THE REAL A WITH SERENA
From her home in Little Rock, Ayana Gray finishes her Beasts of Prey trilogy, her New York Times Bestselling pan-African fantasy series inspired by her time at the University of Arkansas.
Ayana Gray had always been a writer but she’d never worked on a book in earnest until a few days after graduating from the University of Arkansas in 2015.
“I would watch a movie or read a book I loved and then immediately try to write a book that often ended up being very similar to what I just read or what I just watched,” said Gray. “I’d get fired up and write and then you know, I would, I would get bored.”
But after a few years working on her project on and off, she found National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo), an online challenge during which authors try to write a novel in its entirety during the month of November, and she was inspired and finally had accountability to finish the draft of what became her first full novel, “Beasts of Prey.”
Gray, now a proud Little Rock resident, sold the as a trilogy set in a nuanced pan-African fantasy world with mythical beings inspired from folklore from across the continent. Since then, she’s become a New York Times best selling author, and her books have won various awards. The last installment of the trilogy, “Beasts of War,” will be published January 16.
It’s easy to look back and read Gray’s successes as a Cinderella story. After finishing her manuscript in 2019, she pitched her series to agents and editors on what was then known as Twitter during #dvpit, a now-defunct pitching event aimed at helping get historically marginalized authors/editors in front of agents and editors. Her pitch, comparing the book to “Black Arya Stark” happened to coincide with a major plot point in Games of Thrones featuring the character, and her tweet blew up.
She was agented after a few weeks and sold the trilogy three weeks after that. But she cautions that it wasn’t as easy as social media can make it seem.
“Publishing loves instant success stories, and they never contextualize it and say, ‘Wait a minute. Actually, this did not happen overnight. This took five years –– really from start to publication six years –– and people only saw like the last year.’”
Her editor, Stacey Barney, of Nancy Paulsen books doesn’t remember how the book was pitched to her. Maybe Gray’s agent called ahead, maybe he didn’t. They have similar taste, she said, so he generally doesn’t have to pitch her hard. But what sold her wasn’t the pitch, it was the manuscript.
“I generally, in my process, don’t read the pitch letters or summaries until I’m well into the book,” she said. “I want to have the experience of a reader first as opposed to an editor who was on the hunt for a particular kind of book. What I do remember about the process of acquiring Beasts of Prey is just opening the document and reading the first line and being wowed from the very first line.”
Barney started her professional life as a teacher, and she came into the publishing industry to work on books that she didn’t see available for her Black and brown students. In over twenty years in the publishing industry, much has changed in terms of diversity and the books she works on. To be successful in the market now, she said, stories have to be saying something new and feel special right from the beginning.
“I was really attracted to Beasts of Prey and the trilogy overall because these were black characters who got to be their own superheroes, and if they were suffering in any way, it wasn’t because of their race,” Barney said.
Since Barney acquired the trilogy all together, Gray had to write the second two books in a much shorter time frame. “Beast of Prey” was published in 2021. The sequel, “Beast of Ruin” published the following year, and the final book is hitting shelves less than two years later.
“I had the major beats of the story, and I had a hazy kind of picture of what I wanted the ending to look like,” said Gray. “And that shifted a bit as I actually wrote.”
Each book follows the two main characters, Koffi and Ekon, plus a third mystery character whose role in the story is revealed as the story progresses. While each of the stories is set in the mythical African-inspired land, Gray credits her time in Arkansas and the University of Arkansas with its inspiration.
“It’s an Arkansas book, and it wouldn’t exist without Arkansas,” said Gray.
The foundations of Gray’s world-building came from lessons she learned about political violence in Africa during a class at the honors college in 2013 as part of her Political Science and African and African American Studies dual degree.
“What I took away from that course was how easy it is to manipulate good and evil,” said Gray. Through the university, she also had the opportunity to study abroad in Ghana where she was struck by the history and the rich landscape.
“There are beaches, there are jungles, there are arid deserts, there are thriving cities. And it felt very magical,” said Gray. “I wondered why more magical books were not setting worlds that look like this, and I also had never seen Black wealth, Black Power and prominence before, and in Ghana that’s what I got to see.”
Though Gray was careful not to draw too much from any one history or religion,
readers of her books might find familiar echoes of history through dynamics between people groups or even then names of objects.
Main characters, Ekon and Koffi, are both Black, but they come from very different backgrounds. Ekon is from a wealthy warrior class inspired in part by the Manhyia Palace in Ghana while Koffi starts the series working as an indentured beastkeeper at a night zoo. According to the author’s note at the end of “Beasts of War,” a river vessel in the book, Nzinga, gets its name from a former queen of modern-day Angola, Nzinga Ana de Sousa Mbande. And the countless mythical beasts in the series are inspired from mythology from all over the continent.
“Her greatest strength is the depth of her world,” Natalie Crown, freelance editor/author who is also Gray’s critique partner and friend. “You can feel it. You can smell it. You can taste it.”
Readers are saying goodbye to Koffi, Ekon, and the “Beasts of Prey” trilogy, but Gray is still writing.
“If ten years from now, I get to still tell stories for a living,” said Gray. “Especially getting to tell stories where people who look like me can find themselves and see themselves in spaces where they didn’t think they were allowed to exist. I’ll feel like I’ve won.”