ask you about your characters and not just the main POV ones but even the ones that only make fleeting appearances. What goes through your mind when you create them? How do you make them so complex and believable?

AS: It’s important to me that even my ‘villains’ are three-dimensional, real people. Cartoon villains twirling their moustaches and being bad for the sake of it are never, to me, convincing. I want to know what goes on in their heads, why they’re doing bad things. I want to understand their motivations and I can’t do that if I don’t explore their character in depth. I think my only truly detestable character so far is Galtas Morellis from the Godblind trilogy – he absolutely delighted in being bad and tormenting people. But even he had his nuance – he had a massive inferiority complex and that drove him to delight in others’ misfortune and revel in the power and influence he accumulated. Without that nuance, he would have simply been a Generic Bad Guy and utterly forgettable. 

Everyone else – from that series and this one – are just people who genuinely believe that they’re doing the right thing. The Pechaqueh of the Empire of Songs honestly believe that they deserve to be at the top of the social strata because of the Singer and the song. They believe that bringing everyone under the song and into their religion will be good for them and that they’ll be better people as a result. They can’t conceive that they might be wrong, or that they’re causing untold harm by their actions. 

As for my point of view characters, I tend to begin with a defining trait or characteristic and have that the core of their personality, but I make sure to build in all the other quirks and flaws as well, both good and bad. Pilos, for example, is a deeply honourable man fully embedded in a corrupt regime and unable to see it. He cares for each and every one of his warriors, whether they’re elite Pechaqueh like him, or lowly slave-warriors from a conquered tribe. He’s a good man, a decent man, but he doesn’t grasp that even having slave-warriors is a bad thing. 

Q] What are you writing currently and what can your fans expect to read next from you?

AS: I’ve got a Black Library novella coming out in November as well as The Stone Knife, centered around Trisethni, a witch-aelf and a Daughter of Khaine, the Lord of Murder. She’s an assassin with a penchant for poison and slaughter, and she was a lot of fun to write, especially in light of what I’ve said above. She’s not a very nice person, and it was a challenge to make her sympathetic and relatable that I really enjoyed. 

Other than that, I’ve got some more work ongoing with Black Library and, of course, book 2 of Songs of the Drowned is due out next November. 

I’m also working on a super-secret project that should hopefully come out next autumn as well! 

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for The Stone Knife?

AS: I write stories about people pushed to their limits and how they deal with it, about their worlds being upended and them having to find themselves and their purpose in the ashes, how everything they once thought was true might in fact be a lie. I write about love and duty and religion, about finding yourself and your purpose. I occasionally write happy endings, but only in the wake of a lot of emotional devastation. 

For The Stone Knife, I’d pitch it as “A story of empire and conquest, where one people’s gods are another’s monsters, and the only truth is the people who stand by you.”

Q] Please tell us about the books and authors who have captured your imagination and inspired you to become a wordsmith in your own right. Similarly, are there any current authors you would like to give a shout out to?

AS: Oh, I don’t think we have long enough to talk about all the books I love! Fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction/historical fantasy are my favourites, as well as a fair few of the classics. I was a big fan of The Dragonriders of Pern series as a kid, but also the Duncton Wood books by William Horwood. I loved Tales of Farthing Wood and Watership Down – which may have some bearing on why I always aim to destroy my readers – but also Tolkien and Pratchett and Murakami

Authors I really want to shout out about that I’ve read and loved lately: Tasha Suri, Jen Williams, Evan Winter, Tade Thompson, Alix Harrow, RF Kuang, Stewart Hotston, Kameron Hurley, Fonda Lee … this too is an extensive and non-exhaustive list. 

Q] One of the perks of being an author is that you get to read books before they get published. I’ve noticed that you have blurbed some fabulous ones by Evan Winter, Devin Madson, Peter McLean, & Justin Lee Anderson. Which upcoming titles has you had the pleasure of reading recently?

AS: Woo hoo, I get to shout about new books! The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri, She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan and The Councillor by EJ Beaton are three that I’ve read recently and are all spectacular and beautiful and devastating and critical of the right things in the right way.

I’m currently beta-reading a superb fantasy by Stewart Hotston that requires publishing immediately, it’s so good, oh my god. 

Q] Thank you for your time and for the answers. Any parting thoughts/words that you'd like to share with your fans & readers?

AS: Thank you for reading! Wear a mask! Black lives matter

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author herself. 


A Book Idea said...

This is a great interview. Well, I will give her a trial.


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