Sunday, December 27, 2020

Cass Morris

Cass Morris works as an educator in central Virginia and as a bookseller on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She holds a Master of Letters from Mary Baldwin University and 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.

Morris's new novel is Give Way to Night.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Give Way to Night is definitely more atmospheric than directly descriptive. As this is the second book in the Aven Cycle, things are getting darker and more dire for Our Heroes. It’s a creeping threat, though, not something sudden: the darkness bleeds into the world from the edges, like afternoon falling into twilight falling into night.

The phrase comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The quote I adapted it from doesn’t really relate to anything in the book, although it does set a mood that I find appropriate: “It would take too long to tell what wickedness I found everywhere, for rumors were less than truth. I had crossed Maenala, those mountains bristling with wild beasts’ lairs, steep Cyllene, and the pinewoods of icy Lycaeus. Then, as the last shadows gave way to night, I entered the inhospitable house of the Arcadian king.”

What's in a name?

Most of the names in Give Way to Night are taken out of history in some way or another. It can be a lot to wrangle! Naming conventions in the Latin language are tricky, particularly since people tended to be known by their family names, fathers tended to pass on their first names and even nicknames to sons, and daughters were invariably called the feminine version of their father’s name. I’ve chosen to lean heavily into nicknames to reduce confusion: the three daughters of Aulus Vitellius are known as Aula, Latona, and Alhena, though their given names are Aula Prima, Aula Secunda, and Aula Tertia.

The name with the biggest story behind it is that of the city itself: Aven. We know the place as Rome, named for its founder Romulus. So why is my alternate version called Aven? It’s named for the Aventine Hill, which in my alternate reality was the location of the city’s original founding. As the myth goes in our world, Romulus wanted to found a city on the Palatine Hill, while his twin brother Remus favored the Aventine. The brothers quarreled, and eventually Romulus killed Remus over the dispute. Things fell out differently in my world, where Remus, a mage granted a vision from the gods, wins that particular argument. Rather than falling to fratricide, the brothers divide their responsibilities: Romulus the military man and statesman; Remus the mage and priest. But the city and the nation take their name from that first place of founding, on the southernmost hill.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Very little. She was taking Latin at the time, after all, so it would seem perfectly natural to her that we’d write a book set in a fantastical version of ancient Rome! The magical system, too, would seem natural to her: it’s one I’ve been developing since I was her, although it’s had a lot of shifts and permutations since then. She’d recognize the seeds she’s planted, though, in the garden that eventually bloomed.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find the middle harder than either, but I think my endings tend to change a bit more than my beginnings on the whole, and that was certainly true for Give Way to Night. An earlier pass on this novel ended in a completely different place, but the opening scene stayed essentially the same from first draft to last.

A major conflict in Give Way to Night involves a banished cult, devoted to the goddess Discordia, returning to the city of Aven and beginning a campaign of chaos and torment. They begin their efforts, however, in the countryside -- testing out their curses and attacks on a smaller population before bringing them to the main stage, as it were -- and my first pass of this story lingered there much, much longer. Too long. Not enough happened for the characters involved with that plotline, so in revision, I tightened up the suspense and got to the action faster. The incident that originally ended the book now takes place about two-thirds of the way through: a discovery that Latona makes about her own magic and what she might be capable of. It’s a change I’m very happy with; tightening her arc not only improved the pacing of the whole book, but it allows that discovery to propel her through the third act.

And where Give Way to Night ends now? Oh dear. Early readers have been quite upset with me for the predicament I’ve left a major character in. It’s worth noting that one of my favorite movies is The Empire Strikes Back, but to say more would give too much away.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Latona is so, so very much me. An aspect of me, at least, a facet. I always knew that to a certain degree, but it wasn’t clear to me until late in the process of writing the first book in the Aven Cycle that I was, through her, writing my way through some of my own past trauma. Latona’s major character arc involves finding the courage to take up the space in the world that she deserves, even though people around her have encouraged her to make herself small. Not to make trouble. Not to make a spectacle of herself. Not to shine too brightly. Not to be ambitious. Breaking free of restrictions, both those imposed on her from the outside and those she internalized, is a hard process. She has to recover a lot of faith in herself and pluck up a lot of courage. Her story isn’t a direct analog for my own life, to be sure, but Latona and I resonate on the same frequency.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The thing which inspired the Aven Cycle was a piece of artwork: Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s “Baths of Caracalla.” It’s a neoclassical painting of Roman baths. It’s lush and gorgeous, and there are all sorts of naked people frolicking in the background, but in the foreground are three well-dressed women on a bench. One is leaning in, clearly about to impart some delicious gossip; one is reclining, looking a bit skeptical, waiting to be convinced; one is hesitant, scandalized but intrigued at the same time. That’s where the Vitelliae, the trio of sisters at the heart of this story, sprang into life.
Visit Cass Morris's website.

My Book, The Movie: Give Way to Night.

--Marshal Zeringue