Kendra Merritt has relied on books as an escape route for as long as she can remember. She used to hide fantasy novels behind her government textbook in high school, and she wrote most of her first novel during a semester of college algebra. Now older and wiser (but just as nerdy), she writes comedic fantasy and fairy tale stories starring disabled protagonists. Her work was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards and the Colorado Author’s League Awards. When she’s not writing, she reads, and when she’s not reading, she plays video games. She lives in Denver with her very tall husband, her book-loving offspring, and a lazy black monster who poses as a service dog.
Sunlight: Tell us the backstory of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme come from?
KM Merritt: Magic and Misrule is a comedic fantasy about the world’s most inept heroes who come together and find any ways NOT to save the day. So, as you can imagine, it grew out of many, many girls’ nights playing Guild Wars 2 and Dungeons and Dragons.
I really wanted to capture that feeling of ridiculousness and camaraderie that comes from trying to save the world—and failing spectacularly—before backing out and figuring out how to actually save it.
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.
Put this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you choose it?
This choice comes very early in the story, once our heroine Vola, a half-orc paladin, has found a quest that will hopefully help her earn her shield. But now she needs help. An adventure party in the traditional sense. Unfortunately, the choices are limited to a hyperactive halfling she just met, a clumsy spellcaster, and a monosyllabic mystery.
i love this scene It was one of the first to be fully formed in my mind before I started writing. It’s the first moment we see Vola and the others start interacting. Here we see that these are our heroes… and how bad they will be at it.
Tell us about the making of this book. What influences and/or experiences shaped the project before you actually started writing?
I’ve always written about characters who are a little different. Maybe because I’m a bit different myself. Imagine. Adventurous girls doing magic in a wheelchair. Romantic heroines with calm strength and crutches. So it wasn’t far from my mind to write about an orc trying to break the mold. Or a grumpy ranger still trying to find himself.
The fun part of it all was deciding which fantasy and gaming stereotypes to twist and how far they would bend before breaking. Make fun of the armor rating of leather bikinis? Check. Do you find a swamp dragon as disgusting as it is mean? Check. Meet the flirtatious, racy bard who turns out to be the most committed monogamous relationship of all time? Check.
With a solid fantasy background, it was all the more interesting to find the cracks in the tropes I grew up with… and expand them a bit.
After you started writing, has the story taken you in unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
I wanted to write something fun and entertaining, but apparently I can’t just write fluffy. Without realizing it, meaning crept in from every page until I realized I was actually writing about racism, prejudice, gender identity, and various types of female power and friendship.
And in the end that makes sense. Finding humor in hurt is ultimately how I approach life and how I understand the big problems I see in the world. It’s my way of dealing with it, but also my way of trying to show the world the value and strength of people who are a little different.
Ultimately, I’m glad it decided to stray 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 or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I’ve been writing for over 20 years. This was my seventh book in print. I was so excited to start this project with characters that already felt like old friends. I didn’t expect it to be a challenge.
But writing pure comedy turned out to be a lot harder than I thought it would be. There were points where I had to make a conscious decision to lean into the ridiculous rather than away from it. I remember going to my husband to ask him “Have they fallen into the swamp too many times?” or “How many times can a wizard set his friends on fire?”
I had to learn to trust that my sense of humor wasn’t so outlandish that others wouldn’t find it funny. And that was surprisingly difficult.
Did the book raise questions or elicit strong opinions from your readers? How did you address her?
I obviously love it when a reader tells me I made them laugh. If I can make you laugh out loud, I feel like I’ve done my job. But the stories that stick with me the most are the readers finding themselves in Vola or Talon. Or Lillie or Sorrel. The readers who look at a non-binary ranger and think, “That’s me.” Who sees a monk who doesn’t have the time or inclination for romance and says, “I know how she feels.” Who watches how a half-orc fighting the prejudices of the world and thinking, “I was there.”
Accompany us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
The truth is, as quick as I am, stories take a long time to come together before I ever sit down to put words to paper. As I work on other projects, it takes me months to grow each character in my head, figuring out where they came from and where they’re going. How they react and interact.
I take the time to flesh out the story 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, I do that for each book before I start so I know where it all connects and where to lay out the breadcrumbs in advance.
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 has a chance to distract me. The idea is that by then I know the story well enough that the first draft is easy. That’s absolutely what happens and I don’t spend weeks banging my head on my keyboard wondering why life is so hard.
The work is loaded from the front. 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 even started flowing.
They crowdfunded this project. How was this process and what benefits did it bring?
The Kickstarter process was a lot of fun and a great success. The project got funded much quicker than I expected and almost half of my supporters came from outside of my existing fan base, which was a big surprise. That meant the series started with a really solid foundation and support from brand new readers who loved Vola and the others as much as I did.
It also meant I could fund the audio books by working with a brilliant narrator who brings the characters to life in new ways. It was so exciting to hear them for the first time – and every time since, if we’re being honest. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to work with Kristin James on the Mishap’s Heroes series. She’s now both in my head and in the audiobooks Vola’s voice giving so much heart to my favorite orc and hitting every punch line.
Tell us about your next project.
Next, I go back to an older series. The “Mal der Kleinen” is a fairy tale series with main characters with disabilities. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on disabilities very similar to my own: a maid Marian in a wheelchair, a Cinderella who walks on crutches, a cadet cop with OCD, and Little Red Riding Hood with chronic pain.
But when I talk to readers, the question I get most often is, “Do you have any characters with autism?” Well, 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 say it’s going to be one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Good thing I enjoy challenges, and I know that giving teenagers a different kind of hero to look up to will be worth it in the end.