Tuesday 12 September 2017

"Exploring the Dark Side": An Interview with Anna Stephens

 Ever since I first heard about it on, Godblind has been in my nebulous mental TBR pile. So when Anna Stephens agreed to talk to me about her book, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss...

PL: What gave you the inspiration for Godblind and its characters?

AS: Godblind has been a long work in progress; I wrote the first draft more than a decade ago. I originally wanted to write a high fantasy like the ones I enjoyed reading so much, but I soon learnt that I’m not meant to write fantasy like that. It just doesn’t work when I put it on the page – it’s too overblown, too melodramatic, and not real enough.

What I can write pretty well are characters who have both light and dark in them. Characters with fears and jealousies and petty irritations, who hold grudges and take revenge and betray. But that’s not all they do. They’re also capable of great love and compassion, of courage and comradeship, self-sacrifice and a willingness to take the hard road when necessary.

It’s important to me to write characters that I feel are as rounded as possible – none of them are purely good or purely evil. Even Gilda, the old high priestess of the Dancer and the Fox God, is happy to punch an enemy in the face now and then.

I also wanted very much to write about things I’m passionate about – gender and sexual equality, diversity of sexual orientation, strength in women and weakness in men, all without making a big deal out of it. By the end of Godblind, Dom is in a terrible place, physically, mentally and emotionally. That doesn’t make him any less of a man. Tara can be a stone-cold, practical, ruthless killer when she needs to be. That doesn’t make her any less of a woman. We are all of us these things and so much more. Why wouldn’t anyone incorporate that into their work?

Godblind is the story of a bunch of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – there are no superheroes here, no ‘Mary Sues’ (I hate that term and all it implies) and no ‘easy to hate’ bad guys. When the world is going to hell in a handcart, you can try and slow it down or you can jump in and enjoy the ride. Godblind has characters that do both, some who do neither. And a couple who’d blow up the handcart just to see it burn.  

PL: I'm sure that handcart had it coming - can't ask you about that though, might be some spoilers there! What I can ask you about is your characters. It sounds like you put a lot of thought and love into your characters - are there any particularly favourites among them? Any you're particularly looking forwards to seeing how readers react to them?

AS: Yes, I do put a huge amount of effort into my characters. For me, it’s about the people first and the plot second – how they react to events rather than events for the sake of it. So the infamous hammer scene in Godblind was more about how Galtas and Lanta and Crys and Rivil behaved, rather than what was being done to Janis. Don’t get me wrong, that was a fun scene to write from a gross-out perspective, but it was more about how it haunted Crys afterwards and made Galtas realise exactly what it was they’d committed to that was important.

And speaking of Crys and Galtas, they’re one of my favourites and my most hated character respectively. Crys has been with me a long time; he was one of the first to appear after the initial trio of characters existed (which was Dom, Rillirin and Rivil). Back in the mists of time, in the first and second drafts, Rillirin was a princess and was actually Rivil’s sister, one of the heirs to the throne of Rilpor. You may have noticed a lot of names beginning “Ri-“ – that was deliberate. It was to show Rivil and Rillirin were born to rule Rilpor. When I realised the fundamental flaw of that design – mainly that Rillirin was in no way, shape or form a pampered princess – I changed her story but couldn’t bear to change her name. She was, and always will be, Rillirin.

So then Crys popped up, initially in a cameo role that he proceeded to grab with both hands and refuse to let go. He insisted on being in scene after scene and became a major – and then a favourite – character really quickly. Both he and Rillirin go on huge journeys of self-discovery at the same time as their physical journeys, and I found the juxtaposition of the two to be fascinating. Rillirin, in particular, in embarking on her inner journey of discovery and building of courage, deliberately agrees to put herself in harm’s way in her physical journey as a result of what she learns about herself.

Galtas, however. Well, Galtas makes my skin crawl, quite frankly. Readers might not quite understand how much I loathe him because I had to tone down a couple of his scenes, but what I hate the most is his undeniable, if oily, charm. He’s so cocksure that despite the murders, rapes and assassinations, he knows people like him. He makes people like him. And that sets my teeth on edge. We talk about characters we love to hate; Galtas is a character I hate to love. 

PL: Ten years is a long time to have a story bubbling away inside your head. How have you changed as a writer in that time? Has your approach to making the story seen any drastic alterations?

AS: Ten years is a very long time! Some other writers have said they’d have given up by then, produced something new, but for me, it always had to be this story first. If I was going to be published, Godblind would be the first book deal I got. I don’t know why; it’s just how it was.

So because of that, I always wanted to improve – as a writer, a plotter, a moulder of characters. At the time it was probably painful, but looking back now, I love the world and the characters so much that I was happy to reread, revise, rewrite after every round of rejections.

I can safely say there’s nothing in Godblind that was in the original draft except for the names – Dom, Lim, Rillirin, Rivil, Rilpor. That’s the sum total of similarities. As I mentioned, Rillirin was a pampered princess of Rilpor, sister to Rivil. Dom and Lim were ‘sword masters’ tasked with her protection, and it was just high-blown rubbish, absolutely melodramatic and utterly unpublishable.

So I have definitely learnt a lot over the intervening decade – I learnt that I can’t write high fantasy, but I can write gritty. I can’t write traditional fantasy tropes but I can write war and graphic killing. I can’t write purely good and purely evil characters, but I can write real people with a mix of light and dark within them.

My writing style has changed utterly, and for the better. It’s a lot sparser these days, without long segments of description of place or person. Some people don’t like that, and that’s fine, and maybe it’s something I’ll experiment with incorporating at some point, but I like to keep things pared down to focus on the action and the inner monologue. What a character is feeling is just as – if not more – important to me as the environment in which they move. As I favour multiple close points of view, sticking in grand descriptions of sweeping vistas as well would just cloud the issue further – who is seeing this vista? What do they care, they’re about to be stabbed?

I think my next project after the Godblind trilogy, whatever it may be, will always veer closer to the dark and the gruelling. I’m not a depressive person who only ever sees the bad in people – I’ve actually got a rather sunny disposition – but these are the themes I’m drawn to. I enjoy exploring the dark side (Star Wars pun totally intended) even though I wouldn’t want to live there. 

How can you not buy a book with a cover like that?

PL: See, that's how I feel about Florida... enjoy exploring but wouldn't want to live there!

Okay, back to seriousness. What's the best and worst bits of writing advice you've ever received?
AS: I think in this respect I’ve actually been quite lucky, in that I haven’t really been told how to do my job by non-writers so there hasn’t been a lot of bad advice.

Because I never really talked about being a writer to anyone other than family and close friends, it wasn’t until I signed with my agent that colleagues and acquaintances really knew about it. Then when they did, it was more a case of them asking me questions, usually “where do you get your ideas” – yes, that old chestnut – or asking where I found the time to write. They all seemed quite surprised when I told them before work, after work, evenings and weekends.

As for the best advice, a lot of that probably came from reading On Writing by Stephen King, which is the single best guide to writing I know of. Also, some advice from my agent and editor along the lines of “you don’t have to explain everything to everyone. Don’t assume your readers are stupid and need everything spelling out – mystery and misdirection can be really effective”. So I took that to heart as well. 

PL: What was the process of getting an agent and then working with a pro editor like for you? There seems to be a lot of mystique about that part of the business among would-be authors, so I thought it made sense to ask someone who's been through it pretty recently how it worked.

AS: Getting an agent is always the hard part, I think. That’s what takes the time. You need to pick someone who is actively looking for your genre, actively has space on their client list to take you on, and actively likes your work! That’s a lot of coincidences and chances that need to all come together at one point.

And there’s always the question that once you’ve submitted to an agent and been rejected, at what point can you submit again? The short answer to that is if you are planning to re-submit the same manuscript, it needs to have had extensive work done to it. You’re best to acknowledge that you submitted to them before and explain in detail what you’ve changed and why.

But it’s also not a one-way street – it’s not just about the agent liking your work and you. You have to like your agent as well. There has to be a strong connection between you, because this is the person who is going to represent you, sell your work, promote you. If you have any doubts about their ability to do that, or about them doing everything possible in your best interests, then the relationship may never work.

For me, Harry and I got on really well from the start. We met for lunch before I signed the contract, and he’d already got some ideas about how to improve Godblind, and I suppose that could have gone one of two ways – I could’ve been outraged that he had OPINIONS, or I could think: now this is someone who knows what he likes and wants to make it even better. Fortunately, I took the latter attitude.

So Harry and I tightened up the plot and the prose further, and then we got the Harper Voyager deal, and at that point I was thinking it was pretty much done. Sit back and let the money flow in.... boy, was I wrong.

Getting a publishing deal is only the first step. Because it turned out that Natasha also had OPINIONS on Godblind – and a whole lot of them. I think the biggest thing for people looking for a deal to realise is that an agent and an editor will never, NEVER tell you to rewrite or edit your book in a way that will make it worse. A lot of people think that suggested edits are criticisms and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some people think that the editor can never know your book as well as you do, and that’s correct – but that’s also not a bad thing. A step removed from a precious manuscript is often the best place to be – you can see the big picture, see past favourite scenes or characters, to the actual story.

The editor is there to improve your book. You may not agree with their improvements, but you have to realise that now you’re in a partnership that is designed to make money. And that may mean that certain elements of your novel, your plot, your characters need to change to better tap into the market. Some authors can’t handle that. They freak out at the suggestion of changing a name or a line or a plot point. And if it’s going to affect you that badly, then you need to return your advance and cancel your contract, because there does come a point when artistic integrity and business sense collide.

For me, I found it difficult to lose some of my POV characters, but I trusted in the process – and not because of the money, either – and I found that Godblind is a much better book because of that input. It was hard to do, but I’m glad I did it. I want to write the best books I can, and that means having someone I trust point out the flaws and working with me to correct them. 

If you think I've done an insufficient job of grilling Anna, turn up to this and do some more, I hear authors love that...

PL: Do you think the whole process will make/has made writing your next book easier? What can you tell us about your future writing plans anyway?

AS: I’ve learnt a huge amount from the editorial and publishing process so far, and this definitely did make writing book 2 easier – and harder, in one specific way. When I was waiting for the last round of edits to come back for Godblind, I started drafting Darksoul and then at the last minute we made the decision to alter the ending quite significantly. This meant that of the 100,000 words I’d already written of Darksoul, about 15,000 of them were useable. In the end, it was easier to scrap the entire draft, finish editing Godblind, and then start again.

That was ... distressing.

I’m currently awaiting the first editorial letter and suggestions for Darksoul, which should drop any day now, so we’ll have to wait for those to see whether I’ve learnt as much as I think I have! I had a very reduced timescale to write book 2 after all those changes got scrapped, so it was a very different experience writing to a deadline that couldn’t be changed. I had to sit and get the words down no matter what. But it was great to exercise that self-discipline and come up with a manuscript that, while it isn’t perfect, is, I think, a very good starting point and something we can work on together to perfect for publication.

Other than Darksoul, which should be published in May 2018, I’m working on an anthology submission and a short story, batting around ideas for a brand new trilogy, and trying not to worry too much about my impending edits! 

PL: Ouch. I mean... ouch. But, yes, that does sound like a good lesson.

Okay one final question! If you had to pick one scene from Godblind to sell it to prospective readers and really show what the book is about, which one would you pick?

AS: OK, so you saved the most difficult question to last, I see! Only one? ARGHH.

Alright, I think the one that gives a sense of two of the three factions within the world – Mireces, Watchers/Wolves and Rilporians – is the scene where Corvus leads his Mireces army to the Wolf village in the foothills in pursuit of the escaped slave Rillirin, who he thinks witnessed the murder of the previous king and who he wants to question. Rillirin has been captured – or saved, depending on your point of view – by the Wolves, the civilian warriors guarding the border of Rilpor. They have elected to fight to defend her, rather than fleeing or giving her back up to the Mireces.

The scene shows the Mireces’s viciousness – they’re there to kill everyone who isn’t Rillirin – and the honour and duty of the Wolves, who fight and die in defence of a stranger.

It not only gives you the general impression of the two peoples – though only general, of course – but it hints at the importance Rillirin has to play to both parties. The Mireces have led a raiding party in her pursuit, and the Wolves are prepared to die for her. 

Thanks to Anna for her time (and sticking to only one scene!). Godblind is out now in kindle and paperback. To hear more from Anna, visit her website or seek her out at the Fantasy Faction Grim Gathering.

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