Sunday Brunch: A Chat with Authors Alexandra Bracken and Megan Bannen

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the chance to sit down with authors Alexandra Bracken and Megan Bannen and ask them a few questions each. Up first, Alexandra Bracken!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your most recent novel? 

I’ve wanted to write a story rooted in Greek mythology for years—pretty much from childhood! My mom’s side of the family is Greek, and she introduced me to the myths at a very young age as a way of starting to talk about that heritage. I wish my story ideas came to me in lightning bolts of inspiration, but the truth is that they’re usually pieced together from a pile of things I’ve been thinking about or toying with. 

For example, with Lore, while I’ve been trying to brainstorm a Greek mythology-inspired book on and off over the years, I’ve also been playing around with the idea of writing a contemporary fantasy and a hunt or competition-style book. So many Greek myths are centered around hunts and competitions that those two pieces finally clicked together, but it took a lot of brainstorming to figure out how to make the core idea feel modern. Later, the heart of the story flowed naturally from the conversations we were having as a society around #MeToo and patriarchal power structures. It made me start thinking again about the problems I’d had with the myths as a kid, particularly around the depictions of sexual violence and the harsh way women were frequently punished for ambition or anger in the stories. 

I’d toyed with doing various retellings over the years, but nothing ever felt exactly right to me until this idea came along and Lore started chatting to me and telling me about her life. 

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why? 

That’s a really good question. I think all characters end up with a tiny piece of their author, but I actually consider all of the Lore characters to be very different from me! Lore is probably the one I relate to the most because she inherited my sense of humor and tendency to romanticize New York City and because we both have very strong opinions on how bagels should be prepared.  

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now? 

You know, I think they’ve always been popular, and they always will be because that unique-ness makes them interesting. And when it comes to writing books, interesting is king! The trick is to make sure these characters have authenticity and real humanity, because that’s really what readers connect to emotionally, no matter if they have superpowers, they’re vampires, or immortal. Lore is an extremely competent fighter and is wrangling gods in the book, but I hope that you still feel her pain and shame over the loss of her family, that you understand her love for her city and friends, and that you see her making mistakes and being a bit of an a-hole at times. Though they would absolutely never acknowledge it, even the gods have what feel like very human moments of connection and anguish.

Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it. 

I joking refer to Lore as my “Murder Olympics” book, but let’s see if I can quickly pitch it: Lore is set in modern times in New York City, where a secret hunt is taking place. Every seven years, for seven days, nine Greek gods are cursed by Zeus to walk as mortals and be hunted by the descendants of some of mythology’s greatest heroes. If one of the hunters can kill a god, they can take that god’s power and immortality… but in seven years, they’ll become one of the hunted themselves. Lore, the last of Perseus’ descendants, is living in hiding after the murder of her family at the end of the last hunt but is drawn back into the next cycle when a wounded Athena shows up on her doorstep. If Lore will help Athena survive the next few days, Athena will give her the one thing Lore thought impossible: revenge on the man-turned-god who killed her family. 

This book is a bit darker and more violent than my past work, but it’s really a story about resilience in the face of true darkness, and confronting the past so we can move forward into a better future. There’s romance, action, and humor, as well as some big ol’twists. 

What’s next for you in the bookish world? 

I’m currently finishing up a proposal that I’ve been working on for the last two or so years. Like Lore, it’s gone through a lot of different iterations, but I think I’ve figured out the exact right path for it going forward and I’m really excited and hopeful that everyone will get to read it in the future! 

Who is your current favorite writer? Why? 

I can honestly say that I don’t have a favorite writer right now—there are too many I admire to choose just one! So, instead, I’ll recommend a few great reads I loved this year: A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown had such incredible worldbuilding and this really gorgeous thread about the power of storytelling running through it. Alexandra Christo’s To Kill a Kingdom was such a cool take on The Little Mermaid—and by “cool” I mean vicious, dark, and a glorious page-turner. I don’t tend to read YA while I’m drafting or revising a project (which has been pretty much all of 2020 for me) but I devour romance novels. I became straight-up obsessed with the first book in Evie Dunmore’s The League of Extraordinary Women series last year and tore through the new book this year, only to immediately re-read them

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?  

Just begin! It always feels scary to set out to create something or try to achieve a new dream, but that fear is trying to keep you “safe” from disappointment and will always hold you back if you let it. There’s no real secret to writing beyond learning about craft (the way stories are constructed) and just practicing as much as possible. I always recommend prioritizing having fun with your story and characters over putting pressure on yourself to be published. Your love of your work will be the thing to carry you through the inevitable ups and downs of the journey. 

Up next, Megan Bannen!
Aurora: What was your inspiration behind Soulswift?

Like The Bird and the Blade, which was inspired by an opera, Soulswift began with music. Sometime in early 2016, I started kicking around the idea of writing a book that would make readers feel the way Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” feels to me. It was one of several ideas I was considering at the time, but it slowly took hold and set down roots.

“The Lark Ascending” is a well-known work for violin and orchestra, and I think one of the reasons it has endured for more than a hundred years is that it’s incredibly emotional. There’s a very deep strain of sadness in the music, and yet Vaughn Williams renders it exquisitely beautiful. I listened to it over and over until, one day, as I pulled into the parking lot at work, I envisioned the final moments of the book, and I thought, “Huh. What would make that happen?” Soulswift is my attempt to answer that question. 

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?

Since I wanted to write a book that would reflect my own struggles with faith as a teen, Gelya (the first person narrator of the story) is the character to whom I most relate. Like my teenaged self, she doesn’t want to doubt her faith, and yet she can’t stop herself from questioning what she has been taught to believe. Also, like me, she’s tall and gawky. I feel that, Gelya! 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

Honestly, I don’t think powerful and unique characters ever go out of style. That’s why so many people can still relate to Elizabeth Bennet, right? But fantasy is an interesting genre in that it’s usually world-driven or plot-driven rather than character-driven. So if you tell a story in a fantasy setting that is extremely intimate, that has more to do with the development of unique and fleshed-out characters than the fate of the world, you’re either going to bore the socks off readers who want high stakes action and adventure, or you’re going to reel in readers who want to see their own thoughts and dreams and struggles presented in a metaphorical setting that makes them feel deeply understood. There’s nothing wrong with world-driven or plot-driven fantasies; they use world and plot well to symbolize large scale problems in our own world. But I tend to prefer to invest my time reading books through which I can better understand a problem or issue via the intimate experiences of engaging characters, so that’s what I tend to write (I hope).

Please describe the content of Soulswift and what can readers expect from it.

Soulswift is the story of Gelya, a girl who has been chosen by the One True God to be the vessel of His holy word on earth. According to Gelya’s religion, a saint imprisoned a terrible demon hundreds of years ago to save the souls of the faithful from Her earthly temptations, but a small sect remains that believes this entity is the goddess of life, the Mother, who must be set free. Tavik, an enemy soldier, manages to open Her prison, but he inadvertently turns Gelya into the trapped spirit’s unwilling human vessel. Now the religion that raised Gelya considers her a threat, and she has no choice but to throw in her lot with Tavik in order to get this thing—demon or goddess—out of her body. Both Gelya and Tavik find themselves questioning everything they’ve been taught to believe about truth and morality.

That’s the long version. The short version is this: Soulswift is a story about a girl and her body.

Readers can expect a lot of action from this book and a plot twist or two as well. They can also expect to laugh a little and cry a lot. But more than anything, I hope that readers will sympathize with and relate to Gelya’s plight as she tries to regain control over her own life and her own choices. 

What inspired you to write a fantasy that tackles themes of religion, beliefs and personal betrayal with such immersive characters?

YA books tend to tackle the universal issues that teens grapple with most: coming of age, first love, personal identity, social injustice, and so forth. These are all important and necessary topics. But my own teen experience was defined by my struggle with faith, and while there are several great YA books that touch on this subject—Calling My Name by Liara Tamani is a great example—it’s still a fairly uncommon theme in teen literature. 

I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school. I lived in a Catholic neighborhood. Everyone I knew and loved was Catholic. And this is not to say that I resent or regret the way I was raised. I don’t at all. But even in my preteen years, there were things about my religion that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was certain that I didn’t believe what everyone around me held as absolute truth, and it was terrifying. I felt guilt and fear, and I didn’t know who to talk to about it or how. Now that I’m an adult, I know that my experience wasn’t singular, so I wanted to write a book for teens that tackled religious doubt. It seemed like the best way to do that was through a raw and vulnerable first person narrator. I hope Gelya’s story helps at least one young adult feel a little less alone in the world. 

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

I’m afraid that I’m not currently at liberty to talk about what’s next for me in the bookish world, so I’ll just say this: I have several irons in the fire, and they all have happy endings! 

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

It’s hard to name just one, but Naomi Novik is up there for me. Her worlds are so fresh and inventive, and I love everything she has to say about what makes a woman powerful. She creates compelling characters, full of strengths and foibles, and through them, she adds something that every book needs: a sense of humor. A little humor goes a long way with me, particularly in books that deal with weighty subjects.

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?

It’s very easy to conflate writing a novel with publishing a novel, but they are actually two separate and very different things. You have almost no control over whether or not your book gets published, so my advice is to focus on the writing. And, because there are no guarantees in publishing, you have to find a reason to write that is personally fulfilling to you. Your book may never see the light of day, but that doesn’t mean the process of writing it isn’t worth it. If telling yourself that story means something to you personally, it’s definitely worth writing it, whether it gets published or not. The good news is that if you don’t rush or short-shrift the writing process, you are far more likely to create an amazing (and publishable!) book.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases. 
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