Hello, long time no post! After several very exhausting weeks I’m back with a post I’m really excited about. I recently had the opportunity to interview Anna Stephens, whose new book, The Stone Knife, comes out Nov 26th! The Stone Knife is book one of the Songs of the Drowned trilogy and the start of Anna’s second trilogy (if you haven’t read the Godblind trilogy I highly recommend you do).
First off can you introduce us to The Stone Knife and what we can expect?
Hi! The Stone Knife is book one of Songs of the Drowned, and it’s an epic fantasy of conquest, colonisation and empire set in the humid hills and jungles of Ixachipan.
We follow points of view of both the colonisers and the colonised as they each struggle for what they believe in – a unified Ixachipan versus independence.
You can expect warfare and betrayal, love and despair, ancient magic and espionage. There are gods and shamanism, monsters and spirits, religion and destiny. Diversity and representation feature strongly, and cinnamon rolls abound.
There’s also a very, very good doggo.
Did the writing process differ for The Stone Knife to the Godblind trilogy?
I had to do a lot more research for this trilogy than the previous one, because the setting is so very different. I had to build up a knowledge base covering everything from climate and geology to architecture and agriculture in a tropical jungle environment.
I also needed to research colonisation and slavery and conquest, because those are big themes in this series and I wanted to do them justice and make sure I got them right.
Once I had that knowledge, it was about tackling the storyline and worrying that I wasn’t making these characters different enough from my previous characters, and then worrying that I didn’t have the writing chops to pull off something so ambitious, and then worrying that I’d stepped too far outside my ‘brand’. So … a lot of worrying?
I was also writing this while finishing the Godblind trilogy, so the process was more disjointed as drafting was interrupted with editing Darksoul and writing and editing Bloodchild. The book also seemed to grow by at least 20,000 words with every draft, which my editor very kindly didn’t murder me for.
But once that was in place, the actual writing itself was pretty similar, in that I wrote it, hated 90% of it and rewrote it. I’m much better at cutting what doesn’t work anymore, which was really hard when we were editing Godblind, as I have a tendency to want to put Every Cool Fact I’ve Learnt Today in my drafts. Now, though, I can be more objective about whether Every Cool Fact actually needs to be in the story.
Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t, which means my head is constantly stuffed with Useless But Cool Factoids, Can I Interest You In A Factoid, Please, I Need To Tell Someone Before I Die Of Facts.
What does your writing space look like?
It’s pretty cluttered, mostly with toys. I’ve got a standing desk which is great, I love it, and around my laptop and keyboard I’ve got minions, Doctor Who and Star Wars figures, a set of fox-themed D&D dice, notebook and pens. Then there are the swords hanging on the wall next to the desk. And the bookcase with fox-themed stuff on.
My writing playlist is exclusively instrumental – soundtracks from film, TV and video games – and foreign-language music. If I can’t understand it, I can’t sing along to it. Okay, fine, I do sing along to it, but clearly I’m not actually singing real Chinese, Japanese or Korean because I don’t know the languages. So I’m terribly mangling something very beautiful, which to be fair I’d do if the lyrics were in English because I have a singing voice like a cat being chain-sawed in half, but when the music is in English, I end up typing lyrics instead of novels. Which is about as much help as you would think to looming deadlines and not being sued for plagiarism or breach of copyright.
Do you fancast your characters? Do you have any actors in you’d love to see as certain characters if The Stone Knife became a tv show?
Oh, wow, yes I do. I haven’t really fallen down that rabbit hole for the new series, though I did it for the Godblind trilogy. It would cost a billion dollars to hire all the people I’d like to star in those movies.
I think Lauren Ridloff would be perfect for Xessa, though, but I’m still working on the rest of the main cast for now.
If you could take one of the mcs on a cruise with you, who would you pick and why?
I think it would have to be Tayan, my adorable shaman. He’s just so curious about absolutely everything; he’d be fascinated and want to learn what everyone’s job on the ship was. He’d be hugely entertaining and I get the feeling he can be incredibly bitchy when he’s annoyed, which would be hilarious. He would pout and pine incessantly over missing Lilla, though, so I’d have to keep getting him drunk to shut him up.
On the other hand, his people have a very healthy dislike of large bodies of water due to the terrifying monsters that live in it, so it would take a lot of effort to get him to agree to go on a boat in the first place, but I think it would be worth it.
What one of the best things about seeing your books out in the world?
There’s a huge feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing them in bookstores. It’s been a dream for as long as I can remember, and The Stone Knife is another first – first book of a new series. Proof that I do have more than one story in me (something I worried about, what with spending 13 years on Godblind before it finally found a home). First new characters.
So yes, I love knowing that I did it, and that it was good enough that people paid me to do it, and people pay to read them (well, not everyone, but pirates can literally get in the sea). You know, I don’t think I write the sort of literature that will ever win awards, but as Oliver Reed said in Gladiator: “I’m an entertainer” and that’s good enough for me.
Not that I don’t want an award, if any judges are reading this…
Grimdark and fantasy in general can still be very allocishet and patriarchal in it’s power structures, In The Stone Knife you have queernorm societies and women in complex roles and positions of power – what was important to you when bringing this world to life?
You’re right, there’s still a lot of work to be done around changing those norms, and it was very important for me to write something different to the ‘stale, male, pale’ majority. What’s the point in creating a world and characters and challenges, but couching them in the same limitations of the world we live in and are struggling to change? What’s ‘fantasy’ about that?
I used a lot of those tropes in the Godblind trilogy, while simultaneously attempting to show how ridiculous they are through the narratives of Tara and Crys and Ash. With Songs of the Drowned, I just wanted to not have those tropes at all, and it was very freeing to write something where gender and sexual orientation have absolutely no bearing on a person’s place in society – warriors are all genders, but so are the Singer’s courtesans, the shamans, and the politicians.
People don’t ask others’ sexual orientation in The Stone Knife – if they’re attracted to you, they make it clear, and if you’re not attracted to them, you make that clear. It’s as simple as that and there’s no heterosexual fragility around it, because those concepts simply don’t exist. And it was … really lovely to imagine a world that comfortable in its own skin.
It was important for me to show people of all genders and orientations and ambitions were able to find their place in society, which is also why Xessa, my deaf character, says she has ambitions beyond being an eja, for which her deafness is an advantage. She isn’t defined by it or pushed into her profession because of it, and she can leave that path any time she likes without judgment.
It all sounds very utopian when I write it like that, but I hope you’ll agree that the world of The Stone Knife is anything but that! But I wanted to experiment with how such a world would look and how people might move through a culture that didn’t prioritise one gender or orientation over another, and I’m really glad with how it turned out.
Describe The Songs of the Drowned trilogy with three words?
Brutal. Ambitious. Representative.
What do you hope readers can take away from The Stone Knife?
I really hope I’ve done justice to thoroughly exploring the evils of colonisation and empire and that within that framework, I’ve written a narrative that is both thought-provoking, emotionally engaging and plain entertaining.
And also that a lot of different types of people can see themselves in the characters and society I’ve created, that they can relate without first having to fight through layers of patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism etc.
A huge thank you to Anna Stephens for her time. The Stone Knife is out next week on the 26th. I highly recommend picking it up, you are in for a bloody, thrilling treat.
Publication Date: November 26th 2020
Series: Songs of the Drowned #1
Blurb: A fantasy epic of freedom and empire, gods and monsters, love, loyalty, honour, and betrayal, from the acclaimed author of GODBLIND.
For generations, the forests of Ixachipan have echoed with the clash of weapons, as nation after nation has fallen to the Empire of Songs – and to the unending, magical music that binds its people together. Now, only two free tribes remain.
The Empire is not their only enemy. Monstrous, scaled predators lurk in rivers and streams, with a deadly music of their own.
As battle looms, fighters on both sides must decide how far they will go for their beliefs and for the ones they love – a veteran general seeks peace through war, a warrior and a shaman set out to understand their enemies, and an ambitious noble tries to bend ancient magic to her will.
Find The Stone Knife
Goodreads ~ Dymocks ~ Booktopia ~ Book Depository
Find Anna Stephens
Website ~ Twitter ~ Goodreads Author Page