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Interview: Monica Byrne on “Alexandria”

Monica ByrneTell us a bit about “Alexandria.”

It’s a story about the power of grief. But not—I hope—in a sad or depressing way. More like: my God, what a force grief is! What a natural resource!


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I think I had the original idea from reading The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, in which a husband builds a stone tower on top of his dead wife’s grave. And then I thought, “What if the monument is even bigger, like the entire freakin Lighthouse of Alexandria.” And I’ve always been obsessed with Alexander the Great and his enormous, public displays of grief, so it seemed a natural fit.

The other puzzle piece came from a prompt by Mary Anne Mohanraj at Clarion. She asked us to write a story about the “other,” something outside our comfort zone, whether that be in terms of class, race, ability, gender, and so on. So the love story at the center of the narrative became between Beth, a white woman, and Keiji, a man of Japanese descent, at a time when interracial marriages were not common—especially in Kansas.


You completed “Alexandria” because of encouragement from the great Ursula K. Le Guin. Could you please tell us about the encouragement she provided, and how it helped you write the story?

I was amazed she wrote me back. It was very kind of her. I’d just started writing fiction and it felt right to reach out to the authors who’d shaped me most. In my letter, I told her I had an idea for a story about a woman who builds the Lighthouse of Alexandria in her backyard. She wrote back, “I expect to see it standing on the Kansas plain!” I’d never written a story before in my life, but she had no doubt I could, and would. Her expression of faith gave me faith in myself.


Was “Alexandria” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

A lot of my work deals with grief, probably because I lost my mother young. But I’m not interested in wallowing—I’m more interested in the incredible variety of shapes that grief can take, including constructive, proactive, and creative shapes. For Beth, rebuilding the Lighthouse of Alexandria and carving her husband’s poems into the walls. For me, writing a story about a woman who does so.


What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

At Clarion, one reader was angry that Beth betrayed her husband’s wishes never to reveal his poems! And it’s true, she did. Should she have? Did she have a right to?


The Girl in the Road by Monica ByrneWhat are you working on now?

My second novel, The Actual Star, which describes the rise of a new religion in the wake of global climate change. Writing it is thrilling in and of itself, but also because its writing is entirely supported by “micro-patrons”—526 at last count—on Patreon. I think economics shape a work of art as much any other constraint, and it’s deeply satisfying to be writing about the future while using an economic system that is (in my opinion) the future of how art will be funded. The ends and the means are in sync.




“Alexandria” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Monica Byrne has a Patreon and a website where you can buy her first novel The Girl in the Road, and learn more about her other creative pursuits: she is also a playwright. Click on her author photo to reach her Patreon and the book image to reach her website.


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