The Big Idea: Monica Byrne
Travel broadens the mind, or so they say, but for Monica Byrne, travel to a particular Central American country did much more than that — and the result was her novel The Actual Star, which (disclosure!) I liked so much I gave it a blurb, and participated into an author Q&A, which you can view at the bottom of this Big Idea. For now, read on as Byrne explains what travel gave to her, and what she did with it.
“Where does your inspiration come from?”
Writers dread getting this question. Don’t feel bad if you’ve asked it—now you know!—and it’s extremely common. Most writers have a stock answer. Some are vague (“everywhere”), some are sarcastic (“the mail”), and some are entire lovely essays (thank you Neil). Whenever I try to answer, I get tongue-tied about how inspiration isn’t really discrete, it’s more like a whole life orientation, and blagghh, what am I trying to say, anyway…
…but now I have my stock answer. It’s one that might surprise you. I’ll tell you how I got it.
Rewind to the day that altered the course of my life: January 21, 2012. It was a Saturday.
I’d been traveling in Belize, in honor of my mother. She’d taught there in her twenties and never got to go back before she died. For me, it was a pilgrimage, worth it even though it had wiped out my bank account. I figured I’d see the places she’d lived, check out the tourist attractions, and probably never return.
Then I signed up for a tour to an ancient Maya site called Actun Tunichil Muknal. I heard from other tourists that the trip would take a whole day, because the cave was deep in the jungle, but they didn’t tell me much else—just that I had to see it for myself. So I showed up the morning of the tour and thought, sure, let’s have a whirl. I’ve seen stalagmites before.
Ten hours later, I emerged from the cave, soaked to the bone, and said to my guide, “I have to come back.”
Why did I feel the way I did? Giddy and choked up, like I was in love? Like I wanted to turn right back around and go back in and press on, deeper into the mountain, farther up that river, and never stop? Especially when the ancient Maya regarded the place as a realm of terror—why was I so happy there? When my group came out of the cave, I felt like my whole body was ringing. Like I was on drugs, or possessed. I was embarrassed at how strongly I felt, and kept lingering in the euphoria, talking to the guides, talking to fellow tourists, going out to dinner and still talking about it to anyone who would listen. It made no sense. I just wanted to go back.
I didn’t know how or when I was going to come back, because I was broke. All I had waiting for me was a handful of freelance editing gigs. But the conviction remained so strong that when I came home, I sat down and bought a plane ticket back to Belize with the last of my savings, before I’d even taken off my shoes.
Nine years later, I’m sitting here writing this on the day The Actual Star comes out. It’s a novel about the cave, yes. But it’s also the story about the origins and destiny of humanity, as told by three brave, vulnerable, fallible people making their way through history, from the collapse of the ancient Maya elites to a far-future utopia. I could never have guessed the full dimensions of what was pushing to come through me, at the time; just that I had to serve it. That feeling became my characters’ feelings: repeatedly, they are overwhelmed by a physical, noetic certainty that they must act upon. In 1012, Ket is overwhelmed by the desire to make a blood sacrifice to help her royal family. In 2012, Javier is overwhelmed with love for a young tourist he’s only known for a day. In 3012, Niloux is overwhelmed by a sighting of Venus that causes her to rethink everything she ever believed. All of these feelings set the course of the book in motion.
And that brings me to my stock answer.
For me, inspiration comes from the body.The body loves what it loves, and it’s my job to follow its wisdom, especially when I don’t understand. Now that I look back at all the things I write, from start to finish, my body is always the instrument by which I measure its rightness. Does this excite me? Does it bore me? Does it resonate? Just…does it feel right? I wish I could be more specific, but the verbal originates in the pre-verbal. I wrote The Actual Star just because my body felt the way it felt in that cave. It took nine years and 160,000 words.
I’m grateful to have learned that so clearly—and to the ones in the cave, who taught me.