Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Magic, Myth, and Mystery: World Building with Cynthia DeKett

It’s an enchanting, fantastical world Cynthia DeKett has created for her Three Sisters Trilogy – a magical environment full of physical dangers as well as treachery and betrayal. But what a courageous trio the author empowers to save it from the Reign of Shadow.
     Emrysia, a shifting landscape of fairies, mermaids, and fauens, brings to mind the richly imagined worlds of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  The first volume, Awakening, introduces all three sisters while focusing on the “luminarie” named Aryelle; Lament, the newly-released second volume, explores the land of the Mer and its princess, Lureli.  The final installment, in which Eleanor takes center stage, is well underway.
     Writing as C. A. Morgan, author DeKett, a mother of five with a background in commercial art and a profound love of literature, brings a perceptive eye and keen ear to her work.  And while she calls herself an “armchair theorist” -- someone, she says, “who thinks about things and has a lot to say, but who doesn’t really DO much” – she clearly sits still very little.  The Michigan native, who has made her home in the Northeast Kingdom for over twenty-five years, pursues all manner of creative and entrepreneurial avenues while reveling in a homesteading lifestyle. Yet in all she does, her motto is simple: to help others and make the world a better place.
     In her visionary trilogy, DeKett has set her charges upon a frightening path, one colored by more than a touch of Grimm. Luckily, the young heroines embody the author’s heart and “can do” spirit.  Even their names speak to their strengths and to the meaningful detail imbued at every turn. If anyone can rescue Emyrsia from the darkness, these three sisters, under DeKett’s ingenious direction, surely can.

You’ve just published Lament, the second volume of the “Three Sisters Trilogy.” Tell us about Emrysia and the characters you’ve created.  

Emrysia is an uncharted continent in the Chimera Sea, peopled with mythical races and a yet to be revealed connection to our world. When against her father’s wishes, a winged luminarie named Aryelle empathetically heals a wounded messenger, she awakens an age old prophesy, and must embark on a quest to save her world from the Kra’nochta Empa’ana, or Reign of Shadow. Her first encounter with the other inhabitants of Emrysia is almost her last!

There’s something fishy about Lureli of the Mer, who’s been keeping secrets even from herself. When fierce little Eleanor, a fauen of the Aurrac clanherds joins them, the situation goes from desperate to deadly. Their journey becomes a race against time and memories in the second book, Lament, and the focus shifts from Aryelle to Lureli, though the story weaves in and out of the lives of all three main characters, or “sisters” in every volume.

With this series, I wanted to create characters that were at the same time fantastic and relatable. These three could be teen-aged girls anywhere struggling with how to fit in, figuring out just who they are, and learning to play the hand that life has dealt them. But they happen to live in a world steeped in magic, myth and mystery. Each possesses traits both positive and negative, and - no surprise!- achingly familiar.

Some of my favorite characters to write though, play only minor roles, like the Omnicients - three cannibalistic hags who speak only in verse, loosely based on Shakespeare’s stygian trio. Oh, and Althea, Eleanor’s mother, who wears her heart on her sleeve (though she sports a halter) and has a distinct mountain twang.

Cannibalistic hags and a mountain fauen in a halter?

The Omnicients, keepers of the “Dire flora,” are a nod to two of my favorite writers, William Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss. The Swamps of Dire, their home, is a creepy, sentient bog which takes our young trio hostage at their bidding. The Omnicients are just as they sound; “Never changing. Ever growing. With wisdom ranging and knowledge knowing”… and an insatiable appetite for fresh and tender meat!  

Althea, an Aurrac fauen, is the bountiful common-law wife of Nodd as well as Eleanor’s mother. She personally nursed to health all of the cast-off offspring of the Upper Village who have been floated down Mt. Cor with each spring melt. She’s sassy and sentimental, and boss of the cook-fire. You’ll never leave her kitchen hungry  - for food or conversation.

 How did the books come into being?

The books percolated for a long, long time. They began with letting my mind wander while creating a pencil drawing of Aryelle about thirty years ago. Drawing is, for me, a very contemplative activity. As I sketched and shaded, I imagined a world where she would be at home, and adventures she might have. Four or five years later, after moving east, I drew Lureli, and immediately knew they were connected. It took another ten years to complete the trio with Eleanor. But all that time their story was brewing.

The year my fourth child (who was then my youngest) started Pre-K, I finally began to assemble it into something coherent. I still have little scraps of paper and napkins full of notes. Before I began writing in earnest, I developed a five generation genealogy, and a language based on the meanings of the luminarie ancestors’ names.  Originally, the plot centered more around Aryelle’s parents’ relationship, but just like real life, once the kids showed up, their story took center stage. It took me about a year to write the initial manuscript. I sent copies to friends and relatives- a few of them industry professionals – and got feedback. Then came editing, and looking for a publisher. What a bear that is! I soon realized an agent was necessary to get my work past a slush pile, but they were almost as hard to come by.

Finally, I reached out to Reeve Lindbergh, who has always been very gracious and supportive. She taught me the importance of connectivity. I acquired an agent, but long story short, life (and death) got in the way, and no publishing contract came of it. However, the marketplace was changing: rather than start back at square one, I decided to self publish. And now, here I am with two books under my belt and a third in progress. They will form the backbone of the series, but I hope to do a prequel and sequel to round it out, and weave in a little background material that was edited out. And who knows, maybe I’ll do a spin off in another direction with one of the minor characters. But… there are a lot of other stories I want to write too.

How has self-publishing worked for you?

There are pros and cons. Having my druthers, I would have gotten a nice, fat advance and publishing contract. I’m not a fan of the “who do you know” game, and would rather not have to sell myself at every opportunity. I would gladly give up a little revenue for being able to focus more on writing. That said, having more control really appealed to me, especially since I knew how I wanted my series to look.

I worked with local publishers, and with this second book greatly appreciated the dedicated professionalism of Neil Raphel and Janis Raye of Brigantine Media. Their new division for self-publishers, Your New Book, made the process of getting my manuscript to print fairly painless. If only there was a similar magic bullet for marketing, I’d be all set! For any would-be authors out there, forming a marketing strategy ahead of time is a really good idea. Writing is the fun part; it takes a lot of hard work to make a go of it.

You’re from the Midwest. How did you find your way to the Northeast Kingdom?

That’s a great story! I’m from Michigan originally, and came out here for a painting workshop in 1989. I was kind of at a crossroads, looking for a change, and had to choose between a watercolor class in Arlington, VT and an oils class in Mexico City. Vermont won out with the added appeal of a certain young man who had sung a duet with me in our local community chorus before he moved out here. (He had also unexpectedly kissed me on stage in front of a large audience, and I’d never forgotten it!) I dug up his number, and arranged to visit. I flew into Burlington and drove a rental car over, taking Route 2 the entire way, enchanted by the mountains and all these little towns hugging the road. It was so picturesque! I spent a day hiking with Roger, who is a Soil Scientist with the USDA, then attended my workshop, but ended up leaving it early to spend more time with him.

A month after flying back to Michigan, I quit my job, loaded up my little hatchback, and never looked back. Roger and I have been married for twenty-two years and counting. We live on a quiet hillside, raising much of our own food and our five children in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’re still singing together, leading music at St. Elizabeth’s in Lyndonville. I also sing with the hospice choir, Continua, and even stepped back on stage a few years ago with the St. Johnsbury Players in Jesus Christ, Superstar. Rog and I work hard, and have great friends here. Life is good.

You mention raising much of your own food.

Last year we had a smaller garden and no livestock because I just didn’t have the energy for it. But we usually raise veggies to spare, and either chickens or pigs. We glean what we can from the land – berries and such, and of course, maple syrup. I cook and bake mostly from scratch, and can or freeze food for winter. My husband is a hard worker too, and the kids help. We’d like to keep bees, but haven’t gone that far yet – there’s only so much we can manage at a time. I still spend way more than I’d like to at the grocery store, but… gotta keep those local businesses afloat too, right?

Tell us about your artwork.

My background is in Commercial Art, but I always wanted to be a writer/illustrator. When I first came to Vermont, I worked part-time for Stephen Huneck as a painter and finisher. I also helped start a co-operative gallery in East Burke, but we weren’t very organized, so that didn’t last. My forte is pencil drawing, though I work in a variety of mediums including pen & ink, watercolor and acrylics, woodcarving (Stephen taught me his technique), paper and clay. I don’t do oils much; I’m pretty sensitive to the fumes. My favorite art projects in recent years have been “illuminating” antique wood furniture using mixed media. I’ve created several pieces for charity - even though I’m fan of making money using my talents, art is very personal, and I do my best work when it’s for something or someone I care about.

Do you feel your singing and artwork influence your writing? 

Most creative people I know are creative in a variety of ways. There is something about the sheer act of bringing things into being, whether art or music or even a loaf of warm, crusty bread, that satisfies like nothing else. I’m never truly happy unless I’m creating in some form or fashion, and would hate to have to choose only one means of expressing myself --- it would be like having to choose a favorite child! Also, I believe we all have talents for duel reasons; to make ourselves happy and to share with those who need or appreciate them. Using them is like flexing a muscle, so yes, they definitely feed into one another.

As I mentioned, my drawings led to stories about the sisters’ adventures. Since writing about them, I’ve done sketches of some of the other characters. Singing ties in more loosely, but I do include a lot of poetry, and Lureli sings a lullaby in Lament. (Can’t have a siren who never sings!) I actually came up with a melody for it, and have shared a recording of it with some of my readers as an extra incentive. My youngest often asks to listen to it when I’m tucking her in at night. Singing, understanding rhythm and flow, definitely makes me a better writer. So does appreciating the beauty all around me. It makes me more detail oriented.

When can readers expect the final volume?

I’m hoping in time for Christmas this year, barring any unforeseen difficulties --- though life is stranger than fiction, as they say.

To find about more about Cynthia DeKett, aka C.A. Morgan, and her work, check out her website.

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