A literary labyrinth: Debut author A. Cavuto’s ‘The Dust That Danced’
Dessi Gomez | Friday, April 30, 2021
When Notre Dame senior Ashley Cavuto decided to write a book last March, she knew she wanted to include mythology, mystery and a maze.
Before she became A. Cavuto, author of “The Dust That Danced” — a mystery novel which has entered the publication and printing process today through New Degree Press — she operated under a combination of the following four names: Ashley Concetta Antonacci Cavuto, a full-time student (also writing a senior thesis) set to graduate from Notre Dame this May.
Cavuto began this project when Eric Koester, Georgetown University professor and founder of the Creator Institute, reached out to her on LinkedIn with a request to participate in his Book Creators Program. Starting last June, she has produced a full 341-page manuscript that weaves mythology and mystery together in a narrative surrounding a core of female friendships.
Set in the ’90s on an unnamed college campus, sophomores Stella, Meg, Josie and Monica begin their school year with the anticipation of no longer being freshmen at the bottom of the totem pole. However, Alice, a very curious transfer student, challenges these expectations and brings many aspects of the other four leading ladies’ lives into question.
“This is meant to be a story about the female collegiate experience,” Cavuto says. “Part of what I like about the mystery and thriller genre is that you can create commentary using a plot that isn’t as obvious. It also makes the reader dig a little bit more for it, and it can typically create a more compelling and entertaining story without feeling like you’re beating someone over the head with a message.”
Protagonist and student director Stella, an observant introvert, tells the story from her perspective with the help of filmic vocabulary. The emphasis on media’s influence in storytelling came easily to Cavuto, who is a Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) major.
“I think bringing medium into a mystery is really interesting because it helps shape how a story is told,” she says. “With mysteries and thrillers where readers have to unravel a story, I think this addition works really well with that genre.”
Layers of mythology and rumors contribute to the story’s mysterious atmosphere. Cavuto attributes her introduction to mythology to Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” books. She said her favorite in the series, “The Battle of the Labyrinth,” piqued her interest in the story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, which not only operates as myth in the story, but also as a metaphor for mental health.
“When you’re struggling with your mental health, your mind is like a labyrinth and there are so many experiences from your life up in there that you have to kind of travel backward through it to find those moments and come to terms with them,” Cavuto says. “Then you have to find your way back out.”
Branching off of the theme of mental health, Cavuto also said she considers her novel a coming-of-age story, the growing pains of which she wants normalized in the collegiate environment versus that of high school.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to plant in the minds of young people all of the obstacles you’re going to face are in high school, and once you get through that, then you go to college and it’s the best four years of your life and you’re this grown adult and you know who you are,” she says. “I just don’t think that that’s realistic. I think it can be harmful because I thought college was gonna be amazing and then it knocked me on my butt, a lot.”
The ghostly and gray areas encountered by women as rising adults form a subtle thread that remains up for interpretation in the lives of Cavuto’s characters.
“I think that women in college experience a lot of things that they’ve never experienced before. And they kind of have to deal with it on their own.” Cavuto says. “Learning to navigate those experiences is hard for women in particular, especially with the power dynamics in college where men have a lot of control over the narrative about women.”
Cavuto said she has infused each character with some element of herself.
“It’s like if I were a bowl of pixie dust and I sprinkled myself over the different characters, they each have some aspect of myself, whether it’s part of my personality, or something that I went through, or an aspect of my physical appearance,” she says.
The inclusion of Monica, editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, supplements Stella’s point of view with a more journalistic and gossipy standpoint. Cavuto’s first draft of “The Dust That Danced” did not have a Monica, who Cavuto describes as “at her best when her hair is in a messy bun and she has ink stains all over her hands.”
“Monica might be my favorite character,” Cavuto says. “I love her serving comedic relief. I love her still being this really powerful, confident, strong-willed character, but I feel like when it comes to the internal monologue, I need Stella’s perspective to really tell the story.”
As narrator, Stella sits back and lets the story unfold while Monica puts herself in the spotlight. Monica’s extroversion and vocal guidance of the group can steer their actions, but Stella’s laid-back observations really detail the plot and scenes.
“It’s kind of like a power to the introvert, because that ability to sort of sit back and watch things unfold and notice things that other people don’t is ultimately what’s going to solve the mystery in the end,” Cavuto says. “Stella starts as this character that almost doesn’t seem to be playing a huge role in the narrative itself, but as time goes on, she’s the one who is picking up more stuff than any of them.”
Cavuto considers building her narrative to be both the most fun part of the experience of writing a book, as well as the most nerve-racking.
“I have carefully constructed this book in a way that everything means something, and I feel like if a reader doesn’t pick up on that, they might just think, ‘Ah, whatever, basic story,’” she says. “I now realize readers don’t always know the author’s intentions. They can analyze and dissect something, but ultimately they might not even come up with something that lines up with what the author intended.”
Notre Dame’s campus inspired Cavuto for her setting, and the rumored tunnels beneath the school ultimately allowed the labyrinth to become more than just a metaphor in the story.
“There are parts of this book that are based on Notre Dame. Visually, it is Notre Dame’s campus,” Cavuto says. “I didn’t put a name on the school in this book because it’s not supposed to represent one school. It’s meant to be a commentary, because women experience these issues everywhere.”
As for the title of the book, Cavuto was one of 2% of authors that kept their working title. “The Dust That Danced” was in part inspired by her father’s band name, “Nothing to Dust,” which came about in a phone call between one of the band members and his mother, who wanted him to stay home to dust. To this, the friend responded: “What do you mean? There’s nothing to dust.”
“I thought the imagery of dust dancing was really beautiful,” she says. “One meaning readers could take is the idea that there are things that have been around so long that people just don’t question them.”
Though she originally considered herself a harsh critic, Cavuto said she came to respect the writing process more through her own book-writing journey.
“I think I’ve become much more patient and compassionate when it comes to reading and reviewing other people’s work, because now I know what went into that,” she says. “It’s so difficult to do something fresh and original. And I don’t like when people criticize things for being derivative, because everything’s derivative. Everything’s inspired by something.”
Cavuto raised enough money ($5,000) on Indie Go-Go for 100 paperback copies of “The Dust That Danced.” In fact, she surpassed that goal and received an additional 150 special, hardcover editions for $6,000. This crowd-funding plan allows her to keep 100% of the rights to her book.
“The Dust That Danced” will be made available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. For those who want to follow A. Cavuto’s journey further, she is chronicling it on her “Bookstagram” at @pagesofash on Instagram.