Monica Byrne’s bio is full of fascinating tidbits: daughter to a religion professor, dreamed of being the first person on Mars, studied astrobiology before moving to writing. Now, she’s the author of The Girl in the Road, the debut literary/sci-fi novel that’s drawing acclaim from reviewers and fellow writers. It’s the subject of our first Stake Reading Club—and today, we get to know Monica a bit and prepare to start reading with a few questions.
The Girl in the Road has such a fascinating premise—the global setting, the dual quests, the “energy harvesting bridge” across the entire ocean. What was the seed out of which this novel grew, and once you found it, how did you know the idea was one that had legs?
Why, thank you!
I just read a wonderful interview with Kim Stanley Robinson where he was asked whether his books start as a world-building exercise, or whether the story calls the world into being. For The Girl in the Road, it was very much the latter—I had an image of a bridge that spanned the entire ocean, so then I had to build a world around it. That world became my own world, filtered and fragmented and put back together again.
An idea “having legs” is a great way to look at it. If the initial excitement of an idea lasts, then I know it’s real and must be acted upon. My Moleskin is full of images and phrases that seemed glorious when they first occurred to me, but didn’t withstand the test of time—“man in a Christmas sweater with a gun” or “He-Man hero planet.” It’s purely a physical thing. Does the phrase give me butterflies in my stomach when I read it? No? Then I move on to one that does.
As futuristic and fantastical as the book description is, it also seems to be rooted in the world as we see it today—geopolitics, the global economy, and the situation of women in what we often call “the developing world.” Was any of this on your mind as you were writing this story?
For sure. The world in The Girl in the Road is just an educated extrapolation of the one that exists today, which is why I’m puzzled by readers who call it “dystopian” or “postapocalyptic”—in fact, I very much wanted to avoid those flavors while writing.
I grew up in the 90s, which, given the approach of millennium’s end, saw its fair share of hysterical prophesying. I remember watching a special on Fox or somesuch about how the U.S. was due to experience a catastrophic earthquake, as predicted by Nostradamus, and of course there was almost an erotic thrill in watching their animation of the Mississippi flooding the entire Midwest. But now it’s 2014. We have had incredible disasters—9/11, Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami—but, we go on. The world goes on. That’s the lesson I’ve grown up with. And as my friend Samuel Montgomery-Blinn pointed out, postapocalyptic fiction may well be disproportionately embraced by white men who’d like to erase the slate [of progress] and [re]remake the world in their image.
Also, I wouldn’t say that the situation of women in the developing world is separable or even necessarily distinct from the situation of women in the developed world (acknowledging, as you did, that “developed/developing” is an imperfect terminology). Oppression and marginalization take many forms. Of course I’m not escaping literal slavery, as my character Mariama is, but I’m part of a world fabric that allows it to exist, and certainly feel the daily effects of being born in a female body in this world, which are impossible to understand unless you have one. The dilemmas are related.
Your bio reveals quite a stew of influences—daughter of a religion professor, dreamed of being the first human on Mars, studied astrobiology and geochemistry, then ended up in India and Ethiopia on fellowship. Will we see all these influences in The Girl in the Road?
Oooh. Some! You’ll definitely see topics of religion and oceanography (my upbringing and science degree put to good use), and the novel draws deeply on my experiences in both India and Ethiopia.
But other influences are absent. For example, at a certain point, it was a conscious decision not to address extraterrestrial life. Once an astrobiologist, always an astrobiologist; and also I’m an optimist and an artist, so I thought that by 2068, surely we’d have made contact of some kind. But it’s such a game-changer. It’s like using a spice that overwhelms the whole soup. I wanted The Girl in the Road to be a “bottle book”—to address humanity in its present state.
Aliens might show up in the next book…
Let’s talk about genre for a second. The Girl in the Road is science fiction—though it seems to be one of those books that people have a hard time definitively classifying. When you were writing this book, did you think of yourself as writing in a genre? Of being part of a genre tradition, or multiple traditions? Of adoption—or defying—certain conventions?
I definitely wanted The Girl in the Road to defy classification, and it seems like it’s mostly succeeding, which pleases me. But I also made an early and conscious choice for it to be marketed as literary fiction. So many of my favorite writers seem to get pigeonholed into genre in a way that hurts their careers, and I wanted mine to resemble Margaret Atwood’s or Haruki Murakami’s, two writers who appeal to readers across genres.
Having said that, I have no problem with The Girl in the Road being described as science fiction! It’s certainly accurate to what I understand the term to mean. If we want to get into sub-genres, I actually just read A Transrealist Manifesto by Rudy Rucker and was like, “Huh, he just described everything I tried to do.” And he published it when I was two! Nothing new under the sun.*
*Except when there is. I’m trying to find that out.
Related: when you write, do you find yourself in conversation with certain writers and stories? If so, which writers and what stories did you have in your head as you wrote The Girl in the Road?
For sure! I kept a stack of influences on my desk while I wrote, and referenced them constantly.
In terms of style, I just try to outright copy Norman Rush, and I’m fine with that. Mating is my style Bible.
In terms of boldness, I tried to match Nnedi Okorafor, who has a bottomless imagination. I remember reading Zahrah the Windseeker and thinking, “Oh. You can write like this? With this much abandon?”
In terms of structure, I drew on Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which has a spiral shape that swirls faster and faster around the drain when you get near the end. It ends in the center.
In terms of themes, Toni Morrison was hugely influential. I returned to scenes in Beloved and Sula over and over—the woodshed, the infidelity—trying to understand how she did what she did, that mix of naturalism and myth.
In terms of scope and ambition, Kim Stanley Robinson is my patron saint. His books blow me away. He draws the daily rhythms of his characters from an atomic to a cosmic level and back again in a single paragraph. It’s endlessly thrilling. Whenever I finish one of his books, I think, well, there’s a complete portrait of humanity.
And then there’s my holy trinity of short stories: “Small Change,” “Schrödinger’s Cat,” and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” by Ursula K. Le Guin, from The Compass Rose. I read and reread those. I just want to be as good as those, all the time.
You’re a playwright in addition to being a novelist. What was it like, moving from one form to another? Do you feel like what you’ve done in The Girl in the Road is of a piece with your plays, or does the novel signal a new direction for you as an artist?
I actually started as a fiction writer—I never intended to be a playwright at all! I only wrote my first play because I needed to write something, something fun with no stakes, because the novel wasn’t ready to come out yet.
In fiction, there is only one channel of information being conveyed—text—and I as the author have complete control over that. I love that. But I also love theatre for the opposite reason, that there are so many channels of information—text and speech and movement and lights and set and music and dance and film—and I control only one of them, and then, just get to enjoy watching other people be brilliant within the space I created.
Also, theatre is of course more social. Most of my friends are performers. I definitely intend to keep writing both!
You’ve got a great mission statement on your website: “There’s an infinite number of stories to tell. I intend to tell as many as I can. The universe is big.” What do these three simple statements mean to you, and how have they guided your work?
Ah, well…my birth symbol is a star. (I’m the youngest of five, and my parents all gave us birth symbols. The others are butterfly, flower, sage, and seashell.) So the night sky, and the infinite possibility they represent (whole other planets! civilizations! languages! cultures! arts! stories!), have always been my wellspring. I just love art that is wild and strange and dreamlike and dark and joyous all at once.
I also have a sense of very limited time. Probably because my mother died young. I worry that I won’t live long enough to do all the things I want to do—especially, write all the stories I want to write—and so, have a feeling of deep urgency that I’m beginning to realize not many people have. It’s a blessing and a curse. I wish I could live till I was 150.
Okay, last question. We’ve all got our copies of The Girl in the Road, and we’re going to start reading soon. Anything you’d like to tell us before we flip that first page?
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.