Interview with Sarah Ash

Sarah Ash, author of the Tears of Artamon trilogy, which recently concluded with Children of the Serpent Gate and new sffworld reviewer, took time out of her busy schedule to talk about her work, life and all things manga.

What made you choose to take on a writing career?

Sarah Ash: I can’t think of a time when I didn’t want to write, so the writing kind of chose me. Of course, I could have just pleased myself and not shared what I was scribbling down with anyone else – and a lot of that early teenage stuff really shouldn’t have been seen by anyone else at all! But there seems to be a deep-seated desire to share and communicate that goes with making up stories, and I don’t think I’m the only secret scribbler who has become obsessed with the desire to produce work good enough to be published. That word ‘career’ has many other implications from different professions for me (including career structure and climbing the corporate ladder). So I find it a little strange to think of myself as actually having a writing career. Although I do genuinely enjoy the nuts and bolts stuff that goes with copy-edits and proofs (am I mad?) because it still makes me feel (even after all these years) that I’m a ‘real’ writer.

‘Moths to a Flame’ was published just over ten years ago, has writing full-time been an easy transition?

SA: Writing full-time is a transition I have yet to make. I suspect that the phrase in my author bio ‘running a primary school library’ may suggest having quiet time shelving a few books for an hour or two a week. I work part-time, yes, but the library that I run contains over 10,000 books (75% selected and catalogued by me), is fully computerized, and has over 700 borrowers. I also do story sessions and as each class has a library lesson on a three-week rota, I’m kept pretty busy. So I still fit the writing around the job and vice versa. The only time I gave up the day job was when I had our two sons; I went back to part-time teaching when the youngest was three. (Most mothers would argue, and I would agree, that bringing up children also counts as a full-time job!)

What type of emotions did you experience upon finishing ‘Children of the Serpent Gate’ and hence the Tears of Artamon trilogy?

SA: I’d been building up to the final confrontation at the Serpent Gate for a long while, so actually writing it produced a heady rush of exhilaration (we’ve got there at last!), and a certain relief tinged with inevitable sadness (but it’s all over). Of course, it’s not all over, even though the main story arc concerning the Drakhaouls and the Tears has been resolved. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t shed a tear or two whilst writing the last chapters. But the characters are still with me and their continuing stories demand to be written down (yes, they’re a pretty demanding bunch of people!)

Having finished your first series, has it been a more or less satisfying experience than writing standalones?

SA: My first series (‘The Mask of Arcadie’) never found a publisher (I completed two of the three projected volumes in the late 1980’s) so I had already had experience of working on a larger scale. When Orion accepted ‘Moths to a Flame’, they stipulated that they wanted me to write standalones for the other two novels in the contract.

I’ve enjoyed working in both forms, although I think I prefer the broader canvas that a series allows. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to spend less time creating a new world and social order for a single novel; standalone or series, world-building requires the same amount of planning and imagination to make a fantasy story come to life. In ‘The Tears of Artamon’ I’ve especially enjoyed being able to follow a large cast of characters and to watch them change and grow over three volumes. This brings other rewards; quite a few readers have told me that while they actively disliked Eugene in ‘Lord of Snow and Shadows’, by Book Three, they came to grudgingly admire him, and maybe even feel sympathy towards him. In a single novel there is less opportunity – or less time – to bring about that kind of revelation.

Through Kiukiu and Orial your passion for music clearly influences your writing but is it a conscious choice or something that happens naturally as you write characters?

SA: Here I must confess that I’ve found myself irritated by some fantasy novels where there seems to be no true understanding of the sheer hard slog involved in learning to play an instrument, sing or compose and music is used in a rather facile ‘magical’ way.

In ‘Songspinners’ I deliberately chose a musical subject for the novel (as I did in the linked short story ‘Airs from Another Planet’). Orial Magelonne, the frustrated young composer, who has been prevented from using her natural talents by her father, finds herself caught up in a far greater conflict in which a dangerous and charismatic leader, Girim nel Ghislain, is using music as a political and religious tool. Amaru Khassian’s music is deemed heretical by Girim’s followers, and the injured composer flees from the tyrannical regime to Sulien where Orial comes to his aid. I wanted to write about musical themes: a frustrated composer forced by injuries to work with an amanuensis, a young woman struggling to discover her musical identity, and the strictures imposed on the musical community by a fanatical dictator determined to use music to further his cause.

However, in ‘Lord of Snow and Shadows’ I didn’t have a musical agenda. In fact, Kiukiu is unaware of her natural gifts until the murder of her master Lord Volkh, acts as a catalyst. The music she must learn as a Spirit Singer acts as a shamanic spirit-bridge between the mortal world and the Ways Beyond. Her inherent musicality develops naturally as a facet of her personality.
So, to answer your question a little obliquely, the role music plays in my stories largely depends on the way the story evolves.

Your article for Sffworld about the influences for the Tears of Artamon trilogy references Eastern European Folklore heavily – is this an under-used source for the Fantasy genre?

SA: Recently there’s been Sarah Zettel’s ‘Firebird’ trilogy and, some years back, C.J. Cherryh wrote three novels set in mediaeval Russia, the first of which is called ‘Rusalka’. (The latter caused me some angst as I had just written a – still unpublished – novel about a Bulgarian water spirit/rusalka called ‘Scent of Lilies’.)  Looking at these few titles, Eastern Europe folklore could count as under-used; though I’m sure there are others out there and readers will write to tell me what I have left out!

But for me, the driving force behind ‘Artamon’ was not merely the Eastern European influences but the juxtaposition of the wild, barbarous magic emanating from Azhkendir against the emerging ‘Age of Reason’, in Smarna, Muscobar and Tielen, as exemplified by Prince Eugene’s rational nature and interest in science. In the Magus, Kaspar Linnaius, these two apparently contradictory forces, an inherited talent for ‘natural’ magic and a lifetime’s study of the science of alchymy, are combined.

Is it difficult being a female writer in a classically male genre?

SA: I suppose it seems like a classically male genre if one cites J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, David Eddings, Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett and George R.R. Martin as well-known and best-selling exponents in the field over the past fifty years. But it’s not so difficult to counter those names now with Ursula LeGuin, Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Robin Hobb, J.K. Rowling, Susannah Clarke… I think it’s been a pretty even playing field for some time, both for readers and writers. Fantasy these days is a very broad church (as all the writers involved in The Write Fantastic are keen to communicate!) with so many different approaches, styles and themes that every reader can find something on the shelves to suit their tastes.

Unless, of course, you might be suggesting that the ‘classically male’ aspect of the genre is to do with the fact that war, battles, and fighting have come to play a major part in the epic or heroic fantasy. Could it be argued that female writers bring a different sensibility to the depiction of battle scenes? Thinking of Mary Gentle and Steph Swainton (just off the top of my head) I see no squeamishness or lack of rigour in their novels.

With both your sister and cousin being writers, does it make for a competitive or sharing environment?

SA: The way it works best for Jessica and me is to keep our writing to ourselves. We applaud each other’s successes and commiserate over the ups and downs of the writing life. But we don’t compete; neither do we share when it comes to the actual writing. Our cousin Vicki’s published output thus far has been aimed at very young children and so we’re not really competing – and, alas (due to my day job), don’t have time to do any sharing.

How is the Write Fantastic going?

SA: It’s going very well – and thank you for asking! James Barclay has joined us (re-joined, actually, for he was in at the start). I’m going to quote here from Juliet McKenna’s article for the Mar/Apr edition of New Books Magazine (more details at  www.newbooksmag.com ).

‘We’ve produced brochures and leaflets and marketed ourselves to libraries and literary festivals. For the first half of 2006 we’ve organised events in St Helens, Ealing, Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Birmingham and there will be more to follow.
‘At a discussion panel or a question & answer evening, we might talk about our own work in relation to anything from Tolkien to steam engines, or we’ll speculate on current exciting developments in our field. We’ll all argue our genre deserves respect in the wider context of literary and popular fiction.’

How did you become interested in Manga and Anime?

SA: I have to credit my elder son Tom for introducing me, although I’ve always loved comics (especially Tintin and Asterix) since childhood. Hooked on Transformers at an early age, Tom soon found out about other mecha series, such as ‘Gundam Wing’. On family holidays in France, we discovered that the French were showing anime on TV (‘Dragonball Z’ became an obsession) and selling manga in translation in bookshops and supermarkets.

What attracted me to manga – and then to anime – was the different approach to story telling and characterization. Much has been written about the freshness and vivid imagination of Miyazaki’s full-length works such as ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’, which I love. But I was fascinated to find other kindred spirits at work in fantasy series such as ‘Vision of Escaflowne’, the haunting ‘Wolf’s Rain’, and the charmingly weird ‘Fruits Basket’.
Disappointingly, for a long time the UK it was difficult to access much anime at all except for notorious stuff like ‘Legend of the Overfiend’ which got the whole genre a Bad Name in the popular press. Until quite recently UK fans have had to content themselves with US imports, fansubs and Region 1 DVDs. The last few years have seen a vast improvement in the availability and range of titles. It’s great to be able to buy series like ‘Samurai Champloo’, ‘Last Exile’ and ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ on Region 2 DVD.  In manga, I’m currently enjoying CLAMP’s elegant and beautifully bizarre ‘xxxHolic’, and Kio Shimoru’s witty ‘Genshiken’, which affectionately satirizes the whole fan/otaku scene in Japan.

(Sarah’s first Sffworld manga review can be found here)

Finally – what can we expect next from Sarah Ash?

SA: I’m thrilled to have been given a new column, Mangazone, in Interzone in which I can review manga (I’ve also got a slot in the online Forum if anyone wants to chat about the genre). I’m very much looking forward to ‘Seigneur des Neiges et des Ombres’ which is due out from Bragelonne in France. I’ve always hoped that the novels would be translated into French one day; the cover looks wonderful! As for the writing – well, I’m currently working on a novel about Celestine de Maunoir and the extraordinary events that led to the destruction of the College of Thaumaturgy. This also involves delving into Kaspar Linnaius’s murky past and discovering the reasons why the mages fell from royal favour in Francia. Also proposed is a new trilogy, my own ‘Vingt Ans Après’, dealing with what happens in New Rossiya after the Drakhaouls finally left the mortal world. I say ‘proposed’ because, as yet, I am not contracted to write these books. I’m hoping that there will be some good news soon…but it’s rather a tense time. However, I’m much encouraged by the emails I receive from readers who have enjoyed the Artamon series and who are asking for more; I’m always so pleased to hear from them, as writing can be quite a solitary occupation!

Sffworld would like to thank Sarah Ash for both her enlightening answers and recent works for Sffworld. We hope she gets all the credit she deserves. Sarah Ash’s official website can be found at http://www.sarah-ash.com/

Interview by Owen Jones

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