Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind “From the Fire”?
Leah Cypess: In 2019, I went to the Historical Novel Society Conference. It was a chance to learn about a whole different segment of the writing community, and it was an amazing experience. I was especially impressed by the sense of historical consciousness these writers had — their deep understanding of the fact that people in the past thought in very different ways than people in the present do. I loved the discussions about how to navigate those complexities when writing books about the past for a modern-day audience.
Then, during a panel on the Italian Renaissance, one panelist mentioned the story about Sandro Botticelli throwing some of his paintings into the Bonfire of the Vanities, and said, “I wish I could go back in time and throw myself between those paintings and the fire.”
And the story idea was born.
AE: How did this story come to you? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
LC: You’ve already heard about the spark of inspiration, but the actual story came to me very slowly. For one thing, I am that weird person who is fascinated by the Italian Renaissance and not at all interested in its art, so I had to embark on a whole new area of research—both into Botticelli in particular and into artists in general. It was slow going! I’ve done more research for this story than I’ve done for some of my novels.
In the meantime, fortunately for me, Jo Walton published her book Lent. Lent is about Girolamo Savanarola, the architect of the Bonfire of the Vanities. (Well, it’s sort of about Savanarola. It’s a weird and wonderful and fascinating book.) Walton’s depiction of the Bonfire of the Vanities was very different from how it’s normally described, and she explained her reasons for that in her epilogue. It was another fascinating example of the difficulty of understanding the past from a modern perspective.
All these things, as well as various happenings in our modern world, brewed in my mind and formed various disconnected pages in my growing Scrivener file. At one point, I despaired of ever forming a coherent story out of all these ideas—and I did end up deleting some of those pages, hopefully to be used in future stories someday.
In the end, I’m really pleased with the story I pulled out of all these thoughts. Thank you for publishing it!
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
LC: I love using time travel as a way to (1) explore a variety of themes that really work well with this concept, and (2) sneakily write about history in short fiction, since there is no short fiction market for straight-up historical fiction. So I do have this concept of a future where time-travel has been invented and is used for various research purposes… a world I first explored in my story “A Pack of Tricks” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020), and then further wrote about in “Unredacted Reports from 1546” (Future Science Fiction Digest, June 2021). This is the third installment in the “series” and I hope there will be more.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
LC: Since I’ve been talking so much about historical fiction, I’ll continue in that vein (sorry for those of you who came here thinking they would read about science fiction and fantasy! I’ll get to that, I promise.) After going to the Historical Novelist Society Conference, I was so impressed by many of the panelists that I immediately went and took out their books. I’m someone who was never particularly attracted to historical fiction until I decided to write it — I kind of figured, if I was going to read fiction just for fun, I’d do that, and if I wanted to learn history, I’d read nonfiction. But I am happy to admit the errors of my ways, and now when I read great historical fiction, I pay close attention to what makes it work. One of the authors I heard at the conference, who I now think is one of the best authors working in this genre, is Kate Quinn. I highly recommend her most recent novel, The Rose Code, about three female code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. Another recent standout is Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig, about a group of Smith Alumnae who went on an aid mission to rural France during World War I.
When it comes to time travel, Connie Willis is my biggest inspiration. I’ve read nearly everything she’s written, but Blackout/All Clear, in particular, are two of my favorite books of all time.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
LC: Despite my going on about historical fiction and time travel for two pages… my current main project has little to do with either. I’m writing a middle grade fantasy series, “Sisters Ever After,” which retells fairy tales from the point of view of the forgotten younger sisters. The first book, THORNWOOD, about Sleeping Beauty’s little sister, is out now; the second, GLASS SLIPPERS, about Cinderella’s third stepsister, will be published in April 2022.
AE: What are you reading right now?
LC: At the moment I’m focused on reading middle grade and young adult novels published in 2021, for the purpose of Nebula nominations. I’m currently in middle of Even & Odd by Sarah Beth Durst, about sisters who have to share their magical power (each one can do magic on alternating days), and it’s delightful! After that, I’m going to take a break from middle grade to read A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark, a book I am very excited about. And then, or possibly simultaneously, Rae Carson’s recent apocalyptic young adult novel, Any Sign of Life.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
LC: My website, http://www.leahcypess.com, has all the information, and also a very infrequent, new-releases-only newsletter you can sign up for. I’m also on Facebook (Leah Cypess), Instagram (leahcypess), and Twitter (@LeahCypess).