Durham author Monica Byrne‘s debut novel The Girl in the Road hit bookstores (and audiobook stores) last week, and both prior to and after publication the glowing reviews have piled up (from big names like Neil Gaiman, Kim Stanley Robinson, John Scalzi, and Helene Wecker, to blogs and ezines like Everyday eBook, to NPR and The Wall Street Journal). But it’s been a long, er, ahem, road for this writer, from dreaming of becoming an astronaut to “falling back in love” with her artistic impulses: writing, theater, improv. Her career as a playwright has already seen many accolades, particularly for What Every Girl Should Know, her 1914-set play in which “four young women in a New York reformatory adopt birth control activist Margaret Sanger as their secret patron saint” and which debuted in Durham ahead of a run in New York. Her latest play, the sex-and-diplomacy mingling Olympic Village-set Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, is also garnering rave reviews (and selling out its performances). Sex and genderqueer themes are no strangers to Byrne’s fiction, either, and both play central roles in The Girl in the Road. A “twenty-first-century myth” of a near future of rising oceans and shifting economic and political power, told in two alternating timelines: Meena, fleeing India along “The Trail”, an energy-capturing pontoon bridge which crosses the Arabian Sea, and Mariama, fleeing slavery in Mauritania on an Ethiopia-bound caravan. Their stories parallel and entwine and collide in an intricate, beautifully-written (and line-after-line quotable) story. Here, Byrne writes not about the struggles with finding the right words or what to spare or grant her characters, but instead about having written the book and having a vision for it, and having the guts to wait for the right opportunity, not just the first one.
By Monica Byrne:
For me, the hardest part is knowing when to say no.
But it gets easier with practice. And it’s essential.
I first sent the manuscript of The Girl in the Road out to agents in January 2012. After a month, I got my first offer from Agent #1, a friend who’d just started working at a good agency. I was absolutely thrilled. Someone had read my manuscript and said “This is a Thing.” We talked on the phone. He was warm and enthusiastic and loved the book.
Though I knew he would be a great advocate for the book, he thought a small indie publishing house would be the best fit, while I felt the book had enough mass market appeal for a larger house. I knew I wouldn’t feel we had strived to reach the book’s highest potential without at least submitting to the larger houses, and the misgivings manifested as a sour feeling in my stomach. I felt like I was crazy—I had gotten an offer, which was the holy grail in and of itself, right?
I said no to him.
For awhile, there was silence.
Then I got another offer.
Agent #2 was a senior agent at a very good agency. She was warm and enthusiastic, too. But she gave some feedback that didn’t sit well with me. She felt sure the book should be marketed as straight science fiction, whereas I still felt it could reach a broader audience and belonged with mainstream literary fiction.
I took a train to New York to meet her. We got along brilliantly on a personal level. After meeting her, I wandered down Lexington Avenue, thinking, How could I possibly pass up this offer, something so many writers dream about? But I couldn’t shake the feeling that she didn’t understand my characters the way I did, and she had a different vision for my book. Again, the misgivings manifested as a sour feeling in my stomach.
So I said no to her, too.
For a much longer while, there was silence.
Then—praise baby Jesus—Agent #3 made an offer.
He was a senior agent at a really, really good agency that represented Barbara Kingsolver and Adrienne Rich. I was in Belize at the time. He’d run out of the office on his lunch break to buy a webcam so he could talk to me on Skype. He was bubbling over with enthusiasm. He loved the characters. He loved the plot. He agreed that we should send it to all the editors of the top literary publishing houses.
I said yes to him. He sold my novel to Crown Publishing within a week.
And I’d never have been in a position to say yes to him if I hadn’t said no up until then.
May 28 (Wednesday) 7 pm — The Regulator Bookshop hosts Monica Byrne for the launch of her debut novel, The Girl in the Road. More info: http://regulatorbookshop.com/event/monica-byrne
May 29-31 (Thursday to Saturday), June 1 (Sunday), June 5-7 (Thursday to Saturday) — Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo at Manbites Dog Theater, with Thursday to Saturday 8:15 pm showings through June 7 and one Sunday 2 pm matinee on June 1. Directed by Jay O’Berski and presented by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, it’s “A hyper-sensually deep comedy about borders between bodies and nations. Set in the Olympic Village, a cell of international athletes train to become an elite task force of sexual operatives determined to bring down the divisions between countries.”
June 2 (Monday) 10 am — Carolina Book Beat hosts Durham author Monica Byrne for an on-air/Internet radio interview on WCOM-FM.
June 4 (Wednesday) 7 pm — Asheville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore hosts Durham author Monica Byrne for her debut post-apocalyptic novel The Girl in the Road. More info: http://www.malaprops.com/event/monica-byrne-presents-girls-road
June 14 (Saturday) 11 am — McIntyre’s Books hosts Monica Byrne – The Girl in the Road.