Interview with Cass Morris, Author of From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle

Today, we’re thrilled to be chatting with Cass Morris, author of the debut novel,  From Unseen Fire: Book One of the Aven Cycle.

Please describe what the story is about.

In the city of Aven, politics and magic intertwine and compete for power. Following the death of an abusive dictator, the Vitelliae sisters band together to negotiate the uncertainties of a new social order. Middle daughter Latona, a mage of Spirit and Fire, must re-discover the incredible powers she has suppressed for years in order to protect her family and the city she loves — but a burgeoning relationship with Sempronius, a Shadow mage who has hidden his powers from society in defiance of Aventan law, may put her in great danger.

Share a teaser sentence or two from your novel.

“Ah,” she said. “Well, there, Senator, you find me in similar spirits to yourself.”
“How do you mean?”
“I find I am increasingly disinterested in what other people will allow me.”

What do you want people to know about your book?

If you love the Schuyler sisters, the Misses Bennett, or the Crawley girls, you’ll adore the Vitelliae. If you’ve enjoyed the mix of magic and intrigue in the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, Juliet Marillier, Jacqueline Carey, or Susanna Clarke, you’ll thrill to From Unseen Fire. If you’ve yearned for a world where magic integrates fully with culture, economics, and history, you need to step into Aven.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this novel?

Considering how long it took, quite a bit! As a writer, I learned the dedication and discipline I needed to see a project all the way through. As a person, I realized how much my various heroines have reflected the people I needed them to be at different points in my life. Latona’s story is one of breaking free of restraints, both externally and internally imposed, and of refusing to continue to make onesself smaller for the comfort of others. I didn’t know that when I began writing it, nor did I know how much I needed to express that sentiment, but there it was.

What was your timeline from drafting to publication?

This book began life as a 2011 Nanowrimo project. I was trying to kick-start my creative writing again after grad school and my first grown-up job had taken me away from it in favor of academia. I finished it, spent time editing, pitched it to some agents at Ascendio in July 2012, and discovered through those conversations that I still had some more editing to do. I started querying agents in January 2013 and signed with Connor Goldsmith in October of that year. He’s a very editorial agent, so we spent some time in revisions, went out on sub — and then decided to do some more revisions based on the feedback we got. Our second round of submissions started in January 2015, we sold that September, announced in October. Edits ran from September 2015 through well, now! And it’ll be out in April, so that’s almost six and a half years from inception to pub date.

What is your favorite part of writing (drafting characters, making up scenes, plotting, developing emotional turning points, etc). Why?

I’m definitely someone who would infuriate Aristotle by making Character my prime focus in storytelling. I love developing characters, crafting backgrounds for them, and getting them talking to each other. The human element is what I find most fascinating in any story.

Briefly, where did the idea for your book come from?

I had been thinking about the opportunities for fantasy fiction outside of the standard medieval-Europe trope. Because I have something of a classics background, I was already gravitating towards ancient Rome as a potential arena to work in — you get some great benefits such as sanitation, medicine, somewhat less restrictive roles for women. Then I saw Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting The Baths of Caracalla. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but it happened to flit back across my eyes at the right time, and it sparked something. That painting is so beautiful and tells such a great story — those three women reclining on the bench, one imparting gossip, one languidly listening, one perked up in attention. That image gave birth to the Vitelliae sisters, and the rest of the story took shape from there.

When do you do your best thinking about your work in progress?

In the car. I love to put on a playlist that I’ve crafted for whatever story I’m working on and just let my mind wander.

Share something people may be surprised to know about you:

One of my favorite hobbies is tabletop gaming. I’ve been part of a Star Wars roleplaying group for over three years now. It’s ridiculous and wonderful.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Two things. One is a quote I found as a kid, when I had first decided to be a novelist when I grew up, from E. L. Doctorow: “Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.” That quote has stuck with me, and it’s something I repeat to myself when I know I’m frittering time. Planning, outlining, and researching are all important, but you can’t fall into the trap of doing nothing but that and still thinking you’re making progress.
The other important advice I’ve gotten is the “but then” concept. You should be able to summarize every chapter including a “but then” statement. This is how I make sure that, well, things actually happen in my books, and that I don’t just let my characters wander around being themselves for pages on end.

What’s next?

Books 2 and 3! I was fortunate enough to get a three-book deal from DAW, so From Unseen Fire is just the first in the series. I’ve also got two other projects in the early stages of percolation: a space opera with a heroine inspired by incorrigible French swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny and a secondworld fantasy incorporating star magic.

What was the value of first hand site research?

While editing this book and drafting Book 2, I spent a few days in Rome, walking around the ruins of the Palatine Hill, the Forum, and the Capitoline, but also just experiencing the bustle and the flavor of that city. It was so valuable for placing myself, quite literally, in the footsteps of my characters — to know what they could see, how the sun feels baking on those streets, how much effort it takes to trek up and down those seven hills. It definitely enriched my ability to make them come alive, and I hope I’ll have the chance both to return there and to explore some of the other settings in the series. (To hint: Outside of Italy, I may need to visit central Spain, southern France, and the Nile Delta, just for a start!).

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“The Dictator is dead; long live the Republic. But whose Republic will it be? A trio of patrician sisters and an ambitious senator use wit, charm, and magic to realize their dreams for Aven, an alternate-universe version of late Republic Rome poised on the brink of greatness or destruction.”