Anna: More than just a name

We spoke to Sammy HK Smith, the author of Anna, about creating a dangerous dystopian future and why a name is a powerful thing…

Feminist science fiction – in all its gritty glory ANNA

Set in a dystopian future where the world is no longer governed and those who prosper are callous and violent, Anna follows the story of a woman who has been captured and is owned by a man named Will. She calls herself Anna, though that is not her real name but a persona she has invented for herself to survive her captivity. Anna is obedient, dutiful, and compliant. Anna is a possession.

However, when she falls pregnant, Anna leaves her name behind, and finds the strength to run. But the past – and Will – catch up with her in an idyllic town with a dark secret, and this time, it’s not just Anna who is at risk.

We spoke to Anna’s author Sammy HK Smith about dystopian fiction and the importance of a name…

How and when did you first come up with the idea for Anna?

This always feels so cringe-inducing to say, but it started as a dream. I remember waking up and feeling really claustrophobic at the thought of having all my movements controlled. I’m a huge scifi dystopia fan and started to plot out a story involving a strong woman who ends up caught and becomes chattel and how it affected her emotionally. Admittedly, at first I wanted it to be a lighter, revenge filled piece but as I wrote the story, things started to change.

If any, what were your inspirations when writing Anna?

I work within domestic abuse and spend a lot of my time with survivors. I’m privy to their accounts and stories and I admire how strong they are – even when they don’t see it themselves. I wanted to take some of my experiences and form them into this character and have the reader experience the horrors through her eyes and hear her thoughts.

Why have Anna set in a dystopian future?

I think Anna could absolutely be set in a more contemporary setting, and would work well at showing coercive control and associated behaviours that women struggle with day in and day out in today’s world, but I’m a huge dystopia fan and as silly as it sounds I just didn’t have the passion to write the story any other way and I think some of it comes from working in a contemporary world with these crimes for over 15 years – I’m just burnt out from true life.

I wanted a world where communication means were cut off, where trust and relationships balanced on a knife edge and felt that her story fit this cruel world.

What are your favourite pieces of dystopian future fiction?

Obviously I love The Handmaid’s Tale (Atwood) and The Road (McCarthy) – these two books heavily influenced Anna in that I wanted to showcase the lack of bodily autonomy in a harsh land, but I also love Parable of the Sower (Butler) for the social injustice themes and the disintegration of social order and the communities.

The novel centres around the character of Anna, how did you go about creating her and what were the most important character traits you wanted her to have?

I wanted Anna to be an ‘every woman’ – not a Mary Sue, not a beautiful damsel in distress, and not someone who would suddenly change their behaviour and actions to fit the perceived narrative. She is an ordinary woman, who before the devastation lived an ordinary life and made mistakes. I drew inspiration from my job, from people I know, from myself and from characters I admire. I wanted her to be strong, independent and brave. It was really important to me that she show her strength in other ways – not just the physical displays, but the emotional and psychological. Anna is cautious, quiet and reserved, but when she makes friends we start to see her trust again.

There are moments of violence and sexual violence in the novel, how did you go about tackling those harrowing moments?

Probably a good time to say – yup, this novel covers a lot of violence, sexual violence, gas-lighting, coercive control, PTSD, and the uglier sides of human emotion. It is NOT an easy read and has a lot of trigger warnings.

I took my experiences and wrote what I felt was an authentic representation of rape from the survivor’s point of view. I always stress I am NOT the arbitrator of sexual violence and a survivor’s reactions, but I hope to show a snapshot of the reactions that one such person may have and how that abuse is carried along with them after the event/relationship.

I haven’t used any one person’s personal stories – because to do so would be a gross violation of trust and privacy – and instead I used the ‘fight flight flop freeze friend’ (five Fs) that show possible amygdala brain reactions to trauma.

I made this visceral and real. I didn’t want to shy away from the subject or make the rape a convenient plot point to explain away a character’s motivations. Instead I made the consequences of this abuse the focus of the novel, and how strength comes in many forms.

But, writing about rape is not easy. It’s uncomfortable and upsetting and during two scenes in the book I remember writing them steadily in one sitting, and then I couldn’t sleep so I sat up all night watching trashy TV.

Anna/Kate changes her name when her circumstances change. What is the importance of this and is this why the novel’s title is her name?

A name is a powerful thing. For our main character, it’s one thing that can never be taken from her and so there’s this persona of Anna that she adopts to protect her true identity. Her abuser takes everything from her: her clothes, her photos, her dignity, but he never takes her name – something that is an incredibly personal symbol of our identity.

When she changes her name, she does so for protection and to try and erase the history of Anna and the abuse that came with it.

I chose it as the title because we are introduced to her as Anna and we don’t know her background, history, or anything else that defines her. She chooses what she wants to share and her name, her real name, isn’t up for grabs.

You’ve created a rich world with its own rules, will there be any other novels about any of the characters in the novel or set in the same world?

One thing I’ve been seeing over and over is that ARC reviewers want more of the dystopian world and an explanation of what’s happened. It was a very conscious decision not to focus heavily on how the world crumbled and instead make Anna’s journey and PTSD our world, but it has bitten me on the backside a bit as it’s become the biggest grumble!

So, I’ve started a second novel in the same world that will have more history and world-building and follow another female character as she deals with hiding disabilities in this world that euthanises and murders those who they perceive as ‘weak’. She deals with sex trafficking, drugs, bereavement, whodunit, and revenge murder… plus a sprinkle of love (not in that order)!

The timeline crosses over with Anna and there are some characters that make a return/guest appearance – so watch this space!

What are you reading right now?

I’ve nearly finished Priest of Bones by Peter McLean – this is an excellent fantasy novel that I really recommend! It’s Peaky Blinders crossed with Gangs of New York with a mediaevalesque cityscape fantasy setting.

Next on the list is Ariadne by Jennifer Saint – the cover dragged me in!

What’s next for you?

Right now? A cuppa!

In the writing world I hope to finish the aforementioned book in Anna’s world and then move back to my fantasy series. It takes me forever to write nowadays what with the pressures of work and family life! Wish me luck!

Anna by Sammy HK Smith is out on 27 May from Rebellion. Read all about Sammy HK Smith’s feminist inspirations in her guest blog ‘Feminist Science Fiction – In All Its Gritty Glory’ here.