By Danielle Wilkinson
Today we’re excited to welcome Ayana Gray to the WNDB blog to discuss Beasts of Prey!
I saw that the idea for BOP came from a collection of experiences you tucked away in your mind for later, including going to Ghana. I was wondering when was the moment you decided this was the story you wanted to write and query?
When I was a junior in college, I took a class called political violence where we were studying and evaluating notorious figures in history and moral relativism, who the heroes are in history and who the villains are, and how that has a lot to do with who has power. The person who has power tells the story and that can change how things are perceived. So that stayed with me and a few months later I studied abroad in Ghana as part of my other degree in African American studies and I was. We were going all over the country from top to bottom and following this traditional path that slaves actually took from northern Ghana in the desert almost all the way to the coast, to the door of no return. West Africa was the heart of a lot of decolonization efforts so there’s a lot of that political power felt there. Those two things came together and it got me thinking but it took years for that initial spark to become a story and it changed over time as I learned more and wanted to talk about more in the story.
I heard that your querying journey was pretty extraordinary. Can you describe what the querying process was like for you?
I started writing BOP in May 2015 and then I was traveling, starting my first adult job then in fall 2018 I moved to a new town where I knew absolutely nobody and it was scary and no one tells you in your early 20s how scary it is to move to a new town without a built-in friend group like you would in college or high school and you’re alone. So I turned to the writing community and really got plugged in with “Book Twitter” and learned about the writing and pitching events like DVPit, PitMad, and Pitchwars. DVpit stood out to me because I remember seeing really cool pitches and being like “Wow, what is this?” and it’s funny because the pitches that I thought were really cool are books that are now out or are coming out. I decided to have a story finished so I could participate in the next DVpit. Fast forward to April 2019 and I was terrified to put myself out there but fortunately, I had a really great group of friends who I met along the way who were so supportive. I pitched and I got rejections and passes and step asides but I also got full requests and an offer from the agent who was #1 on my list. Peter Knapp. He’s lovely and we edited for close to a year. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work with him because he’s known for being really editorial, he loves story and he loves craft. We went on submission last summer, it’s been a long journey.
Without giving too much away, what was the most challenging scene or character to write in BOP and why?
Ekon was probably the hardest to write, he’s a black male and I am not a Black man. I had to step out of my immediate comfort zone. Ekon is layered and he has a lot of trauma. I can relate to that in a different way but writing about that trauma and how he deals with that trauma was tough because I wanted to make sure it was right and that it wasn’t confusing. A difficult scene to write was the “hook scene” When Koffii and Ekon, who come from very different worlds, finally agree to come together. I didn’t want to force that scene or make it feel too constructed but I also wanted it to be logical that these two people from very different backgrounds would logically agree to work together.
Were there any books or authors who inspired your writing style?
Within YA I really, really admire Sabaa Tahir. The authors I admire are good writers but they’re also good people, so I’m looking at them like how can I be like them as a person. Roshni Chokshi is somebody who took me under her wing. She’s really lovely and I love her prose. I think she’s really funny and I wish I could write like that. Margaret Rogerson is one of my all-time favorites. I think she’s so clever and funny and her stories just transport me. I’m a big fan of Leigh Bardugo so of course, I’ve been fangirling about Shadow and Bone.
Do you have a writing routine/ritual?
Before DVpit writing was like my full-time second job, it was very regimented. I would go to my day job 8 to 5. I rode the bus and would be on my phone typing up ideas I wanted to hit that night. Come home, make a very quick dinner and from 5 to 11 at night and get up at 7 or 8 and do it all over again. On weekends I would get up at 5 or 6 am and write all day long. That’s what I had to do to get it done because if I waited to feel inspired if I waited for my muse it was never going to happen and that pressure really helped me out. You also need to make time for self-care. Sabaa Tahir who is one of my literary heroes said to “protect your time fiercely” and the people who love you and support you will understand.
Did being a Pitch Wars mentor change the way you approach writing and/or receiving critique?
I had so much respect for my agent that I felt like I had to do everything Pete suggested even though he told me not to because I felt like “You’re Pete Knapp, I have to do what you say, you know everything.” You have to find your own path. Whenever Pete would give me a suggestion, I would try it and when it didn’t work I would try something off the cuff, something that was more “me” and when it would work and he would tell me, “See, listen to yourself.” That’s something I tell my mentees because they would ask me what they should do and I would tell them to do what’s true to their story, do what’s true to you. I can tell them what I would do and I can tell them how I would write the story but you have to do what feels right because it’s yours. Something that Sabaa Tahir said in an interview that resonated with me was that “Your name is on that book, nobody else’s, not your literary agent, or your editor, or everyone who helped. It’s your name so you need to feel like it was true to what you were trying to say. Don’t worry about anyone else. Write it for yourself.
What is one thing you learned about yourself while writing BOP?
I started a lot of mini-stories before I finished BOP. There were a lot of false starts and a lot of scratched drafts. BOP is probably 120,000 words in print but if you take all the words that I wrote and deleted and revised it’s probably closer to 500,000 words. But those were the words I needed to write to learn about craft and character and pacing. I’m writing BOP 2 now and I’m still learning how to continue a story because I’m in the middle of the trilogy now. As a person, it’s been really validating and freeing. I’m a full-time author now. I get to wake up and do what I love, what I used to do for free I now do to pay my bills. I have the freedom to build the life I want to live and that I find fulfillment in and that’s been the ultimate gift.
How do you get over those writer’s block humps?
Sometimes if I’m having a really bad roadblock where I’m like “I don’t want to write this scene” that’s a clue to me that this is not a scene that needs to be written. If I’m just loathing it, I have to question why I’m forcing myself to write a scene I don’t want to write. That might mean the story needs to change. Sometimes that’s painful because if you change one thing you might have to change a few other things. And then other times it can be a sign that my brain is just fried and I need to step back and that’s where self-care comes in. I’ll take the puppy out for a walk and put on an audiobook and just listening and being immersed in someone else’s story for a while and I can be really harsh on myself and I’ll think, “Oh look, they didn’t overdo this they just wrote it this way and it worked and if they made it work I can also make it work.”
I love all of your Tiktoks! Which of your characters do you think would dominate on Tiktok?
Ekon is a book nerd and he would probably hate social media and complain about artificial intelligence and so he would avoid it. Koffi would try it, get frustrated (like me!), and be like “I’m done.” I think Adia would like it because she loves an audience, she loves attention, she loves being the best and she’s competitive. I think she would be one of those athletes that do cool dance moves or a viral martial artist.
What are you reading/watching/loving right now?
I’m really excited because I just got an ARC of Little Thieves by Margaret Owen. She wrote Merciful Crows and this is her book that comes out this fall. I peeked inside but I won’t let myself read it until I finish BOP 2! I have Indivisible by Daniel Aleman and it’s so heartfelt. I have to read it in doses because I know it’s going to make me cry. Daniel is such a wonderful person and writes so beautifully.
I saw that reading an Octavia Butler novel was the first time you experienced Black people featured in speculative fiction. Why do you believe it’s important for black people to be represented across genres?
It’s hard to be what you can’t see, it really is, and I know it sounds cliche and cheesy but it’s true. I grew up reading Black authors but only in certain spaces and you don’t realize how much that impacts you as a kid and as a person until you’re older and you find it odd and that Black people are in different spaces than what you’re used to. I didn’t think there were Black people in fantasy until I was a teenager. In BOP, everyone is Black. There are different colors, different shades, different hair textures, different facial features but everyone is black. The villain, the sidekicks, the love interest, the wise old man, everyone is Black because we’re not monolithic. I want people to see that. It’s possible to see Blackness occupy all of these spaces. It matters because kids are looking for spaces where they fit and if those spaces aren’t there, they feel like they don’t belong there and that they don’t belong in the larger world.
Ayana Gray is a lover of all things monsters and magic. Originally from Atlanta, an Atlanta, she now lives in sunny Florida where she writes fantastical stories, follows Formula One racing, and worries over her adopted baby rhino, Apollo. Her forthcoming debut, BEASTS OF PREY, will be published with Penguin Random House on September 28, 2021.
Danielle Wilkinson is a 20-something aspiring author from Atlanta who has always loved the feeling of getting lost in a good story. In 2021, her blog Danielle The Writer was selected as The Write Life’s 100 Best Websites For Writers. She also started her first business the same year, where she teaches new and aspiring authors how to dominate on Instagram so they can grow a community of loyal fans. When she’s not working or writing, you can find her reading with a cup of tea, listening to podcasts, trying to take the perfect photo for her Instagram, or fangirling over K-Pop videos.