Next week sees the publication of A.F.E. Smith’s Darkhaven, her debut fantasy novel out in digital format first from HarperVoyager. I really enjoyed Myrren and Ayla’s story and the world A.F.E. Smith created. Today I get to share an interview with the author of Darkhaven in which she shares some details about her road to publication, about Mirrorvale, and proves my long-held suspicion that all authors can be bribed with chocolate! Check back tomorrow for a review of the book.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is A.F.E. Smith?
Basics? That seems like a pretty profound question to me! :-)
A.F.E. Smith lives and breathes fantasy fiction. She spends more time in imaginary worlds than in the real one. Sometimes she has interesting chats with her characters.
Sadly, I can’t be her all the time, or even most of it. When I’m wearing my Clark Kent shoes, I’m an editor, a wife, and a mother to two small children. That life isn’t as exciting as my other one, but it’s rewarding all the same.
I’ve been writing since I was six, so I’m used to this dual existence.
How would you introduce people to the world of Darkhaven?
Welcome to the city of Arkannen, capital of Mirrorvale! You’re now standing in the first ring, where you can buy anything your heart desires. Here you will encounter merchants from across the world, selling all manner of exotic goods: mahogany and teak brought downriver from the Ingal States, fine fabrics carried through the desert from Parovia, spices landed by airship from the opiate fields of Sol Kardis.
You might like to take a tram to the second ring, where the smiths and smelters, jewellers and glassblowers forge the ores of Mirrorvale’s mines and the sands of its desert into leaf-thin metal and delicate glass that are prized throughout the world. Or perhaps you’ll continue as far as the third ring, to watch the great airships as they take off and land.
Since you aren’t a citizen, you won’t get any further than the third ring unless someone invites you to their home in the fourth. Not for you the renowned training grounds of the fifth ring or the fantastic temples of the sixth. And you certainly won’t get anywhere near Darkhaven itself, the blackstone tower at the heart of the seventh ring. But if you look up, you may well catch sight of Lord Florentyn the Firedrake flying overhead. And since that’s really as close as it’s safe to get to a Nightshade, you should count yourself lucky.
Myrren, one of your main characters in Darkhaven, is somewhat of an anomaly in his bloodline, not being able to shift his shape. It’s made him feel inadequate, but is that sense shared by those around him? What sort of themes did this allow you to explore?
The Nightshade family rule their country precisely because they are able to shift shape: the creatures they turn into are large, powerful and virtually indestructible. So being born without the ability is a big deal. Myrren’s father certainly has a low opinion of him as a result of it, as do Darkhaven’s elite guard, the Helm. They all prize the family bloodline and its gifts above all else. Probably the only person in Darkhaven who doesn’t judge Myrren for his perceived failure is his sister Ayla.
I suppose the main theme arising from that is the devastating effect that parents can have on their children when they try to force them to be something other than who they are. It’s not as if Myrren could help being born without the gift, yet it’s shaped his whole existence. He carries the weight of his father’s disapproval with him at all times, and it drives him into a kind of obsessive perfectionism in every other area of his life. I think there are obvious real-world parallels.
One of the central storylines in Darkhaven is the investigation into the murder of Myrren and Ayla’s father. Did you plot this out really tightly beforehand or did you discover the culprit alongside Myrren?
I love endings. I don’t like to start writing something without knowing how it will end. So when I first came up with the idea for the book, I already knew how it was going to resolve itself.
Having said that, when it comes to details I tend to be a very vague plotter – I know where my characters are going, but how they get there is up to them. Since Darkhaven is partly a mystery, though, it kind of had to be more tightly structured than that. So it was the first book I ever outlined really thoroughly, chapter by chapter, before I started writing.
Now I’ve done it that way, I don’t intend to go back.
Could you discuss your road to publication? How did you come to be one of the first HarperVoyager digital-first titles?
My road to publication was relatively straightforward, I suppose, though it didn’t seem that way at the time. I am a perpetual self-doubter, so my approach to seeking publication went along the lines of ‘submit to one place, get rejected, convince myself I was a terrible excuse for a writer and a human being, rewrite the book, repeat’. For that reason, when the Voyager open door period came around in 2012, I was sitting on a couple of books that had only ever been submitted to agents or publishers two or three times each. Since I happened to be at the ‘submit’ stage of the cycle with Darkhaven, I sent it in – and 16 months later, I found out my book had been chosen. (Which was an amazing reassurance, because I’d already come back round to the ‘terrible excuse for writer and human being’ stage by then.)
In the bio on your website you state your day job is in editing. What sort of editing do you do? Fiction, non-fiction, long-form, short-form?
I edit educational materials for The Open University in the UK. So, academic non-fiction. My specialist subjects are mathematics and technology. I’m lucky that I’m able to use the very precise and technical side of my brain in my day job, whilst letting my imagination loose at night.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve just turned in my first sequel to Darkhaven, which will be released as an ebook next January – the same time as Darkhaven becomes available in paperback. And then I have a third book in the series to complete, due to be released in a year’s time. After that, we’ll have to see. There may be further books in the series, but I also have a couple of separate writing projects on hold that I’d like to return to.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Um … and I love animated movies … crossword puzzles … discovering new things with my children … playing games … the occasional mathematical equation …
But seriously. People should send me chocolate.
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
The release of the year for me is going to be The Shepherd’s Crown – which is, of course, the late Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld novel. I feel so emotional about this book and it’s not even out yet! I imagine I’ll be more than a little bit teary by the time I finish it.
Other than that, I’ve been trying to read all the other books that were picked up from the Voyager open door period – they’ve been an excellent set of stories thus far – so the next one I’ll be looking forward to is Stealing into Winter by Graeme K. Talboys, coming 30 July.
And I also want to mention a book that’s already been released but deserves more recognition, and that’s After the Ruin by Harriet Goodchild. It’s a beautiful book and one that’s sure to find a place in the hearts of those who love richly wrought, elegiac fantasy.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
Right now I have far too many books for the amount of bookshelf space available, so whether they get shelved at all depends on how much I love them. After that, pretty much the only system I have is that I don’t like any author’s collection of books to break across more than one shelf. So it’s kind of a logic puzzle that involves fitting together blocks of different lengths (I did mention I’m a mathematician, right?) Which means I have Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams shelved together. Robin Hobb and Jacqueline Carey. Diana Wynne Jones and Tolkien. Some of these pairings work better than others :-)
Bio: 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.
This interview is part of a blog tour and a scavenger hunt. Go check out the blog tour homepage for details on the scavenger hunt and the prizes and of course check out all the other stops on the blog tour!