Author Spotlight: Megan Bannen talks The Bird and the Blade
I'm thrilled to be hosting author, Megan Bannen, on the blog today! In addition to being a writer, Megan is also a librarian. Her YA debut, THE BIRD AND THE BLADE, released yesterday. Described as a Mongolian fantasy retelling of “Prince Khalaf and the Princess of China,” THE BIRD AND THE BLADE also draws from Puccini’s opera Turandot. This lush and powerful story is perfect for fans of The Wrath and the Dawn.
Check out the Q&A below and be sure to catch Megan at one of her many book tour stops this summer!
And now, here's my chat with Megan!
Hi, Megan! Welcome and congrats on the release of The Bird and the Blade. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired it?
Hi, fellow Megan! Thanks so much for inviting me for a chat on your blog.
The Bird and the Blade is a retelling of a story called “Prince Khalaf and the Princess of China,” but I tell it from a different protagonist’s point of view. Jinghua is a slave in the Kipchak Khanate. When the khanate is defeated in battle, she hitches a ride east with the exiled Prince Khalaf and his father in the hopes that she’ll be able to return to her home in Lin’an (modern day Hangzhou, China). She ends up falling hard for Khalaf who has decided to restore his kingdom by marrying the daughter of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, Turandokht. The problem is that Turandokht requires her suitors to answer three riddles correctly or face execution. Jinghua is the only person who can help Khalaf answer the riddles, but as a result, she must choose between saving the prince’s life and her own freedom. I was inspired to write the book from the slave girl’s point of view while listening to Puccini’s opera Turandot. It occurred to me that this character was the true hero of the story, and I decided to rewrite it with her as the main character.
Set in the Mongol Empire, what was your research process like for The Bird and the Blade?
There’s some scholarly evidence that links the Turandokht stories to the Mongol Empire, particularly to a very impressive Mongol woman named Khutulun who was known for defeating all her suitors in wrestling matches. (How great is that??) I realized that I knew next to nothing about the Mongols and set out to learn as much as I could about that time period. Once I had a general overview, I wrote and researched concurrently so that as book-specific questions arose, I could track down the answer at the same time. That research process was true of the Song Dynasty as well. It’s still stunning to me how little exposure I had to non-European history during my formal education, but through the process of researching the world of this novel, I now have a better sense as to just how vast my ignorance truly is. At any rate, I think that by the time I was turning up a doctoral dissertation on tea culture in the Song Dynasty, my public library’s Interlibrary Loan Department thought I was a bit eccentric.
What intrigues you most about Jinghua as a POV character?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I’ve been frustrated with terms like “strong girls” and “badass female characters” lately, because the implication is that not all girls are strong. I would argue strenuously that in the face of great hardship, girls tend to be far more resilient than their male counterparts. Women are used to making sacrifices. We’re used to putting others’ needs before our own. And that’s not weak. That’s an iron fist in a velvet glove. So with Jinghua, I wanted to write about a girl who is strong because she behaves in ways that are stereotypically coded as “female” and “weak.” No, she doesn’t kill people. No, she doesn’t defeat her enemy. And yet, she saves the day. The other characters in the book underestimate her, and I suspect that many readers will underestimate her, too. She even underestimates herself at times. But, like so many women, she does the hard thing—the selfless thing—day in and day out, and she does it with little to no recognition. That, my friends, is heroic.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
The second draft is the worst part for me. My first drafts are always crazy hot messes that make no sense, so when I get to the second draft, I have to start fixing all the weirdness I created in the first draft. And yet by the time I’m finished with Draft 2, the book is still terrible. The second draft is all slog and no pleasure. The only way I manage to get through it is with lots of coffee, too many pastries, and the stone cold discipline to power my way through.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing The Bird and the Blade teach you?
I love this question! First of all, I’d say that The Bird and the Blade taught me how to write a book: how to let go of perfection, how to finish a first draft, how to tackle revisions, how to take critique … everything. Writing is still incredibly difficult, but The Bird and the Blade taught me that I can do it if I just persevere. Secondly, this book taught me that writing a book is a way for my brain to work through some Big Life Issues. I write a novel, and then I take a step back to evaluate what it was my mind wanted to sort out. In the case of The Bird and the Blade, I was writing at a time when I felt like, as a wife and mother, I had no control over my own life, that I lived completely in the service of others in a way that was invisible. And yet, writing this novel taught me that what I was doing during that time of my life required an inner strength of character that was truly impressive. Mothers are the unsung superheroes of the world, y’all.
So many reviews of The Bird and the Blade describe your prose as rich and sumptuous. In terms of writing, how important is vibe to you and how do you go about crafting it?
Well, that’s nice! Thank you to anyone who thought my book was “rich and sumptuous”! I’d love to tell you that I set out to make my writing rich and sumptuous, but I’m not terribly deliberate about that sort of thing. I’m a former theater nerd, so I tend to approach writing the same way I approached acting: I just instinctively feel my way through the characters. My favorite books are ones rife with a sense of longing, and I wanted to make my own readers feel that way as they read The Bird and the Blade. The best way to accomplish that, in my mind, is through what the characters say and do rather than through the narrative.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
The hubs and I are currently hooked on West World, and I am mildly obsessed with Ranveer Singh movies. (Although what is up with the super inaccurate depiction of the Mongols in Padmaavat?? Why are they carrying axes into battle?? Where are the composite bows???) Also, I loved the show Nirvana in Fire (on viki.com), so I’m dangling Nirvana in Fire 2 as a carrot to motivate myself to get through a decent-ish revision of my current work in progress.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
I have no control over how my book is going to perform in the real world. All I can do is focus on writing the next book and the next and the next to the best of my abilities. And since I know I can’t please everyone, I really just set out to write books that please me. Even if The Bird and the Blade flops and no one wants to read a book by Megan Bannen ever again, I’ll keep writing for myself because it brings me deep, personal satisfaction.
Many thanks go out to Megan for taking the time to tell us more about her writing process and what inspired THE BIRD AND THE BLADE. Be sure to add this starred book to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Or you can always request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
For more information, be sure to follow Megan on Twitter and visit her full author website at meganbannen.com.
And, as always,