Girls Burn Brighter, the debut novel from Shobha Rao, quickly leapt to a number of this summer's must-read lists. Vogue calls the book, "incandescent," and The Los Angeles Times says Rao writes her characters "into life, into existence, into the light of day."
Prior to her Thursday, June 21, visit to Idaho when she'll stop by Rediscovered Books in Boise, Rao talked about that "light of day," the technique of crafting both good and bad characters, and how she penned the novel in the Badlands of South Dakota.
Girls Burn Brighter follows two childhood friends, each living in abject poverty in India. One survives a terrible assault, and the other endures an abusive marriage. Yet your story reminds us that there is brightness in some of those dark moments, something you call "a lamp glowing from within."
Some very specific forces that women and girls face in the world require a real courage, an inner strength in order to endure. I wanted to explore what it takes for a girl to travel through that world, particularly when she's poor, uneducated or disenfranchised—and what it takes for that girl to retain humanity, warmth and a capacity for love.
It's my understanding that San Francisco is home for you, but you wrote much of this when you were in the Badlands.
I was home staring at a blank screen and I had so many false starts. After months of a whirlpool of despair, a friend in passing mentioned that his mom had some property in the Badlands. So, it was a moment of reckoning for me. I really wanted to go out there, even though it was incredibly isolated. The nearest town had a population of 47 people. There was a profound silence out on that prairie. A bird flying by, chirping, could reduce me to tears. But then there were storms rising out of the Black Hills, with 70-mph winds, lightning and thunder in every storm. And through it all, there I was with my story's characters, and no one else. That's really how this novel came to be.
Talk a bit about fleshing out some of your characters who are, to put it mildly, really bad people who do terrible things.
A lot of people in the world are pushed to do awful things. I don't think any of us are born evil. We all have complex lives and complex forces that bring us to the places we are. There are inherent challenges, because we're talking about people who are trafficking girls, but yet you do have to infuse those characters with more than just a purely evil act. Every writer is tasked to make our characters as complex and multidimensional as possible. Good versus bad is an absurd binary when we're talking about a human life.
I'm curious about some of the conversations you've been having with readers, particularly in a year where we've heard an increasing number of tales of abuse and more about the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Some tell me they have struggled with the darkness of the book, but I'm also hearing a lot about a recognition of hope that dwells within these characters. Readers have told me they see that same hope within their own lives. It's been so gratifying that so many readers have recognized, through the characters in the book, their own capacity for love and endurance.
I'm sure that it's not lost on you that your book has landed in people's hands in a year which has become a turning point for many of those conversations.
I could not have possibly anticipated how perfect the moment has been for this book, and how necessary it feels. It's incredibly fortunate that the book has landed at a time when it feels like our culture is ready to talk about something that has been pressing to me throughout my life.
Are you talking to anyone about the film rights to this book?
It's funny you asked that. I'm told that the story has a pacing that is given to a kind of cinematic experience. But no, there's nothing yet. Fingers crossed. We'll see.