Libba Bray's love of ghost stories, her view of feminism and her fascination with Victorian society's veiled obsession—sex (or more precisely, budding sexuality)—fuel her first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty (Delacorte). In this tale of 19th-century British teen Gemma Doyle, powerful visions link her to an ancient purgatory-like realm called the Order. At the beginning of the novel, Gemma's mother dies, and the heroine envisions just how it happened—a murder by an otherworldly being.
The author explains that the mother-daughter theme unfolds on multiple levels, "not only in terms of mother-child, but also in terms of feminism, and my own generation being the second wave of feminism." Gemma's ability to enter the realm of the Order becomes a source of power for her.
"A lot of the initial idea [for the novel] stemmed from emerging female sexuality and how threatening that is to the girls themselves and to the world at large," Bray says. "We're comfortable with women in certain roles but not comfortable with women expressing anger or fully accepting their power. The most daring question a woman can ask is, 'What do I want?' "
In a starred review, PW said, "Bray brilliantly depicts a caste system, in which girls are taught to abandon individuality in favor of their man's wishes, as a deeper and darker horror than most things that go bump in the night." The author says that these two story lines—the girls' sense of entrapment in their Victorian society and the power they feel in the Order—came together "slowly, painfully, like a kidney stone passing." Even though she had the idea for the Order, she wasn't sure how this supernatural thread would emerge. "Eventually I realized that because the girls were so powerless in this world, they needed control elsewhere," she explains. "There's so much about adolescence that feels like that; you have all of the responsibility and none of the authority."
After Gemma finds a diary in a cave near her all-girl boarding school, she discovers how to enter the realm of the Order and shares the secret with several of her classmates. Each of the girls reacts differently to the potential power of the Order. The author says she based the dynamics of the girls on her own friendships, growing up in Denton, Tex., just north of Dallas. "I had a pack of girls that I hung with. We were somewhat feral," she recalls. "They were strong bonds, but there was a certain amount of danger, because there are so many feelings that you have as teenagers."
Bray, a theater major, graduated from the University of Texas in Austin in 1988. As a playwright, she thought she needed to be in New York, so when her best friend from childhood, who had moved to Manhattan, needed a roommate, she called Bray. The author came to New York with her grandmother's punch bowl and $600 in her shoe. She landed a job in the publicity department at Penguin Putnam, where she worked for three years, and later at Spier, which specializes in advertising for the publishing business.
It was Bray's husband, Barry Goldblatt, a children's book agent, and her friend Ginee Seo, an editor at Simon & Schuster, who encouraged her to write a young adult novel. Under a pseudonym, Bray had written three books for 17th Street Books, one of which was edited by Wendy Loggia. She enjoyed working with Loggia so much that she sent her the manuscript for A Great and Terrible Beauty. Bray says Loggia "came back with brilliant comments, and I chucked two-thirds of the manuscript in the revision process."
When she's just beginning a book, she says she writes at a coffee shop in longhand. "It's a good way to keep the internal critic at bay, to write in a mad, caffeinated torrent." Beauty is the first in a trilogy, and the second book is due next June, but the author has not yet begun work on it. "I always think about what my late, great father used to say. When I told him I work best under pressure, he said, 'Darlin', you only work under pressure,'" she says, mimicking his Southern accent.
The positive response to Beauty has boosted Bray's confidence. "I had a friend who said, 'You don't have an internal critic, you have an internal sadist.' So it's helped to quiet the sadist. It's made it easier for me to answer 'What do you do?' with 'I'm a writer,' and lay claim to that."