Ruchika Tomar doesn’t think a lot of men will read her book. But they should. Trust me.
On its surface, A Prayer for Travelers is about a woman trying to track down her missing friend in the desert. However, the novel subverts all expectations of that logline. It is a captivating and eye-opening work about the female experience and the true beauty in Tomar’s work is how she approaches trauma.
Drawing from her time working in a mental health clinic, the author also used personal experiences that have happened to her as well as nearly every other woman she knows. Men will never be able to understand exactly the type of trauma a woman goes through, but this book will help. It helped me gain some clarity about how trauma – both small and large – affect women.
The novel is gripping, eye-opening, and unforgettable.
I spoke to Tomar about experiencing trauma and how to capture it on the page.
I was reading reviews that have been published so far. It’s been described as a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery, which it is, but the novel is so more. How would you describe the book to someone who hasn’t heard of it?
The first thing I say when asked what the book is about is usually, “a young woman disappears in the Nevada desert, and her best friend goes looking for her.” But you’re right that it’s a coming-of-age story, and more specifically, a coming into womanhood story. It’s very specific to the female experience.
The structure to the novel, nonlinear with corresponding chapter titles, is very captivating. When did you know that was what made sense for this story?
I thought a lot about the way women tell stories, and how we talk about trauma, but it took a long time to figure out the structure. I spent some time working for a mental health and substance abuse clinic where I had the chance to observe how clinicians approach trauma. I was thinking about the difference about how it’s treated if one has access to those resources, and the majority of women who don’t. The more I got to know Cale and understand her as a guarded character, I felt this was the only way she’d be able to tell her story.
Did you always know you wanted your first book to be about trauma?
I’ve always written about women and female experience. Unfortunately, for so long that has included trauma. The novel evolved over the years but it was always about the West, the friendship between these girls, and the events of the summer in their small town. The structure was probably the thing that evolved the most over time.
What drew you to this plot and these characters?
I grew up in the West, two hours from the border and three hours from Vegas. This landscape is psychically very similar to the one I grew up in. I usually start from an image or a character when I start writing a story, and I could see these girls (there were three in the beginning, and that changed to two over time) working together in a diner in a desert town off the highway. The story developed from there the more I got to know them. Growing up where I did, I have a vivid memory of reading the newspaper and these stories about women’s bodies found in the desert outside Vegas and how that made me feel. The connection between the landscape and violence was imprinted early on. I had my fair share of terrifying experiences in that landscape, and I knew there would be an element of danger . In an early draft of the novel, there were many girls that went missing from this fictional town. Much later, when I was an adult living in New York and I was working on the second draft of the novel, I developed a stalker in my real life. That experience reminded me of how crystalizing terror is for women. I think the harassment and violence women experience is like childbirth—when it’s over, your brain kind of tries to forget as a protection mechanism. But it changes everything. I can’t explain the feeling. I thought I had grown up into a smart city girl, I was careful about where I went and how I carried myself. I didn’t think I was a target at all. My experience informed the novel by narrowing the focus of the novel to one girl and expanded the specific influences of the girl’s relationship.
Was there other research about trauma or experiences with other women?
Certainly my experience and interactions with law enforcement over the years informed some of the plot. My friends have had their own experiences, and I’ve held their stories. I spoke with law enforcement in Nevada about procedure and how certain details would play out in a case like this in real life. Women have known so much of this their whole lives. I think what’s been illuminating for the public in the wake of the #metoo movement is that men are finally getting to see and understand what we deal with. I’m not optimistic by nature, but I have to hope it will start to change things.
How did writing this story affect you? Especially after that stalking situation.
Honestly I can’t say writing this story changed anything for me because nothing that happens in this story is news to me. I’ve always known and lived this experience of women’s voices being marginalized, women’s words not being taken seriously, we’re not believed, we’re not protected, we’re not respected. Writing the novel wasn’t necessarily cathartic or make me more or less angry. It came from an honest place. It’s more grief than rage at this point.
Regardless of how big an ally a man is, we’ll never truly understand. These issues aren’t really on my mind 24/7 because I don’t have to deal with the constant worry of harassment.
I don’t even know if it’s worry, because most of the things we deal with don’t register anymore, they’ve been adopted into this understanding of how hard we’ll need to work or how much more we’ll need to do to be recognized, it’s a steeliness that then of course becomes interpreted as a coldness, or inflexibleness. But I don’t think men could put up with what we put up with. So yeah, I feel it’s like grief at this point. Especially now that it feels like the #metoo movement is over in some ways. For a year, every week there was some C.E.O in the news, but it seemed to have stopped. But we didn’t clean house. There are still more out there. I know there’s the perception that women are behaving like a rage mob, getting all these men fired. But if men are doing this—and they are—shouldn’t they be fired? Or should we shut up because it’s been making men uncomfortable? We’ve been uncomfortable our whole lives.
What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
Audience-wise, I am not really expecting men to read it. I don’t think I have anything in mind for how they’ll react. I wrote this for women. I hope we look out for each other. I teach undergraduates now and I do see younger women being more aware of the reality of the world and what they’re walking into than my generation was. They all seem more proactive. I don’t know if the culture of men will ever change, but I hope women will continue to support each other and stand up for each other. There are a lot of good guys, I know. But I don’t think we should wait for men to get it and start helping us. We can’t afford to.
I definitely think more women should be more in charge to make things better. Not just for women, but for immigrants, for the queer community, and for every other marginalized community in our country.
And I think that narrative often gets turned into we are against white men or women are threatening something essential to male sovereignty, whatever that is. No, we’re not. No one is. No one wants to take anything away from men. When women are stronger and feel empowered and protected, our families and communities are stronger. We would like representation, too. The women of color in the novel are representative of who lives in the West. People of color, people of different social classes and orientations, immigrants. I know there’s a perception out there of that reality being threatening, but it’s actually always been the case, it’s just a question of visibility. You can’t address what you can’t see, and it benefits all of us to see the full picture.