The Friday 13 with Anna Stephens

AnnaAnna Stephens is the author of the Godblind trilogy, of which the first two volumes, Godblind and Darksoul, have now been published. The final book, Bloodchild, is slated for publication in summer 2019. Translation deals for French, German, Dutch, Polish and Czechoslovakian versions have also been agreed.

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, with a focus on Italian longsword, and a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, she’s no stranger to the feeling of being punched (or stabbed) in the face, which is more help than you would expect when writing fight scenes.

1.Why storytelling? What made you yearn to tell a good story, and how long was this story within you before it came out?

I’ve always had a very vivid imagination and I’ve always loved stories – having them told to me, my parents reading me bedtime stories when I was small, discovering new books for myself. And I always wanted to be the person capable of creating these worlds and adventures; even from a young age I knew I wanted to be a writer.


As for Godblind, my debut novel, that’s a story that lived inside me for a very long time – from first draft to publication took around 13 years, during which the book evolved in significant and unexpected ways from its overblown, melodramatic first versions to its blood-soaked, gritty published version.


2.What is it about your genre that speaks to you?

Fantasy for me is a place where I can go and be anyone and do anything. Male POV? Okay, let’s be a dude for the next three chapters. Non-human POV? Cool, let’s see what that’s like.

I identify extremely strongly with well-written characters, whether they’re book or film or TV characters. If I’m watching something I really enjoy, I literally smile when the character smiles onscreen; apparently it can be a bit creepy. I’m not smiling at what they’re smiling at – I’m smiling because they’re smiling. Because I’ve identified them as me for the duration of the scene/film/book.

So fantasy is a chance to be someone else, and therefore it’s a chance to do things I’d never to get to do in my real life.

But it’s also a chance to explore real life through a lens, almost a safe space. The Godblind trilogy looks in detail at power and religious extremism, at what people will do to end up in charge and what others will do to stop them. I can address issues in the world that I find abhorrent or wrong through the lens of fantasy.

I can show the ridiculousness of sexism or homophobia for what it really is. I can show you women being as competent as men, or the power that comes from men who aren’t afraid to show their vulnerability. It is, when it comes down to it, a way to make my world a better place – and maybe, just maybe, someone who reads it might form a different opinion as a result.


3.If I were stuck in a room with your main character, what would we be doing?

This is tricky, because Godblind is told from multiple points of view. If you were with Crys, you’d probably magically find a bottle and a deck of cards in front of you and he’d win the clothes off your back.

If you were with Tara, she’d regale you with tales of her exploits and probably also find a bottle from somewhere. At some point she’d challenge you to an arm wrestling competition, and be gracious – eventually – if you managed to beat her. If you managed to beat her.

Or if you were with Lanta … well, let’s just say if you didn’t follow her religion and weren’t prepared to convert, you’d find yourself in a world of hurt. That lady comes equipped with a knife and a hammer and she’s not afraid to use either of them. The gods are all to Lanta.


4.When you are writing, tell me about the emotions that are running through you and what it takes to work alongside them.

I think this ties in nicely to the question above about why I like fantasy. I get as swept up in my characters’ stories and emotions as I do for those in a film or someone else’s book. There’s a saying that’s very dear to my heart: no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. It’s something I really believe in.

For me, I need to feel what they’re feeling in order to really bring that emotion to the page, so yes, I cry through death-scenes when I write them, and then I cry through other characters’ responses to those deaths. I feel happy when they fall in love; I get angry when injustices are perpetrated against them.

It can be a real emotional rollercoaster, and if I’ve written something really difficult or unpleasant, I do have to take a break afterwards. I’ll usually go out for a walk or watch something on TV for half an hour to decompress.

Stories are always character-driven for me, so if I’m not feeling what they do, how can a reader?


5.Describe your workplace.

I work from home in the spare bedroom which we’ve converted into an office, so there’s a sofa bed instead of the old double bed, which gives me more space (very important for theatrical stalking back and forth as I mull over plot devices). I’ve got a stand up desk covered in toys – Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wonder Woman etc – and a whiteboard for making notes, the edges of which are stuck with photos, postcards and images that inspire me – Buster Keaton, David Tennant as Hamlet, Jimi Hendrix, more Wonder Woman…

Bookcases full of my favourite books and research material – everything from the history of the Amazons to Greek mythology, the Hundred Years War and principles of infantry warfare in the 14th century, books on military tactics and ancient civilisations: the list goes on.

I also keep my HEMA gear in there and the author copies of my books. It’s all about inspiration, really.


6.Describe your muse.

She’s a cantankerous old bitch sometimes, and my best friend other times. She’s a magpie – she likes shiny and new over what we’re supposed to be working on – and she’s at her most inspired when I’m in the shower or out walking and have nothing to write on.

I always think of her as a Celtic warrior goddess, wise and terrible and surprisingly playful, in a clearing in a wild wood.


7.You have a chance to hang out with any literary character for one day. Who would it be and what would you do?

This is tough! Part of me wants to say one of my own characters, because I’d love to meet Crys Tailorson, but I think I’m going to go with Granny Weatherwax from Discworld. Although the Watch books are my favourite sub-series in Discworld, Esmerelda Weatherwax is a force of nature. She’s not nice, but she is kind, and there’s a difference. She’s powerful but never uses it for herself. She demands respect but only because she’s earnt it. And she’s incredibly self-sacrificing. I think we could all learn a lot from her.

As for what we’d do – I’d probably just do whatever I was told, because you don’t get on the wrong side of Granny. We’d go visiting, most likely, as she makes her rounds of the old, the sick, the pregnant etc.


8.If you could choose any other writer, living or dead, to be your mentor, whom would you choose and why?

I’m going to say William Shakespeare. He had an extraordinary ability to bring the critical gaze onto current affairs and transmute them into stories that cut into those affairs without ever naming them. He could point the finger at everyone around him and they didn’t even see it happening. Want to criticize greed and ambition? Write Macbeth. Got views on the proper behavior of monarchs? Write Henry V.

He invented words and phrases, he entertained queens and kings and nobility, he turned words into art and elicited emotional responses – and not just when the plays were performed. The written plays are just as powerful and heart-rending and uplifting. He really was one of the great geniuses of humanity.

Of course, I’d also be very keen to learn the identities of the Faith Youth and the Dark Lady, who he wrote his sonnets to and for.


9.Do you have any regrets about the story you told? Would you make any changes to its telling or did you capture exactly what you were looking for?

I imagine every writer will say there are things that aren’t quite right about their work – we never really stop editing, we just have the book taken off us so we can’t fiddle with it anymore! I’m definitely a better writer now than I was when Godblind was published, so yes, there are incidents, scenes, phrases that I would change if I could. That said, the story itself is there, and I wouldn’t change that.


10.What are the things you’re most proud of in this book or series?

Book 2, Darksoul, was a real struggle for me. I had a massive attack of second-book syndrome and cocked up pretty much all of it. My editor and agent were brilliant and coached and coaxed me through it and it ended up being a much better book than I expected, so I’m really proud of that.

I’m also very proud of how much I’ve learnt in general and how my writing has improved. Seeing my books in print is a dream come true, an external validation of an internal conviction that this is something I could/can/will do.

And I’m proud of having learnt – the hard way – not to read the reviews or, if I do read them, not to let them get to me, whether they’re good or bad.


11.What element of this story can we expect in your future work? 

There are some things that I’m really passionate about promoting, so I imagine you’ll always find well-rounded, competent females and men who aren’t afraid to discuss their feelings in my work. Those qualities – and their current lack of visibility – is something that needs to change, not just in publishing but in life. Challenging ideas such as – women who get angry are hysterical while men who get angry are passionate; or men who aren’t afraid to cry or express their feelings in public are somehow ‘less’ than those who don’t – is important to me, so you’ll always find those things.


12.You are going to commit a crime, bank heist, murder, you can choose a co-conspirator from your book. What crime would you commit and who would you choose as your co-conspirator(s)? 

Ha, what a great question. Okay, we’re going to murder a very Bad Person, and because they’re a Bad Person, it’s not really murder, but more a public service for the greater good. With that in mind, I’m going to choose Crys Tailorson from the Godblind trilogy. Soldier, gambler, occasional sneak-thief, Crys will do the actual deed while I distract the guards with my feminine wiles (being a sword, a knife and then some karate stuff).

If, by some terrible coincidence, Crys gets discovered, he will assume the persona of one of the bad guys, crack a few jokes, play a few hands of cards and, when they’re sufficiently relaxed and unsuspecting, slip into the Bad Person’s room and do the stabby under the ear – dead before they wake. They might be Bad, but they don’t need to suffer.


13.Do you have a celebration that you embark on when you finish a book, be it a release party, a trophy, or even a shot of whiskey? 

I do have a launch party when publication day comes around, yes. They’re great fun and you get to share your enthusiasm and accomplishment with others, as well as sell some copies and have a chat to likeminded people. Some of them even buy you alcohol.

When I’ve actually finished a draft, I’ll usually take the next day off writing (such a rebel) meaning I can have a few drinks and a lie in and just generally give my brain a rest. I’ll spend that day off catching up on TV shows and sleep and exercise and fresh air.


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