Welcome to TRB Lounge!
Today, we are featuring Morgan Cole , author of Marilia, the Warlord, the first book in the Chrysathamere Trilogy, for our Author Interview feature.
About The Author
Bureaucrat by day, fantasy author by night, I began my writing career with several highly questionable life choices, such as a major in history and creative writing that was meant to lead to a glorious career as a fantasy author but instead led to the world of unpaid internships, minimum wage jobs, and a dingy, lightless apartment in small-town Ohio.
I suppose I took all those motivational posters about shooting for the moon and landing among the stars far too seriously. After a rocky relationship with a literary agent that didn’t quite work out, I decided to pursue an alternative career path (that actually allows me to pay rent) and to write my books on the side.
Growing up, my father instilled in me a passion for ancient Greek and Roman history (especially all the battles!), while my brother helped immerse me in the imaginative worlds of Morrowind and Middle Earth. All those influences are very much present in my writing.
CONNECT WITH THE AUTHOR:
Welcome to TRB! Please give our readers a brief introduction about yourself before we begin.
I grew up in the American Midwest with my brother, where I spent most of my time pretending I was either in space battling stormtroopers or in some fantasy world battling orcs or demons or whatever the monster of the day happened to be. I was the quintessential quiet, shy, anxious kid—I hated school because it involved social interaction and even CROWDS, a more fearsome foe than any demon. All that self-doubt, fear, alienation—I tend to pour it into my characters. It’s a cathartic process.
I made a number of poor life choices in the intervening years. One winner has to be signing a contract with a literary agent while in a particularly intensive school program. I soon learned that I had absolutely no time, while studying, to make the edits she sought in order to transform the book from an adult fantasy into the more marketable YA genre. I stalled, and the relationship fizzled out. Afterwards, I decided to go it alone, as I kind of preferred the book as an adult fantasy anyway!
Morgan Cole is my pen name. Why the secret identity? I wish it was because I was some kind of secret celebrity, but the truth is that a buried part of me hasn’t totally given up on trying to get “traditionally” published some day when I have more time to devote to agent-hunting (and a book that better fits the market). And I’ve heard it’s easier to do that if the powers that be don’t realize you’ve published books on your own—an act of rebellion many in Big Publishing seem to frown on.
Please tell us something about your book other than what we have read in the blurb?
Though Marilia, the Warlord is a fantasy, it’s written in the structural style of a historical biographical novel, following the protagonist over the course of many years. I love to explore how childhood shapes who we are, so I couldn’t just not have scenes of the characters as children! It’s also possibly one of the only fantasy books I’ve read without any magic. Sure, there’s some weird creatures here and there, and crystal swords and the like, but no powers or spells. I have nothing against magic in principle, though I do truly hate it when the final showdown comes down to a character using some newly-discovered magical ability to just up and destroy the villain (you hear me, Letter for the King on Netflix??). I’ll take a good old-fashioned sword duel any day.
Finally, each book in this series explores a different theme, and one of my main goals with the first novel was to examine the notion of the “strong female character.” For some reason, the media often seems to assume that it’s empowering when a female character beats people up or kills them. Why? Isn’t it interesting that violence—stereotypically a masculine pursuit—is considered strong, while being less martially gifted is considered weak? Marilia swings a sword around, but that’s not what makes her a strong character.
What is that one message that you’re trying to get across to the readers in this book?
Well, that kind of spoils the ending. But one thing I can say—despite this book being about a badass woman warrior, I did not want it to be about the generic kind of tough girl I see in a lot of recent Hollywood movies and bad novels—saucy, witty, always ready with a quip, always the most composed and unflappable person in the room, and strong by the virtue that she beats up/kills men. In fact, that was one of the very notions that I set out to question—that being a strong female character means engaging in the traditionally masculine, and kind of terrible pursuits of violently killing or beating people up. Why is that what is most respected by our society? How far have we really come if being a strong female hero means entirely rejecting traditionally feminine things in favor of violence?
Who is your favourite character in this book and why?
I feel like that’s an easy one. Marilia, of course—the protagonist. She’s the most developed character in the story. She’s also probably the character who changed the most from draft-to-draft, going from a religious zealot who actually believed she heard the voices of the gods to the more grounded, level-headed heroine she is today. I also have a soft spot for several side characters who are loosely inspired by real people I know…but to say who or why would spoil the sequels.
What inspired you to write this book? An idea, some anecdote, a dream or something else?
The Chrysathamere Trilogy was inspired by a conversation I had with my brother where we discussed the unrealized potential of the three Star Wars prequels (I was a shamelessly obsessed Star wars fan growing up; I had the Jedi hair going and everything) and how they were ripe for a remake with better dialogue. The story shifted and changed over time, and now only very loosely resembles its Clone Wars-in-fantasy-land origins.
There are certainly a lot of other influences. A song of Ice and Fire, obviously (I liked Game of Thrones before it was cool!), but also some lesser-known books and movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer, a rather excellent movie about chess and the harmful effects jealousy and cutthroat competition can have on children. When it comes to battle scenes and tactics, I tend to steal a bit here and there from real history. In this book, it was Alexander the Great’s epic battle at Gaugamela.
How long did it take you to write this particular book?
While I’m happy to finally have this book finished, it was a real struggle to get there! I began brainstorming and outlining this novel back when I was scarcely older than Marilia herself. The writing and re-writing took ten long years! At one point, a literary agent advised me to cut the book (which at that time had two protagonists) in half and focus only on Marilia. I did, and the story was stronger for it.
What are your writing ambitions? Are you working on any new projects presently?
When it comes to my writing goals, I’m just going to take things one step at a time. I’ll finish editing and fine-tuning the 4 books (The Chrysathamere Trilogy + 1 other adventure novel) I’ve been working on, and then we’ll see…if people respond to them, like them, I’ll probably feel the urge to make more!
As for the good ‘ol “where do you see yourself in 5 years” question…I don’t think I’ve given an accurate answer to that question thus far in my life. Especially with COVID-19 roiling the globe and political turmoil roiling my home city of Washington, DC, I find it best not to plan too far ahead. In 5 years I could be a victim of the coming apocalypse, who knows? I don’t want to jinx it.
Are you working on any new projects presently?
I’m still working on the third book in this trilogy. It’s the longest and the three, and the bloodiest, so it’s quite a bit of work. I ended up re-writing the last 150 pages from scratch because I wasn’t a fan of the climax. I wanted to be sure to get it right—I might have been inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones but I definitely wanted to make the same mistakes that series did when it came to (not) wrapping things up. After that, I have another nearly-finished project that’s sort of like if The Last of Us met the Princess Bride.
Why have you chosen this genre?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with harrowing sword duels and magical worlds. Together, my brother and I killed many imaginary orcs. So it always felt natural to explore that in my writing. Plus, I’d always wanted to read more fantasy books where there was no magic and the main character was just a regular person, so I figured why not write one?
When did you decide to become a writer? Was it easy for you to follow your passion or did you have to make some sacrifices along the way?
I probably decided to “become a writer” around the time I was ten. I wrote my first novel in high school. It wasn’t totally terrible, but it certainly was pretentious, especially the scene where the villain stopped mid-fight to monologue to the hero for four pages straight about how charity and altruism is for the weak because we live in a society and something something laissez faire capitalism. Just as unnecessarily edgy as you’d expect an emo high schooler’s first novel to be, really.
It wasn’t easy at all. In pursuing the dream of being a writer, I ended up making some foolish choices in college that cost me dearly when it came time to get a job. I feel, in retrospect, that it’s far better to major in something practical like computer science that allows you flexibility in employment (so as to have time to write on the side) then majoring in creative writing itself. For one thing, none of those classes teach you a whit about how to actually write and sell a novel, and the short story market isn’t exactly robust. I also sacrificed a lot of time I could have spent with friends—still a bit sad about that.
Because I screwed college up so badly, I ended up struggling for a whole to find a long-term job. Eventually, an immigration lawyer was kind enough to take me in as an assistant after we met in the middle-of-nowhere Texas in a family detention center where we were both volunteering—him as a free lawyer for refugees seeking political asylum, me as an interpreter. Because of my experience working with him, I ended up going to law school, which is funny, because I never saw myself as any kind of lawyer (I always hated public speaking). Life takes you in strange directions, I guess!
I labored for a long time under the delusion that writing could pay my bills. It really doesn’t—the cost of a professional editor alone will easily be more than the yearly earnings of most self-published authors. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value or beauty in the act of writing.
What is your writing ritual? How do you do it?
I have no real ritual. I like to do a lot of planning first—sometimes two months of brainstorming before I ever sit down to write. Even then, the story never goes 100% the way I planned. I write when I have time, which is usually on the weekends. Some of my favorite scenes got down on vacation, though.
How do you prefer to write? On computer/laptop, typewriter, dictation or longhand with a pen?
Certainly on a laptop. I tend to hold my pencil with a death-grip and my handwriting is terrible. I’m convinced I was born left-handed and raised right-handed by mistake. I tend to do a lot of editing as I go, so the laptop tends to make that easier.
Your 5 favourite books?
A tough question, as they tend to change as I grow older. But they might be: Dark Age, by Pierce Brown; Circe by Madeline Miller; The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman; Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie; and Horns, by Joe Hill (what is it with Joes?) But I also like Gillian Flynn’s books a lot, and there’s this one book by Nick Cutter called the Troop that gave me nightmares and still gives me the shivers when I think about it, if you’re into that sort of thing…I guess maybe a part of me is still the edgy student I was in high school.
How do you deal with Writer’s Block?
By feverishly trying to brainstorm my way around a problem until I fail miserably, then talking to someone else—a friend, or a relative—until finally clarity strikes. Usually the answer to my plot hole is outside the box. For example, I once spent three weeks agonizing about how Marilia could break into a castle and assassinate a certain character. After devising twelve plans, each more preposterous than the last, I jettisoned the assassination plotline completely and completely re-did the ending of that book. But I really struggle with writer’s block sometimes. For reasons unknown to me, so many of my problems seem to revolve around boats/ships. That naval battle in Marilia, the Warlord? An absolute nightmare. Once this series is over, if I keep writing, I’m going to only write books set in landlocked countries.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
They always say to read in your genre, but I feel like I grew as much, if not more, reading outside it, finding new ideas, and then dragging them back into the fantasy genre. “Literary” fiction, historical fiction, horror—I tend to read those the most. Also, don’t do what I did—major in creative writing in college. They taught me nothing about the marketing side of being an author, and, while my professors gave me some useful teachings regarding writing short stories, I gained almost next to no information about writing novels, which are a very different beast. I wish I’d chosen a major that would have made it easier to get a day job to leave lots of time for writing—I learned best through constant practice.
Thank you, Morgan, for all your honest and helpful (especially to new writers) answers!
About The Book
Marilia: The Warlord
Born the bastard daughter of a painted lady, Marilia was told she would live out her days within the walls of her mother’s brothel, a companion for the rich men of Tyrace. But after a terrible betrayal, Marilia’s world turns upside down. With the help of her twin brother, Annuweth, she flees the only home she’s ever known in search of the one man who can offer her a chance at a better life: one of her deceased father’s friends, the Emperor of Navessea’s greatest general.
What follows is a journey spanning years, from the streets of the desert city of Tyracium to the splendor of the emperor’s keep and the wind-swept, wild island of Svartennos. Along the way, Marilia discovers, for the first time, the gift she has for strategy and warfare—a world that is forbidden to girls like her.
When the empire is threatened by a foreign invasion, the defense of Navessea is left in the hands of a cruel and arrogant general no match for the empire’s foes. With the fate of her new home and her family hanging in the balance, Marilia swears to use all her courage and cunning to help repel the enemy…if she can convince anyone to follow her.
The struggle that follows will test her to her core and lead her back to the past she thought she had escaped. Facing treachery within her own ranks as well as a devious enemy commander, Marilia will need all the help she can get, even if it means doing something her brother may never forgive—making a pact with the man who murdered her father.
Inspired by The Song of Achilles and Ender’s Game, Marilia, the Warlord is a blend of the epic and the personal, a story of war, romance, envy, the rivalry between brother and sister, and a young woman’s fight to find her place in the world.
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