One of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading so far this year has been the epic fantasy adventure From Under the Mountain by Cait Spivey, released through Reuts Publications. The story is based in a mind-blowing, fantastic world meticulously built by Spivey as a young woman finds herself, after the death of her tyrannical royal family, at the head of an empire. The novel is sometimes reminiscent in the best possible way of Game of Thrones in its scope and intrigue. There is magic and intrigue and complex human relationships in a world where sexual orientation doesn’t raise eyebrows, but marrying out of social class most certainly does.
Maureen: Dressing is important to your characters, and your descriptions of their outfits are so beautifully and subtly done. I’m reminded of fairy tales I loved as a child where the fashion is an integral part of the story (i.e. Princess Donkey Skins). Can you tell me something about your interest in fabrics and design? What has been your inspiration for incorporating characters’ style in your story?
Cait Spivey: Thank you! I never learned to sew as a child, but costumes have always appealed to me because they’re another kind of storytelling. I think that clothing in stories goes a long way toward setting a specific mood, and provides important cues to characterization. For example, the scene in which Eva wears a dress designed to visually add to her height, even though she’s already a tall woman—that says something.
Maureen: The world you have built in this story is complex, terrifying, and beautiful allat once. What is your process in world-building? Do you keep separate documents outlining, for example, the political, magical, and geographical rules of the story?
Cait Spivey: Again, thank you. I originally came up with this world when I was doing play-by-post roleplaying in online forums. The way we structured those games included forums by location within a world, and there were reference documents for history, government structure, etc. So the different aspects did start out as separate documents. But when it comes to my fiction writing, the world building begins as a discovery process. I plot the story and make decisions about the world as it revolves around that narrative. Later on, I go back and ask more questions, branching out from that base. Sometimes that information gets on the page, sometimes it isn’t necessary and it goes in the appendix.
Maureen: What advice would you give new writers of fantasy regarding world-building? You do an expert job revealing details exactly when the reader needs them. What was your learning curve with this process?
Cait Spivey: The key thing is relevance. What is the focus of the scene, what’s happening, and what do we need to know to understand that? And then, there’s what kind of scene it is. An action scene, for example, should have the bare minimum of things we need to know to understand. A more reflective scene, on the other hand, has room to follow informative tangents. When revising info-heavy scenes, I recommend listing each action in one column and each bit of information in another. Connect the info to the actions, and then rank the pieces of information by their relevance and importance to the action. Usually, only one or two pieces per action are necessary.
Maureen: What were your favorite books growing up, and what are your favorites now? Have your favorite authors inspired your own work?
Cait Spivey:When I was a kid, I was all about Tolkien, Rowling, Tamora Pierce—all strong fantasies with ensemble casts. I was definitely inspired by those. These days, I still gravitate toward those kinds of stories, but especially the ones that employ that classic feel while moving forward. Some of my recent favorite authors are Robin Hobb (who I only discovered this year), Django Wexler, and N.K. Jemisin. Seriously incredible authors.
Maureen: Tell us about your life in writing. Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
Cait Spivey: Let’s just say I doubt anyone who has known me very long is surprised, haha. I don’t think writing coalesced as a real possibility in my mind until I was a teenager. I’d written my first novel and wanted to get it published. My mom had a friend who loaned me their copy of the Writer’s Market, an annual print publication with submission information for agents, publishers, and literary magazines. That was all too hard and boring for thirteen-year-old me, though. I abandoned the idea of writing professionally until 2012. I’d finished the manuscript that would become From Under the Mountain, and my best friend had gotten a job as an editor with a small press, and suddenly the publishing industry seemed a lot closer and more accessible than it ever had before.
Maureen: Name some up and coming authors you like that we should check out for ourselves. Who is writing compelling fiction out there that we need to know about?
Cait Spivey: I don’t know if they count as up-and-comers, but let’s see. I’ve loved William Ritter’s Jackaby books, and Jonathan Burgess’s Chasing the Lantern. Any of my REUTS pub siblings are worth a read, but especially Valentina Cano’s The Rose Master, Jessica Dall’s Off Book, and J.M. Frey’s The Untold Tale. And of course, Wexler and Jemisin from the earlier question. Jemisin’s books especially are the definition of compelling.
Maureen: I loved The Rose Master too! How do you balance work and the writing life, if you have an other job?
Cait Spivey: I’m lucky to only work part-time, in a bookstore no less, outside of my writing life, but the past few months especially have been very difficult on the balance front because of the marketing.
You may know that I organized a fashion show for my book launch, which required a lot of planning and outreach and which I found fun but exhausting, and it left me with little energy for writing. Honestly, everyone has a different process and different needs when it comes to this balance, but I think the universal necessity is a support system. Whether that means hiring a publicist, or simply having a partner or roommate handle the cooking for a few weeks, having people around you who understand your needs and will help you meet them is crucial. I wouldn’t be able to do any of my work without my husband, my family, and my friends.
Maureen: What are you working on now?
Cait Spivey: The sequel to From Under the Mountain! I also have a title or two on the back burner, waiting for revisions.
Maureen: Lastly, I would love to know what your favorite part of being author is.
Cait Spivey: The connection. Between me and my characters, between my characters and the readers. I’m reminded of Stephen King’s description of writing as a kind of telepathy. I often find interacting with people exhausting, but the shorthand of loving the same characters provides what feels like, to me, an instant and deep connection, and I value that so much, whether it’s fan photosets of Eowyn or someone resonating with Guerline.
Cait, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I can’t wait to read the next in the series!