This episode we talk with Oakland native and 2018 youth poet laureate Leila Mottley about writing her debut novel Nightcrawling at 17, and the process of adapting a true story to fiction. Leila imagines how it would be different if she wrote the book now, and insists she’s really not exceptional among the countless talented young writers out there.
*Note: This was recorded shortly before the announcement of Nightcrawling as an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
The Stacks Book Club selection for June is White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson. We will discuss the book on June 29th with David Dennis Jr.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by first time novelist Leila Mottley, whose new book Nightcrawling was just selected for Oprah’s book club. It follows high school dropout Kiara Johnson and her family as they struggle to survive in Oakland, California, Kiara turns to sex work and ends up embroiled in an Oakland Police Department scandal. Night crawling is based on true events. Today, Leila and I talk about our shared home of Oakland, the way labels are used to gatekeeping the literary world and about how Leila approached telling this complicated and emotional story. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. And the next book club pick for June is white negros when cornrows were in vogue and other thoughts on cultural appropriation by Lauren Michelle Jackson. We will be discussing the book on Wednesday, June 29. With David Dennis Jr. The stock is a completely independent podcast made possible by the support of our listeners. I cannot stress you all enough how I would not be able to make this show each and every week without the support of The Stacks pack, which is our incredible bookish community that supports the show over on Patreon. If not for them, there will be no show. So if you like this podcast and want to show your love, plus, earn perks, like bonus episodes with your favorite readers and authors, shout outs on this very podcast and our incredible monthly book club conversations go to patreon.com/thestacks and shout out to two of our newest members of the stacks pack. Julie’s Ella and Sarah Peck. Thank you so much and thank you to every single person who was part of the stacks pack. And now it’s time for my conversation with Leila Mottley.
All right, everybody. I’m very excited. If you’ve been listening to the show. If you follow me on social media, you know that the one book that I have been looking forward to you in 2022 is a book called Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley. And guess who I get to talk to today? The one and only author Leila Mottley. Welcome to the Stacks.
Leila Mottley 2:16
Thank you so much for having me.
Traci Thomas 2:19
I’m so excited. We have a lot to talk about. We have some things in common. I feel like we’ll start where we always start. And then we’ll sort of dig in, which is in 30 seconds or so can you tell us about the book?
Leila Mottley 2:31
Yes. So Nightcrawling follows Kiara, a 17 year old black girl in Oakland, when she finds herself involved in a network of police officers who sexually exploit her. And that results in a major investigation and a target on her back.
Traci Thomas 2:48
And this story. So you’re from Oakland, I’m from Oakland, shout out Oakland girls doing our thing. I can’t figure out where I want to start. I guess we should start with this. Because I think people who don’t know will be like, What the fuck? How old? were you when you started writing this book?
Leila Mottley 3:04
It was a month before I turned 17.
Traci Thomas 3:07
So you are just a casual, 16 year old girl like let me write this novel about police sex misconduct events. You based it on the true stories about what’s going on with Oakland Police Department. How did you like when I was 16? I was like, Let me listen to in sync. So like, I’m just trying to figure out, like, how you are so much more mature and cool than me. I’m also like, so talented. Was this an assignment? Were you just like, I want to write a book. Like what happened? Yeah.
Leila Mottley 3:41
Um, so it’s actually the third book that I had written. So I wrote my first novel at 14 And then my second at 15/16. And then this is my third 16, mostly 17.
Traci Thomas 3:56
But are those books published?
Leila Mottley 3:57
No, no, no, no, no. Okay, they will not see the light of day. I don’t know, I like to say that. I think that people have like, kind of low expectations for teenagers. And I mean, I went to an arts high school. So I think this also informs that but um, so many people I know, we’re, you know, 15 and incredibly talented and trying to do all of these things. And and I think that the world just doesn’t pay attention to young people and especially to like young black kids. And I don’t know, I just like wrote it. And I don’t think I never intended. It wasn’t an assignment I did on my own time. I didn’t necessarily think anyone is ever going to read it, because I’d written these other two books, and I didn’t want anyone to ever read them. And so I think that that was kind of my, my practice rounds for how to write a novel. And this one definitely felt different because by the time I got I’m done with the first draft. I mean, first drafts are hard because they’re always kind of shitty. So you like and and that was to be expected. But there was something about this that still made me go like I think this story is important for the worlds and not just me. And so I did the work to revise it.
Traci Thomas 5:24
Okay. What school did you go to?
Leila Mottley 5:26
Oakland School for the Arts.
Traci Thomas 5:28
That’s right down the street from where I grew up. First of all,
Leila Mottley 5:30
Oh, yeah. By by the Wendy’s, right?
Traci Thomas 5:33
Yeah. Yeah, that Wendy’s is is really iconic. They are not open very late. So don’t try to get don’t try to get frosty after. Because it’s not gonna happen.
Leila Mottley 5:44
That’s like, there was this Thai restaurant right next door to it. To the Wendy’s. And it was was like, the place that we had like, our special like, birthday dinner like.
Traci Thomas 5:58
Oh, cute. I feel like we have, we’re gonna have a lot of like, oh, yeah, I know that place. will stay on this topic for now. Then we’ll go back to the book, because I’m just so like, I think you’re right. I think people don’t give and by people. I mean, me, too. Don’t give young people enough credit. Like, I think when you get older, you forget what it feels like to be young, for sure, like 1,000%. And I also think that when you get older, you realize like, what an idiot you were when you were young. And so you’re like, oh, other young people are idiots too, but like, you know, they are and they aren’t. I’m curious, like, because this is your first published novel. And like, You’re so young. And you’re in this world that’s like very, you know, air quotes, adult? How has it changed how you like, how did you go into this? And how do you feel like you’re different? Now we’re recording this before the book has actually come out. You’re like a week and a half or something two weeks away from it. So for people listening, the book is out now. But we’re talking about this before any published, technical published, things have come out, but like, how have you? How do you feel like you’ve changed? Like, walk us through it?
Leila Mottley 7:09
Well, I mean, I sold the book when I was still 17. I signed my contract on my 18th birthday.
Traci Thomas 7:17
Did you have an adult sign with you? Also?
Leila Mottley 7:19
No, they I sold April, I turn, my birthday is in June. So I sold in April. And then they waited to give me my contract. My birthday, and I signed on my birthday. So that we didn’t have to deal with that. But um, yeah, so that was like, almost it was two years ago now. So a lot has changed. And I think that that’s the other thing about, you know, being young is that there’s like a intense amount of like rapid growth that happens in even like six months. Yeah. And so I’m a very different person and a very different writer than I was when I wrote this book. And when I sold this book. So there’s definitely like that element of just feeling like, this book isn’t even the book that I would right now. And it would be entirely different than if I wrote it now. And I’m around all of these adults. Like there’s, there’s not really anyone to talk to my age, who has been through this, which in some ways is kind of isolating. But I also like, get to have a lot of mentorship, and we’re all kind of like debut authors are all kind of in the same place, no matter how old you are. Yeah. So that kind of levels things out, too. But it’s definitely a strange experience. For sure.
Traci Thomas 8:39
Okay. This is sort of a fucked up question to ask you. Because your books aren’t even out, but you brought it up. So I’m gonna ask if you could do it again, if you were rewriting this book, what would you do differently? And let me just say, before you answer the book that you’re going to read people, it’s really fucking good. So like everything. She says, we’ll just look forward to that and your sophomore book. But I’m just curious, like how you think you would change it? You don’t have to and don’t spoil anything. But just like, generally, how do you think you would approach it different?
Leila Mottley 9:05
I honestly don’t think I would write this book.
Traci Thomas 9:08
You think you’d just tell a different story? Yeah.
Leila Mottley 9:11
And I think that that’s part of why I’m glad that I did it when I did it. Because I think that, like you said people, the second almost a second you, you know, turn 1819 20 Like, you exit this period of you know, the minute you graduate high school, you’re suddenly removed from it. And adulthood comes really quick, and it changes the way you think about adolescence and childhood. And I think that I it was really, really important to me that this book, be a representation of this young girl and I wanted it to kind of read as a constant reminder of how young she is and how the positions that she’s put in and the circumstances that frame the book are not meant for a girl who was 17. And yet she is and and even when the world views her as someone much older, I wanted the book to still read with like these, these moments and like this element of childhood, least throughout even just the way that she like experiences the world around her. And I don’t think I would have been able to write that if I wasn’t 17 At the time that I wrote it. And so I don’t think I’d be able to write it now, in the same way. And I think it would be a very different book if I attempted now. So I don’t think I would.
Traci Thomas 10:39
Interesting. Yeah, because when I was reading the book, like one of the things, we talked about this a lot on the show, which is sort of like how do you classify books, you know, like, what’s the genre? What’s the age? And as I was reading it, I was like, you know, I know this is an adult book, but because she’s the central figure, it feels. And I don’t mean this, like, I don’t mean this to like, because I think people have a negative experience of why, but it sort of feels like why, because you’re following this young person. And she’s around young people. And it’s from her point of view. And like, I kept thinking, you know, why isn’t this why, and the only thing that I could think of was that the topic, like the subject matter is adult, but then I’m like, but it’s happening to teenagers, like this is based off real life stuff. So like, Why couldn’t this be for young people? You know, and like, I do think that this book, you know, for young people who are interested in this, I think it’s totally accessible. And for adults who are interested in I think it’s totally accessible, which is like how books used to be when I was younger as like, it was just a book. It wasn’t like why. But I definitely like went back and forth of like, this could easily be a why a book because it centers a young person. It’s from her point of view, like we’re seeing the world through her eyes, we feel what it feels like to be her. I’m wondering if there were any conversations with you and the publisher about how you would kind of classify the book?
Leila Mottley 11:59
Yeah, yeah. And when I was actually getting agented, I have these different agents who I was talking to, and a few of them were like, Okay, what if this was why and a few of them were like, this is definitely adult. And it’s interesting, because in a lot of ways, I think genre is arbitrary, and is more representative of this like literary elitism than it is of any actual genre.
Traci Thomas 12:25
Leila get the million dollars.
Leila Mottley 12:28
And so I think, like, it doesn’t really matter all that much. But it’s about respect, right in the end, and I wanted this book, like, I wanted people to respect the young people in this book. And if that meant calling it adult, then that’s fine by me. Because I think in so many ways, why is disrespected and kind of marginalized is only for young people, but I know, you know, 13 year olds who read adult fiction, and adults who love ya, and I think that in the end doesn’t really matter, actually, like kisi Layman and may have this interview. I love him. He, he asked me, um, I don’t know, we were we ended up talking about genre and like urban fiction as a genre. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Because in like, my night callings, I guess, the Library of Congress, genre classification, it is classified as urban fiction. And I just think it’s so interesting, the kind of like genre redlining that happens around, like, how do we implicitly say that this is a black book, and this is a book about like, city kids? And this is a book about young people and and how do we say like a book is worthy of respect or not, without actually saying it? And I think that genre is a huge way in which the publishing industry does that. So yeah, and it doesn’t really matter to me all that much, as long as like, the characters are respected. And people get to read it without feeling bad about it. Because I feel like that’s a lot of what ends up happening is people like feel guilty for what they read, if it’s not within a category that the mass public would would deem as acceptable.
Traci Thomas 14:23
Yeah, I love this idea of literary redlining. Because I also just think about, like in this book, and you know, being from a place, being from Oakland, you know, it’s like, there’s so much coded language around being from Oakland, like, there’s so many people who are like, Oh, I’m from the Bay Area, and I’m like, where are you from? And they’re like, Oakland. I’m like, that’s how the bay area that’s Oakland, you say you’re from the Bay Area, if you’re from like, Danville, nobody knows that. Oakland is Oaklyn. Like, you’re saying you’re embarrassed to be from a black city, like, What are you saying? And I think like the same thing with like, sex worker, you know, and it’s like, there’s so much much in your book that is oftentimes, like, coated or like given a euphemism, or whatever. And I think that’s just really interesting. I would not classify your book as urban fiction, but also I don’t think of Oakland As or like urban. You know, I know it is. Where I’m from. I don’t I just don’t like that’s where my house is. I don’t. But of course, of course, I know intellectually, that is an urban city. But it’s so interesting, like the way that these things are classified. And you’re right, like how, how the conversations are shaped by the categories, things are put in, and it’s sort of like, Oh, if you don’t like urban fiction, like, the, the black story.
Leila Mottley 15:44
Yeah, it’s black fiction. Like that’s what they mean.
Traci Thomas 15:47
Of course, that’s what they mean. We have you ever lived outside of Oakland?
Leila Mottley 15:52
No. I mean, I spent three and a half months at college.
Traci Thomas 15:57
Where did you go to college?
Leila Mottley 16:00
Smith College in Massachusetts.
Traci Thomas 16:02
Massachusetts, cold. You stop you you dropped out temporarily, or you postponed or whatever? I don’t know what they call it, you stopped going to college for a little bit? To do all of this. Do you think you’ll go back? And if you do, do you think you’ll go back to Smith?
Leila Mottley 16:18
I will not go back to Smith, because it was a huge culture shock for me to be in a small white town. I didn’t understand what I was getting myself into. And I don’t intend on leaving the bay. So if I went back to college, I’d stay in the bay. And I’m not sure when I’m going back. I’m not sure if I’m going back. I’m kind of letting it ride out. And then we’ll see.
Traci Thomas 16:44
Whatever college is overrated. I went to college, and I loved it. But it’s also like overrated. And if it doesn’t feel right, don’t feel stressed out. And you can always go back like when you’re 40. Yeah. And when you go back when you’re 40, you can get like five degrees at once. Apparently, nobody told me this. Like, no, but I just know Daniel Smith, who is who was on the show. A few weeks ago, she went back and got her master’s and finished her undergraduate degree, like at the same time. Wow. But I feel like they only tell you that when you’re an adult, because you’re like, Bitch, I’m not paying for all this shit. Okay, just like, let’s get it all done. Let’s get all taken care of. Okay, I want to talk about the contents of the book this case, because I remember when it came out, I was like, I’m gonna throw up. This is like, the most fucked up story ever. For people who don’t know, this isn’t a spoiler. The book is based on this, like, whatever. But in 2015-
Leila Mottley 17:34
it like spanned a few years of of media content, but 2015 to 2017.
Traci Thomas 17:40
This story broke about a young, teenage woman, teenage girl, she was a teenager who was a sex worker, and was basically like, it was basically like, embedded by the Oakland Police Department and other police departments. And she was having sex with all of these police officers. And essentially, as you can imagine, the way that power dynamics work, she didn’t really have a choice. And so this is sort of what inspired you. Can you talk about, like, reading the story, and then actually deciding that you wanted to write about it? Because I’m sure there’s other things that you’re like, this is interesting, but that you’re not like, let me write a novel.
Leila Mottley 18:23
Right? Yeah. I mean, I was a young teenager, I was like, 1314, when this story broken, I mean, I, it consumed Oakland for for a while. And I guess I assumed that it did the same nationally, but it didn’t. And most people don’t know about it. But like you said, yeah, a young young girl, she was sexually abused by many different barrier police officers. And, and there was this investigation and the cover up and police chief turnover and all of these things. And I remember paying, I’m paying a lot of attention to this feeling like it was like it was a messaging about what happens to young girls and young women of color especially, and the ways in which like, we’re just not going to be protected. And I remember also listening to like, all of these news stories and the reading the way that the the media talked about it was was really interesting, because the focus was this like disproportionate focus on what does it mean for the police department? And what does it mean for the police department’s relationship with the community and the trust between the community and the police department as though that existed before? And I remember thinking like, what about her like we no one seems to care what the the lasting impact was on her and the like 1000s of other young girls and women who are, you know, don’t have their stories ever make it to this type of, of media? Yeah, so I remember thinking about that, and, and just paying a lot of attention to it. And you know, of course, the way these cycles happen, it disappeared, right? It faded away. But like, that’s not how it works for survivors, it doesn’t disappear. And I, it stuck with me and I researched other cases of police sexual violence, most of which don’t ever get recorded, but a few of which have made it to, to media throughout, you know, the past few decades. And then when I was like, 16, I think I have this idea about about a character and I Chiara kind of came to me. And from her, I built out a world. And it was important to me that it was in Oakland, because that’s all I know. Right? And, and so I definitely like drew from that case, but also from from other cases, and and just from, you know, my own imagination, too.
Traci Thomas 21:07
Yeah, how much was, how much did you imagine versus research for this book?
Leila Mottley 21:14
I tried not to research too much, because I didn’t want it to infiltrate the story. And I wanted all characters and like the people at the heart of this book, to be entirely from my own imagination. And really, I just like, did a lot of reading the transcripts. And and just like seeing, could I, how much could I hear from her voice and from the voices of other survivors? So I did a lot of of that as much as I could. But there really isn’t that much out there about it.
Traci Thomas 21:48
So like the scandal itself is sort of the thing. But like Chiara and her friends and family are all they’re not connected to the story. That’s all from from you from your brain. How did you think about writing about the cops or writing the cops was not hard.
Leila Mottley 22:08
I think that for me, it was really important that I recognized that police officers are just police officers when they’re in uniform. And that like this, the debate about like a good, good cop, bad cop, like all of all, these things don’t really matter when when you have this power, abuse in play. And so for me, I thought about how to characterize them without giving them the room to be people that we can sympathize with as though they can exist in CQRS world without just being cops, because in Chiara as well, they’re just police officers. And she can have moments with them. But like, at the end of the day, they have this power and the power dynamic at play doesn’t allow for her to view them outside of, of their, their profession, their role in play. And so part of what I did was I used their numbers instead of names for the most part. And I kind of characterize them by ways in which she saw them. And so small traits that they would have. But you know, the most important thing was not them. And I just didn’t want that to take the center of the story because it is meant to be her story. And Chiara is, you know, she has the narrative control and this whole thing and right, so it wasn’t important that they be developed in outside of her.
Traci Thomas 23:52
Right, you treated them like how most novelists would treat the sex worker and yeah, or the news or whatever, like the afterthought just like casual like has splotchy cheeks. Which I love that detail. I just I knew exactly what he looked like, as soon as I was like, oh, red splotchy. I was like, Yeah, I like it. How was the book changed? Since when you started writing it?
Leila Mottley 24:19
It’s changed a lot. The biggest thing was Marcus Marcus changed a million different times. Marcus is Brother Yeah. And everyone who read it in the beginning hated him, just hated him so much. And I didn’t feel that way. But I realized that there was something that I like that I needed to create the nuance for readers in the same way that I like understood him because there are a lot of deleted scenes to with him. And so there was there was a lot of work to show who he is and why he is the way He He is in allow us to be angry at him and understand him at the same time. So that that was a huge thing. And then my beginnings always change a lot like the first part of the book changes more than anything else. So definitely, there was a lot of work on that. And I didn’t know how to plot in my first draft, I didn’t even consider the plot was important. I mostly thought about just like characters and writing. And that was like, the biggest thing that I did, the first thing that I did was I reversed outlined and I created a plot out of not a lot.
Traci Thomas 25:42
Got it. So interesting. I you know, I love plot. So I’m really gonna do that. I appreciate it. Because I liked the book. And I know that I would not have if it was just characters floating around incidents. Okay, we have to talk about the cover and the title. Yeah. The title appears in the book in a sentence. And it was not what I had thought that it was, which I loved. We won’t spoil it because I love one of my joys is like finding the title. Like, especially in fiction, when it like pops up. And you’re like, Yes, I got it. And, and yours is just like, was that something? Did you know that you wanted it to appear in the book and that way? Like, how did you go about like thinking about the title?
Leila Mottley 26:28
It appears like two or three times throughout?
Traci Thomas 26:32
Oh, does it the one time that I’m thinking of I have the page written? And I remember but the one time I’m thinking of,
Leila Mottley 26:36
I think I know the one you’re talking about where it’s like, it’s on page one on set? Yeah. Yeah, it’s, it’s in there a couple of different times, but in none of them. It’s like, the actual, like, one word Nightcrawler. Yeah. And, I mean, I had the title before I read the book, I, I think that’s often the way it works for me is I just, the title just happens. And my calling, like, it’s not validated by the dictionary or anything, but it is like, it’s a colloquial term, and it has multiple meanings. And it can mean just like lurking at night, like on the streets, any of like, the things that we do on the streets, like undercover things. It can mean like drug dealing, or sex work or any of that. And it can, it can also, you know, just mean like walking the street at night. And, and so night crawling up to me that that just like, uh, I wanted it to come into play in a different way than the title and the actual meaning. And because I think that part of the intricacies of this word and like having it be a term that, like, it’s a very much real word, but it’s also like not it’s, it’s a term that like, you know, in black dialect, we get to create your own our own words, and, and I wanted it to show up in in whatever way that it fits in, in different moments throughout the book. So it’s there in a couple of different places, but never in the way that we expect it to be.
Traci Thomas 28:17
Which I love. Okay, the cover. A lot of people are telling me it’s their favorite cover of the year. Are you involved in the cover at all? Did you like tell us about that process?
Leila Mottley 28:27
Yeah, I love covers, I think they’re very important.
I’m with you, they really matter.
And so I yeah, I had a lot of involvement in the covers. So basically, I was given, I think, four different options, maybe even six, I was given a lot of options. And there, it came down to two first drafts and one was what we now see as the cover, but like it looked a little different. I think the colors were different. And that the font, the text was way different. They hated it. And, and then the other one was this like, really stunning image of this woman with like, lavender growing out of her mouth, and I loved it as a piece of art. But it felt almost like dead to me. It didn’t have the same like kinetic energy, like the movement that I felt was really important, especially with the you know the verb of the title. And so I ended up saying, you know, let’s go with this orange one and change the font and make the colors like more vibrant. And we went through a couple of different drafts of that until we landed on the one that you now see today and I love it is not at all What I thought the cover would look like I couldn’t even I would never have pictured this. And I think it’s like 10 times better than what I thought it would be.
Traci Thomas 30:11
It’s so gorgeous. It’s so bright, I would never think to put, I know that they’re complementary colors, but I would never think to put the orange and the purple together, especially like around this book. But now that that’s like what it is I’m like, Oh, this of course, this is like a timeout. It’s like the purple is so perfect. Oranges are perfect. And I hate orange. Like truly orange is one of my least favorite colors, period. And I still really liked this book. And I’m like, I hate that I like an orange book because it’s really keeping up with my brain. But I just like it. So here we are. Pretty. Yeah, it is. It’s so gorgeous. Okay, let’s talk about time management. You were in school when you were writing this book. How did you make time to write? How did you write Where did you write how many hours a day music or no music, snacks, beverages, candles, rituals, the whole vibe. Set it? Yeah,
Leila Mottley 31:09
I didn’t sleep. I think that’s like, the main one. I don’t recommend it, Leila.
Traci Thomas 31:14
This is horrible. You’re young, you need to sleep to grow and be high school.
Leila Mottley 31:18
Wow. Yeah. But um, yeah. So I wrote the first draft to the summer before I went to college. And I was working at two different preschools. And I was a substitute teacher. So my, my shifts change. But most of the time, it was working like a good 20 to 40 hours a week, depending and, and then after work, or before were depending on my shift, I would go to a cafe and I would write, and then at night, there was this, like little jazz bar cafe. And I would go, you know, downtown where the YMCA is. So I would go to the YMCA. And then I would go to the jazz bar, like, demonstrate it’s gone now. And there would either be comedy, or live jazz playing and I would have coffee at like 9pm and write.
Traci Thomas 32:18
You would write while there was comedy going on?
Leila Mottley 32:20
Yeah. Sure, anything.
Traci Thomas 32:24
Okay. Okay. I despise comedy. So I would be like, this is irritating to me. Yeah, I hate standup comedy more than anything.
Leila Mottley 32:31
It’s, it’s awkward. And I feel like the energy of it helps at times, I like things to be going on around me when I’m writing. If I’m if I’m out. And then when I went to college, and I was revising, I did a stupid thing. And I took 20 credits my first semester, which is a lot five classes. And it’s like one class more than you should take. And, and so I was in a lot of classes, and I was working. And then I was writing. And so I wrote at night, most of the time and my, my dad loves moving. He I like literally have never experienced quiet in my house growing up. And so he always had music playing and mostly jazz or blues. And so I would play that in my little dorm room while I wrote so that I could like feel it just made me feel at home. And that was mostly how I revise. And then the pandemic happened. And I revised more and that was kind of all over the place. But inside mostly and I have like sense orientada right at a desk which I hate this. I’m not a person who likes to like sit at a desk in a desk chair. I like to sit on a bed, or like a couch and write like that. So that’s my preference. I drink a lot of coffee.
Traci Thomas 34:08
How do you take your coffee?
Leila Mottley 34:10
Cream and sugar. Absolutely.
Traci Thomas 34:12
What color like like give me like a color with the cream. Are you going like like a wood? Are you going like your skin color? Are you going like even lighter? Like where are you?
Leila Mottley 34:23
I’m going like, like a white?
Traci Thomas 34:29
Okay, okay, great. I like a lot of milk in my beverage. regular milk. Are you giving me a soy and oat?
Leila Mottley 34:36
I will do oat. My partner’s lactose intolerant. So she kind of takes soy milk and I try not to steal it from her. So I will do just like half and half traditional.
Traci Thomas 34:49
Welcome to my heart. I actually so I’ve started doing some half and half but then also putting whole milk up to say like I I get really late, but if I do that much half enough, it’s like too much. I drink a tea. It’s like yeah, it’s like too thick. So I do like a slash of half and half and then the rest just like-
Leila Mottley 35:09
Yeah, that’s it.
Traci Thomas 35:13
What kind of tea do you drink?
Leila Mottley 35:15
Black tea? Preferably like a breakfast when? Right Irish breakfast. Yeah.
Traci Thomas 35:22
Great. We love this. This is something we haven’t. I love a black tea. But you did not say any snacks.
Leila Mottley 35:28
No snack and not a snacker at all. Ever. No really not at all my partner loves goldfish and on occasional have goldfish, but like, I prefer just like, three meals and wow, and coffee. And I like if it’s a special writing day like I’ll have sushi. That’s like my treat. But I Yeah, no, I don’t. I don’t snack. I wish I liked.
Traci Thomas 35:56
Now. This is so sad for you. Imagine not liking snacks. But I love goldfish. So your partner is friend. Big goldfish house. We get like the huge. Yes, she
Leila Mottley 36:08
Yes, she has the huge box always. Yeah, yeah.
Traci Thomas 36:11
And people like oh, it’s because you have kids. I’m like, Whoa, I sometimes give them a few. Yes, actually mostly for me. But thank you. Okay. In your acknowledgments you mentioned pitch wars. Yeah, I’d love to hear more about pitch wars. I’m assuming that’s like when your book sold?
Leila Mottley 36:32
No, no, not at all. So pitch wars. I don’t know, I was probably like, look, Googling, like, how do you get a book published or something, and stumbled upon pitch wars, which is generally for like genre fiction. I don’t think I knew that at the time. But I applied and it’s essentially with this mentorship program. So you get paired with a mentor, and my mentor was Samantha Bashara. And she’s lovely. She does historical fiction and, and she was the one who taught me how to fly. And so we spent like, two months like she gave me notes. And then I would, I would write, revise. And then we there’s like an Egypt showcase, which basically gives you like, priority in an agent’s line of okay, yeah. And so I got a few agent offers through that. But I actually didn’t end up my agents I got elsewhere. So I didn’t end up actually getting an agent and through that, but yeah, that’s basically what it is.
Traci Thomas 37:38
Got it. And then your book went to auction, right? It was like 13,
Leila Mottley 37:43
or say option in the beginning of the pandemic. So it’s like the first book that my agents had sold. During the pandemic, it was kind of like a shot in the dark. None of us knew what it was like to sell a book in the pandemic. And so I took all of these like, zooms when we were all figuring out what zoom was, with 13 different editors. And then we had this auction it was,
Traci Thomas 38:10
So I’m sure people are listening to this right now. And they hate your guts. Because 12 years old, is like, Agent offers editor, but you know what, people? Sometimes you just are better than everyone else like them, Leila, let him know, let him know. I’m just kidding. Everyone’s great. But Leila is better than me. Just fine. It’s just the truth. Okay, we can’t fry. How did you know you wanted to be a writer? I know you do did poetry previous to writing this novel? But like, how did you know that was a medium that worked for you? How did you know you wanted to go to Arts High School? Like, how did you find your calling?
Leila Mottley 38:49
I mean, I was writing. The second I learned how to write I don’t know, six with a poetry journal. And I have many, many short stories that like nine and and I just like I always did it. And I think part of it is because my mom was a reader. So she filled the house with books, and my dad is a writer. And so writing was like a thing. And not just a thing you did in school in my house, though, I think that that probably influenced it. And then I was really into theater. And so I went I really wanted to go to the art type, the arts Middle School for theater. And so I auditioned and I and I went for three years in the theater program, and I think by my second year, I was like, I think that I would rather spend my time writing than in rehearsals and and that like I cared more about what I was like the the actual writing I have the player the monologue that I did about like, performing it, but I love to perform. And I realized I could do that in different ways. And so then I transferred to the literary arts department for high school. And that’s how I started writing novels. My first year in high school, and then poetry kind of, I mean, I was always writing poetry. And I did not write performance poetry. That was not something I did. But then, in high school, they were like, you know, maybe everyone should apply to the poet laureate program. And I applied and I, I went by story at when I was 14. And then when I was 15, I became Oakland youth Poet Laureate. And that essentially is like, you go around, and you perform in front of a bunch of different audiences, and you get solicited to write poems for different organizations. And so I spent a year just like constantly writing, memorizing performing poetry and, and it was really cool. It was definitely a learning experience for me. And I kind of let my section ticket backburner while I did that. And then I switched and let the fiction be like my main thing, and now I’m writing poetry again, but not like writing performance poetry, because that’s not actually what I naturally write. But I can make myself write it. And now I feel like we’re comfortable with just reading, written poetry.
Traci Thomas 41:42
I love this. Okay. This is sort of the opposite of that last question. What other jobs or careers or things do you think you would want to do? Because, I mean, if you keep writing fantastic, we’re here we’ll be reading. But also you’re like, 19, almost 20. Yeah. Like, asked me what I was doing when I was 19. I’m not doing it now. So I’m curious. In an in this in the future, and another part of your life, maybe tomorrow, I don’t know. What else would you want to do? Could you imagine
Leila Mottley 42:14
I love kids. So like working with kids is always bad. That was I mean, that was what I was planning on doing. And so whether that’s like social worker, working a preschooler, I’m not I have not entirely sure, but like, kids, I love kids. And, yeah, I think that like I’d be happy working like at a nonprofit or something. I don’t know. I just like, once I’m happy, and I believe in what I’m doing. Good. Yeah, I think I think that that working with kids would make me very happy, but it’s also very draining.
Traci Thomas 42:54
So kids are a nightmare to me, but I do have I know I’m like, do you want to come live in LA and work with my kids?
Leila Mottley 43:06
I do for my friends with kids. I be like, me and my partner will take any any friends kid will just babysit for free. Because we like it.
Traci Thomas 43:15
It’s great. Oh my god. Yeah, come to LA. I got some real bad real naughty voice. Oh, this is important. What’s the word? You can never spell correctly on the first try?
Leila Mottley 43:26
Um, maneuver? Ooh, I don’t know. It’s so hard. I can’t do it.
Traci Thomas 43:37
I discovered I couldn’t spell nauseous yesterday. Yeah, that’s a good one. Really hard, right? I know. I I typed like, 50 times. I also there was another word I was using the wrong I think cynical. I was using an S apparently starts with a seed. Who knew? I’ve been I’ve been discovering how bad of a speller I am recently. But maneuver for sure. could never do it. No. or manure. I don’t think I could do manuever.
Leila Mottley 44:01
Or anything with like more than one consonant in a row. And there’s a U in there.
Traci Thomas 44:07
Yeah, it’s a done deal. Okay, this is a crazy question to ask you before your book comes out. But do you know what comes next for you? Is there another book?
Leila Mottley 44:16
Yeah, there’s a poetry collection, which will be out next year. So and then I’m working on another book, another novel. I can’t say too much about it. But you don’t have to. It’ll have a few of the same themes, but also it’s going to it’s more of an ensemble. And I think that the wider scope.
Traci Thomas 44:40
Cool. Yeah. Cool. And I know this is before your book comes out, but I feel like this book has been very busy already. Have you heard from any people like any cool people or you’re been like, oh my god, they like my book or they’re interested or, like,
Leila Mottley 44:54
I mean, my colors my blurbs. Like I don’t know. Cassie Lehmann was like, I couldn’t even process that was. Yeah. And then James McBride was a really big one for me. Yeah. And Tommy orange too.
Traci Thomas 45:15
I love Tommy orange. When I first started this podcast, his vote came out that same year, so I like didn’t have any like Cloud. I couldn’t like reach out. But I know he’s allegedly writing like a follow up to there and I’m about to be all over. Yeah, I think he actually went to middle school with my brother. I think he went to one Tara. Oh, yeah. I think he did. I think cuz he’s the same age my brother and I like mentioned something or my brother was like, oh, have you heard of this book? Like some guy? I don’t think they’d be like, knew each other. But anyways, Tommy orange. Yeah, people who write about Oakland make me so frickin
Leila Mottley 45:49
I know. Yeah, so that was can you guys do it so well?
Traci Thomas 45:53
Like it’s not like bad you know? Like, like good.
Leila Mottley 45:56
Yeah, it was it that was a huge one for me because I was like, it means so much more when you have someone who like understands the landscape of what you’re writing about. And is like you did it well.
Traci Thomas 46:10
Yeah, yeah. So cool. Okay, for people who like Knight crawling what are some other books that are in conversation that you might recommend to them?
Leila Mottley 46:21
Hardware? Um, I guess books about like black teenage girls that I love any anyone who knows me knows I love Jasmine ward. I will read literally anything by her. I am patiently awaiting for next but but salvage the bones is a really beautiful depiction of a teenage girl hood. And then Jacqueline Woodson does it so well. I love Bell Hooks memoir, bone black. Yeah, I love that. Oh, and does that Keyshawn gay who is the writer of For Colored Girls? That’s the most famous one. But she also wrote a novel called SAS by Cypress and indigo, which I think it was like when the first books I ever loved about resistors. I love that one. Yeah, I think those are, I don’t know, it’s kind of hard to like, think of books that are in conversation with it. Because there aren’t very many books about this type of policing.
Traci Thomas 47:33
A book that comes to my mind is Tiffany Jackson’s Monday’s Not Coming. Because it’s also sort of about like, young, two young black girls. And like, how nobody’s paying attention to one of them sort of thing. So that sort of that one’s a little more like genre. It’s like a thriller. But it’s sort of in the same world. Yeah. And also, they’re there because Oakland even though the context is so different, like I just think you both do such a great job of making Oakland a character. And like a part of the book, like you have this line where it’s like the bay comps Kiara. And like, she like goes, like, look at the water or whatever. Like, she calms her. And I just could so relate to that. Because whenever I go home, and I like, look out and see the bay, even though the bridge is different, and not the same as my childhood, but I just I feel I feel like people, I think when you’re from Oakland, like there’s something about like looking out over the bay and like, the cranes, and just, it’s just like a thing, and I just like you capture that so, so beautifully. I have two more questions. One is what do you hope that folks will keep in mind as they read Nightcrawling.
Leila Mottley 48:53
I hope people don’t think of either like Kiara, for me is like an exception. I don’t know, I think that I often find like people exceptional eyes me and I know that that isn’t true. And that when we like, have such low expectations for young people it you know, and especially for young black kids, it only limits us. And so I think that like thinking about me outside of like, just think of me as a writer, like try not to think just like the defining factor of this book. And then he are like this is one story but also if we think about how many other stories there are like this, like I think that it’s important to go into the novel, like understanding what that like people have whole worlds and like survivors have complete lives and and that even like in the face of, you know Black tragedy in some ways, like, we also are always in the pursuit of other things of like love and connection and joy and delight and childhood and all of these things and that they don’t need to. I mean, it’s just like, life is more than one thing. And we need to allow with black characters that same luxury.
Traci Thomas 50:24
Yeah, I think to your point about not exceptional lysing I don’t know if that’s the word exceptional rising you. I think what’s so difficult about that is not that you’re not exceptional, because you are. But, you know, this book is really fucking good for any writer. But I think it’s like exciting, at least to me, it’s exciting to think about the fact that you’re young and like that you have so much ahead of you. And like that, you know, like, and I think that that, that’s an exceptionally rare thing for someone like me, who spends a lot of time reading books. But I totally hear what you’re saying is like, you’re not the only one. And there’s like 100, more of you out there. And like, we need to be giving opportunities and making space for other people like you. But I also think that you’re exceptional. And like, I want to shout that out to the world. Because, you know, you’re not the first, you won’t be the last but like there should be many more of you. So I feel like by reminding people how incredibly wonderful you are like, maybe they’ll hear it, they’ll want to do find more leylines. And differently lives and versions, like parallel universe, Lila’s and totally opposite from Leila. Leila has. So I don’t know. I think you’re exceptional, even though you shouldn’t be singular, I think. Yeah, like, last one. If you could have any person dead or alive, read this book. Who would you want it to be?
Leila Mottley 51:51
Like, have my grandma read it? But other than that, Jasmine more? I love her so much.
Traci Thomas 52:02
She’s fantastic. Fantastic. Were you ever curious about having the woman who and who inspired this? Read this? Have you ever thought of her in that way?
Leila Mottley 52:13
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that I hope that like, it feels like a representation of a story. Like hers is like exists in the world. And that, like, it’s, she hopefully feels like it’s not forgotten. But I also hope that like she doesn’t, she recognizes that, like, these people are not hurt in any way. Right. Right. And I think that like, I hope that people who have had experiences of police sexual violence are able to read this and like, see, you know, a mirror but not them. Because I think part of what I wanted to do is create a cast of characters that are entirely themselves and, and show that like, there, everyone has a whole world, really. And when we read a news headline, we don’t get that.
Traci Thomas 53:08
Yeah. So good, Leila. This has been such a treat everyone, you can get Nightcrawler wherever you get your books, library, indie bookstores, wherever it is. The book is out in the world now. And that’s exciting. Leila. Thank you so much for being here.
Leila Mottley 53:23
Thank you so much for having me.
Traci Thomas 53:25
And everyone else, we will see you in the stacks. Alright, y’all, that does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening and thank you to Leila Motley for being my guest. I’d also like to thank Josie cows for helping to coordinate this interview. As a reminder, the next book club pick for June is White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michelle Jackson. We’ll be discussing the book on Wednesday, June 29th with David Dennis Jr. If you love the show, and want inside access to it, head to patreon.com/stacks to join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcast, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stocks follow us on social media at thestackspod on Instagram and Thestackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website thestackspodcast.com. This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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