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KM Merritt sought humor, heart for heroes with disabilities

Kendra Merritt has relied on books as an escape for as long as she can remember. She used to hide fantasy novels behind her government textbook de ella in high school, and she wrote most of her first novel de ella during a semester of college algebra. Older and wiser now (but just as nerdy) she writes comedic fantasy and fairytales with main characters who have disabilities. Her work by Ella has been a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards and the Colorado Author’s League Awards. If she’s not writing, she’s reading, and if she’s not reading, she’s playing video games. She lives in Denver with her very tall husband, their book loving progeny, and a lazy black monster masquerading as a service dog.


SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

K. M. Merritt: “Magic and Misrule” is comedic fantasy about the world’s most inept heroes who get together and figure out all the ways NOT to save the day. So as you can imagine, it was born out of many, many girls’ nights playing Guild Wars 2 and Dungeons and Dragons.

I really wanted to capture that sense of the ridiculous and the camaraderie that comes from trying to save the world — and failing spectacularly — before, you know, resetting and figuring out how to actually save it.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

This selection comes very early in the story, as soon as our hero, Vola, a half-orc paladin, has found a quest that will hopefully help her earn her shield. But now she’s going to need some help. An adventuring party in the traditional sense. Unfortunately, the selection is limited to a hyperactive halfling she’s just met, a klutzy spellcaster, and a monosyllabic mystery.

I love this scene. It was one of the first to be fully formed in my head before I started writing. It’s the first moment where we see Vola and the others starting to interact. It’s where we see that these are our heroes…and just how bad they’re going to be at it.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?

I’ve always written about characters who are a little different. Maybe because I’m a little different myself. Imagine that. Adventurous girls wielding magic from wheelchairs. Romance heroines with quiet strength and crutches. So it wasn’t that far out of my way to write about an orc who was trying to break the mold. Or a grumpy ranger who is still trying to find themselves.

The fun part of it all was deciding which fantasy and gaming stereotypes to twist and how far they would bend before they would break. Poking fun at the armor value of leather bikinis? Check. Finding a swamp dragon as disgusting as it is mean? Check. Meeting the flirty, salacious bard who turns out to be in the most committed monogamous relationship ever? Check.

Having a solid fantasy background made it just that much more interesting to find the cracks in the tropes that I grew up loving…and widen them just a bit.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

I set out to write something funny and entertaining, but apparently, I can’t just write fluff. Without realizing it, meaning crept in on all sides until I realized I was actually writing about racism, prejudice, gender identity, and different types of female strength and friendships.

And in the end, that makes sense. Finding humor in the hurt is ultimately how I deal with life and how I make sense of those big problems I see in the world. It’s my way of coping but also my way of trying to make the world see the value and strength in people who are a little different.

Ultimately, I’m glad it decided to veer from the original path. Now I can tell people it’s humor with a lot of heart. And it’s always good to alliterate.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?

I’ve been writing for over 20 years. This was my seventh book in print. It was a project I was so excited to start with characters that already felt like old friends. I was not expecting it to be challenging.

But it turned out to be a lot harder to write pure comedy than I thought it would. There were places where I had to make a deliberate choice to lean into the ridiculous rather than away from it. I remember going to my husband to ask “Have they fallen into the swamp too much?” or “How many times can a wizard set fire to her friends from her?”

I had to learn to trust that my sense of humor wasn’t so off the wall that other people wouldn’t find it funny. And that was surprisingly hard.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Obviously, I love it when a reader tells me that I made them laugh. If I can make you chuckle out loud, I feel like I’ve done my job. But the stories that stick with me the most are the readers who see themselves in Vola or Talon. Or Lillie or Sorrel. The readers who look at a non-binary ranger and think, “That’s me.” Who see a monk who has no time or desire for romance and say, “I know how she feels.” Who watch a half-orc fight against the prejudice of the world and think, “I’ve been there.”

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?

The truth is, as fast of a writer as I am, stories take a long time to come together before I ever sit down to put words on paper. While I’m working on other projects, I’ll take months to grow each character in my mind, figure out where they’re coming from, where they’re going. How they react and interact.

I take the time to plot out the story that I see growing in my head. First as a paragraph, then as a page, then as a full outline. If it’s a series like this one, I do this for every book before I start so I know where everything connects and where to lay out the breadcrumbs ahead of time.

Only when I have both characters and a solid plot can I sit down to write. Usually in the morning before the rest of the day you have a chance to distract me. The idea is that by then I know the story well enough that the first draft is easy. That is absolutely what happens and I don’t spend weeks banging my head on my keyboard wondering why life is so hard.

The work is front loaded. I’m an excessive planner with color-coded notes that make me look like a crazy person. So, when I say I can write a book in a month, just remember all the blood and sweat that went into it before the words ever started flowing.

You crowd funded this project. What was that process like and what benefits has it brought?

The Kickstarter process was enormously fun and turned out wildly successful. The project was funded much faster than I anticipated and nearly half my backers came from outside my existing fan base, which was a huge surprise. It meant that the series launched with a really solid foundation and support from brand new readers who ended up loving Vola and the others as much as I did.

It also meant I could fund the audiobooks, working with a brilliant narrator who brings the characters to life in new ways. It was such a thrill to get to hear them for the first time — and every time since, if we’re honest. I am so glad I got to work with Kristin James on the “Mishap’s Heroes” series. She is now Vola’s voice in my head as well as in the audiobooks, giving my favorite orc so much heart and nailing every punch line.

Tell us about your next project.

I’m actually going back to an older series next. The “Mark of the Least” is a series of fairytales with main characters with disabilities. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on disabilities that look a lot like my own: a Maid Marian in a wheelchair, a Cinderella who walks with crutches, a cadet cop with OCD, and a Little Red Riding Hood with chronic pain.

But whenever I talk to readers, the question I get the most is, “Do you have any characters with autism?” So, I’m finally writing one. My next project will be a retelling of The Prince and the Pauper with an autistic heroine.

I’m so excited and so scared to tell this story. It’s going to be amazing, but I can already tell it’s going to be one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Good thing I enjoy a challenge, and I know it will be worth it in the end to give teenagers a different kind of hero to look up to.


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