Kirkus called Cassandra Rose Clarke’s debut fantasy novel The Assassin’s Curse a “ripsnorting series opener,” with a sequel, The Pirate’s Wish, already in the works. The story features the likable and colorful Ananna, a “kick-ass pirate heroine” who’s fleeing an arranged marriage, with the help of some beginner’s magic.
Here, Clarke discusses the pleasures of pirates, her writing process and inventing believable-sounding curses.
Why pirates? Did you have sailing or treasure-hunting fantasies as a child?
I’ve always been interested in piracy and the history of piracy. A couple of years ago, I went through a phase where I read a handful of books on the subject. One I remember reading was Under the Black Flag, and it had a chapter in there about non-Western pirates—Asia, China—where whole families lived together on pirate ships. So I pulled from that, the idea of a whole family aboard a pirate ship.
The Assassin’s Curse actually started out as a short story, back when I still felt obligated to write short stories. I wanted to try my hand a second-world fantasy, which I’d never written before. I got to about 6,000 words or so and realized it was going to be much longer than I intended. The original story was pretty different: In it, Ananna was the one who could do magic, and she was older and more sophisticated. That version of Ananna actually evolved into Leila, another character in the book.
What do you mean, when you still felt obligated to write short stories?
Creative-writing courses—in graduate programs—tend to center on the short story. I attended Clarion West, which is a science fiction and fantasy workshop. But I didn’t really enjoy writing short fiction… even though there was a sort of understanding that you wrote short stories in order to work up to writing a novel, which isn’t necessarily true. So it took a while to shake this. “Oh, I don’t have to write short stories!” When I got to 6,000 words with The Assassin’s Curse, I realized I was nowhere close to being done. So I set it aside and occasionally would come back and read it. And one day I thought, Oh, this is going to be a novel!
Tell me about your writing process. Are you managing to pull off the writing full time, or working this in around another job?
I have a couple of non-writing part time jobs: I teach freshman composition at a local community college, and I also do some SAT/ACT tutoring. However, even those two jobs actually leave me with way more time than one full-time job! I did have to learn how to write around my schedule, though, especially since it changes every semester. For example, this semester I have an hour-and-a-half gap between classes, so I take my computer with me and use that time to write.
You sound pretty disciplined.
When I’m drafting a novel, I set a goal of writing 1,000 words a day, although I usually get up to 1,300 or so, sometimes more. I’ve also learned that breaking the writing time up helps me a lot if I need to get a higher word count in, because I’m just not one of those people who can sit in front of a computer for hours at a time. So I’ll write for 45 minutes or so, then go do something else, then write for another 45 minutes, and so on. With editing, I generally try to work through it as quickly as possible—I get this momentum going and can barrel though edits fairly easily. Although I still have to take breaks.
Do you have any qualms about letting Ananna speak—with her colorful, salty pirate language—to teen readers?
Well, when I wrote the book, I didn’t intend it for a YA audience. It was for adults, and I didn’t really think about her salty language and curses, though she was young. But by the time I knew it would be for a YA audience, the way she used language was part of her character; it was really in there.
You also invented some curses, like “Darkest night!” Was that fun?
In fantasy, you have to toe a line with things like made-up curses, but if you can get it right, it adds texture. I think my editor invited me to work some non-profanity in—and it was fun thinking about what they might think of as a curse.
On the Fantasy’s Ink website, I read an interview with Ananna. Did you find it easy to access her voice when you were working on the sequel?
Her voice is a big part of her character. When I start writing, it’s a shift. When I am writing as she talks, I get into how she thinks. It’s easy to lapse back into her—I get the rhythm of her voice—and there she is!