Please welcome A.F.E. Smith, author of the newly-released fantasy novel DARKHAVEN (Harper Voyager, July 2015):
A.F.E. Smith is an editor of academic texts by day and a fantasy writer by night. So far, she hasn’t mixed up the two. She lives with her husband and their two young children in a house that someone built to be as creaky as possible – getting to bed without waking the baby is like crossing a nightingale floor. Though she doesn’t have much spare time, she makes space for reading, mainly by not getting enough sleep (she’s powered by chocolate). Her physical bookshelves were stacked two deep long ago, so now she’s busy filling up her e-reader.
What A.F.E. stands for is a closely guarded secret, but you might get it out of her if you offer her enough snacks.
We met during last year’s #PitchWars, and not only is she a lovely person, but her debut novel, DARKHAVEN, is one of the best new fantasy novels of the year. Check it out:
Ayla Nightshade never wanted to rule Darkhaven. But her half-brother Myrren – true heir to the throne – hasn’t inherited their family gift, forcing her to take his place.
When this gift leads to Ayla being accused of killing her father, Myrren is the only one to believe her innocent. Does something more sinister than the power to shapeshift lie at the heart of the Nightshade family line?
Now on the run, Ayla must fight to clear her name if she is ever to wear the crown she never wanted and be allowed to return to the home she has always loved.
I’m delighted that A.F.E. Smith could join us here at the blog today and answer some questions about herself and DARKHAVEN! And so, with no further ado, on with the questions!
Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?
I grew up in a town called Cheltenham, which is in the south west of England and is quintessentially British in a number of ways. It’s a Regency Spa town – people used to take the waters there, like Bath. And it’s on the edge of an area called the Cotswolds, which is all green hills and tiny villages.
Nothing much ever happened to me, as a child. I didn’t have any real adventures, because I was too busy reading about other people’s. I have literally been obsessed with books my whole life. My family likes to tell the story of when I was two and a health visitor came to check up on me. My mother told her I could read already, so rather sceptically, this lady took a simple alphabet book out of her bag and handed it over. I turned to the first page and began to read: “This book is designed as a first primer for young learners …”
This story may be apocryphal.
What inspired you to write DARKHAVEN, and what drew you to writing a novel about shapeshifters?
I find the question about inspiration so difficult that I answer it according to my mood at the time. So if you read back through all the interviews I’ve ever done, you’ll probably find several different answers. They include: the first scene came into my head fully formed and I started from there (true); bits and pieces from various things I’d read came together in a kind of happy synthesis and made something new (also true); I was writing a different five-part series, but thought it would be a better publishing strategy to submit a standalone novel first (also true). But those all sound like terribly dry answers now I look at them – and really, my inspiration is pretty much the same for everything I write: I discover some characters who I love and want to get to know, and then I make terrible things happen to them. Some of them survive it 🙂
Shapeshifters are interesting because the question of identity is a little bit blurred with them. Most of us have a sense of identity that includes our bodies as well as our minds. When we think of ‘who we are’, some of that self-concept is physical. So if you’re part of a shapeshifter family, your other form is part of your identity as much as anything else is. It would be like losing a part of yourself if you were to lose the ability to shift shape. And if you were born into a shapeshifter family, but without the gift yourself, your identity would be perceived as somehow lesser as a result. I think these are fascinating aspects to explore.
Also, I wanted to write a fantasy novel without magic, more or less. And shapeshifting is a nice kind of contained power, in that sense. It sets certain people apart and gives them an additional strength, but it can be placed against a background that’s grounded in reality. Aside from the shapeshifting, the world I’ve created in DARKHAVEN could be part of our own, a few hundred years ago.
If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?
“The book you’re about to write will not be publishable – and that doesn’t matter.”
I think new writers often start out thinking their first novel will be a masterpiece. And in a few cases, they’re right … but only in a few. The rest of us have to make a couple of practice runs before we get to the real thing. I think it’s important not to see that as wasted time. It’s the opposite of wasted. It’s learning and growth and honing our tools. You wouldn’t expect to be able to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a sonata, or pick up a handful of clay for the first time and sculpt a masterpiece.
Besides, those early writing attempts are great to look back on with the benefit of a few years’ hindsight. You can see the mistakes more clearly, yes, but you can also see the potential.
Your debut novel, DARKHAVEN, features a protagonist who lacks the shapeshifting skills of his clan, and must solve his father’s murder—in which his sister is the primary suspect. What inspired you to blend the mystery and fantasy genres in this way?
Well, I’m a fantasy writer. I’m a fantasy reader. I love fantasy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love anything else. I grew up reading all sorts of genres, and some of my favourites as a teenager were the classic murder mysteries – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. So murder comes as naturally to me as magic. And I think mystery and fantasy have quite a lot in common, in that they both tend to focus on people at the extremes of human emotion: people who are dealing with genuine life-or-death situations. So the two genres blend very smoothly.
Do you have a favorite author, book, or genre? If so, who (or what) is it, and why?
Fantasy is my favourite genre to write in because I think it can do everything. A lot of non-fantasy readers think of fantasy as being synonymous with epic or high fantasy, but it’s far broader than that. It can hold pretty much any other genre you like within it. So you can have literary fantasy, or romantic fantasy, or a mystery fantasy like DARKHAVEN. There’s as much variety within fantasy as there is within fiction as a whole.
At the same time, fantasy tends to explore the big questions, because it gives you a chance to adjust the parameters of reality and see how that affects morality. And again, that’s not just true of epic fantasy. Take Terry Pratchett, for instance. He’s classed as comic fantasy, and he is funny, but his books are also a commentary on culture and society and right and wrong – and it’s the fantasy aspect that allows him to do that, because it allows him to cut through all the complications of real life to the heart of things.
(I know I’m talking about Sir Terry in the present tense, but really, it’s hard not to.)
Do you have a favorite scene in DARKHAVEN? If so (and if you can tell us about it without revealing any spoilers!), what makes that scene stand out for you?
The scene I enjoyed writing most is near the end, where one of the characters makes a heroic stand even though he’s vastly outnumbered. In epic fantasy, that would be a sure sign that he was going to win. Unfortunately for him, DARKHAVEN isn’t epic fantasy.
What’s next for you as an author? Can you give us a hint about your work in progress?
There is a sequel to DARKHAVEN coming in January and another one next summer. Book 2 is called GOLDENFIRE, it features some of the same characters as DARKHAVEN, and it’s still a fantasy/mystery blend – but not murder this time. Instead, the poor beleaguered characters are trying to find an assassin before he strikes.
How do you inspire yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing?
Usually if I’m struggling with a scene, I just go away and write a different one. Or, if necessary, write a scene for a completely different book. Of course, as deadlines get nearer, that luxury becomes less available. But quite often, a scene that was difficult one week will turn out to be straightforward once I’m in a different frame of mind. If not, that’s what chocolate is for. I’d like to claim I use it as a reward for myself once I’ve got the tricky bit done, but I have far too little willpower for that, so I just use it as fuel 🙂
Do you have any upcoming blog appearances?
I’m taking something of a rest right now, because I’ve just finished a three-week blog tour! It was absolutely full of guest posts, interviews and reviews, so if you’re interested, you can check out the full list here: www.afesmith.com/darkhaven-blog-tour.
And now, the speed round:
– Plotter or pantser?
For DARKHAVEN I was very much a plotter. Since it’s at least partly a whodunit, the story threads needed to come together in a fairly precise way. But usually I’m somewhere in between – the fundamental beats of the story are laid out early on, but how I get between them tends to be much more organic.
– Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
I’ve never been a hot beverage drinker, which I realise makes me pretty weird in the writing world. (I get my caffeine from chocolate.) So usually I’d say bourbon, but since I’m currently breastfeeding Tiny Smith, that’s out too 😉
– Socks or no socks?
Unless the weather is really good then socks, even in bed. I have cold feet.
– Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
No-one’s ever offered me reptiles before! That’s definitely the option I’d have to go with. Cats are too condescending, dogs are too needy, but I reckon a pet snake would be happy to live alongside me in mutual indifference. The all-rodent diet might be a bit of a problem, but maybe I could teach it to feast on the bodies of my enemies um, tofu. Yes, tofu.
– For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
Italian, all the way. Pasta is my secondary vice (chocolate being the primary). I could eat pasta every day. I actually proposed to Mr Smith in a pizza restaurant. That’s how much I love it.
Thank you so much for joining me here at the blog today! I wish you great success with your fantastic new release!
You can find DARKHAVEN at: