They say you shouldn’t take your work home with you. And for homicide detective Sammy H.K. Smith, this would’ve been good advice…had it not led to her writing the dystopian thriller Anna (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Smith discusses what (aside from her job) inspired and influenced this novel, as well as her plans for more stories.
To start, what is Anna about, and when and where does it take place?
Okay, Anna is about a woman who is captured by a hunter in a near-future dystopia. He professes to love her, but instead he is physically and mentally abusive. She refuses to tell him her real name and instead creates the persona of Anna.
The novel is first person and we’re inside Anna’s head for the trip. It’s a dark and uncomfortable place, and we’re taken with Anna through the emotional responses to the (sexual) violence and her road to recovery whilst suffering PTSD. She bears physical and mental scars and — spoiler — she does escape him and change her name…only for him to find her again. So she then decides she needs to be free once and for all. I won’t spoil the rest.
Where did you get the idea for Anna?
How ridiculously cliché of me to say a dream, but it’s true. I had a nightmare that felt far too real, and on waking it wouldn’t go away and the feeling of claustrophobia lasted for hours. My day job is a detective for the police, and I work with serious domestic abuse and sexual abuse victims. I felt a story form quite quickly and wrote two thousand words a day until it was finished. I did wing a lot of it in the first draft, but I’d say 85% made the final cut.
Anna is clearly connected to what’s been going on in the world lately. Did you set out to write something that had a social bent to it or did you start writing this story and realize it either lent itself really well to that or even demanded it?
After dreaming it (I’m cringing writing that even now!) I initially thought about focusing the story into a more light-hearted dystopia of “revenge with a horror gore twist,” but as I wrote the character she became an embodiment of all those survivors I’ve worked with over the years. It almost felt disrespectful to make her this Rambo style revenge ridden character, as I wanted her to be authentic and true. So the story started to take a more literary and speculative feel and I focused on thinking “how would a victim react to this” and “what would a perpetrator do right now?” and so the piece started to form this journey of a character through the “relationship” with their abuser and how they start to rebuild. I guess it became more literary in style.
What was it about this story that made you think it needed to take a social bent?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I’ve always loved literature that gets me asking questions and stirs up emotions. I’m extremely passionate about sexual violence against women, and have focused 15 years of my career so far towards improving the service and justice they receive, and I haven’t come across many pieces of work that focuses heavily on PTSD or the journey of the survivor. I mean, I know some people read purely for pleasure to step away from the depressing real world, but I know others take solace and comfort in reading about experiences they can relate to.
I also have a huge problem with rape and sexual assault being used in literature as a “trope” or a loosely thought out character plot point that isn’t ever fully developed. I feel society has become de-sensitized to an extent, and I wanted to show this violence in all its ugliness. I feel if you write about rape, then you have to own it. You have to show it for what it is: a horrific, violent crime that the survivor carries with them forever.
Earlier you said that Anna was set in “a near-future dystopia.” Why did you decide to set this story in a dystopian future as opposed to modern times or the past?
This was entirely down to personal preference. I remember writing Anna and speaking to an agent who told me to set it in modern times to guarantee a sale, but I tried and failed. I just didn’t feel the spark and I don’t know if it’s because I work with “modern times” stories like this and whether that cut into my creativity, but it was a lot easier to create a near-future world and write the characters there.
Anna is your second novel after In Search Of Gods And Heroes. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Anna but not on Heroes?
I wouldn’t say a huge influence, but the other day I was say here trying to think of a cool tagline or elevator pitch for Anna but failed. Rebellion have described it as “The Handmaid’s Tale crossed with The Road,” and I think that’s a fair assessment. I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood (I mean, who isn’t?) and The Handmaid’s Tale is an iconic story of the loss of female bodily autonomy, but also a great show of feminist strength. The Road has the dark, emotional character-driven narrative that I hope Anna evokes, and McCarthy’s story-telling is unique so it really resonated and stayed with me. If you can think of any other books to compare it to, let me know ‘cos I’m drawing a blank.
What about non-literary influences; was Anna influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Because on your website it says you are “made up of…” movies, cats, and strategy games.
So I took some ideas from the 1991 movie Sleeping With The Enemy when working at my narcissistic antagonist and the idea of Anna escaping and changing her identity. I always found that film to be really powerful in places and it doesn’t get the credit I think it deserves.
Having an antagonist who really does appear to be the most wonderful partner to the outside world was important to me as I wanted to show that it wasn’t easy for Anna to just “out” him.
There’s a scene in part 3 involving a mass grave, and writing that I watched a lot of clips from YouTube from concentration camps and wars. I’m not going to lie, aside from the odd sudden death I’ve attended I’ve not seen many dead bodies, and I wanted to try and really capture the horror. It was devastating watching those videos and I can’t even put into words how much I cried.
There are some “lighter” aspects to the book, too. I have a cat in there called Oscar who was based on my real cat, Oscar, and Anna will play Monopoly, Jenga, Chess — all games that connect with me personally through happier memories.
Now, I understand that Anna is a stand-alone story, but also the first book in a series…
So I wrote Anna as a stand-alone story. It’s set over a very short time span of her life (just over a year), and it covers what I wanted it to: trauma, effects, quasi-resolution. But my early readers have been asking for a [direct] sequel, so who knows? The door is left open for us to return to Anna, and perhaps I could show a new journey for her in the future, new trials to undertake and mountains to conquer… I do think I’ve put her through enough though.
As for this series, I have a total of 3 books planned. Each is stand-alone, but set in the same dystopian world, and with some characters who cross over, and I want to focus on different emotions for each novel.
At the moment, I’m writing the second novel, tentatively called Emma, and I’m focusing on grief, physical disabilities, love, revenge, human trafficking and drugs. The timeline of Emma runs parallel to Anna, but she’s an entirely different character. Physically she appears strong with her shit together, but inside she’s juggling plates on a unicycle and about to fall apart…
The third book is merely an idea at the moment that I’m jotting ideas down as I go. It’s unnamed, with unnamed characters but it will have sprinkles of MH issues, an LGBT protagonist, a strong feminist thread, but most importantly: hope.
Earlier mentioned your first book, In Search Of Gods And Heroes, which was subtitled Book I Of The Children Of Nalowyn. Do you know when Book II will be out and what it will be called?
So book 2 is called A Time Of Truth And Lies, and I have about 50-60K words written. I mean, it’s had that word count for about 5 years now… I’ve been so busy raising my two little boys with the husband that writing has taken a backseat. My goal is to get it out in the next year or so though. It really is a fun fantasy with 8 different viewpoints (yes, really!) gods, monsters, questionable freewill and snarky talking cats…
Earlier I asked if Anna had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as the kids probably don’t say anymore, has there been any interest in turning Anna into a movie, show, or game?
I would say that Anna would probably work best as a 6-part TV show. The novel is broken into 3 distinct parts: part 1 is captivity and the cruelty of this world; part 2 is rebuilding in a supposed utopia; and Part 3 is the return to nature and resolution, so 2 episodes per part would be great, I think.
And if that happened, who would you want them to cast as Anna and Will and why them?
I love this game!
If I could have absolutely anyone play Will then I would pick James McAvoy. Will is unassuming. He’s good-looking, everyone’s friend, and an all-round “nice guy.” But he’s also exceptionally cruel and violent, and a murderer. After watching James in Split, I think he could really embody the multi-faceted sides to my narcissist. His acting range is exceptional.
With Anna, Rebecca Ferguson has the looks of Anna, and the acting chops to really bring her to life. Anna is strong, she’s full of character that is slowly chipped away until she’s broken and then rebuilds. Rebecca’s acting in the Mission: Impossible movies is fab. Love her.
Finally, if someone enjoys Anna, what similar novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
So this sounds terribly gauche, and it’s not meant to, but I really don’t think there’s many similar novels to Anna out there.
If someone is after a novel that focuses on sexual trauma in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, then I’d recommend Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, or on the rights of sexual and bodily autonomy rights of women then Gather The Daughters by Jennie Melamed.
Can I recommend a book completely brilliant and unlike anything I’ve read before?
So I’ve just picked up The First Sister by Linden Lewis and I’m obsessed with how good it is.
Told from two different POV, from both sides of a war, and from two entirely different characters. Here’s the blurb: First Sister has no name and no voice. As a priestess of the Sisterhood, she travels the stars alongside the soldiers of Earth and Mars — the same ones who own the rights to her body and soul. When her former captain abandons her, First Sister’s hopes for freedom are dashed when she is forced to stay on her ship with no friends, no power, and a new captain — Saito Ren — whom she knows nothing about. She is commanded to spy on Captain Ren by the Sisterhood, but soon discovers that working for the war effort is so much harder to do when you’re falling in love.
Lito val Lucius climbed his way out of the slums to become an elite soldier of Venus, but was defeated in combat by none other than Saito Ren, resulting in the disappearance of his partner, Hiro. When Lito learns that Hiro is both alive and a traitor to the cause, he now has a shot at redemption: track down and kill his former partner. But when he discovers recordings that Hiro secretly made, Lito’s own allegiances are put to the test. Ultimately, he must decide between following orders and following his heart.
Queer literature at its rawest and finest. The characterization is just perfect and the story is utterly unique. 10/10 from me.
And no, I don’t know the author.