Carol Berg writes epic, mythic, and adventure fantasy novels under her own name and her pseudonym, Cate Glass. Her 17 published works have won national and international awards, including four Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Carol is a regular presenter/panelist at writers conferences and fantasy/sf conventions and is a two-time Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Writer of the Year. She is a former software engineer who majored in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado to avoid writing papers. She lives in Colorado in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
The following is an interview with Carol Berg, writing as Cate Glass.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
After producing 15 epic fantasy novels comprising five different series in the span of 17 years, I took a little time off. I spent a few months playing around with some short fiction, looking for what I wanted to work on next. During that time my exceptional spouse and I binge-watched a number of wonderful “caper” adventure series, like “Burn Notice,” “White Collar” and “Leverage.”
We also watched a recent “Mission Impossible” movie, and started comparing it to the original TV series that was more like the caper adventures – an ensemble of interesting people who accomplished off-the-books missions that other spies couldn’t do. All of these ensembles involved a few people with very specific talents.
That was the trigger to the fantasy author’s magical question” What if…? What if the very specific talents were magical…maybe in a world where sorcery was rare…oohh, perhaps forbidden? What if there were truly impossible missions that someone of importance believed needed doing, and they believed worthy of risking their lives to accomplish? Once I started thinking about possible talents that could make up such a group, and motivations to support such risk-taking, Romy, Placidio, Neri, and Dumond came alive, insisting that their adventures be written!
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
All of my novels, whether the Carol Berg epic and mythic fantasies or the Cate Glass Chimera fantasy-adventures, are ultimately character stories. I love to write complex, complete, memorable human beings – people who make mistakes, who misjudge, who shine, who feel, who change. Thus I wanted to present an excerpt that highlights the characters involved.
Also, to me, the key to an ensemble cast is how they fit together. I think this is why the “Mission Impossible” TV series is very boring for me to watch anymore, now that the technical aspects and the novelty of it are long out of date. We never knew anything about their past or their connections to each other or why they chose to participate in their missions. And they never grew or changed.
“An Illusion of Thieves” tells the story of how my talented ensemble—who call themselves the Chimera—come together, and how they get drawn into their first adventure. It sets the context for all the future stories, and thus it spends a somewhat longer setup time than the following books do. This particular excerpt tells of Romy and her brother Neri’s first encounter with the man who will become their third.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I wanted to set the Chimera stories in the kind of world where intrigue and skullduggery abound. Rather than monumental conflicts of good and evil or struggles to readjust the balance of power in a failing society, I wanted to focus on more localized struggles, where the important conflicts take place in salons or dining rooms, artisan workshops, public buildings, and the like, and involved matters like hostage-taking, poisonings, art and antiquities, assassinations – and, yes, thieving.
From there I was led into research about everything from the resources and materials available in an age of burgeoning exploration and trade to Mediterranean vegetation, poisons, wine production, barge traffic on rivers.
As the Chimera’s first mission has to do with art forgery and a statue of great antiquity, I read up on bronze casting. And as one of my four is a professional duelist, I read up on dueling regulations, weapons, and protocols.
As the series goes on, I’ve gotten into researching the cloth trade and divination schemes, the history of geology, Renaissance men’s societies, and numerous other topics. When I settled on a locale much like the city states of Renaissance Italy, I even drew on my university education in History of Art.
While studying mathematics, science, and engineering, I found time to cram in several semesters of History of Art. I’d learned early on in life that I was artistically challenged in the “doing it” department, but I really enjoyed learning about painting, sculpture, and architecture both in the context of their times, and in their evolutionary development.
Many people believe that writing secondary-world fantasy exempts a writer from research. Not true! If you want to make your story and your world believable, you have to make sure that the elements you choose, from geography and current technology, to food and transportation, to the logical underpinnings of magic fit together seamlessly.
Besides the Italian Renaissance, I’ve written my own versions of the Age of Reason (the novels of the Collegia Magica), the 13th century (the Lighthouse and Sanctuary Duets), and invented a desert empire grown beyond its boundaries (the Books of the Rai-kirah).
I’ve used maps, herbals, science timelines, books about ships, about tidepools, about manuscript illumination, ballet dancing, and ink making, stories of Isaac Newton’s optics demonstrations, and biographies of interesting people. It’s all part of the fun. I believe that you can make anything happen in fantasy, but if you fail to ground the world in human experience or build on logic and history, the reader will feel cheated.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
The biggest challenge was to balance the exposure of the world, its politics, customs, history, and supernatural underpinnings, with character introduction, and ultimately a fast-paced first adventure. I wanted to capture the feel of a rich world, with many other things going on in it than the story I’m telling, while keeping the tale moving…while foregoing the luxury of the longer format of epic or mythic fantasy that I was accustomed to.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
When I am in writing mode, I am at it most of the day. I get up, eat breakfast, glance briefly at news and email. But once I have a cup of tea in hand, I retreat to the office (or to a mountain hideaway with writer friends) and get to it.
If I produced words on the previous day, I begin with rereading and tweaking them to get myself into the story. And then I work until I have accomplished something. Added words. Removed or rearranged words. Done research enough to write the next scene and started it or worked that research into what’s already written.
I think of spiraling through the story, so that by the time I am at the end, I’ve a fairly solid manuscript. As for music, mostly I write in the quiet, but sometimes I turn on music that helps me focus. Nothing demanding like symphonic music or jazz, nothing with words, unless they are in Latin or French or some such. For example, my Lighthouse books, “Flesh and Spirit” and “Breath and Bone,” were written to Gregorian chant and some medieval French court music.
What’s your next project?
For right now, I am putting the finishing touches on “A Summoning of Demons,” the third Chimera adventure. And after that…I’m not entirely sure. I have several projects floating around in the back brain, including more Chimera stories. I might get out some short fiction related to my earlier works to begin with.