An Interview with Anna Kashina

Greetings, Anna! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for me. I really enjoyed reading Blades of the Old Empire. Where did you come up with the idea for this novel?

 

 Hello, and thank you for this interview. I am very glad you enjoyed my book.

My goal in writing Blades of the Old Empire was to write a good traditional fantasy with page-turning action and elements of romance. My ambition was to do it so well that the readers would feel immersed in the story and share all the fun I had writing it. I feel there is a shortage of such books out there, which readers like me enjoy.

Many ideas come to me in dreams. For this book, it all started with a beautiful woman who is also a highly skilled warrior, but the price she must pay for her skill is her freedom.  She is not permitted to love and must always follow orders. What would she do if she was driven to the extreme and found these constraints unthinkable to cope with? This image became the over-arching idea for my book.

I’ll admit it now — romance isn’t usually my thing. It almost makes me feel like I should turn in my girl card. Did you find it difficult to balance the romantic elements of Blades of the Old Empire with the fantastical elements? You’ve managed to capture quite a bit of action and adventure, magic, politics, and intrigue while having a very strong romantic feel to the story.

 

I was not planning, originally, on putting in so much romance–even though, I guess my overarching idea about the beautiful woman who is not free to pursue her love did tip the scale in that direction. I do enjoy romance myself, and believe that romantic elements, if done well, are an invaluable tool in character development. But–I was not really thinking about it when I wrote.  It just happened all by itself.

When I created my two central characters, the two Majat warriors,  I fell in love with each of them, and this love drove the story for me. I wanted to relay this feeling to the readers. The most effective way to do it was to show these characters through the eyes of those who love them in the book. For Kara (the female warrior) it was easy, since the man who is in love with her, Prince Kythar, is also the main point-of-view character for the major part of the story. The other love interest (which I don’t want to name for fear of spoilers) was not originally planned, but in my sense it worked even better. It just followed so naturally for me from seeing these characters together.

In a deeper sense I believe that what makes action fun is the emotions of the characters behind it, and love is the ultimate emotion that, if done right, can convey so much.

Now that the book is out there I am realizing that this much romance was a surprise to some conventional fantasy fans. And, I guess the real answer to your question is: I did not find the romance difficult to balance with the rest of the story, to me the thread of romance was natural and it kept the rest of the elements together so well.

 What was your favorite part about writing Blades of the Old Empire? Did any scene (without spoiling too much) really capture your affection?

 

There was a number of such scenes, actually, but it would be hard to go into any details without spoiling too much.

Generally, even though I liked working on this book from the start, my enjoyment grew as I wrote, and started reaching the high points with the development of the character who was to become Kara’s counterpart. This character was unexpected for me, originally. All I wanted was to create someone who is clearly capable of defeating Kara. The rest developed naturally, and this was so much fun. He starts off as essentially a handsome jerk, and then there is a number of occasions in which he shows new facets of his character and eventually transforms in everyone’s eyes into a likeable guy.  Each of those episodes was so fun to write, I kept looking forward to it. In the end, when he and Kara meet, it is no longer clear who we are rooting for and who is going to win–either outcome at that point feels equally devastating. I really looked forward to doing it right, and it felt very special for me when it worked out just the way I wanted.

It was especially fun because as I started each scene I had only a vague idea what was going to happen, and how. Writing it was like watching a movie in real time where everything fell into place. I knew it worked right when some of my beta readers started referring to “watching” my novel, rather than “reading” it.

 You write both male and female perspectives in Blades of the Old Empire. What was the hardest part of accomplishing this, in your opinion?

 

I did not think it was hard at all. In a big sense each point of view character has to carry a side of the author’s personality, and it becomes a question of finding the characters, both male and female, to whom I can relate best. After this is done right, the rest is all about putting yourself into an appropriate mood.

The trick, for me, is not to write different point of view chapters in the sequence in which they appear in the novel–this would cause too much alternation in voices and in the end would run into a risk of blending them all into one. Rather, I wrote large chunks of the story from each character’s point of view and then alternated pieces of them in the final version, arranged so that they are happening on the same linear time line. By the end, each of these characters became such an organic part of me that it became easy to switch.

 It’s hard acquiring a contract with a really reputable publishing house like Angry Robot Books. How did you pull it off? What advice can you give to hopeful authors wanting to break into traditional publishing?

 

My story is very atypical, so it is probably not something other authors can easily follow. On the other hand, I believe that everyone who lands a contract with a reputable publisher these days has to go through a very atypical experience, so mine is not an exception in that sense.

The truth is, by the time I finished this novel I have already given up so utterly on finding a publisher (or agent) that I wasn’t even trying hard anymore. I finished the book, sent it to a few agents (not even that many), got my rejections, and put it aside to write something new. At that point all my previously written books were placed with small presses, but I liked this book so much that I felt it deserved more, so I just tried to put it out of my mind. I thought, when I finally write a novel the agents would agree to represent, they would like this one too. I expect many authors can relate to this feeling.

When I saw an open call for submissions from Angry Robot, focused on traditional fantasy, I felt as if the description of what they were looking for was written just for my book. I decided to give it a try–without much hope. I just sent it in and went back to working on other things. And then, to my amazement, my novel got accepted.

I still feel at times that I am dreaming and none of it actually happened at all.

I always give the same advice to hopeful authors, one that I received a long time ago, which kept me going all these years: “Never give up.” I think my story is a good example of why not giving up is so important.

Can you think of any notable mistakes you’ve made as an author? What did you learn as a result, and is there anything you can tell us so we can avoid making the same mistake?

 

My early path as an author was actually full of mistakes. In the end they all came down to one thing: selling myself too short, jumping on the first offers I ever received without considering alternatives. I sold several of my books to different small presses, making them pretty much unavailable for traditional publishing. I wish I hadn’t, but I also know that at the time I did it I simply did not know any better. Each of these sales is a story of its own, definitely too long for this interview.

It is hard to advise anyone how to avoid the same mistakes. I think in my case, I made all the mistakes because of not believing in myself enough. So, my biggest advice to everyone would be to believe in yourself and in what you have set out to do. And, as before, never give up.

An author I know wrote seventeen unpublished novels, which she shelved, and then she sold her #18 to a major publisher. She never settled for anything less. And, in her case, it paid off. I always think of her as an example.

They (one day, I’ll learn who ‘they’ is…) say writers are creatures of habit. What are your rituals or habits when you’re writing?

 

It used to be writing my first draft longhand. There was a special enjoyment for me in the feeling of a pen connecting to the paper. I have abandoned it for years now, for the sake of time.

Ever since I started by demanding day job, and especially after I also had two kids, I had to shed all my writing habits. I cannot possibly have a ritual of writing at a certain time every day or doing it in a certain way. I don’t even have a desk at home that does not also serve as a play table for my children. I pretty much fit in some writing whenever I can. I probably should develop better habits in the future, but right now, to me, it is all about inspiration. If I am inspired, I can’t wait to get to my computer, and the story just flies, so the main process becomes finding a story that inspires me enough to work on. I tend to think of writing as my indulgence time.

 Coffee or Tea? If neither, what is your drink of choice? What appeals to you about your favorite beverage?

 

Coffee for personal enjoyment. Tea for company. When I grew up, drinking tea was my favourite form of a family gathering, when everyone would just sit around the table and chat. We used to do it every day when I was very little, especially when I stayed at my grandparents’ house. I still think of those times fondly, and even though my family does not quite share this enjoyment these days, I still drink tea for the sake of old memories. But I cannot possibly start the day without my coffee and I am very picky about the kind of coffee I drink.

 Do you write to music? If so, what sort of music? What about this style of music appeals to you?

 

I don’t, actually. When I listen to music it absorbs all my senses and thoughts. I cannot do anything else while listening to music.

Having said that, certain music for me resonates with my writing and I often listen to music when I think about a scene, especially when it burns in my head but I have no time to sit down and write it. My latest favourite for this purpose has been the soundtrack from “Totem” by Cirque du Soleil, which combines Middle-Eastern build with ethnic rhythms and fits some of the Majat training and fighting scenes (as well as, amazingly, calms down my kids). I also enjoy Spanish guitar and some ballroom dance music, especially tango. Some of the Majat fighting techniques stem from my understanding of dancing, and listening to the dance music helps me to think the action through.

Generally I enjoy music with Middle Eastern build and complex beats, but I am very picky about it and would probably not enjoy a random piece that fits this description. I also love classical music and some jazz.

 I have a habit of ending my interviews with a strange question. You are trapped in a collapsed tunnel with Chuck Norris, Gandalf, and Harry Potter. You have the contents of your purse to work with. How do you escape?

 

I don’t think I’d need my purse. I would send Chuck Norris to look for a way out, and Harry Potter to come up with a spell that would change rocks into jelly (or something else easily movable). Once these two are out of the way, I would sit down with Gandalf and have a nice chat. Who cares about collapsed tunnels when there is my favourite wizard to talk to?