With her debut novel longlisted for the Booker Prize 2022, Leila Mottley talks about the true story that inspired Nightcrawling, helping young people to start reading again and trying to be a normal teenager
You’re the youngest ever Booker-longlisted author. How does that feel?
I’m honoured to be considered among so many incredible authors and I think, as with all ‘firsts’, it means hopefully there will be many more young writers to follow, whose work will be read with the respect and thoughtfulness that the Booker inspires.
What would it mean to you to win the Booker Prize 2022? How conscious were you of the prize and what it means to win it before now?
The Booker Prize is one of the most important literary prizes in the world and I was very much aware of its existence, but I hadn’t even considered that I would be nominated or that, in my wildest dreams, I would end up on the longlist for my debut novel. Winning the Booker would be a testament not just to me or the necessity of Nightcrawling, but would also be a statement that Black girls like Kiara, like me, matter and that our narratives are integral to the fabric of this world.
Nightcrawling was written when you were 17. One of the many impressive things about that is that you had the discipline to commit to something as all-consuming as writing a novel at an age when there are countless distractions. How did you remain focused on the book while still living a normal teenage life?
I think all writers experience the challenge of focusing on a fictional world when the many distractions and responsibilities of the real world feel like they’re pulling us away. Instead of having children or a full-time job, I had school and college applications and a part-time job. I love storytelling and I also recognise that living the fullest life helps us to tell the most authentic and intricate stories, so I worked on trying to be a writer when I was writing and still be a pretty normal 17-year-old when I wasn’t writing.
You’re the Oakland 2018 Youth Poet Laureate and have a poetry collection coming out soon. But now that success as a novelist has come along, is there pressure to focus on more novels? What are you writing next?
I have always loved both poetry and fiction and I’ve been doing both simultaneously since I was 14 and wrote my first novel. I will always write what I feel the most drawn to and I don’t see my poetry or novels as being in competition with each other; in fact, my writing is at its best when I am able to do both. I’m currently working on both a poetry collection and my second novel and couldn’t be happier with the way the two are inspiring each other.
The Booker longlist features both the youngest- and oldest-ever nominated authors. Does age matter when writing fiction? Is there a good/bad/right/wrong age to write a masterpiece, or is age irrelevant?
We write the stories we are most adept at telling at the time they are ready to come out of us. I think that can happen at any age and I also think there are books we’re not prepared to write at 50 or 15 or 80, for a multitude of reasons that often have more to do with us as people than as writers. Age and life experience absolutely matter, but less as a constraint than as a factor in where the writer is in life and what kind of stories we’re compelled to tell. There’s never a wrong age to tell the story that is aching inside of you.
The Booker judges described Nightcrawling as ‘a Catcher in the Rye for a new generation’ - how does that make you feel, and do you see yourself as writing for a new generation?
The Catcher in the Rye and Nightcrawling are both books that recognise the universality of adolescence and the necessity of having teenage characters who are complicated that can be read and loved by such a vast audience. I’m at a point in my life and career where I feel compelled to write about young people, particularly people on the brink of adolescence and adulthood, and my context for adolescence is in this current era, so I think in many ways my work ends up oriented toward a younger generation that is just beginning to exist in adult literary fiction at this point.
I also would love it if my books helped more young people start reading again, since I think accessible, emotionally potent novels like Nightcrawling could help people who haven’t read in a while return to it.
Nightcrawling was inspired by real events - police officers had participated in the exploitation of a young woman and tried to cover it up. What was it about that event and its aftermath that compelled you to write Nightcrawling?
I was born and raised in Oakland and when this case broke, it rattled the Bay Area and caused this examination into the corruption of the police department, specifically where it related to young girls and women. Both the case itself and the media response to the case - which was narrow and often misdirected attention away from the systemic pattern of harm to girls and women of colour - stuck with me over the years. When I began thinking about writing Nightcrawling, I knew I wanted to explore the vulnerable experience of black girlhood and adolescence. I returned to this case, and other cases of police sexual violence, as an instance that exemplifies the lack of protection of young girls and that became the seed of the novel.
You say in your author’s note that you wanted to write a story that reflected ‘the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood’. Is that something that you feel has been under-explored in fiction?
I think we rarely get to see the way that police violence impacts black girls and women, in fiction and beyond and, when I decided to write Nightcrawling, I didn’t want to shy away from the graphic and brutal nature of violence against black girls.
How big a challenge was it to make sure that your depictions of sex work in the book were authentic and how did ensure that they were?
I did a lot of research on sex work and the criminalisation of sex work in the writing of the book. Sex workers aren’t a monolithic group, so there are so many varying experiences and understandings of sex work, influenced by the cultural shaming of the industry, the type of sex work, the country and policies around sex work, the identity of the sex worker, etc. It was important to me to also have someone with experience in sex work read the book and provide feedback for authenticity. With all of that information, I had to make decisions about Kiara’s character that felt true both to the context of sex work and to who she was and the circumstances she found herself in.
Who were your literary influences when you were growing up? Which writers do you particularly admire on the subject of race and on the experience of black womanhood?
There are so many incredible black women who have been writing about the particular experience of black womanhood in various ways for decades. While the validity and attention the world gives to the experiences of black women has oscillated, black women writers have always been studying and writing about our positions in this world and I follow in this tradition. Writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall and more all do a magnificent job of rendering black womanhood and girlhood on the page and they were all influential in my growth as a writer and person.
There are so many other writers I admired growing up, many of whom wrote about black girlhood and whose work reflected to me that I could exist in stories and I could even write them in ways that felt true to me and veered away from some of the texts I disliked from what we think of as the ‘literary canon’. I found Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward, Ntozake Shange, bell hooks, and Arundhati Roy when I was in middle school and early high school, and fell in love with their work and the limitlessness of their writing.
Where do you write? What does your working space look like?
I’m someone who can write just about anywhere. When I’m typing, I’m normally in a cozy chair, a bed, the library, or my desk, but when I’m writing by hand, I will often move around. I love to write outside in nature, in the car, on the bus, on the train. As long as the room isn’t too quiet, I’m happy.
Which book or books are you reading at the moment?
I’m re-reading Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, which I re-read at least once every year or so. I’m also reading a non-fiction book for research on my next novel and I have Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan on my nightstand.
Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel?
What’s the one book you wish you’d written?
That’s difficult because I don’t wish I’d written any of my favourite books, since then I wouldn’t get to just experience them as a reader. Plus I try not to be too envious of other people’s work, since I wouldn’t want to mimic someone else’s voice, even if I could. However, I think the construction of Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is absolutely masterful and if I could create something that intricate and layered, I would.