Amelia Smith is a New England fantasy author whom I first crossed paths with at Boskone last year. She has made a name for herself writing both fiction and nonfiction. In this interview I ask Smith about her fantasy series, Dragonsfall, and its prequels. But first, here’s a quick bio:
Amelia Smith lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where she’s currently beach-combing and beating the tick-infested bushes in search of her next big idea. Meanwhile, she’s working on a variety of small projects, including articles for a local magazine and a historical romance.
Smith: I co-wrote a fantasy story with a friend of mine in our Freshman year of high school, back in the mid-1980s, and have written on and off since then. We wrote that story in longhand and passed the pile of paper back and forth each day, writing on alternate nights. I think it was pretty awful. I probably still have it somewhere but I’m afraid to dig it out. We tried it again the next year, using primitive word processors, but fizzled out before reaching the end.
I went on to Pomona College where I cobbled together a self-designed major in Ethnomusicology. I told people that it was an excuse to travel around the world and go to parties. After graduating, I moved back to Martha’s Vineyard, did some landscaping, worked retail, traveled some more, then decided to go to divinity school. After that I tried architecture school. If I’d done the architecture school one round earlier I might have stuck with it, but as it was I was thoroughly burned out on school by that point.
Deck: What led you to transition from poetry to fantasy?
Smith: Many people write poetry. A much smaller number of people read it. With fantasy, I think that there are at least as many readers as writers, and hence a better chance of finding an audience. I was tired of writing into the void and maybe I also wanted to work on something that had more substance and story to it.
Deck: Who are your biggest influences?
Smith: Growing up, my idea of fantasy was shaped by C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, and other mid-20th century children’s/YA fantasy. I moved on to read a pretty decent range of fantasy for grownups, but I don’t think I’ve escaped those formative influences. Before I started writing my fantasy series, I read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, Charles De Lint, and some Marion Zimmer Bradley, among others. Connie Willis is another favorite. These days, though, I’m much more excited about newer authors like V.E. Schwab, Naomi Novik, and N. K. Jemisin … and a bit peeved by the phenomenon of so many female authors using their initials rather than their names.
Deck: Has living on Martha’s Vineyard had any effect on your fantasy fiction?
Smith: Living on an island has been great in that it’s a small community where you get to know people complete with their overlapping webs of friends, family, and jobs. The connections holding the community together are much more apparent than they would be in a bigger place, and more typical of how humans have lived for most of our history. In cities, where there’s more anonymity, I think it’s harder to see the influence of individual personalities on the community as a whole.
We also have a lot of writers here, which makes what I do seem more normal… not that anyone here on the island aspires to normalcy.
Deck: What is the relationship between your Dragonsfall trilogy and the Anamat books?
Smith: Initially, this was going to make it one long, 5-book series, but the trilogy really can be read on its own and I think those books are stronger than the two Anamat books, which feature the same core characters in their youth.
Deck: What was the inspiration for the dragon-gods and the world they inhabit?
Smith: It was really a mash-up of things inspired by aspects of Asian- and European-style dragons thrown in with some thoughts about Indian, Greek, and ancient Near Eastern mythologies, all of which stewed together and came out as these dragon-god figures intrinsic to the land but who also have bodily forms that can appear separate from the land itself.
Deck: What do you think is the strongest selling point for readers to check out your Dragonsfall series?
Smith: This is one of those questions that I didn’t think about going in. I wanted to see what sacred prostitution would look like in a fantasy world, and I wasn’t sold on the way Jacqueline Carey did it – her religion was too much like Christianity, and it just didn’t ring true to me. I thought that it made a lot more sense with primordial, cthonic gods.
The story grew out of that. I’m told that the worldbuilding is a strong point, but it’s a slower story built around characters and relationships (none of them classically romantic) rather than an action-adventure story. That said, I do try to get my fight scenes right.
Deck: Why do you think we enjoy stories that include magic, monsters, and other elements that would be impossible in real life?
Smith: I read because I want to go places that I can’t go in real life. I like to travel to other cultures, other times in history, and even to places that never were and probably never will be. I mean, if I want to go to America I can just get on the boat and go there myself. Beyond that, magic lets us explore ways of being that we can’t get to in the world of 20th-century style realist literary fiction.
Deck: Do you face any challenges or misconceptions from the general reading audience when writing in the fantasy genre? Do you try to target readers who already “get” the genre?
Smith: So many people who don’t read fantasy think that it’s just for kids. That’s the main misconception I run into. One bookstore employee here said that she couldn’t read fantasy because it was all about men having manly adventures – obviously she wasn’t reading the same books I am.
For this series I’ve mostly tried to reach readers who already like the genre and are somewhat aware of its diversity. If I veer off into magical realism, though, I’ll also try to reach readers of literary fiction.
Deck: What led you to move away from fantasy for your next projects? Could you tell us about your progress on the romance and cookbook?
Smith: Fantasy is hard! I’m looking for a change of pace and I want to experiment with different types of writing. That said, I’ve made very little progress on any one project since wrapping up Chronicles at the beginning of the year. Now I’m exploring a concept for a semi-historical story with magical realist elements, alongside the historical romance which I may put out under a pen name because it really does fill a different emotional need.
The cookbook is a very different kind of project and is proceeding at a snail’s pace. It will probably take me at least a year to test all the recipes.
Deck: We all know the big names in fantasy — do you have any recommendations of books by current writers in the genre who may not (yet) be well known?
Smith: There is so much good stuff out there and I have a huge stack of it waiting to be read. That said, one of my favorite recent reads was The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. The plotting is great and there’s a lot of lowbrow humor. In a completely different vein I’d like to recommend one of my critique partner’s books, Till Human Voices Wake Us, by Victoria Goddard, which is full of historical and literary references.
Most of the other recent books I’ve read that I would recommend are in other genres or were trad-published and have good legs under them already.
Deck: What do you love to do in your spare time that has nothing to do with writing fantasy?
Smith: I have two young children so that takes up most of my time. Nearly everything I do feeds into writing fantasy in one way or another, but I do try to get away from the desk. I practice take long walks, cook, and practice aikido very casually (I used to be serious about it when my spine was bouncier). I’m also learning to play guitar, just for the heck of it.