What drove you to write your first book?
I have to go back in time here, because From Unseen Fire is not the first book I’ve written — just the first one I’ve finished, queried, subbed, and gotten published. The first book I wrote was back in the 8th grade, not too long after deciding I wanted to be a novelist. We had an assignment in my English class to produce 50 pages of material over the course of the year. I don’t remember the other stipulations — if it could be fiction, non-fiction, journaling, whatever. I think it just had to be something we wrote that wasn’t for any other assignment. I ended up with 200 pages of a cyber-space-thriller. My teacher was somewhere between impressed and bemused, and probably somewhat annoyed at having to read and grade such overachievement. This was fairly soon after I’d decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and clearly, I went at it with gusto right from the start!
What drove me to write From Unseen Fire, though, was different. I started it in 2011, at a time when I had produced almost no creative writing in three years. Not even drabbles or fanfiction, which had sustained me for so many years. During grad school and my first year with an adult job, my creative output had dropped almost to nil. I was writing so much academically and then for the job that writing fiction just seemed impossible. But I still wanted to be a novelist! Or so I told myself, but I couldn’t keep saying that if I didn’t, y’know, write. From Unseen Fire came out of that year’s NaNoWriMo, a way of getting myself back on the horse.
What is FROM UNSEEN FIRE about?
Short version: I gave the ancient Romans magic to see what they’d do with it.
Longer version: In the city of Aven, based on late-Republic Rome but shaped by elemental magic as much as by law and war, a Dictator has died and left a power vacuum. His death frees the mage Latona to discover the true extent of her powers — but in doing so, she also realizes how massively dissatisfied she is with the quiet, ornamental life of a highborn matron. A lot of the story is about her breaking free the restrictions society has convinced her to place on herself and discovering how she can make a difference in her beloved city. She has allies in her two sisters: Aula, a widow whose flighty and frivolous nature conceals acute political cunning, and Alhena, a young prophetess coming of age in a tumultuous and dangerous world. Her brother Gaius, meanwhile, is off with the legions, trying to quell a rebellion led by a man wielding dark blood magic. Latona’s path intersects with that of Sempronius Tarren, an ambitious senator who believes he can lead Aven to a grand destiny as the center of a vast network of nations — but only if he can keep secret his own magical talents, which would, under Aventan law, disqualify him from holding high office, and if he can defeat his narrow-minded and vicious political opponents. Together, Latona and Sempronius are going to try to shape their world into something grander than it has ever been.
It’s a part of the Aven Cycle. Does that follow a single character, or several?
Several. Many, really; it’s not quite a cast of thousands, but that’s mostly due to sensible curbing by my agent and editors. Left to my own devices, I’d probably put George R R Martin to shame. There are multiple viewpoints in various locations, though. The primary focus is on the Vitelliae and the Semproniae, two patrician families, and within those, the two I consider the main characters are Latona and Sempronius. The other viewpoints either orbit around or stand in opposition to theirs.
What writing most energizes you? What most exhausts you?
I love big emotional scenes between characters. Loving and fighting — that’s my juice. I love those moments when the soul gets flayed open and bleeds onto the page. And I love writing about the mechanics of magic and how they feel inside the body of the mage. That, to me, is the real thaumaturgy.
I’m exhausted by military matters. All those maneuvers and counter-strikes and tactics just take me forever to hack my way through. I find it helps to narrow my focus, and really hone in on the individual experience, rather than the grand scope of military strategy.
What part of you do you feel leaked into your books?
There is a lot of me in Latona. My emotional damage, really, but a lot of my fighting spirit as well. Latona has been told, her entire life, that her emotions are dangerous and inappropriate, that she shouldn’t make a spectacle of herself or attract too much attention, and that wanting to claim her own power and live boldly is wrong. She’s also been through some traumatic experiences and has to find her way back to a positive life after them. My experiences haven’t been as dire as hers, thank heavens, but I’ve had an abusive partner, I’ve been gaslit, I’ve dealt with coercive behavior. I know what all of that does to your mind and your emotions, and 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 there’s a lot of me in Latona’s headspace, how she talks to herself, and how she finally hits her breaking point.
What made you want to write alternative Roman history?
I knew I wanted to write a fantasy world that was outside the medieval European mold, and because I have something of a background in classics, Rome was a natural fit. Plus you get great advantages like sanitation and healthcare! The polytheistic world gave me a lot to work with in terms of the magical system, and the politics of ancient Rome are sort of gorgeously bonkers, but they also echo a lot of modern concerns. It’s been a really fun exploration for me.
Is there a magical or fantastic element we can expect in FROM UNSEEN FIRE?
Oh yes. The Aventans practice divinely inspired elemental magic. Their pantheon of gods (Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Venus, etc) blesses certain individuals with the power over one or two of nine elements — Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Spirit, Light, Time, Shadow, and Fracture. Different elements bestow different talents, and their use is deeply woven into the economy, law, and society. Over the course of the series, the Aventans also encounter the magics of other cultures, which have different sources and manifestations.
Does your family support your writing and the subject matter?
Absolutely and unreservedly. I mean, they’ve always thought I am, in their words, “a very strange child” because of my lifelong fixation on fantasy and science fiction, but there’s never been a moment when they haven’t supported my dream of writing for a living.
How has your day job affected your story and how you tell it?
I’m an educator by trade, and the biggest effect that has on my writing is the amount of time and energy I have to devote to it. Even when you’re working an ostensible nine-to-five, in the world of education, the hours bleed all over the place. Evenings, weekends, early mornings — it’s abnormal. Sometimes it means there literally are not hours to focus on writing, but more often, it just leaves me too exhausted. But, it’s also taught me a lot about communication. I have a degree in Shakespeare and spent seven years working for a Shakespeare theatre, and so much of what I did there was studying rhetoric.
Best money ever spent as a writer?
Oh, this is a tough call. It’s between my Autonomous writing desk, an electronic sit-stand desk that has become absolutely indispensable to me, and the money I’ve spent going to conventions. I love cons. I’d go to one a month if I could. I am that strange thing, an extroverted writer, so I get such an emotional high off of seeing people, having great conversations, getting to dress up and dance — those events are so special to me, and worth the investment.
If you could tell your teen self one thing, what would it be?
It is going to hurt, and it’s going to take a lot longer than you think right now. You will take body blow after body blow. You will cry, a lot. Other things in your life will try to break you, too. Toxic relationships will drain you dry and leave you feeling like you have nothing to contribute to the world. But the important thing is: you are strong enough to get through it. You have a well of endurance inside you that can never be tapped out. You have a spark that cannot be extinguished. Remember that in the darkest hours.
Apart from writing, what are other activities you’re passionate about?
Reading, of course! So many books, so little time. I also really love traveling, whether it’s big trips like to cons or traveling to New York to see Broadway shows or just taking little day trips around Virginia. One of my favorite things to do is visit Virginia’s many vineyards, cideries, and meaderies. They’re always in such beautiful locations!
Your favorite, under appreciated novel?
I feel like I have such a wretchedly inadequate idea of what other people do or don’t appreciate, but… There’s this series called the Heirs of Alexandria that’s co-written by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and David Freer, and they’re really wonderful historical fantasy, particularly if you like immense, well-developed worlds with lots characters whose stories interlock and interweave. I often tend to have a strange affinity for things by famous authors that aren’t their most famous titles. My favorite thing by Neil Gaiman is probably his “Smoke and Mirrors” short story collection. I like N K Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology more than the Broken Earth trilogy, and my favorite thing by Catherynne Valente is the Orphan’s Tales duology. I’m not sure if this makes me contrary or just means my sensibilities are a little off-beat.
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