University of Arkansas graduate Ayana Gray is living a writer's dream right now.
Her first young adult novel, "Beasts of Prey," was published in late September, almost immediately landed on The New York Times Best Seller list and is now in development for a feature film by Netflix.
Reviews have been nothing short of glowing: The book, the first in a planned trilogy, was called "a propulsive mystery mixed with a moving coming-of-age tale and a touch of romance" by The New York Times; "a dazzling debut" by Kirkus Reviews, which describes it as a "beautiful blend of mythology, romance and action" that hints "at more to come"; and "lush" and "vivid" by Publisher's Weekly.
"On the surface, this is a story where you have a young man and a young woman from different walks of life, and they're going into a magical jungle to hunt down a monster, and that's what I tell people the story is about," Gray says of her novel. "But beneath that, you have two very complicated young people who are going through grief, trauma -- going through adolescence. And while they're trying to find a monster, they're learning from their own monsters.
"What they both have to learn throughout the course of the story is that running from the monsters and burying the monsters doesn't actually make them go away. They stay. The only way to conquer and defeat these monsters and move on with your life is to face them," she adds. "And that's something that at 16, 17 and even at 28 now, I'm still learning how to do."
That Gray's first novel was met with such success at just 28 years old is impressive, but it's even more so when you consider that, just six years ago, she had no idea in what direction to take her life. In October she shared this story with a group of students at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where she was speaking at the invitation of the Honors College, of which she is an alumna. When Gray took the floor, she admitted to a certain amount of nerves as she addressed a room full of students who were not that much younger than she. She was funny and accessible, and not at all as unapproachable as you might expect an author of her sudden and enormous success to be.
"I'm someone who still eats Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast," she said to laughter from the group. "Taxes are something that are big and scary to me still. I don't know how to change a tire. I rely heavily on Google Maps and don't have any sort of directional ability at all. I still call my mom and dad for just about everything. So in a lot of ways, I'm 28, and I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing. ... What I wanted to do was tell you all a bit about my story -- because I'm a writer, and everything is a story with me -- in the hopes that maybe by being very honest about the trips and the falls and the stumbles, and also the leaps and the joy, maybe that resonates with you, maybe that's part of your story. Or perhaps that in some way validates that it's OK, whatever chapter of your story is being written."
In a conversation a week or two before her triumphant return to UA, Gray is frank about the fact that her first major stumble -- graduating without an obvious direction -- was a result of rejecting a passion that seemed too impractical: writing.
"I loved to write, and I think I wished for it," she says. "But I was also very aware that it was going to be a hard thing to do professionally, because I wanted to have a job that allowed me to be self-sufficient and independent."
So she started college with a clear intent to become a lawyer with an emphasis in immigration or civil rights. She wanted to fight for those facing injustices.
"I have, even now, a deep sense of fairness," she notes. "It bothers me in a really special way when I see something that does not feel fair."
It was a pragmatic yet idealistic plan, something that married the assurance of a good solid job with a personal fervor. Her twin majors of African American history and political science were tailor made for the law school she was sure she would be attending post-graduation. But then, midway through her undergraduate studies, she became disillusioned with the justice system.
"I'd had a pretty naive view of how it worked, and I saw things that I didn't love," she says. "And I had to really question and say, 'Is this the profession that you want to do for the rest of your life?' So that was, you know, awkward -- I'm halfway through a degree for a specific career that I don't think I want anymore.
"My plan that I had for a while was suddenly gone, and my friends, who are high achieving people, were off to med school, off to law school, they were preparing to enter a Ph.D. program. And I was like, 'OK, my plan is gone. What do I do?'"
LIFE IN THE ROCK
It was an unfamiliar feeling for Gray, who had always been such a talented student. Her parents and maternal grandparents -- who helped raise her for the first five years of her life -- had stressed the importance of education. Born in Atlanta, Gray moved with her family to Little Rock when she was 13. When she started school at the competitive Pulaski Academy, her already considerable academic skills kicked into overdrive in order to keep up. By her senior year, her writing was strong enough to be published in the well-respected Concord Review.
"I wrote about female infanticide and sex selective abortion, and I used India and China as my case studies," she says of her 26-page research paper with its 32-item bibliography. "I'm telling you, we were hitting heavy things as teenagers."
Gray carried this skill and forward momentum through her undergraduate studies, making it that much more discombobulating when she faced down graduation without a clear plan. She moved in with her parents in Little Rock and took a job with the University of Arkansas advancement division, an area she had interned for in college. That job led to another in Florida, and though Gray was good at what she was doing, it didn't satisfy her. Instead, it was the novel she had started working on even before graduating from college that made her heart sing. She could stop herself from majoring in creative writing, but she could not stop her passion for the art pouring out of her onto the page.
Gray cites two college experiences that were major inspirations for "Beasts of Prey." The first was professor Jeff Ryan's political violence class, a complex discussion group that delved into the nature of the existence of good and evil.
"My objective in the political violence course is both simple and profound: to get students to look closely and critically at the myriad ways in which actors use violent means to achieve political ends," Ryan says. "On Day One, I tell incoming students that they need to be prepared to look unblinkingly at some of the most horrific examples of inhumanity that history has ever served up and that they should drop the course if they're unable to commit to this. In 25 years, not a single student has done so."
"That class made me realize that good and evil are not at all easy things to define," Gray says. "They can be manipulated. It's the old, 'Somebody else's terrorist is somebody else's freedom fighter.' You think, 'There's no excuse for violence, there's no excuse for doing horrible things to thousands of people.' But you twist the perspective and to somebody else, that terrorist is somebody's hero, that villain is somebody else's hero."
"Ayana was one of those students who didn't immediately jump into the particular argument we were discussing, but instead, hung back until she'd carefully considered the topic at hand," Ryan says. "As a result, when she spoke up, she was always able to advance the conversation in novel ways. Among the reasons that Ayana was such a valuable member of the political violence course was that she brought her lived experience as a Black woman to our discussions. As one of only two persons of color in the class, she was instrumental in providing her peers with a perspective that most were unfamiliar with. I, too, learned much from listening to Ayana's take on our readings."
REFLECTIONS FROM GHANA
The second big influence on "Beasts of Prey" was her experience studying abroad in Ghana the summer between her junior and senior years. Dr. Calvin White organized the trip, and Gray says, White brilliantly made sure the experience showed all facets of Ghana, from thriving cities to small villages that lacked electricity and running water. An emotional highlight was the historical trail by which enslaved Africans were transported.
"There's an archway called 'The Door of No Return,' and they would literally walk through this archway, and that was it," Gray says. "That was the last time they touched African soil. .... It was a really, really, really, really powerful experience. Ghana is a beautiful country. It has deserts, it has jungles, forests, huge cities, small villages. It's so rich. And all of that stayed with me -- I'm somebody who likes stories, and also somebody who likes stories with magic. And this place feels so magical. I want to see stories, and I want to write a story, that take place in a world that looks like this, with people who look like me."
With these two influences empowering her imagination, "Beasts of Prey" continued as Gray moved from life as a student to positions in university development, all the while a constant interior monologue raging about what direction her life should take.
"One of the characters in 'Beasts of Prey,' Koffi, has this internal quest throughout the story," Gray says. "'Do I follow my heart, or do I follow my head? Do I follow emotion? Do I follow logic?' Now that I look back at it, college was an interesting time where I was, like, 'OK, I know that the responsible thing to do is to get a job where I can support myself as a young woman and look after myself. But I have this thing that I love: I love books, and I love writing, and this is the thing that I want to do in my spare time, and I didn't really let myself. To me, I had to get a job."
She was in Florida when she found a community of writers on Twitter that encouraged her to turn what she was writing into a book. And it was a Twitter event -- #DVpit -- that motivated her to polish it into a form she could pitch to an agent. #DVPit was created to give marginalized, underrepresented voices an opportunity to elevate their projects so that they can be seen and considered by the book publishing industry. Gray took a deep breath, pitched "Beasts of Prey," added the appropriate hashtag, and walked away from Twitter. Hours later, a friend called her and said: You need to check your post.
"I was shocked, you know, [because it was] not just editors and agents [expressing interest], but people in general saying, 'This sounds so cool. I love this,'" Gray says. "There were agents who I had researched, who I thought were big shot agents, who said, 'I would love you to send this to me.' And there was one, in particular, who was at the top of my wish list of agents, who I really admired, who had liked the Tweet and who said, 'Please send this to me.' And so I did."
"When I first saw Ayana's tweet about her debut novel as part of #DVpit, I was instantly intrigued," says Park & Fine Literary and Media agent Peter Knapp. "It promised a young woman teaming up with a sworn enemy to kill a deadly monster -- though Ayana used the even more thrilling, terrifying description 'primordial creature.' I was already excited and just a little bit scared by just Ayana's short description. The read did not disappoint."
Things moved quickly at that point: Gray's manuscript was acquired by Penguin Random House in a preempt, meaning they snapped the book up with an offer generous enough to eliminate any other competitors. Editor Stacey Barney worked with Gray to get the manuscript ready for publication.
"It was easy to see how Ayana's characters would speak to a wide variety of readers -- whether that reader is a reluctant reader or a patient reader or a reader seeking action and adventure or seeking romance or mystery, they will find much to enjoy in 'Beasts of Prey,'" Barney says. "It was surprising and wonderfully affirming just how many different types of readers Ayana was able to welcome into her world and still keep the read exciting. All this plus the Pan African backbone to the narrative, and it just created a wow factor I don't see every day."
After six years of confusion, some panic, a bit of anxiety and a lot of exploration, the question of what Gray should do with her life was answered in a lightning bolt, one of such power and magnitude, it could not be ignored. Her success is still recent enough to leave her somewhat flabbergasted, but she has marinated in it enough to realize one thing for sure: She wants to share what she has learned along the way.
"I really believe in paying it forward," she says. "The reality is that I am in the position I am in, with my debut book out in the world, and it's been so well received -- I'm in that position because other people reached back at every single stage, because people believed in me, because people didn't say, 'Oh, do you want to be a writer? Well, good luck with that.'"
She pays it forward in a variety of ways: On her website, where she interviews other writers about their work and processes; through interactions with aspiring writers on Twitter; and in lectures like the one she gave at UA in October.
"I remember so acutely the terror, the fear and the pressure of 'Every decision I make is going to change my life -- if I decide to take this class, I won't have a third child, right?'" she said to her student audience on that rainy fall day. "It's ridiculous. But I felt that kind of pressure. In the end, I wish that I hadn't felt that way. I wish I could step into my past and tell myself, 'You're going to be OK. You will screw up, you will mess up and you will make the wrong choice. You will probably fail a test. It's OK. It's not life-ending. You will stumble; you will fall. But there's a bigger purpose, and even when you find that bigger purpose, you will continue to stumble and fall and mess up -- but don't run from the things that scare you. Turn and face them, address them, and take them on.'"
"They're not as scary as you're probably thinking they are."