Experiences at U of A Inspire Bestselling Author’s Debut Novel

After lecturing in Fayetteville, Ayana Gray next speaks at the Six Bridges Book Festival.

Author Ayana Gray

It’s been six years since Ayana Gray has stepped foot on the University of Arkansas campus. Now a New York Times bestselling author, the U of A alumna returned yesterday to share her experiences in the publishing world and offer advice to students during a lecture hosted by the Honors College. 

“Don’t run from the things that scare you,” Gray said. “Turn, face them, address them, take them on. They’re not as scary as you’re probably thinking they are.”

Confronting your fears is a challenge faced by the characters in her debut novel, Beasts of Prey. Published in September, the book is a young adult fantasy novel following two Black teenagers who enter a magical jungle to hunt down a monster. Often referred to as a Pan-African inspired fantasy, the story celebrates mythologies from across Africa. 

Gray graduated from the U of A in 2015 with honors degrees in political science and African and African American studies. Experiences at college, such as taking a course on political violence, helped inspire her bestseller. During that class, Gray realized the people who hold power have a lot of control over what is considered “good” or “evil.” 

“It made me understand that my idea of good and evil — as I understood it my entire 18, 19 years of life — is not nearly as simple as I thought and that was disturbing,” she said.

A few months later, Gray studied abroad in Ghana where she and her classmates learned about the transatlantic slave trade. The month-long trip was “an incredibly emotional experience” where Gray saw not only people living in extreme poverty, but a parliament run by Black politicians.

“It felt magical,” she said. “There was an immense power and I as a writer was like there’s a story, there are stories plural here.”

Following graduation, Gray grappled with what came next in life. She worked in advancement and lived abroad in Australia for a while. Eventually, she turned to what she knew and started writing this story in her spare time over the course of four years. 

In April 2019, Gray participated in an event on Twitter called #DVPit where she pitched her book idea to literary agents and editors. Through this event, she connected with her current literary agent, Peter Knapp of Park & Fine Literary Media. They worked together to revise the book before submitting it to editors at traditional publishing houses. 

The story was eventually sold to Penguin Random House. Beasts of Prey is the first in a trilogy with the next two books scheduled to be released in 2022 and 2023. The story is being adapted by Netflix into a feature film. 

While the 28-year-old has lots of success to celebrate now, she noted there was plenty of rejection along the way. For example, an agent once said they didn’t think her Black boy character was strong enough. That was the point for Gray who wanted to write a story where Black boys didn’t have to be strong and they could behave like her brother did when he was younger.

“I wanted to write a story for boys like him — boys that weren’t always in the mud fighting and this and that, but just were happy to do a puzzle and happy to play with a Thomas the Tank Engine train,” she said. “I didn’t see stories like that. I didn’t see stories like that for my little brother.”

Toni Morrison once said, “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Gray kept that phrase in mind during her literary journey. In addition to representing boys like her brother, Gray wanted to find a way to bring together a story about good and evil that was set in a world that borrowed from the beauty of Ghana. 

“I’d never seen a book like that at the library. I’d never seen a book like that at the bookstore…so I wrote what I wanted to see,” she said.

Gray’s whirlwind tour of interviews and speaking engagements continues Saturday when she’ll participate in a virtual session at Central Arkansas Library System’s Six Bridges Book Festival. She’ll speak alongside Kate Milford, the Edgar Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of the Greenglass House series. 

Free registration is required. More information about the festival is available on CALS’ website

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.