Women In SFF Author Spotlight: Cass R Morris
Cass Morris works as a writer and educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart. Her debut series, the Aven Cycle, is Roman-flavored historical fantasy released by DAW Books.
You can follow her on her Twitter & IG, both with the same tagname: @cassrmorris
Welcome to the Hive, Cass. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I recently finished Roseanne A. Brown’s A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, which was just screamingly good. I love fantasy that is absolutely soaked in mythos, and the world Brown created has magic and religion flooding its veins.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
If we’re talking true D&D-style, then I’d go for a half-Elf Ranger with a longbow. I’m a big fan of ranged weapons for physical combat; staying out of the melee fray is generally safer, and you can keep a better eye on the whole battle from there. Broadening it to other TTRPGs, though, I love FFG’s Genesys system and the Star Wars games, where social characters beyond bards are more of an option, and that really expands the narrative you can build. One of my favorite constructs there was a Politico who frequently weaponized Inspiring Rhetoric in combat.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I cannot operate in silence. Usually I have music of some kind going — instrumentals or maybe a thematic playlist. Nature documentaries also work. The soothing tones of David Attenborough are never intrusive enough to distract me, but can be excellent background noise. I work on a laptop, and while I have delightful fit-and-flare dresses for public appearances, when I’m at home, I am almost always in loose jeans and a black tank top. As for my approach to plotting, I definitely think of myself as a planter. I have seeds; I set them in the good soil of some solid world-building, tend them carefully, and see what comes of them. Quite often, they grow in unexpected directions. The whole method isn’t terribly efficient, I have to confess. I do a lot of rewriting, rearranging, and revising. But it’s how I feel my way through a story, and I love the discoveries it leads me to.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Jacqueline Carey and Kate Elliott have been huge influences on me. They both write on epic scales with such deft hands, balancing character-driven emotions with geopolitical concerns, and that’s the sort of thing I really aspire to. I also adore Catherynne Valente’s prose.
My enduring dream is to work within the Star Wars universe, which currently has so many amazing authors creating for it. I’m constantly in awe of the work they’re doing, and I’d give just about anything to be a part of that narrative.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I’m a little obsessed with Civilization VI at the moment. I’ve been playing since Civ II, eons ago. I got this version for the Switch last year and recently treated myself to the Frontier Package expansion. I have to be strict with myself, though: no playing until I’ve gotten my words for the day in!
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I sleep late and then spend most of the day reading and napping out on the beach. Or, if the world also gives me the ability to, like, teleport myself (and takes me to a world where there’s no global pandemic happening), then I go to Disney World and spend the day hitting my favorite rides, shows, parades, and princess meet-and-greets.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
My main focus right now is Book Three of the Aven Cycle. The series takes place in an alternate ancient Rome and features a large, diverse cast navigating a fractious political climate. Book Two, Give Way to Night, sees many characters far-flung and facing separate challenges; now I’ve got to bring them all back together to face the core objective, which is really a fight for the soul of their nation.
I’m also working on a new project that may or may not turn into anything real, but I’m enjoying it — a secondworld fantasy based on early modern theatrical culture. My Master’s degree and most of my professional work have been in Shakespearean studies, so this project is giving me a chance to take that knowledge and weave it into a fantasy setting.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was first revising From Unseen Fire, my agent told me to think about each scene in terms of having a “but then” moment instead of an “and then” moment — meaning, a moment of reversal or change, rather than just a sequence of stuff happening. That framing has been really useful to me in thinking about stakes and tension.
The least helpful writing advice is anything anyone tells you that you must do or you’re Not A Real Writer. Everyone’s process and journey look different — and sometimes they look different from project to project. Some writers write every day; some don’t. Some always write to a certain word count in a session; some don’t. Some outline; some don’t. What’s important is finding what works for you and the story you’re telling, not aligning yourself to some weird platonic ideal of What A Writer Does.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
If it’s not imperative that I do write, because of a deadline or such, then I give myself the kindness of some time off. The brain needs to refresh and recharge itself sometimes, and that’s okay! If it’s just one scene troubling me, I’ll bounce around and write a different segment that I’m feeling more in tune with at the moment — I am constitutionally incapable of writing in sequential order, so this is pretty much my normal process — but if just nothing is coming, then it’s time to close the laptop and go do something else. Read a book, take a walk, socialize, indulge in the springs that refill the creative well.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I would really love to visit early modern London in the 1590s. The theatrical world at that time must have been so exciting — new plays going up all the time, new language, so much chaos and uncertainty and excitement. I have so many questions about what it was really like in the playhouses and the neighborhoods around them. Plus I can speak the language, know the customs, and even have clothing that would help me fit in. There are things I’d love to see in ancient Rome, too, but I don’t think my Latin is up to scratch.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
Leia Organa has been #goals since I was eleven. Also Rogue of the X-Men. Those are probably the two who’ve stuck with me the most consistently throughout my life. Broadly, I love the Lady Rebel trope, and The Woman in the Queenly Mask, and Girls on Fire. I appreciate female characters whose strength is in their wits and their emotions, who use empathy and cleverness to work their way through situations.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I think Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales duology is just stunningly gorgeous work, but it’s not what most people know her for. The story is a Scheherazade-like tapestry of interweaving lives, full of inventive worlds and dazzling mythology, with scores of fascinating characters. I feel like it might finally be getting more attention because she’s been reading it aloud on her IG during the pandemic? But it’s long been one of the things I shout about and insist people read.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
My standard Aven Cycle pitch is “I gave the ancient Romans magic to see what they’d do with it, and it was wonderful and terrible things”, but for the purposes of this #WomeninSFF interview, I also want to key in on the female characters in this series. They are mages and mothers, warriors and prophets, political geniuses and fiercely devoted friends — and they are never defined by just one aspect of themselves. I love writing women who are multi-faceted, complex, and challenging, and then I set them together with friends and rivals alike to take on their common goals.
If that sounds exciting to you, From Unseen Fire is available now, and Give Way to Night releases on November 10th, 2020!