Fiction and Reality

by Graham Hays

Vanderbilt legend Fernanda Contreras balances pro tennis and a debut fantasy novel

That Fernanda Contreras had the potential to go places in tennis—including the grass lawns of Wimbledon—was apparent to any of the college coaches who recruited her. But former Vanderbilt women’s tennis coach Geoff Macdonald might have been the only one likely to guess that one of the program’s all-time greats would go on to become a novelist.

When Contreras arrived in Nashville on a 2014 recruiting trip, Macdonald texted to let her know he was stuck in traffic and would be a few minutes late getting to the airport. Perhaps he worried he would arrive to find his star recruit waiting, bored and impatient. Instead, he had to honk the car horn to get her attention in the pick-up area. Apologetically, she explained she was so engrossed in John Green’s A Fault in Our Stars that she hadn’t noticed him pull up.

Contreras would go on to graduate as Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in singles wins, as well as the single-season record holder in the same. An All-American and a three-time All-SEC selection, she helped the Commodores reach the national championship match in 2018. But Macdonald told her some years later that it was the encounter at the airport that convinced him she would be the ideal Commodore. Anyone who loved books that much, and also happened to be one of the best in her age group to wield a racket, was born to play at Vanderbilt.

“We just had a very tennis and literary education with him,” Contreras said, recalling moments such as visiting William Faulkner’s home on a tennis road trip to Ole Miss. “Maybe sometimes coaches feel they should focus more on tennis than books. But Coach was the opposite. He would always encourage us to bring books and read, take us to libraries and engage us in conversations about what we were reading. I really appreciated that.”

It’s why, without checking the entire canon of literature, Macdonald is likely the only SEC tennis coach to appear in a novel about globetrotting Greek gods. A character named after him enjoys a cameo in Rise of the Darkness, the debut novel Contreras penned under the name FC Gomez. Published in November, the fast-moving, mythology-rich adventure is set in the present and follows a teenage student and museum intern named Leo who helps Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom and war, battle a malevolent force threatening the fabric of the universe.

Their quest is hardly less of a page-turner than the author’s journey to publishing her first book.

Contreras has reached the main singles draw at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Finding her voice

At first glance, Contreras might not fit the profile of an emerging novelist. She graduated from Vanderbilt with an engineering degree. She comes from an extended family full of engineers and more than a few tennis players. English was always her least favorite class in high school—born in Mexico and a native Spanish speaker, she moved with her family to Austin, Texas, as a teenager. Expressing herself in essays and papers in her second language was never easy.

Yet she was a voracious reader, no matter the language. Even as a product of the digital age, raised in a world of iPads and smart phones, she couldn’t pass a library or bookstore growing up without begging for time to browse the shelves and explore the worlds they contained.

Of all the memories she made at Vanderbilt, on and off the court, few still conjure a smile as easily as the thought of the hammocks the university arranged on campus each spring. Spring is the busiest time of year for tennis student-athletes, but amid practices, road trips, final exams and SEC and NCAA tournaments, Contreras still made time to retreat to her favorite spot.

“The weather was nice, and you were right next to The Commons, right next to Rand and you could just read a book,” Contreras said. “If you got hungry, you got up and got a Rand cookie and then you came back. It was just really peaceful.”

At Vanderbilt, she also found more than a reading nook. Living out the ideal of cross-discipline collaboration, the engineering major and tennis All-American took a creative writing elective on writing for the theater that opened up new possibilities—and eventually new worlds. One of the first assignments in the class taught by Christin Essin, associate professor of theatre, was to write a script for a short dramatic scene. Contreras selected Queen Elizabeth I as her protagonist, intrigued by the Tudor monarch who defied traditional gender roles to rule 16th century England as its ships defeated the Spanish Armada and its people experienced the age of Shakespeare.

Far from the laborious essays of high school, this writing flowed freely, joyously.

“She just gave us a lot of creative freedom, and I think that’s what I really loved,” Contreras said of Essin. “It wasn’t like sometimes with engineering, where if you don’t get your calculations right in the first part, then your calculations won’t make sense by page four. That was more intense writing. Whereas creative writing, it’s just letting your juices flow, letting your mind flow and opening up those senses.”

Adversity and inspiration

After graduating in 2019, Contreras left QE1 and creative writing in Nashville and turned her focus to professional tennis. From Cancún, Mexico, to Sardinia, Italy, and Evansville, Indiana, to Santiago, Chile, she traveled the world to gain a foothold on the satellite circuits that feed the WTA Tour. On March 9, 2020, she competed in a tournament in Irapuato, Mexico. Two days later, the NBA abruptly canceled its season due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic—the first domino in a global sports shutdown that included the event in Irapuato and the tennis tours.

Her tennis future suddenly on hold, Contreras returned to her family home in Texas. She had plenty of time to read—too much time for someone used to books as respite from school, tennis and travel. An aunt with a background in literature, and who remembered her niece talking excitedly about the creative writing class at Vanderbilt, encouraged her to write more.

She tried a few short stories and again enjoyed the creative freedom. She dared to go bigger. As the first few chapters of what would become Rise of the Darkness took shape, Contreras and her aunt met on Zoom calls to go over the latest addition and hone her writing style. Soon enough, chapter after chapter flowed almost as quickly as she could type.

By late fall 2020, Contreras was able to compete in a tournament for the first time in nearly eight months. By spring and summer 2021, she was back on the road in earnest, traveling as far afield as Poland and the nation of Georgia. But in airports or hotel rooms, or even sitting on the ground in a quiet hallway during down moments in tournaments, she kept writing, rewriting, tweaking.

When she finished her draft in early 2022, she thought that was the end of it. She had no more inclination to do anything with the text than an amateur painter has with a canvas crafted at home. She wrote for herself—perhaps to prove she could, but also just to tell a story. It was only after a tennis friend asked her what she was always typing on her laptop that she shared it with anyone beyond her family. Encouraged by his response and feedback from what amounted to a few beta testers, she worked with a professional editor through fall 2022.

This November, she sent her story out into the world in hardcover, paperback and eBook.

Creating a world

When her aunt first suggested that she write, Contreras already had inspiration in the form of Antonio Canova’s sculpture of Mars and Venus (or Ares and Aphrodite in the Greek pantheon). Traveling around Europe with her sister before the pandemic, Contreras saw the sculpture at Madrid’s Museo del Prado. Looking at the depiction of the two gods locked in embrace, she started to wonder how the two arrived in that moment. What was the story that explained it?

Contreras has loved mythology for as long as she can remember, from reading The Iliad to playing the popular “Age of Empires” video game. Family members knew better than to get her started talking about the family trees and squabbles of Greek deities, lest she never stop. Rise of the Darkness allowed her to venture into territory she felt had been left frustratingly unexplored. What would happen if deities and mythological beings from across belief systems and cultures inhabited the same space—from the gods in Canova’s sculpture and their Norse counterparts to Slovakian folkloric spirits and Filipino demons?

Contreras knew she wanted to use Athena, one of her childhood favorites. But as the story progressed, she found the Athena of those stories becoming more and more her character. It led to an unexpected role reversal. Now, Contreras was the omnipotent, all-powerful presence shaping the good—and often bad—things that befell even deities known for callously meddling in human affairs. She created Leo, her mortal protagonist. She shaped her version of Athena. She invested time in getting to know them. And then she had to make their lives miserable.

“I do have that attachment to them, and I hate to see them suffer,” Contreras said of her characters. “But I also acknowledge that suffering is part of the human condition, so I do make them go on a lot of trials. They have to go through sadness. They have to go through pain, grief, shame. But it’s all in the ways that make them better or lets them grow. I think that’s just part of being human.

“I didn’t want my characters to just willy-nilly always succeed or never fail. For me, that wasn’t real because part of life is failing and getting back up.”

Creating her own world was also about more than action and adventure.

When she introduces the Norse goddess Freya to the narrative, there are traces of Contreras’ voice when she notes that “history often overlooks the influence of women.” Just as she was once inspired to give voice to the historical Elizabeth I in her Vanderbilt class, her debut novel provides a platform for the sort of strong female characters who are abundant in ancient foundation myths but often squeezed out of Western literature as the centuries advanced.

In researching the book, Contreras observed how the depiction of female mythological figures often depends heavily on who translated older texts and the cultural norms of the era in which the translation took place. (The conversation around Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, the first in English by a woman, is just one high-profile example of the phenomenon.) In giving a contemporary voice to Athena and Freya, in particular, Contreras both celebrates them and honors what she sees in their original strength and vitality.

“Once something has been translated, it means someone has chosen what to put in, what not to put in,” Contreras said. “So for me, it’s really fascinating to find, for example, when stories confirm that a certain woman or powerful female figure had something enduring. She really made it. She survived generations, survived everything. That’s really exciting for me, whenever I read about someone like that or there’s a lot of artistic depictions of a woman like that.”


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A post shared by Fernanda Contreras (@fercongo)

A foot in two worlds

Contreras is already mapping out a second book and new adventures for her characters—some she knows well and some she is still discovering. During a recent tournament in Vienna, she seized a fleeting free moment to visit the National Austrian Library, which contains, among other things, exhibits on ancient Egyptian papyrus. Much to her disappointment, it was closed.

But wherever she travels, eager to build on the form that helped her reach the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open main draws in 2022, she has an eye out for scenes and storylines.

“It’s never picking tennis over my book or my book over tennis,” Contreras said. “They coexist very harmoniously. I love both of them. Sometimes writing brings me a lot of pleasure when I’m struggling with tennis. And sometimes I’m doing really well in tennis and don’t have time to write, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t want to write or that I’m ignoring it. I still have it in my mind. It’s been a really healthy balance.”

Just for good measure, she is also working on a Spanish translation for Rise of the Darkness. English is now her default in so many respects that it has been challenging to reclaim her first language. But while she will send the text to a professional translator, it was important to her to do the first draft herself—her way to be sure the story stays true to the source material.

After all, you never know who your words might reach. Or when an aspiring Commodore might need a good book to read while waiting for a ride.


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