Monica Byrne’s new book, THE GIRL IN THE ROAD, just came out yesterday and she kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Congratulations on your new book, THE GIRL IN THE ROAD! You’re a playwright and have degrees in Geochemistry and Biochemistry, but have you always wanted to write a novel? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background, and that progression?
I have always wanted to write a novel, in fact. I used to joke that I’d write my first novel after I got back from Mars.
I wanted to be an astronaut till I was twenty-four. I had a change of heart while in graduate school at MIT that can be summarized as, “Can I actually just do something that gives me pleasure, instead of makes me miserable?” Answering “yes” was one of the great liberating moments of my life. After I finished a thesis, I moved down to Durham and started writing and performing.
Will you tell us more about the book, and about Meena and Mariama?
My agent pointed out to me that the three major characters of the book are named Meena, Mariama, and Yemaya—in other words, goddess figures in the Hindu, Judeo-Christian-Islamic, and Yorùbá religions. I hadn’t planned that at all. I love how mythic archetypes bubble up unconsciously.
What inspired you to write it?
A poem in a Buddhist magazine, Tricycle. I saw the words “bridge” and “ocean” appear on top of each other and suddenly had an idea about a floating pontoon bridge that spans the entire sea, and a lone traveler, walking across it. I couldn’t get it out of my head.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting things you learned?
I traveled to Ethiopia, India, and the South Pacific on fellowship to do in situ research; I just journaled that whole time. When I was actually writing the novel, I read lots of nonfiction books and also did tons of online research. There’s so much materia—people in Ouagadougou or Niamey or Mumbai who just stick their mobile phone on the dashboard of their friend’s taxi one day, and then upload it onto YouTube.
Why do you think readers will connect with Meena and Mariama?
Hmm. I don’t really have control over whether readers will connect with them. They’re parts of me, which is why I wrote them; readers may or may not connect with them. But in general, I think the “connection” aspect of the reading experience is overrated. As if reading can and should only be an ultimately comforting experience.
What would you like to see readers take away from The Girl in the Road?
I’d like them to internalize the story in their solar plexuses.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Kim Stanley Robinson, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Renault, J. K. Rowling, Arundhati Roy, Norman Rush, Zadie Smith, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Haruki Murakami, Frank Herbert, and Jorge Luis Borges.
What are you currently reading?
For this crazy time in my life?—A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in Game of Thrones. Wonderful serial adventure!
When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
Reading. Traveling. Eating Cuban pork sandwiches. Working out. Singing along loudly to Led Zeppelin in my apartment. Reading. Going to my friends’ plays and art openings and films. Traveling. Reading. Working out.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel set in the Maya lowlands of western Belize, specifically a cave called Actun Tunichil Muknal. It cast a spell on me when I first visited in 2012 and I’ve been back a dozen times since. San Ignacio has become a second home to me.
About THE GIRL IN THE ROAD:
In a world where global power has shifted east and revolution is brewing, two women embark on vastly different journeys—each harrowing and urgent and wholly unexpected.
When Meena finds snakebites on her chest, her worst fears are realized: someone is after her and she must flee India. As she plots her exit, she learns of The Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge spanning the Arabian Sea that has become a refuge for itinerant vagabonds and loners on the run. This is her salvation. Slipping out in the cover of night, with a knapsack full of supplies including a pozit GPS system, a scroll reader, and a sealable waterproof pod, she sets off for Ethiopia, the place of her birth.
Meanwhile, Mariama, a young girl in Africa, is forced to flee her home. She joins up with a caravan of misfits heading across the Sahara. She is taken in by Yemaya, a beautiful and enigmatic woman who becomes her protector and confidante. They are trying to reach Addis Abba, Ethiopia, a metropolis swirling with radical politics and rich culture. But Mariama will find a city far different than she ever expected—romantic, turbulent, and dangerous.
As one heads east and the other west, Meena and Mariama’s fates are linked in ways that are mysterious and shocking to the core.