Q&A with author Cass Morris
Find out a little more from author Cass Morris with this question and answer session. The author's debut, From Unseen Fire, is the first novel in the Aven Cycle. It is ahistorical fantasy set in an alternate Rome.
1. How does this book, though set in an alternate past, speak to modern political issues?
There’s a big question of national identity hanging over Aven. That was true of late-Republic Rome, which is what I based the fantasy alternate world of From Unseen Fire on, and I think it’s very true of modern America. There comes a time when nations have to look at themselves and say, “Who are we? Who do we want to be? Is it better for us to hold to the virtues of our past or to expand our opportunities to the future?” A lot of the issues that Rome faced and that I have Aven facing are similar to those we’re facing today. Over two thousand years have passed, but we’re still wrestling with a lot of the same questions.
2. What in your own life has shaped the creation of these characters and the journeys they go on?
I didn’t realize when I started writing Latona just how much of myself and my past experiences I was pouring into her. I know how frustrating it is to feel punished for daring to achieve. You end up defensively devaluing yourself and making yourself small to avoid trouble. But bottling things up like that often leads to explosions and catastrophe, and then you have to figure out how to piece yourself back together. So, I drew on a lot of personal experience when communicating Latona’s headspace, how she talks to herself, and how she finally hits her breaking point.
Less dramatically, I’m a government brat. My family’s always been politically involved and interested, so I’ve been aware of and a part of those conversations most of my life. That awareness, decades of thinking about what the best ways to shape a government and a society might be, definitely plays into the power politics of From Unseen Fire.
3. Who are your biggest writing influences?
I used to say that I wanted to be Neil Gaiman when I grew up, and that’s still rather true. His writings, and Terry Pratchett’s, have affected a lot of how I think about story and mythos. My ideas on crafting magic have roots in everything from Harry Potter to tabletop role-playing games. Years of studying Shakespeare has put a lot of rhetoric in my head, so that’s been a large influence as well. I’ve also read a lot of romance novels and a lot of historical fiction, and I think those bleed into my style, too.
4. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been a natural storyteller and a lover of books for as long as I’ve known what words were, but I can remember, clearly, the first moment I knew that creating worlds was what I wanted to do with my life. It was January, 1997. I was eleven years old, sitting in a movie theatre with a sticky floor, having just seen Star Wars for the first time. I was in utter awe. And I thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I don’t know that I even knew what I meant by that at the time, whether writing books or working on movies or some other way of building worlds. That moment, though, was absolutely when I realized that I wanted to spend my life shaping universes that other people could both lose and find themselves in. I’ve been working towards that ever since.
5. Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for writers?
First, just keep at it. Determination counts for as much or more than talent and craft in this business. You have to be able to take a hit, shake yourself off, and keep going.
Second, the best wordcrafting advice I’ve ever gotten: “but then”. When you’re summarizing scenes, you should always be able to do so with a “but then” phrase, rather than an “and then” phrase. It’s so simple, but it can make such a difference. Think about what changes for your brain between reading, “Sally got up to make breakfast, and then there was a knock at the door” and “Sally got up to make breakfast, but then there was a knock at the door.” Immediately you have a sense of stakes and drama, because that knock has become unusual and unexpected rather than routine.
Third, make friends. Writing can be a solitary business, but it doesn’t have to be a totally isolated one. The magic of the internet can connect you with so many people that are sharing your experiences, whatever stage of the publishing journey you’re on.
Writing is work, yes. Sometimes it’s painful work. The publishing process has a lot of hurdles to clear. It can feel like the goalposts are always moving on you, like everything happens simultaneously too fast and at a glacial pace, like you never know the expectations and yet feel compelled to do everything you can to succeed. It can be rough, so if you don’t still have joy in writing itself, it’s not worth doing. When things get hard, remind yourself why you love the story you’re telling.
About the Book:
From Unseen Fire is the first novel in the Aven Cycle, a historical fantasy set in an alternate Rome, by debut author Cass Morris
The Dictator is dead; long live the Republic.
But whose Republic will it be? Senators, generals, and elemental mages vie for the power to shape the future of the city of Aven. 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. Now that the Dictator who threatened her family is gone, 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.
Her siblings—a widow who conceals a canny political mind in the guise of a frivolous socialite, a young prophetess learning to navigate a treacherous world, and a military tribune leading a dangerous expedition in the province of Iberia—will be her allies as she builds a place for herself in this new world, against the objections of their father, her husband, and the strictures of Aventan society.
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 will use wit, charm, and magic to shape Aven’s fate. But when their foes resort to brutal violence and foul sorcery, will their efforts be enough to save the Republic they love?
About the Author: 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. Find out more about Cass Morris online at cassmorriswrites.com.
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