Authors in Isolation: Anna Stephens

I have a particularly special interview for everyone today! I was lucky enough to pull Anna Stephens away from her excellent new release The Stone Knife long enough for a quick chat in the Scar den. Come check it out by clicking the link below!

First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?

Hi, I’m Anna Stephens and I write epic fantasy that often slides into grimdark. Battles and betrayals predominate, but there’s always a thin thread of hope (sometimes very thin) to carry the characters through the carnage.

My debut series is the Godblind trilogy – Godblind, Darksoul, Bloodchild – and my new series, Songs of the Drowned, begins with The Stone Knife, which has just come out.

How do you develop your plots and characters?

I tend to start with characters first, with a voice or an image that come to me and from which the characters begin to develop. I get a sense of their personality and how they live first, and then build them up until they’re broadly ‘real’, so to speak. Then I start thinking about what sort of challenges they might face and how they’d deal with that, which gives me an idea of what the world might look like and the conflict they’re going to end up in.

So it’s all character first, world second, plot third for me.

Tell the world about your current project!

I’m currently redrafting the second book in Songs of the Drowned in line with the edits made to The Stone Knife, the first book in the new series, which was published on 26 November.

Songs of the Drowned is an epic fantasy series of empire, colonialism, conquest and resistance, set on a tropical peninsula and featuring queernorm societal structures, magic, monsters, shamanism and spies.

Who would you say is the main character of your latest novel? And tell me a little bit about them!

As is usual with me, I have more than one protagonist, but I’ll talk a little bit about Xessa, who is a deaf warrior dedicated to doing battle with the Drowned, the humanoid amphibious predators that plague her people, in order to secure enough fresh water for her city.

She’s vibrant and reckless and fiercely loyal to her people, friends, and city, and when the Empire of Songs begins its invasion of her homeland, she has to confront her own prejudices and horror at killing people rather than monsters.

Have you been to any conventions? If so, tell me a little about them!

Many! I really love conventions, everyone’s there to share in their love of books and geekdom and SFF fans are mostly giant nerds, which means I fit in well. In general, everyone is really welcoming and it’s easy to make friends and catch up with people you haven’t seen in a while.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I think it’s something I’ve always wanted to do for as long as I can remember, but I was fourteen or so when I expressed it as something I wanted to work towards. My family didn’t take me seriously for a long time, and even when I started getting short fiction published I don’t think they saw it going anywhere, but it never discouraged me. I’ve always been extremely stubborn when it comes to things I’m passionate about, and it paid off in the end.

If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose?

As my current series takes some inspiration from Central American civilisations, I’d love to spend time there for a year, visiting Tikal and Calakmul and Tenochtitlan, among other places, and speaking to farmers and weavers and historians.

What advice would you give new writers?

Finish the draft. It’s impossible to improve or edit a book you haven’t written or finished. Just the act of writing a novel-length manuscript is a huge achievement you should be proud of, but if you just keep rewriting the opening 25,000 words over and over to ‘make them perfect’, you’ll never get any further.

Finish the draft.

What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding?

As mentioned, in order to create a world and civilisation with real depth and a sense of realness to it, I did a lot of research into Central American – mostly Mayan, and some Aztec Triple Alliance – history. I focused on agriculture and architecture, farming and the cultivation of jungle, road-building and social structures of the pre-Mayan Collapse nations.

This gave me a shape for my societies and how they interacted with their environments and each other so that I could build my cultures in a way that fitted with how people lived and moved and travelled and fought. I wanted them to be a seamless part of their world, not a society stuck in a landscape it didn’t understand and couldn’t interact with.

What inspires you to write?

Oof, everything! I like to write about issues that are important to me, but I also like to have fun and entertain people. I want you to finish a book and know that it’s made you think, but I also want to know that you had Real Emotions while reading it and maybe even learnt a couple of things.

What is the hardest part of writing for you?

It can really vary by project. I struggled with the first draft – the first couple of drafts, really – of The Stone Knife, because it’s such a different book to my previous ones, but I really got stuck in to the editing process and that’s when I fell in love with the characters and story. Before that, with Bloodchild, my third book, I loved the drafting process and struggled with the editing.

So there doesn’t seem to be any particular rule for what I’ll find difficult with any new project.

What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?

Lots of green tea, lots of instrumental and/or foreign language music, and LOTS of staring out the window or going for walks to try and resolve plot issues.

I try and write every day, but my weekend word count is half my weekday count, because hey, it’s the weekend. And if I don’t write on a Saturday, I also don’t worry about it. Unless I’m on deadline (which is mostly always) when I write every day without fail and can often be found hastily scribbling ideas and notes for myself during the evenings.

What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write in any of your books, and why?

Wow, that’s a tough question! It’s also going to be spoiler-heavy, so look away now if you haven’t read my first trilogy!

I really loved the final chapters of Bloodchild, even though each one seemed to try and outdo the last in terms of emotional devastation. The epilogue to Bloodchild was probably one of my favourite things to write, because I’d been waiting at least fifteen years to show that single moment.

I still can’t read the final chapters without crying.

Did you learn anything from writing your latest book? If so, what was it?

I learnt a lot about the environment and history of Central America, which was absolutely fascinating, and I went through a really strange period when I was drafting The Stone Knife in which I’d write something, or introduce a character, plot twist or concept, and then a week later, I’d find something very similar to the thing I’d invented in the book I was reading for research.

For example, I have two advisers to the Singer called the ‘Spear of the Singer’ and the ‘Spear of the City’, who look after the military and economic sides of the government respectively.

When I was reading “1491: new revelations about the Americas before Columbus”, I came across a reference to the Mexica, who divided authority between a tlatoani – a diplomatic and military commander – and a cihuacoatl – who supervised internal affairs.

It was so similar to my Spears that it was actually a bit freaky.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?

I think I’m halfway between the two. I know how it starts and ends, and I have four or five major plot points that I need to hit, but how we get to those plot points I leave up to the characters and my subconscious. I like the freedom that gives me to try new things, but within a framework to keep me on track towards the ultimate goal of the book.

If you had to give up either snacks and drinks during writing sessions, or music, which would you find more difficult to say goodbye to?

Oh, that’s really tough! I am mildly addicted to green tea, so it would be really hard not to be able to drink a few pots of that a day – I’m drinking some right now, in fact – so I’d probably say music. I do have some days where I won’t listen to music for long stretches while writing.

Which is your favorite season to write in, and why?

My study is the coldest room in our house (typical) so I am not a fan of winter from a writing perspective. I’d probably say spring, because the birds are active defending their territories and the weather’s generally a little warmer, meaning I can lose the fingerless gloves.

It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?

I like to give each character one defining trait to build their personality around – the loyal warrior, the astute politician, the curious shaman etc. That becomes the core of them, and then I spend time wondering how they would react to different situations and threats and rewards. I’ll intentionally brainstorm arguments between characters to see how they react – are they combative or diplomatic – or I’ll imagine them outside their comfort zone and how they deal with it. It all goes to building up my understanding of their personality. It’s like making a new friend.

What are your future project(s)?

I’ve got some more Black Library projects that I’m working on, a Super Secret Project I can’t talk about, and book 2 of Songs of the Drowned. So I’m pretty busy!

What is your favorite book ever written?

This question is absolutely impossible to answer because it changes so regularly. I’ve read Lord of the Rings a dozen times, but I’ve also read Green River Rising a dozen times and they’re wildly different books. It really changes depending on my mood.

Who are your favorite authors?

Oh, yikes. Um, I don’t think we have enough time for this.

Tolkien, Jen Williams, Terry Pratchett, Tim Willocks, Joe Abercrombie, Sam Hawke, Ursula le Guin, Mary Shelley, Euripides, Daphne du Maurier, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Kameron Hurley, Nnedi Okorafor, Tessa Gratton, Giles Kristian, Scott Lynch, Robin Hobb, Tasha Suri, Murakami Haruki, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Alice Walker…

What makes a good villain?

Someone who is every bit as complex and conflicted as the hero. Someone who believes that what they’re doing is right and for the right reasons. Someone who doesn’t revel in bad things for the sake of them being bad. Someone you have to love a little bit.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

See the ‘current projects’ answer above – I don’t have spare time!!

Read, watch an indecent amount of Chinese and Korean dramas, practice HEMA and karate, drink gin.

If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?

I always wanted to be a firefighter, as I come from a family of firefighters, but back when I was eligible to join they had stricter rules on eyesight and I’m blind as a bat. I think, now, if I had to do it all over again, I’d be a nurse. I like helping people.

Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?

Green tea, loose leaf, in a Japanese pot served into a chawan.

You can travel to anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?

I’d love to find a friendly alien society and see how they do things, what lessons we can learn from them. But the emphasis is firmly on the ‘friendly’, thank you very much.

Do you have any writer friends you’d like to give a shoutout to?

Lots! Books I’ve loved this year are by Tasha Suri, Leife Shallcross, Devin Madson, EJ Beaton, Sam Hawke, Shelley Parker-Chan, Zen Cho, Fonda Lee, Pete McLean, Edward Cox, Tade Thompson, Stewart Hotston, David Wragg, Demi Harper…

Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?

Oh no, too many choices. Um, I’m going to go with books I’ve read that aren’t released yet, so Priya from Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, Zhu from Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, and Lysande from EJ Beaton’s The Councillor.

There will be alcohol, possibly drugs, and a lot of murder. But we have cool magic and the Mandate of Heaven on our side, so we’ll be fine.

What superpower would you most like?

Flight. And a prehensile tail (which isn’t a superpower, I know) for holding snacks.

What are two of your favorite covers of all time? (Not your own.)

City of Lies, by Same Hawke, and The Vagrant, by Peter Newman, are both spectacular. And a special shout out to the red and white cover of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, by Mishima Yukio.

It’s a very difficult time right now for the world. When quarantine and pandemic comes to an end, what is the first thing you would like to do?

Meet up with friends and hug them until it gets awkward and over-long.

Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?

Twitter – @AnnaSmithWrites – and my website – https://anna-stephens.com/

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