Interview with Monica Byrne (THE ACTUAL STAR)
Monica Byrne’s debut novel The Girl In The Road (2014) is a remarkable work of speculative fiction, weaving together the stories of two women in near future India and West Africa. It won the Otherwise Award and was nominated for the Kitschies’ Golden Tentacle award for debut speculative fiction novel. She is also an accomplished playwright whose acclaimed dramas have been performed across the US. Byrne has returned to long-form speculative fiction with her incredible new book, The Actual Star (2021), which weaves together three different timelines in the past, the present day and the far future to create a powerful exploration of Mayan cosmology, utopian future and our current era of climate collapse. It is a startling, unsettling, and gloriously ambitious work, and one of the most exciting speculative fiction novels released this year. Byrne was kind enough to speak to The Fantasy Hive over Zoom.
Your new book, The Actual Star, is out this month from Harper Voyager. Would you be able to tell us a bit about it?
Sure, it is an epic book that moves back and forth between the collapse of the ancient Maya, contemporary Belize, and the far future global utopia. But it all converges back on one cave, in the Belizean jungle.
It’s such a complex book, you have these three different strands in three different timelines. How did you go about creating something like that? Does it involve charts with diagrams showing the different stories across each part of the book?
It definitely did! I wish I had a picture. Originally it was a trilogy. And then, after it got rejected as a trilogy, I decided to make it all one book that just interweaves and braids together. And so I went to a coffee shop one afternoon. And I took colour-coded index cards, and just spent the entire day arranging them. Moving them around and moving them back and forth. And like, this scene could fit into this scene, and this scene would be good going into this scene, and so on and so forth. Then that became the backbone of the whole book. That was in fall of 2016. And then it took another three years to write and to sell as that book. But overall, the process took nine years.
Oh, goodness, yeah.
Yeah, it was a very long endeavour.
As it turns out, that whole process of braiding becomes a central metaphor in the text as well. The people in the future have that as the technique that they use to help them memorize stuff and engage with the technology that they use. When did you get a sense that what was a structural aspect would also be a metaphorical aspect of the book as well?
Yeah, at a certain point, I got really into braids! I was looking at mathematical proofs of braids. And when I get a theme stuck in my head, I go down the rabbit hole. And usually only a little bit of it shows up in the final product. But I remember there was a whole period where like, I wanted a braid on the cover, I wanted a braid on the spine. Braids, braids, braids, everywhere! I made sure that Leah and Ket, two of the main characters, always are wearing braids. It was one of those things that just sort of snuck in. But mostly it’s the structure. It’s like actually doing a braid where you do okay – 1012, 2012, 3012; 1012, 2012, 3012; and over and over until you get the entire length of the braid. So that’s mostly where it shows up. But you’re right, I went through a phase where I was putting it into everywhere until I was just like, this is too much!
For the strand set in 1012, you mention in the introduction that it’s based as much as possible on the research that exists about the Mayan people and Mayan philosophy. How much of that has survived and how much did you have to sort of fill in the gaps?
So very little of it has survived and that’s because of Diego de Landa. Diego de Landa was a Franciscan Spanish friar who both studied the Maya and helped destroy all of their existing texts. So the best account that we have of what the Maya were like, right around when Columbus arrived, is from him. And so it’s a double edged sword because we wish he had just like let all of the Mayan texts survive there. But it was Inquisition Spain, and they were hell bent on eradicating what they thought of as “the devil”. And that meant that all of the religious texts that survive are a handful of codices. There’s the Grolier Codex, Madrid Codex, Paris Codex, and Dresden Codex. I don’t think they’re pre-Columbian, I think they’re right around the time of colonial Spain. But basically, people were like, oh shit, we need to write things down! Those are the only things that survive. And so what we know of the ancient Maya is all just like, it is not conjecture. But it’s far less than we know about the ancient Egyptians, for example, far less than we know about the ancient Greeks. And that’s not because the Maya had less to contribute. It’s because their civilization was destroyed by settlers and colonizers. And so, you have to fill in the gaps with imagination and with praxes, like I say in the author’s note.
That theme of colonialization runs throughout the book. You have that horrific scene where the idiot tourist drops his iPhone through the ancient Mayan skull…
I mean, tourism is a form of neocolonialism. Belize’s second biggest industry is tourism. And so, again, it’s a double-edged sword because they depend on it. And so they need to make the country welcoming to tourists, but then tourists really have this sort of entitlement and carelessness about the country and the way they treat the country, and can treat the country with a lot of disrespect or carelessness. And that in my book is one example of that. There was a real incident where somebody dropped their phone through that exact skull, but I don’t know the circumstances of it. And I don’t know who did it or what the actual story is, but in my version of events, it’s a careless tourist.
The cave is a real place in modern day Belize now, that was a sacred site for these people. So did that shape how you wanted to approach writing about it?
It is a sacred site for the people still. And yeah, I worry sometimes that the book is going to increase tourism there in a negative way. What I hope to convey through the book is that it is a sacred site. It is absolutely a sacred site. And we as tourists are extraordinarily privileged to be able to enter it at all. There is a range among the tour guides who are there about how they approach it. There are tour guides who definitely approach it without respect. And are like, Oh, yeah, pick up the clay and paint your face and things like that. And that’s so bad! And the other tour guides really frown on that. But then there are some tourists who are like, yeah, we’re in the jungle, we’re gonna paint our face. And it’s just so gross and disrespectful. Most of the guides I know, and most of the guides that I have worked with are just like, y’all, we are lucky to be here. We are lucky to be here, we don’t know how long we’re going to be able to be here. They call them individuals in the cave, not remains. Because human remains are sacred, no matter where you find them. And they were probably put there for a purpose by people who had a purpose in putting them there. And so respecting that is part of the whole tour. It’s part of what is instilled upon us. And most of the guides I have been with are very cognizant of that. And so I tried to treat the cave with the same respect. Showing that there is a range of how the cave is treated by various tourists. But there is, I hope, moral judgment within the book of who is treating it well and who is not. And that becomes a certain behaviour about how anyone who would go to the cave, because of my book would also treat the cave. Because it’s a sacred place to me, I want other people to treat it as a sacred place.
And, in one of the other strands of the story goes into utopian future in 3012. One of the things that science fiction can be quite bad about is assuming that like, there’s this far future society where they have all these technological marvels, but it’s still the nuclear family, but in space. Whereas the society that you’ve created, you’ve thought about a different way that families and social structures and people might organize themselves in response to things like climate change. Would you’d be able to tell us a bit about that?
Yeah. I mean, “Golden Age” fiction is generally from the 50s and the 60s. And that’s the nuclear family and space stuff that you’re talking about. And I’ve never bonded with almost any of it. And I think it’s because it made me so angry that these supposedly genius, almost entirely men, could imagine far future faster than light travel and cannot imagine that a woman would ever be anything but a wife or a whore. That boggles my mind that they couldn’t imagine that. And then there’s humanist science fiction beginning in the 70s. And Ursula Le Guin, and then Kim Stalney Robinson building off of that, and many others that I haven’t read yet. But that was, very broadly speaking, when science fiction began to reimagine social structures, as well as technology in terms of how it could evolve. And that is where science fiction starts for me. That’s where it starts to actually get interesting. And so in terms of envisioning what the far future would be like, I built the 3012 as a direct response to the 2016 election in the United States, the election of Trump. And I was so shocked and blindsided by that, that the only thing I could think to do was to reimagine the world in such a way that we would never get into that position again. And that became my therapy. The next four years was literally building that timeline because I hadn’t written it yet. And so it was like, Okay, what if we didn’t have any capital? Or what if all capital were constantly scattered, and all wealth were permanently distributed? And not only permanently distributed but constantly handed off in exchange in such a way that nobody has too much ever. And that evolved into the Rule of St. Leah, which is modelled on the rule of Saint Benedict, which is just like a list of, you can’t own any more than you can carry, for example. And this makes allowances for capacity to carry, carry is a broad word there. But you see what I mean, just basically, how do we break down capitalism? Not only capitalism, but the very roots of violence, which seem to be about you kin and landowning. So, yeah, that’s how that future evolved, how do we break down all of that.
Throughout those strands, you show that it’s not a monolithic society, and that there are people within it who are starting to go well, what if we decided to settle down in this specific place instead of traveling all the time? What if we want to use other pronouns instead of the universal she/her for Leah, things like that. So like, it’s a utopia, but it’s not monolithic. And it still has these social divisions within it.
Yes. Well, what happened was, I wrote the first draft of the 3012 timeline. And nothing happened in it. There was no plot. I was like, oh, this is what happens when you write a utopia – there’s no conflict and there’s no story! I was like, well, hell, there needs to be a story. And there have to be stakes, and what are the stakes? The utopia itself, right. And then that became the story, that basically, these divisions that you’re talking about start to splinter the cohesion of the utopia. And there are two figures who are very opposed in how to go about the next step. One essentially conservative, and then another that essentially just wants change. She wants change because she thinks that humanity has become static. And so those are the two opposing forces. And then finally, I had something to write about, and it was much easier writing the second pass.
The present day section of the book focuses on the Leah character, she becomes this Saint, messianic figure to the people in the in the future timeline. Then you get the interesting contrast of seeing the events of her life, how she’s living them. But then also in the future, the plays that show, this is how they remembered it, how the story has been passed down. So how did you go around to creating those two that those two very different viewpoints of the same person?
Well, I got the idea from Dune. I mentioned this in the book launch event with John Scalzi. Dune has this wonderful thing, and I don’t know why it thrills me so much, where you have the princess Irulan’s commentary, constantly juxtaposed with the real events as they’re happening. Her commentary is introducing every chapter, and putting it in a context where it’s who knows how far in the future this text is. Where she is academically studying the events as they’re happening, and then you jump right into Paul and his mother escaping into the desert. And it’s just so thrilling to me, because you enter them, it’s like, you’re reading an academic text, but then you’re immediately transported right into the middle of it. And I feel like when I read academic or historical texts, I so wish I could be in the middle of Gaugamela, where Alexander was defeating the Persians or right in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, whatever. And that’s the thing that Dune does. And I wanted to do that same thing. And each book is begun by one quotation, originally, I had a quotation at the beginning of every single chapter like in Dune but it got to be too much. And the other so the other inspiration actually, that I am only now just realizing and I should have put in the acknowledgments is the play. It’s called Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Have you ever heard of it?
Okay, it’s awesome. It’s by Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman. It is a play in three acts, where there has just been an apocalypse. And there are a few humans gathered around a fire in the first act. And they are trying to recall one specific Simpsons episode, and they’re sort of piecing it together. And that’s the whole first act. And then the second act is 500 years in the future, when that has become a Passion Play, that is performed by refugees all over the world. And then the third act is just an even further iteration, an even further abstraction of that original Simpsons episode. And it’s just so brilliant. And it’s a fascinating play if you ever get to watch it. But that’s what I was thinking of when I had, for example, Leah has an unfortunate encounter with her “boyfriend” in Minnesota, and then it jumps straight to the re-enactment of that encounter on the other side of the world, highly ritualized. But that’s what I was thinking of. I just love the idea that we’re just fucking around here right now. And who knows, through the accidents of history and of fate, what of what we do right now will become legend in the future. We have no idea. And that’s humbling to think about. Nobody would have bet on Jesus of Nazareth, I don’t think. You know what I mean? What a loser, he got crucified. And then people just kept talking about him! I love that sort of thing. And I think Leah in some ways is a perfect figure upon which history could project.
I think the things you do with narrative voice are really interesting. It also makes up a part of your first book The Girl In The Road. You have these two strands, these characters that you’re following along, both of whom are in some ways unreliable narrators. And it’s only towards the end of the book where you get the context that sort of makes you understand what you’ve been looking at all along.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a reliable narrator. I think the word “reliable” carries so much baggage in our society, about who’s reliable and who’s not, who’s trustworthy and who’s not. I don’t think any narrator is reliable. But I know what you mean also about the characters in The Girl In The Road both very much having something to hide and not telling the reader.
I wanted to ask about The Girl In The Road as well, because I read that back when it first came out. It really felt like something different in speculative fiction. What was your experience writing that and getting it published? Was it a hard sell, because it’s so different from a lot of other stuff?
It was both a hard and easy sell. We got one offer for it. But it was a pre-empt by, god bless him, someone who was convinced that he had something really special. And like, thank you for the compliment. But it’s ironic there was one offer on it. And there was also one offer on The Actual Star. And this is the reality behind the scenes, when I hear people say, with all most wonderful intentions, we’ll get to say we knew you when, and you’re never gonna have to worry about money again. And I’m just like, actually, I have to sell this many copies in order to be able to write another book. That is actually the financial reality behind the scenes. And it’s hard to communicate that when all I’m putting on social media is glowing reviews. And so I think my books are a hard sell, because people are really confused by them. Like, genuinely where do we shelve this? How do we market this? It is science fiction written in a literary voice. And other books also exist that are science fiction in a literary voice, but not like mine. I don’t know. I wish more editors were braver, and were publishing more of it. But I think right now, it still just scares a lot of marketing departments.
Yeah. I mean, even just in terms of where they put it in the bookshop. Depending on where you go, it’s either in the science fiction section or it’s in the literary section. But it did reach at least some appreciative audience because it got nominated for the Otherwise Award or the Tiptree Award as it was then. Which it won, drawing with Jo Walton’s book. And was it the Kitchies as well?
It was I think shortlisted for the Kitschies, yeah. Which is really nice. I mean, for all of that, I should also emphasize, I am very, very pleased at how it was received.
As well as writing books, you’ve also written a number of plays. And screenplays as well, is that right?
So far one feature length, yes. I’m working on the next one.
These are two quite different mediums. So how do you how do you find switching between writing for novels and short stories on the on the printed page and then writing something that you’re going to have people get up either on the screen on the stage and perform?
I feel like there is a lag effect. If I’m switching genres, if I’m coming from novel writing to screenplay writing, I have to shed a lot of baggage. Like not explaining everything like I have the room to in a novel. I have to remember that it’s such a different medium. And so the first screenplay that I wrote that is now out on submission, it was something like 135 pages, and I handed it in to my managers. And there was like silence. And their assistant scheduled the call. And we talked and they were like, they were trying to say it nicely. But then they were like, yeah, it needs to lose 70 pages! I was like, Oh, oh shit, okay. Good to know, back to the drawing board! I had just come from finishing the actual star. So I just needed to be told that once, it needs to be actually about 90 pages. And so I just rewrote it from scratch. I have to be mindful of that, moving from medium to medium. And the only editor is time. Well, and also managers telling you! That’s also true. They also help. It can be tricky, but I feel like I’m getting better at it. I need to hang little sticky notes that say, no extemporizing. This is a screenplay. No worldbuilding, No infodumps in the same way. Show, don’t tell.
Am I right in saying that, with performances of your plays, you’ve been involved in the stage direction and stuff?
Yes, I’ve been involved in three or four or five productions of my plays. And in every case where I’ve been involved, I’ve known the director and trusted the director. And usually, what I do is, I’m notorious for underwriting stage directions, which I think is an overcorrection from writing novels. So, just like, Exit left. And they’re like, Monica, you need to tell us more! And then they just asked me because I’m involved in the rehearsal process. And I don’t assert authorial voice unless asked, but that’s also because the directors are my friends. And we work well together. And that’s why I work with them. I’m not sure I would ever want to work with a director I’m not friends with or friendly with. Handing over my work to someone I don’t know, at all, it just seems really scary to me. And I haven’t done it. In Hollywood, It’s a whole other story! In plays, it’s like, go off on the wind, and anybody can do a production of it. So there are lots of productions of What Every Girl Should Know, for example, that I’ve never seen. But that seemed to go well in their own hamlets. So I’m happy for that and happy for those experiences, but I’m not involved in them.
Okay, and to bring us to a close, what are you working on at the moment?
Well, it’s publicity until probably the end of October, non stop. Pushing and pushing and pushing and word of mouth, wanting people to read it! But the next thing I’m working on, I am finishing a science fiction screenplay based on my short story Blue Nowruz, which is up on my website. It’s one of the short stories that’s listed there. So working on that science fiction screenplay, and also, my third novel is going to be short. I’m aiming for 60,000 words, The Actual Star is 160,000, so that should give you some perspective! So 60,000 words. And it’s going to be a surrealist love story in the very idyllic hometown where I grew up. And I’m hoping to go back and visit a few times and drop acid and walk around my hometown on acid and see what I find out. So that’s part of my research method, at this point.
Thank you, Monica Byrne, for speaking with us!