Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Interview with Leah Cypess, author of DEATH SWORN!

Here at the Inkpot we have been huge fans of Leah Cypess since practically the beginning of time--which in this case means 2010, of course, when MISTWOOD came out. MISTWOOD and its companion novel, NIGHTSPELL, enthralled us with their complex worlds, gorgeous images, and tense plotting, so naturally, when we heard that DEATHSWORN's heroine was going to find herself losing her magic while living with assassins underground, our collective hearts went pitterskip-pat. And today she's visiting us in virtual person!

Anne Nesbet (on behalf of the Inkpot): Leah, thank you so much for coming by to talk about DEATH SWORN! I loved the way you lead us deep into a world of caverns and passages and secrets. Come to think of it, every fictional world you've ever created has astonishing depth to it--layers upon layers of mystery, secrets, and political intrigue.

But let's start with the official description of DEATH SWORN:

"Ileni is losing her magic. And that means she's losing everything: Her status as the renegade sorcerers' most powerful rising star. Her purpose in life. The boy she loves. Her home. Exiled to teach sorcery to the assassins hidden deep within the mountains, she expects no one will ever hear from her again. The last two tutors died within weeks of each other. As Ileni unravels the mystery surrounding their deaths, she'll uncover secrets that have been kept for decades--and she'll find an unexpected ally and dangerous new love. But even he may not be able to protect her. Not when she's willing to risk everything."

Let the questions begin!

AN: As Ileni takes the steps into (what she is sure will be) a world dominated by darkness, loneliness, and death, we feel her courage, but we don't understand her world right off the bat. Of course, neither does she, in certain key respects! But like Ileni, we understand more and more as the story continues, and we always have the feeling we are seeing the tip of a very deep iceberg. So how do you manage backstory, Leah? Do you think through the history and politics of your worlds before you start writing a book, or does the context settle into existence gradually as you write?

Leah Cypess: First of all, thank you! I'm blushing and also grinning. :) When it comes to world-building, I am definitely in the latter camp - the context settles into existence as I write. My first drafts, to be honest, often take place in a world that makes no sense. I have to go back and fill the first part of the book with everything I figured out while writing the whole thing.

AN: Ah, that's interesting. So your worlds grow almost the way stalactites grow, with the help of that magical drip-drip-drip of Cypessian limestone..... And since we've already gotten to the subject of caves: when I was a child my family visited one of the largest caves in France, the Gouffre de Padirac--I had never been in such a magical place, with stalactites and stalagmites and paths and even boats rowing about from cavern to cavern. Have you always liked caves? Are you not at all claustrophobic? What's the best cave you've ever been in?  

LC: It was a real treat for me to write a book set in a system of caves -- I've always been a fan of caves (in a strictly amateur sense -- I've gone on guided caving expeditions, but nothing requiring actual skill), and of claustrophic murder mysteries where the rest of the world is shut out. The Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs is one of my favorite caves, in part because it was the first cave where I went with a guide into the non-altered parts of the caves, with hard hats and everything... a lot of that experience went directly from my travel notebook into the first draft of DEATH SWORN! There is also a cave in northern Israel called the Avshalom Cave that has the densest concentration of stalactites and stalagmites I've ever seen, and is definitely one of the most beautiful caves I've been in.

AN: The cavern world you describe in DEATH SWORN is populated by assassins--a very male world, into which Ileni comes as an outsider. You do such a great job of keeping the edge, the sense of danger, sharp, even as Ileni gradually grows somewhat more used to her new world. There are some extraordinary scenes that show us just how dangerous a place this is, and just how ruthless these assassins, so that the tension doesn't let up. The moral questions here about what is worth killing for--and even what is worth killing an innocent person for--are very unsettling. How do you feel about ends and means? Do you think good ends justify awful means, sometimes? What percentage of you, as a writer, is "assassin" and what percentage "sorceress"?

LC: Regarding the philosophical questions, while I do of course have opinions, I try to follow a piece of advice I read in a writing book once (unfortunately, I can't remember the book): that a writer's job is to ask questions, not provide answers. I also try to recognize that the answers I've personally come to might not be the answers my main character, who is a different person in a different world, will come to. So I honestly try NOT to think about my own opinions when I'm writing a book that deals with such questions! Obviously, my own mindset and worldview filter in, but certainly not in any systematic or directed way.

AN: How was the writing of this book a different experience for you than the writing of MISTWOOD and/or NIGHTSPELL?

LC: DEATH SWORN is the first book I ever wrote with the knowledge that, when I was done, there was a very good chance it would get accepted for publication. I finished the first draft of NIGHTSPELL before I sold MISTWOOD -- and MISTWOOD was the fifth manuscript I had ever submitted for publication -- so I always wrote with an underlying sense that I was going to send these books out to every editor on earth and get lots of encouraging rejection letters and then move on to the next manuscript. Of course, I always hoped I would get published -- and I almost always believed I would, eventually -- but it wasn't as real to me as with DEATH SWORN, where I not only had an agent, but I had already run the basic idea of the story by my editor. None of that guarantees anything, of course, but I still had a very real sense that DEATH SWORN might end up as a real book.

AN: Your book's cover is a gorgeous mystery. It's so beautiful, but how are we to understand it? Is the tower meant to represent the column that plays such a symbolic role in the assassins' lives? Or is it about cliffs and heights and verticality (so important in this story)?

LC: I asked my editor that same question! I think the tower is more symbolic than literal, and I think of it as representing the master's perch (though in the book, that's at the edge of the mountain, not a free-standing tower -- a free-standing tower certainly looks better on a cover!) I know the art director read the book and tried hard to capture its feel in the cover -- she told me she drew upon Lascaux Caves, which she had visited as a child, for inspiration. I think she did an unbelievably amazing job.

AN: Here's a very silly question for you: when you were writing the bit about Ileni showing up at the caverns, her magic on the wane, as sorcerer number three after the apparent murders of the first two, did you ever find yourself secretly muttering, "twelfth in a long line of governesses...."?

LC: I did NOT! Though it's an apt line. Thanks, now I won't be able to get it out of my head. ;)

AN (now really getting carried away with the silliness): Because it is intriguing, isn't it, how many times young women have to step in to educate large groups of misbehaving/dangerous young people: Ileni faces her assassins; Maria faces the Von Trapp children; Wendy must deal with the Lost Boys [who also live underground!]. And in all those cases, there's a more or less ruthless male figure who thinks he really runs things, but we are not sure . . . . )

LC (being oh so very patient with AN's meandering mind): Hmmm, I hadn't thought of the Lost Boys either! The idea for this book actually came to me while reading THE ELENIUM by David Eddings, in which one of the characters is a sorceress who serves as magic tutor to a society of knights. In that book, the knights are misbehaving rogueish heroes, but not really dangerous -- at least, not to the sorceress. Once I was developing the idea on my own, I naturally thought it would be better if they were actually dangerous.

AN, back on track: Oh, the romance in this story! It makes us ask the question (which now I'll bounce over to you), "Can love work, do you think, between two people whose loyalties lie in very different directions?" You make us want it to work, that's for sure.

LC: That's another of those absolute questions that I try not to think about when I'm writing a book! The question for me is, Can THIS love, between these two people, work? Or, more specifically, will it? I answer that in the sequel so I'll have to plead the fifth for now. ;)

AN: That's an excellent writing tip, really: to be thinking always of "THIS love" and not of some generic idea of what a romance should be like! Let me ask an Ileni question: she has to show enormous courage at many points in this story. Of all the brave things she has to do, which one do you think would be hardest for you personally?

LC: All of them! I'm not nearly as brave as Ileni. But I'm particularly afraid of heights -- I have a hard time walking over high bridges -- so the sequence in the end of the book (*hums mysteriously*) would probably have been the most difficult for me.

AN: Oh, good grief, me too. (*shudders all over again*) The description of Ileni's secret wound--how it feels to have once been the most talented sorceress around and now to be losing her powers--is very evocative. When you were the age of the teens reading your books now, would you have understood that sense of loss? What do you remember feeling yourself growing out of, when you were in middle school or high school?

LC: I think I would have, yes, and I hope teens will as well. I think it's pretty universal that most of us have dreams of various destinies awaiting us and we have to give some of them up -- not necessarily tragically, just because as part of life, you cannot be an Olympic gymnast AND an illustrator AND a fashion designer AND an author AND cure cancer AND discover the secret language of dolphins AND become an expert horse-trainer AND discover that you are secretly a princess in an alternate reality (just speaking about my personal childhood life goals, here).

For me, I think the thing that changed the most as I grew up was my own estimation of my abilities. In elementary school, I thought I was the smartest kid in the class -- whether or not that was true is impossible to say, since I was so confident I didn't feel the need to prove myself by studying or getting great grades (much to my parents' delight) -- but when I started high school with a whole new set of fairly advanced students, it was certainly not true, and I had to adjust to that.

AN: You know, Leah, I actually think you're probably still one of the smartest kids in the class. Seriously! Your books totally give you away--they are multi-talented, kind of like your childhood self. Tell me, when you were revising this book, what changed most?

LC: The first draft had this whole OTHER subplot involving a contest between the students that, after a few revisions, my editor gently pointed out served no point in the story. She was right. Thank goodness for editors.

AN: What's the name of the next book, and will we be getting a closer look at the Empire and the home of the Renegai?

LC: "What's the name of the next book....." Hahahaha. We are working on it. Extensively. Trust me. (I think we may have it, actually, but I'm not going to announce it until I have confirmation that it's final!)

AN: So you have to promise to come back and tell us, just as soon as you know for sure!!

LC: I totally promise to come tell you immediately!!*

(*The Inkpot Legal Team insists that I, AN, point out that I just 100% made up this line and attributed it to "Leah Cypess". I explained to the ILT that we're all writers here, right? A little fictionalized non-fiction is fine between friends, right? Leah herself will forgive me, right? I REALLY WANT TO KNOW THE TITLE AND WILL STOP AT NOTHING TO MAKE LEAH TELL US SOONEST, right? But everything else Leah says in this interview, she really did say herself.--AN)

LC: . . . .As for the second part of the question [about the sequel] - now you're asking me for spoilers! You will definitely be getting a closer look at the Empire. That is all I will say. Even if you torture me. Unless you offer me chocolate.

AN: Now, as another person whose name is always always always misspelled, let me ask, sympathetically, how "Cypess" is actually pronounced and whether you're having any more success, these days, in keeping people from always popping an "r" in there because they love trees so much.

LC: It's pronounced like "cypress," but without the "r." And no, I have no success in keeping the "r" out. I'm mildly grateful that it's never actually appeared on the cover of any of my books! But trust me, it has appeared everywhere else.

AN: And, finally, a food question! Chocolate plays a fairly significant role in this book, as something even assassins are willing to bend the rules to acquire. What kind of chocolate do you personally prefer--milk, dark, or something more specific than that? Most particularly, what kind of cookies will you be serving at your launch party on Sunday, March 9, from 2-4 p.m. at The Children's Bookshop in Brookline, Massachusetts?

LC: *deep breath* My favorite type of chocolate is... white chocolate. I know! I know! It's not even REAL CHOCOLATE. So I've been told. What can I say? The heart wants what it wants. Although when it comes to chocolate combinations, I'm really fond of Godiva truffles (almost any kind) and of milk chocolate peanut butter cups.

As for cookies, we (i.e. me and my kids) have plans! We have cookie-cutters shaped like books and swords. We also have some great recipes and a stash of chocolate chips from Trader Joes. Everyone should come eat cookies even if they have no interest in books at all.

AN: Sounds great! Every New England Inkie should commit to Brookline this weekend. Leah, thank you for writing this haunting story, and I can't wait to read your next installment....

LC: Thank you so much for the interview and for asking such interesting questions! 

(Another Inkpot note: Thanks to the wonders of technology, this interview looks like it was posted by Ellen Booraem. But it's an Anne Nesbet production through and through.)


  1. I read DEATHSWORN and loved every page! Magic, intrigue, danger, romance - what more is there to say? Hurry up and finish the sequel, Leah! And I can't wait to eat chocolate and cookies at the launch party on Sunday! Thanks for the very entertaining interview Anne and Leah!

  2. Great interview. The books sound fantastic. I'll have to pick up Mistwood.

    Thanks for this interview!

  3. The interviewer's attentiveness to topography works really well here.

  4. I absolutely loved Death Sworn. I can’t rave enough about how fast I read this, or how unique the writing style was. The beginning hooks you in, the middle never gets boring, and the end is explosive and exciting. Definitely add this to your to read list on Goodreads, you will not regret it! Thank you for this masterpiece, Leah Cypress!

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