EXCERPT FROM “FROM UNSEEN FIRE”
Shadow and Water both moved in him, a blend that lent itself to a strange intuition, an ability to hear words unsaid and see things not-yet-done. Drawing energy from the dark corners of the garden, from the dimming sky above, from the water that flowed into the peristyle, Sempronius concentrated on what it was he needed to know, willing the answers to come to him, etched on the surface of the obsidian mirror. His heartbeat slowed; his muscles relaxed as he eased into that place where body and mind flowed synchronously with his Elements. Thus settled, Sempronius passed a hand over the dark glass and waited, all patience, for something to surface.
CASS MORRIS’S BIOGRAPHY
Cass Morris lives and works in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with the companionship of two royal felines, Princess and Ptolemy. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.
INTERVIEW WITH CASS MORRIS
FROM UNSEEN FIRE will be published on April 17, 2018 by DAW Books. The novel is Cass Morris’ debut, and it is Book One of the Aven Cycle. Prior to the publication of UNSEEN FIRE, I was able to interview Cass about her novel and about her writing process.
Question- Please describe what the book is about.
Cass Morris: From Unseen Fire takes place in Aven, an alternate version of ancient Rome where elemental magic has shaped society as much as law and war. In the wake of a brutal dictatorship, two factions compete to rebuild the Republic in the shape they desire. One side is protectionist and isolationist, seeking to preserve conventional morals and keep their nation small enough to easily control; the other side is expansionist and more permissive, looking to embrace the opportunities that allies and immigrants can provide. By law, the use of magic to influence politics is forbidden, but both sides skirt the rules where they can — and some are willing to step dangerously far over the line.
Q- Could you pitch the novel to us?
CM: In the nation of Aven, Elemental magic has shaped the way of life as much as politics and war. Latona of the Vitelliae, a mage of Spirit and Fire, has suppressed her phenomenal talents for fear they would draw unwanted attention from unscrupulous men. When the Dictator who threatened her family dies, she may have an opportunity to seize a greater destiny as a protector of the people -- if only she can find the courage to try.
Latona’s path intersects with that of Sempronius Tarren, an ambitious senator harboring a dangerous secret. Sacred law dictates that no mage may hold high office, but Sempronius, a Shadow mage who has kept his abilities a life-long secret, intends to do just that. As rebellion brews in the provinces, Sempronius must outwit the ruthless leader of the opposing Senate faction to claim the political and military power he needs to secure a glorious future for Aven and his own place in history.
As politics draw them together and romance blossoms between them, Latona and Sempronius use wit, charm, and magic to shape Aven’s fate -- but will that be enough, when their foes resort to brutal violence and foul sorcery?
Q- Where did you get the idea?
CM: I knew I wanted to write a historical fantasy with a different setting than the somewhat typical pseudo-medieval-western-Europe. I’ve had one foot in the classical world since starting Latin at the age of twelve, and so working with Rome seemed a natural fit. The Roman pantheon blended nicely with some ideas about elemental magic I’d been developing for ages, and from that, the world of Aven was born.
Q- What’s the story behind the title?
CM: I am the worst at titles. If I can’t steal it from Shakespeare or a song lyric, I’m totally useless. This was just called “Aven” for the longest time. Eventually my first editor had me try to come up with something more compelling. I liked the idea of something like Scintilla, which means “spark” in Latin, with subsequent books using words for increasingly large fires, but my publisher was worried the Latin might scare people off. So I started plundering Roman poetry for elegant phrases. From Unseen Fire was among those, but my then-editor didn’t go for it, and for a while the book was titled A Flame Arises instead. When I got switched to a different editor, however, she much preferred From Unseen Fire, so we went back to that.
Q- No spoiler, but tell us something we won’t find out just by reading the book jacket.
CM: There are nine magical Elements, and the power to use them is seen as a blessing from the gods. About one in every thousand Aventans manifests some magical talent, but far fewer have strong powers.
Q- Tell us about your favorite character.
CM: Vitellia Latona is the character closest to my heart. She’s a powerful mage of Spirit and Fire, but she’s never made the most of it, partly for lack of training and partly due to discouragement from various sources out of spite, jealousy, or just plain misogyny. In From Unseen Fire, she’s in the process of breaking free of all those restrictions and repressions, learning to own herself and take up the space in the world that she deserves.
Q- If you could spend a day with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
CM: I would love to let Aula Vitellia, Latona’s cheerful and irreverent older sister, take me shopping and then to a lovely dinner party.
Q- Are your character based on real people, or do they come from your imaginations?
CM: They’re mostly from my imagination, though they have some historical inspiration. Julius Caesar, Tiberius Gracchus, Germanicus and his wife Agrippina, Mark Antony, Fulvia, and many other Romans have not direct analogs, but correlations in my characters.
Q- How long did you take to write this book?
CM: From Unseen Fire began life as a 2011 NaNoWriMo project. I was trying to kick myself back into fiction writing after having done little of it during graduate school and my first years working for a non-profit organization. By early 2013, I was ready to query agents, and I signed with Connor Goldsmith in October of that year. We spent about a year polishing the manuscript through several revisions and went out on sub in late 2014, then signed with DAW Books in October 2015. The book was initially supposed to debut in September 2017, but delays related to my editor switch-up pushed it into 2018. I am the poster child for the publishing world’s occasionally glacial pace.
Q- What kind of research did you do for this book?
CM: A lot of my research was reviving things I had studied in high school and college and then delving deeper. I had to get a lot more into the social history of ancient Rome than just the political overview and the “great men” narrative. Alberto Angela’s Day in the Life of Ancient Rome was supremely helpful, as were the works of Philip Matyczak. I’ve a full list of recommended resources on my website (cassmorriswrites.com/aven-cycle/the-world-of-aven/resources-and-history/). The most fun research, though, was taking a trip to Rome and spending a few days wandering around the Seven Hills!
Q- What did you remove from this book during the editing process?
CM: This book has been reworked and restructured so much that I suspect I’ve forgotten most of the changes. The one that stands out is an enormous set piece that, during my revisions with Connor, I removed in a single 20,000 word slaughter. It’s a sequence I love, set during games at a festival, but it just no longer had a place in this book. I’m intending to rework it for Book 2, though!
Q- Are you a plotter or a pantser?
CM: By nature, a pantser. When I start a story, I tend to have a strong idea of who the characters are, and finding the plot is a matter of letting them collide into each other until something happens. As I work on Books 2 and 3 of the Aven Cycle, however, I’m having to work more to an outline, since it’s what my publisher has approved. It’s an interesting challenge -- I have to remind myself that I’m not irrevocably wedded to that skeleton.
Q- What is your favorite part of your writing process, and why?
CM: The moment where pieces suddenly fall into place. It might be finding the plot element to connect two scenes, or figuring out the reasoning behind a character’s actions, or seeing a connection between two characters that I hadn’t seen before. When one of those hits, I’m prone to flailing my arms about like Kermit the Frog before returning my fingers to the keyboard.
Q- What is the most challenging part of your writing process, and why?
CM: Pacing. As a child who happily read the encyclopedia for fun, I don’t always have the best natural sense of how a story should move along. My inclination is to let characters wander into each other and have long conversations. My agent and editor did a lot to make sure that exciting incidents happen at regular intervals!
Q- Can you share your writing routine?
CM: I typically work at my standing desk in my apartment. I’m not well-heeled enough to afford a place where I can devote space just for writing, so it’s in my living room (which, in my current apartment, is also my kitchen). I tend to do my best work from about 7pm-Midnight, and I often enjoy a glass of wine to help lubricate the creative process.
Q- Have you ever gotten writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?
CM: No. The ideas are always there. If I’m not being productive as a writer, it’s because I’m having trouble making the time or summoning the energy.
Q- If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
CM: Perseverance matters a lot more than almost anything else. Learn how to take a punch and stay on your feet.
Q- How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Q- Do you have any writing quirks?
CM: I have to hunt down the words “somewhat” and “rather” and slaughter them. My copy editor also pointed out that I’m over-fond of ellipses and that I often use two prepositions where one would suffice.
Q- Tell us about yourself.
CM: I’ve lived in Virginia my whole life, and most of my work has been as an educator. I spent seven years at the American Shakespeare Center, where I wrote 22 guides to help teachers make plays exciting for their students. My parents and sister live in our hometown, so I revisit my old stomping grounds fairly regularly. I live in the mountains with two cats, a nineteen-year-old calico and a seven-year-old Abyssinian.
Q- How did you get into writing?
CM: I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a storyteller. I got interested in writing as a career after seeing Star Wars at the age of 11, and I’ve talked about that on my personal blog (https://cassmorriswrites.com/2013/12/22/how-star-wars-changed-my-life/).
Q- What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
CM: Read, visit wineries, attend conventions, play MarioKart and Civilization.
Q- Apart from novel writing, do you do any other kind(s) of writing?
CM: I’ve done quite a bit of academic writing, including those Shakespeare teaching guides and a number of papers and presentations for conferences. I’ve also been a blogger and fanfic writer basically as long as I’ve been on the internet.
Q- Share something about you most people probably don’t know.
CM: I am an utterly indifferent cook. I can make basic things like pasta, tacos, pancakes, but I just don’t have the interest in learning to make anything more complex. I can bake, though, and I make exceptionally good cookies.
Q- Which book influenced you the most?
CM: Oh, gods. In my whole life? Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, probably. Or the Witches books from Discworld. Or The Last Unicorn. Or Harry Potter. Or Dinotopia.
Q- What are you working on right now?
CM: Book Two of the Aven Cycle, as well as drafting a space opera with a rakish heroine loosely based on Julie d’Aubigny.
Q- What’s your favorite writing advice?
CM: "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing." – E L Doctorow
Q- The book you’re currently reading
CM: At the time of writing this, I’m in the middle of Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, and 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric Cline.
LINKS TO CASS MORRIS
IndieBound -- http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780756412241
Twitter: @CassRMorris twitter.com/CassRMorris