July 6, 2015

Deadly Nightshade: an interview (and giveaway) with A.F.E. Smith, author of "Darkhaven"


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.

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.

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Gef: What was the impetus behind Darkhaven?

A.F.E.: Darkhaven isn’t actually the first book I wrote, though it’s the first published. I have another series on the go that’s a five-part epic fantasy – but it’s long, complicated and does unusual things with point of view. I’d tangled myself up in it and I decided I was being too ambitious. I wasn’t sure any publisher would be willing to take a chance on something like that from a debut author. So I decided to try and write a standalone book that took a more traditional approach, narratively speaking. I already had an initial scene, but not much more – but then, as I was trying to figure out what would happen next, the plot just clicked for me. And I knew I had to write it.

Gef: How intensive does the world building get for you with a story like this?

A.F.E.: I like to know as much as possible about a world before I start writing within it. So I gather lots of details in advance. In particular, I think in quite a spatial way and I have to know where things are in relation to each other. So I tend to sketch out maps of everything from entire countries to internal plans of buildings.

The thing about worldbuilding, though, is that the vast majority of it doesn’t actually end up in the book. I always think the best approach is to include enough detail to give the impression of a real and complete world without overloading the reader with unnecessary information. But whether I get that balance right is for other people to decide!

Gef: With your experience as an editor, did you find yourself editing as you went along in crafting the story, or did you wait until you had a completed draft before putting on your editor’s cap? And how is it for an editor to hand over their own work to be edited by someone else?

A.F.E.: I’m terrible for editing as I go along. I used to write very slowly, because I kept polishing every sentence before moving on to the next. The problem with that is that although you get a very clean first draft out of it, it’s harder to make the big changes that are often needed at that stage because you’ve spent more time on the words and so they give the impression of being good, even if they’re not actually right. So I’ve had to train myself out of it.

It might actually have been easier for me as an editor to hand my work over for editing, because I know what it’s like to be on that side of the fence. No matter how perfect you think you’ve made something, a fresh pair of eyes will always spot a bunch more issues, so editing by someone else really is a vital part of the process for any author.

Gef: What was the initial allure towards the fantasy genre? Was it the genre that you first started reading or something you came to later on?

A.F.E.: I’ve been reading fantasy almost since I could read. Certainly since I can remember reading. I grew up with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Diana Wynne Jones, Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner. So I have my parents to thank for that. But that’s not the whole story, because we had a lot of books at home in general not just fantasy. I think I liked fantasy most because I always felt like a bit of an outsider, and in fantasy the outsiders are often who the book is about.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

A.F.E.: It always feels very presumptuous of me to name my influences, because it feels as though I’m putting myself on a level with them. The authors I named in the previous question would have to be some of them. More recently, the authors I have admired the most are Robin Hobb, Jacqueline Carey and Patrick Ness.

Gef: How much emphasis do you place on setting as character?

A.F.E.: I think a story’s setting is always another character in the book, in the sense that just as people will behave differently depending on who they are interacting with, they will also behave differently depending on their environment. It’s really important not to think of the setting as simply a static backdrop against which the characters play out their lives, like scenery on a stage. People and places act upon, and are acted upon by, each other.

Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the genre?

A.F.E.: Saving grace’ suggests that fantasy is something disreputable. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the black sheep of literature, getting up to no good in far-off lands whilst the people at home mutter about it in their drawing rooms.

If I had to try and restore fantasy’s good name (though really, why bother; it’s much more fun to be up to no good), I’d point out that no other genre is as good at exploring the extremes of human nature. Fantasy characters get put through the wringer. We get to discover the darkest despair and sharpest pain and most devastating suffering alongside them. And yet, at the same time, we also discover love and hope and heroism. I think fantasy, or speculative fiction more generally, is the genre that can help us understand more fully what it means to be human.

Gef: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

A.F.E.: The adverb one. Definitely the adverb one.

There’s nothing wrong with adverbs, used in moderation. Sometimes an adverb is the best way to express whatever it is you’re trying to say. Yet I’ve come across writers who diligently remove every adverb from their writing on the grounds that Adverbs are Bad.

To be honest, any piece of advice that suggests there’s only one correct way to write should be viewed with suspicion. Who wants all books to be written the same way?

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

A.F.E.: Books: romance novels. Particularly Regency ones, but only if they get all the period details right. Georgette Heyer is my go-to comfort author.

Movies: Disney. Tangled (not Frozen! outrage!) is one of my favourite films of all time. I don’t think I could ever write like a Disney movie far too saccharine but some small, squishy part of me loves everything about them. Even the princess frocks.

But to be honest, I don’t consider either of those a guilty pleasure. Own what you love :-)

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

A.F.E.: A sequel to Darkhaven, called Goldenfire, is with my publisher now and due out in January. I’m currently working on the third book in the series. Like Darkhaven, each of the sequels is a standalone story, but the series is linked by some of the recurring characters.

I shenaniganize (shenanigate? shenanigify?) on Twitter, Facebook and my website. On the latter you will find my mailing list, which is the best way to keep up with me on a regular but infrequent basis, and which includes the chance to win a signed paperback of Darkhaven when it comes out. 

Gef: And for those you who want to enter for a chance at a signed copy of the book and some other cool swag, just enter the Rafflecopter form below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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