Interview with Megan Bannen (THE UNDERTAKING OF HART AND MERCY)
Megan Bannen is a former public librarian whose YA debut The Bird and the Blade was an Indies Introduce Summer/Fall 2018 pick, a Summer 2018 Kids’ Indie Next List pick, and a Kirkus Best YA Historical Fiction of 2018 pick. While most of her professional career has been spent behind the reference desk, she has also sold luggage, written grants, collected a few graduate degrees from various Kansas universities, and taught English at home and abroad. She lives in the Kansas City area with her husband and their two sons.
Welcome to the Hive, Megan. Thank you for joining in on our Women in SFF feature! Firstly, congratulations on your upcoming release with Orbit Books. Can you tell us a bit about The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy? If you had to describe it in 5 words, which would you choose?
Thanks for inviting me to the Hive, Nils! The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a weird fantasy/romcom mash-up in which the main characters–a zombie-hunting law enforcement officer and an undertaker, who dislike each other in real life–stumble into a h(e)art-felt secret correspondence. And there are zombies. And talking animals deliver the mail.
If I had to describe the book in five words, I’d say: bonkers, funny, poignant, and unexpectedly existential.
That’s a perfect description!
Your previous novels, The Bird and the Blade and Soulswift were both categorised in the YA genre, whereas Hart and Mercy is an adult fantasy. Was it a conscious decision to move into adult fiction? What would you argue are the main differences between writing YA and Adult fiction?
I wouldn’t say I made a conscious decision to move into adult fantasy. It was more that, as I played around with the idea for Hart and Mercy, it lent itself to the adult market rather than to the YA market. I’d argue that the main difference between YA and adult is that a YA novel asks the reader to experience the story through the eyes of a teenager, while the adult market asks the reader to filter the story through the more extensive life experience of an adult. (Ugh, how pretentious is that answer? Forgive me.) While The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a romcom, it also deals with issues of death and grief and facing one’s mortality. True, teens also have to face these issues, but I thought the story worked better with characters in their 30s, who have had plenty of time to rack up the gut-wrenching losses we all have to face in life, if we’re lucky enough to live that long.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I find it helpful to write and revise (and revise and revise) the first 50-100 pages until I feel very solid with the world and characters, before I finish the rest of the first draft. I do enjoy putting together a soundtrack and finding music that helps me set the mood of the book, but not every book I write has a soundtrack. Mostly, my method involves me cramming my writing into odd pockets of time—sitting in the bleachers at my son’s track meet, waiting in the lobby of the orthodontist’s office while my youngest gets his braces tightened, that kind of thing. Nothing makes me more productive than being stuck in a place where the wifi isn’t very good and where piles of laundry aren’t staring me in the face.
For anyone who’s curious, the soundtrack I made for The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy features the Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, and Patty Griffin.
That’s good to know for readers who may want to make a Spotify playlist for when they’re reading.
Right then, speaking of worlds, The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy features some truly wonderful fantastical elements. Can you tell us your inspiration behind the island of Bushong and the wilds of Tanria? What sparked you to create the drudges, the nimkilim and the concept of the ID Keys?
Oh wow, this is going to be a long answer. Apologies!
No apologies needed, we love long answers.
The world of this book started with an odd photograph I happened to find on Pinterest. (I think it’s a Steve McCurry photo, but I’ve never been able to track down the source.) In the picture, there is a dog—a boxer—sitting on a chair in front of a sign that says:
We can send dead body
Now, I know this sign exists in reality, and obviously this is a service that is very much necessary, but it had me asking the question, “In what world would you need to advertise your ability to ship a dead body?” This must be a world in which people are dealing with a lot of human remains that are far from home. My mind immediately went to a zombie infestation, even though I’m not a huge fan of zombie stories. Then, I remembered the sketchy outline of a book I had set aside that involved a tall, skinny, blond guy with a rapier, and that guy seemed to fit right in here. And it seemed to me that the rapier was for skewering rather than hacking, which led me to the idea that the human soul resides in the appendix. The tabled story also involved a secret pen pal romance plot in which the mail was delivered by a Moira Rose-esque owl and a smart-mouthed rabbit. And by writing for the adult market, the rabbit became a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed delight. The weirdness simply grew from there, and I think the fact that I wrote this book during lockdown probably aided the escapist nature of the world.
As far as the ID keys and the religion of the Federated Islands of Cadmus goes, you can thank my wonderful agent, Holly Root. In my first crack at the book, Tanria (the former prison of the old gods, where Hart works) was the main source of fantasy, while the rest of the island of Bushong was fairly Small Town America, particularly in terms of how the funeral industry worked. Holly said to me, “Have you watched The Mandalorian? You know how Baby Yoda has a baby stroller, and even though it’s not really a baby stroller, we all know it’s that world’s version of a baby stroller? You need to Baby Yoda’s baby stroller the funeral industry.” A week later, I had a far better developed mythology about the history of the old gods and the new gods, and a belief system about what happens when we die; hence, the notion that people are buried in boats to sail the Salt Sea and are given a key to open the door to the House of the Unknown God.
By the way, the island of Bushong is named after a small town in the state of Kansas where my grandmother grew up.
At the heart (haha, excuse the pun!) of your novel lies your fantastic characters. Did you find writing Hart and Mercy’s enemies to lovers story arc easy to develop or was there anything you found particularly difficult?
Ha! I see what you did there. Yes, I did find writing the romance arc between Hart and Mercy fairly easy and delightful, especially compared to the nightmare slog that was the writing of my second book. The nice thing about romcoms is that they are formulaic, and that formula creates the scaffold around which you build your story. The challenging part was figuring out how to meld a romcom plot, which is intimate and character-driven, into a fantasy plot, which tends to be sweeping and epic. But that challenge was also what made writing the book so much fun.
Tell us a little more about your side characters? Duckers, Zeddie, Horatio and
Bassareus inject so much humour into the story, did you enjoy writing their bantery scenes?
I had a blast with the side characters. Everyone showed up on the page, ready to go, with their own quirks and character-specific curse words. I’d write a scene with Duckers in it and think, “Duckers is my favorite character in this book.” But then Lil would show up, and I’d think, “Wait no, Lilian is my favorite.” And so on and so on. Mercy’s family was so rewarding to write, because each one of them has their own hopes and dreams, yet those motivations are in direct conflict with Mercy’s hopes and dreams, even though they all love each other to bits. Meanwhile, Hart’s slate of side characters become unexpected sources of wisdom and guidance. Guileless Duckers calls Hart and Mercy’s love story from a mile away, and Bassareus is the one who winds up pushing Hart into making himself vulnerable. And then there’s Leonard, the Very Good Dog, who brings Hart and Mercy together in the first place, and, and, and …
Oh yes, Leonard was adorable!
I have to ask Megan, if you could have your very own nimkilim deliver your mail, which kind of animal would you choose and why?!
A potoo bird. They have a perfectly weird vibe that would fit right into the world of Hart and Mercy. Hmm, now that I’m writing this down, I might have to make it happen …
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover, and the cover of Hart and Mercy is delightfully quirky and has such a gorgeous colour palette. How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
To be honest, most authors don’t have a lot of input on their book covers, but this is obviously not a problem in my case, since the cover is TO DIE FOR. I’ve really lucked out for all three of my books, but I can’t stress enough how much I love the Hart and Mercy cover, designed by Lisa Marie Pompilio. It’s *chef’s kiss* perfection. The colors, the graphics … everything about that cover perfectly conveys the warmth and whimsy and weirdness of the novel. Actually, if you take a look at all of Orbit’s covers, you’ll see that the design team is amazing.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle (perhaps against a hoard of drudge!) and why?
This is a great opportunity for me to honor the courage and endearing surliness of a character in The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy: Saltlicker. Saltlicker is an equimaris (aka, a water horse) and he is a complete badass. But if I need to stick with standard mythological creatures, my eight-year-old, Clash-of-the-Titans-Superfan heart is going to have to go with Pegasus. I rode my yellow bicycle all over the neighborhood throughout the early 1980s, pretending that I was riding on the back of a wingèd horse. I flew, y’all. I flew.
Saltlicker is a perfect choice!
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual events our readers may be interested in?
I’m going to have an in-person launch event at my local indie bookstore in Kansas City, Rainy Day Books, and I’ll also be heading to Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri, for an in-conversation event and signing. I’ll be announcing a couple of virtual events soon, so feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram (@meganbannen) for details.
Can you tell us anything about any other upcoming projects? Do you plan to ever revisit Tanria and perhaps write future sequels? (Please 🤞🏽)
I have several irons in the fire, but nothing that I’m at liberty to talk about just yet. I’d love to revisit Tanria someday, but that is up to the publishing gods. Fingers crossed!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is a fun book, so I hope readers are entertained by it, and that it provides a nice escape from the complete dumpster fire that is the world right now. But while the novel isn’t terribly serious, it does deal with death and grief and loss, so I hope that readers will also find solace and comfort in these pages.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thanks for having me!
The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy is out 25th August in the UK, but you can preorder a copy HERE