Alumni Spotlight: Cass Morris ’03
Cass Morris (’03) is about to become Governor’s School’s next published novelist. From Unseen Fire will be released by DAW Books in April of this year. It’s the first in a trilogy, the rest of which Cass is working on now. The path from wanting to make a living as a writer to selling a novel has “long, winding, and with many fallen logs to jump over,” she says. So how did she do it?
Cass attended William & Mary after graduating from GSGIS. “I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I was still fuzzy on precisely how one made that happen, so I aimed myself for the English department,” she explains. “I spent most of my time there, in the history building, or in the student center rehearsing Shakespeare plays. The extracurricular group Shakespeare in the Dark formed most of my social circle at W&M, and some of those friends are among the people I’m still closest to more than a decade later. They’ve been my fiercest cheerleaders throughout the tumultuous publication process.”
A year after college graduation, Cass started pursuing a Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University (then College) in Staunton, VA. “At that point, I had only slightly more idea of how to make a living as a writer than I had upon starting college. So when I went to MBC for their Shakespeare program, I confess that I attended not really knowing what I was going to do with that degree once I had it. My backup plan if I hadn’t gotten into grad school was, no joke, moving to Orlando to be a Disney princess, so I was definitely not in possession of a solid five-year-plan,” she explains. The MLitt program turned out to be not just an excellent fit but a life-changing experience. “Looking at language through the lens of Shakespeare taught me so much about wordcraft and storycraft, and it turned my vague interest in rhetoric into a full-blown obsession.”
After receiving her master’s, Cass began working at the American Shakespeare Center. “I came on as the Academic Resources Manager, which basically meant I was in charge of words for the Education department,” she explains. “Most of my job was teacher training: I wrote over 20 teaching guides for Shakespeare’s plays, each 150-200+ pages long, and I facilitated four teaching seminars each year. I also helped to develop workshops and other programming for the department. Non-profit companies being what they are, over my seven years there, I wore many other hats as well, including editing the in-house magazine, designing rhetorical flashcards for the gift shop, assisting with the biennial Blackfriars Conference, assisting with leadership seminars, representing the ASC at conferences in three different countries, shepherding adult campers on overseas trips, moderating and redesigning the Education department blogs, moderating the departmental social media, and learning to edit audio tracks for our podcast.”
“That job was most satisfying when I was working with teachers and students directly,” she says. “It was there, under the guidance of the Director of Mission, Ralph Cohen, and the Director of Education, Sarah Enloe, that I discovered just how much I love teaching — and specifically, how much I enjoy helping others find the words and voice to shape their own narratives.” As a result, Cass has applied to creative writing MFA programs this year, in the hopes of eventually teaching writing at the college level.
How did From Unseen Fire come to exist? “It started off as my project for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or just Nano to the initiated) in 2011,” Cass explains. “I spent a year revising it, then close to ten months querying agents. I signed with Connor Goldsmith, whom I utterly adore, in October of 2013. We did more revisions and two rounds of submissions to publishing houses before signing with DAW Books in October 2015. And then… more revisions! A year into the process, just at the point where we should have been moving on to the next phase, my editor got poached by another publishing house, which sort of meant starting the editing process all over again with the editor who took me on. Those delays meant we had to change my publication date not once, not twice, but three times. It’s been quite an exercise in patience!”
Indeed, the “glacial pace of the publishing industry” has been the most trying part of the process. Attracting the marketing and publicity attention that the book needs to succeed has also been nerve-wracking. “So many books come out every year, even just within my genre, and there’s such a short amount of time where a new book is ‘relevant’ for promotion. No matter how much I do, it’s hard to feel like I’m not just shouting into the void. It’s tough knowing how much the book’s chances of success are totally out of my control.”
That said, there’s lots of good to go along with the challenges. “I am so excited to share the world of Aven with readers, because that’s always been what attracted me most about writing,” Cass says. “The chance to craft an alternate universe that other people would want to be a part of, like Middle Earth or Hogwarts or the galaxy of Star Wars. I love these characters and can’t wait for readers to meet them; I’ve loved designing the system of magic; I loved rewriting world history. It’s a special kind of nerdery, to geek out this much over your own book, but I really do just adore everything about this world. Seeing From Unseen Fire on shelves will be the fulfillment of a dream more than twenty years in the making. Anyone who knew me in high school knew back then that this is what I wanted to do, and it’s still a little hard to believe it’s actually happening.”
From Unseen Fire is a historical fantasy epic set in the city of Aven, an alternate version of ancient Rome where elemental magic holds power alongside politics and warfare. The heroine, Latona of the Vitelliae, is a phenomenally talented mage who has long suppressed her abilities — partly to avoid unwanted attention, and partly because she’s been taught to be scared of herself. In this book, she’s waking to her real potential and deciding that she wants to use it to protect not just her own family but the city that she loves. Her sisters are her allies in this — and anyone who’s loved the Misses Bennet, the Schuyler sisters, or the Crawley girls simply must meet the Vitelliae. Her path also intertwines with that of Sempronius Tarren, an ambitious politician with great dreams for Aven, but a dark secret that could be his undoing. From Unseen Fire will appeal to readers who have enjoyed the works of Patrick Rothfuss, Juliet Marillier, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jacqueline Carey, and Kate Elliott.
Other than the upcoming release of her book, which she admits is “really is sort of consuming my entire life at the moment,” she’s looking forward to going to Disney World at the end of April “to slough off all the stress from the book release!” She’ll be there with friends for “Dapper Days”, an unofficial park event where guests dress up in retro frippery. “I’m going all in and staying at a Disney hotel, taking a couple of extra days to hit all the parks!” We wish Cass much success and look forward to From Unseen Fire’s book birthday this spring!
Find Cass online:
Twitter: @CassRMorris twitter.com/CassRMorris