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Ashley Capes, poet and fantasy writer.

Behind the Masks: Interview with Ashley Capes

City of Masks cover, curtsey of Ashley Capes.
City of Masks cover, curtsey of Ashley Capes.

Tucked away on a shelf in bookstores in Australia and available as print on demand is a book that has poetry, history, sociology, and political science all woven together expertly. You’d not find it on the non-fiction shelves where you’d expect such a book to lie, but rather in the non-fiction section. And in the fantasy section at that. This is the kind of books that draws the popular culture a little deeper into the academic rabbit hole without them really pausing to wonder if it would be textbook boring.

I’m referring to Ashley Capes’ City of Masks, which is the first book in the Bone Masks trilogy. It’s not just an epic fantasy novel, it’s also an expertly written book that weaves together sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and political science into a brilliant story. I was swept away by the story, but also in awe of the way Capes brought together all of my “guilty pleasure” topics from uni life. Who doesn’t like when the story is realistic? That’s what makes City of Masks so good for our next giveaway.

But instead of just giving away a copy of Ashley’s book, I wanted to get in his head and find out more about his inspiration and approach. We conducted the interview via email, but I’ve left both my questions and his responses unedited so you can get a sense of Ashley’s personality and writing style as well.

What were your cultural influences for the world creation for trilogy? Why those?

The main influence was probably Italy – for setting it was the coast of Amalfi in particular. The historical city was perched on the coast and actually slid from the mountain into the sea in the 14th Century so there’s a bit of that influence on the city of Anaskar itself.

I also found smaller details from the region fun to incorporate into the setting – particularly the fire-lemon which is similar to limoncello, and a lot of the naming conventions are Italian-influenced with some Latin too. For a quick example, one character is named Lupo which would make his name ‘Wolf’ in English. I followed such naming conventions throughout the city with people and placenames – all save the city itself ‘Anaskar’. It’s not strictly very Italian-sounding because it’s actually a city that has been named by the previous occupants so I didn’t want it to sound too Italian influenced.

I think Italy has ended up the biggest influence because back in 2011 (when I first had the idea for a city under threat by a sea monster) my wife and I were in Italy and we were immediately smitten by the country – it was one of those once in a lifetime trips and I think I was just keen to soak in everything.

Speaking of the Anaskar, the places you write about from city to the foothills outside of the city to the desert have their own history and personality behind them that makes them seem treacherous and alive. Why is that?

Ashley Capes, poet and fantasy writer.
Ashley Capes, poet and fantasy writer.

I think it’s because I’m trying to make the setting immersive perhaps, usually via that sense of threat (but also, at times, wonder). My other hope is that the details that give a place a bit of personality will also aid in the ‘suspension of disbelief’ so vital to writing a world that is similar but also vastly different to our own.

It’s also pretty fun to surprise my characters when a setting ends up containing more than they expect, like Ain and the Wards where there’s some wonder. Or even via Notch’s time in the aqueducts where there more than a few surprises 🙂

I like how you weave together politics, history, culture, and the action in this book. What kinds of research influenced the politics of your world?

Thanks! I drew upon monarchies and tribal systems mostly – always looking at where power lies in a group I guess. Is it shared or is it guarded jealously? If it’s disrupted, who takes what is left? Those sorts of questions are fun to explore as a writer.

I remember reading a lot about various royal families who always featured a brother or son (or uncle) keen to knock off a few family members on their way up to the throne. I think it was the shadowy Richard III that I recall the most.

I think all political structures tend to have an undeniable element of personality; the forceful, confident or clever tend to have the ability to direct others, no matter their title or lack of. With the desert-dwelling Medah people, for instance, despite there being multiple elders in the Cloud clan it’s clear that Raila is holds the most sway; she tends to command the most respect in the group.

Let’s talk about those power plays for a moment. You’ve placed power struggles in every community so far with, the different view points of tradition among the desert people, the change of power within the city of Anaskar, and of course between the previous inhabitants of the city and the current inhabitants, as well as others. They are a thread throughout our entire history, and even common today in the world. How much psychology versus history are at play in your books?

I think the world building is the part I have the most fun with so the historical-influenced aspects of ‘place’ might just edge out the psychology behind those struggles 🙂

Having said that, I do wonder about villains who seek power over others moreso than different goals, as one of mine does in City of Masks. For me, autonomy is more important. And of course there’s cross-over between the two, but despite how much I value being able to make my own decisions I don’t have a need to make them for others. Vinezi is probably the best example of that mind-set and although it isn’t until The Lost Mask (#2) that I reveal a bit more about his inner workings, there’s definitely a drive within him that works hand-in-hand with that need for power.

And, a follow-up for the aspiring writers out there: how do you keep track of all the things that are going on in your dynamic world?! You’ve got contentions everywhere — just like in real life!

Additional files and organisation 🙂 I have separate files for world building details, along with maps and character charts which give overviews of where the characters are going, both in terms of plot and personal development.

The other tip I find that works for me, is that once I have the manuscript in order, I do editing passes based on one aspect.

So instead of trying to edit a 400+ page novel and focus on language, character, setting, plot, dialogue and pacing during a single editing pass, I work only on dialogue during one of those revisions, ignoring the other aspects for the moment. Often I’ll read through the whole novel and focus on one character’s dialogue alone. That way I can keep their voice consistent across each scene. Then I repeat the process for every character and then I repeat the whole process for those other big-picture aspects, saving language until last.

Were there any particular myths that you used for some of the more mystical things?

With the Sea Beast I remember imagery of Leviathan and Cthulhu being inspirational but my sea beast is probably less giant and not coiled/not man-like as I’ve seen some depictions of those creatures.

Another mythological aspect might be the bone masks themselves – in a general sense there’s that long history in literature of objects being imbued with power or sentience that I love to draw upon. Magic carpets, boxes, rings, swords, cloaks – even HAL9000 is in that ballpark for me. For City of Masks I wanted something portable but also an item of clothing that wasn’t a ring (as Tolkien has had that one covered for a while now :D) so I used Masks – in part inspired by Venice. I nearly used the Plague Doctor mask but felt it was a little unwieldy, and so the hereditary mask of carven bone was where I ended up.

I really like the way the masks tie in well with our modern day obsession with objects and the memories and emotions we link to them, it was one of my favourite parts of writing the story.

While much of your story seems to take place in a part historic, part magical world there how much is influenced by the modern world? How much is influenced by your research in culture and archaeology? (Yes, a shameless plug for your other book.)

Between Giants and Old Stone cover, curtsey of Ashley Capes.
Between Giants and Old Stone cover, curtsey of Ashley Capes.

Hahaha! Thank you – I can always use a plug for my poetry 🙂

For my Honours Thesis I looked at poetry and also place as they appeared within travel narratives. Part of that research included the visit to Italy I mentioned a while back and part of it included a creative aspect, which ended up appearing as the bulk of poetry that was later published in Between Giants & Old Stone.

One of the things I found fascinating in my reading was the different modes of touring as discussed by Erik Cohen. He mentions five types or modes of touring that range from Recreational all the way to Existential.

Somewhere in between the two ends of that spectrum is Experiential, and that’s what I often found myself engaged in during the trip to Italy. At times, I toured a little more Recreationally, which allowed me to recharge and escape the daily grind, which was amazing in and of itself.

But I also liked striving for aspects of that Experiential mode, which, to summarise part of Cohen’s argument (poorly), is:

Seeking meaning in the life of others, (a modern form of religious quest for authenticity) and recapturing meaning through vicarious experience of the aesthetic and the authenticity of the other culture

Beyond this approach is the Existential, which is a total immersion in the new place and culture, but as a tourist, that was impossible for me to achieve – generally, I’d have to be an immigrant for that to happen. And so in my poetry there is an exploration of the tension between the modes – and even a bit of guilt, perhaps, in being the tourist. If you think about the damage visitors (generally unwittingly) do to a place, let’s say the ruins of Pompeii, it’s hard not to feel like a clumsy oaf and easy to see why locals would resent the tourist.

In fact, you could probably find some of the Existential, immersive travelling in Flir from City of Masks, just to jump back to fiction for a moment. She’s left her homeland due to deep dissatisfaction and lives in another nation, seeking experiences and belonging in a new culture.

Why a shameless plug for Ashley’s work? Because it they straddle both the world of fiction and academic thoughts and because March’s giveaway is a package that has a signed copy of City of Masks and Between Giants and Old Stone. The winner of the giveaway, which opens on 8.March and closes on 22.March.

Besides, City of Masks is a great read, while the archaeologists, history lovers, dreamers, and poets will appreciate Between Giants and Old Stone.

You can connect with Ashley on Goodreads, Twitter, or his blog.

The usual rules for the giveaway apply: no purchase necessary, by participating you are not agreeing to receive any communication from us unless you’re the winner (or sign up for our newsletter with the box below any post), and are just having a bit of geeky fun.