Please welcome Cass Morris to The Qwillery as part of the 2018 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. From Unseen Fire is published on April 16th by DAW.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first piece you remember writing?
Cass: Hello, and thanks for having me! The very first thing I remember writing was a story about a girl named Janine and her dog. I can’t remember if I was in kindergarten or first grade, but I do remember that the teacher kept insisting I had misspelled the name “Janie”. I hadn’t; I had picked up the name Janine from the Babysitter’s Club novels. I distinctly recall dragging a book out of my backpack to show her it was a real name.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Cass: By instinct, largely a pantser on early drafts. I tend to dive into a manuscript with a strong idea of the place and at least a few of the characters, let them all collide into each other, and see what happens from there. From Unseen Fire is the first of a three-book deal, though, which has meant I’ve had to learn to be a bit more of a plotter so far as the overall narrative is concerned.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Cass: Defeating the urge to include too many world-building details. I was a kid who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I have to be careful not to let the world detract from the story.
TQ: What influences your writing? You worked for the education department at the American Shakespeare Center. Has being around Shakespeare's works since 2010 influenced your writing?
Cass: I sure hope so! I fell in love with Shakespeare when I was eleven, acted in his plays through high school and college, got a graduate degree in Shakespeare studies, and then decided to work for him for another seven years. I think what I learned most from him in all that time was a sense of rhetorical stylings. I love the study of rhetoric so much. One of the things it gave Shakespeare, and that I try to emulate, is a sense of voice -- how different people talk differently, resort to different syntactical patterns, fall into different cadences. I also get a lot of influence from the other media I consume -- historical novels, fantasy novels, and musical theatre, in particular.
TQ: Describe From Unseen Fire in 140 characters or less.
Cass: In an alternate version of ancient Rome, a trio of patrician sisters and an ambitious senator use wit, charm, and magic to realize their dreams for the city they love.
TQ: Tell us something about From Unseen Fire that is not found in the book description.
Cass: The elemental magic of Aven, my alt-Rome, isn’t the only kind you’ll encounter. The Iberians waging war on the provincial borders have their own brand, tied to their own gods, drawing power from the stars, rivers, and blood.
TQ: What inspired you to write From Unseen Fire? What appeals to you about writing alt-Roman historical fantasy?
Cass: Directly, a painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema called “The Baths of Caracalla”. I’d been thinking I wanted to play with something outside of the medieval European mold, and I’d been toying with the idea of using a Roman-based model, when that painting happened across my eyes. The Vitelliae -- my heroine Latona and her sisters -- sprang into my head in that moment.
The alt-Roman setting gives me so much to mess about with. You get a fantasy world with sanitation and health care, for one thing! The pantheon of gods dovetailed with the magical system I was building in so many beneficial ways. And Rome was such a magnificently diverse, complex place, with social and political issues that are in many ways so familiar to the modern age. It’s a wonderfully fertile playground.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for From Unseen Fire?
Cass: A lot of it was reviving past studies. I started taking Latin in the seventh grade and kept it up through high school, and I took so many courses on the ancient world in college that I was only a few credits short of an accidental Classics minor. So I had a lot to remind myself of, and a lot that needed more exploration, particularly when it came to the social history. I read a lot of books, listened to a lot of podcasts, watched a lot of documentaries. I’ve got a list of sources on my website, actually (https://cassmorriswrites.com/aven-cycle/the-world-of-aven/resources-and-history), for anyone who’s interested in delving in themselves.
The most fun research, though, was a trip I took in 2016 to do some on-the-ground investigations in Rome itself. I spent three days tramping all around the ancient city, figuring out what was visible from various points on the hills, how long it would take to walk from the Esquiline to the Palatine, all sorts of little details. It also gave me a great sense of the city as a bustling, multicultural metropolis.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for From Unseen Fire.
Cass: The gorgeous artwork on the cover was done by Tran Nguyen (you can find her on Instagram). My editor, Betsy Wolheim, found a piece of hers based on Roman frescoes and we both loved the style. The woman on the cover is the main female protagonist, Latona, a mage of Fire and Spirit. Tran nailed her look so perfectly. I love that she’s looking the reader right in the eyes, bold and proud, but there’s a vulnerability in her, too. The background is based on a Roman lararium -- a sort of household shrine. The crackled effect was something we’d both loved in Tran’s earlier work, and here it carries a sort of hidden meaning. One of the other magical elements is Fracture, and while it isn’t inherently a dark or evil power, one of the antagonists turns it to warped purposes. I love that the shattered-fresco effect nods towards that as well as communicating a sense of Roman antiquity.
TQ: In From Unseen Fire who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Cass: My knee-jerk reaction was to say Latona, because she’s the character I poured the most of myself into, but I think that actually required too much emotional crafting to call it “easy”. Aula, her older sister, is the one who leaps effortlessly to the page. Her voice comes into my head with resonant clarity, and her relationship with Latona has never given me a moment’s trouble.
The hardest character was probably her brother, Gaius, who’s leading a small legionary expedition in Iberia. He’s early in his career, eager to succeed, and in way over his head. Military matters are so far from my experience, and they’re entirely what he’s thinking about, so that’s a harder mode to get myself into. I leaned a lot on my research for that. Fortunately the ancient Romans wrote down a lot about their warfare!
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in From Unseen Fire?
Cass: Because socio-political issues are personal issues. I wouldn’t know how to remove them from the story or the characters. I wanted to write Aven as Rome was, a diverse, multicultural, sprawling, wonderful mess of a city. There was no way to write that without engaging in politics. The male protag, Sempronius, has a vision of using that diversity to make Aven the center of a sprawling federation of interconnected nations; his opponents are men who fear change and prefer isolationism. Latona is a woman hemmed in by the patriarchy, recovering from trauma and breaking free of chains forged by what we would call gaslighting. The Iberians worry they’re facing a choice between colonization and conquest. Social issues compose the very beings of these characters. Nothing in From Unseen Fire was meant as a direct analog for current issues or modern political figures, but humanity has wrestled with a lot of the same questions for thousands of years. I think that’s always worth engaging with.
TQ: Which question about From Unseen Fire do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Cass: What scene do I most regret having to cut? There was a whole 20k section taking place at chariot races that I just loved but ended up not fitting -- but I’m hoping to rework it into Book 2!
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes 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.
‘All my life,’ she thought, ‘someone has been telling me what I must not do. Mother, father, husband, priestesses . . . How did it take me till now to realize how heartily sick of it I am?’
TQ: What's next?
Cass: Books two and three of the Aven Cycle! Latona’s story isn’t over yet, so I’m working on getting those manuscripts into fighting shape. I’m also in the early stages of drafting a space opera with a heroine inspired by the French swordswoman/opera singer Julie d’Aubigny. I’m not far into it yet, but that one’s going to be a total romp, and I’m quite looking forward to it.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Cass: Thanks for having me! I can’t wait to share From Unseen Fire and the world of Aven with more people.
From Unseen Fire
Aven Cycle 1
DAW, April 17, 2018
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
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?
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. She can be found on Twitter at @CassRMorris.