Some people are shocked when they learn that Leila Mottley is still a teenager. Their shock does not surprise her: “I expect it at this stage.”
Mottley was 16 when she was Oakland Youth Poet Laureate and wrote the first chapter of her first novel. In less than three months, she had a first draft. Three years later, “Nightcrawling” is released this week by Knopf.
As a graduate of an arts high school in Oakland, Mottley knew other talented teenagers; she never considered herself an exception.
“A lot of people don’t have very high expectations of young people,” Mottley said in a recent interview. But everyone starts young. “I don’t think we suddenly become capable of things because of our age.”
Just before her 20th birthday, Mottley makes superstar Amanda Gorman look like a 24-year-old veteran. She has certainly accomplished more in her career than most people would dream of in a lifetime: a book of poetry already published and another to come; an anthology she edited of young queer writing; a second novel in progress; and, of course, “Nightcrawling”. After accolades from advance outlets and glowing blurbs from Kiese Laymon, Ayana Mathis, James McBride and others on Tuesday, the novel was announced as an Oprah Book Club Pick.
With elements of social realism and maturity, the novel lives and breathes Oakland. Just like the author, who always stays close to home.
On a sunny May afternoon, Mottley and I are sitting at a picnic table in Oakland’s Dimond Park, a few blocks from where she grew up and now lives with her partner, Mo Enriquez. She sports a blue dress, bouncy curls cascading down her shoulders, and a tattoo of a sprig of lavender on her left forearm. She got it to commemorate “Nightcrawling,” which is full of fragrant weed references.
The park reminds Mottley of his childhood days swimming in his cove with his mother and older brother. She still comes here most weeks, spreads a blanket to write, read or people watch. Sometimes she swims.
“Nightcrawling” is not a veiled autobiography. Mottley, whose upbringing was stable and loving, shares little history with the protagonist of his 17-year-old novel, Kiara, whose family has been torn apart by death and prison. While her brother Marcus pursues his dreams of becoming a rapper, Kiara resorts to sex work to maintain a roof over their heads and keep Trevor, a 10-year-old neighbor abandoned by his mother, protected and nurtured.
Kiara ends up being sexually exploited by officers from the Oakland Police Department before becoming a key witness in a suicide investigation. If the novel seems grim, so is the real-life scandal that inspired it. In 2016, following the suicide of a police officer, a young woman alleged that at least 14 Oakland police officers sexually assaulted her.
Mottley followed the story obsessively over the next few years, wondering why protests against police brutality — like those sparked by the murders of Michael Brown, George Floyd and dozens of other black men — rarely addressed the sexual violence against women by the police.
“Since the dawn of time, sexual violence has been used as a tactic to control and assert power and dominance, and it’s also a way the police do it, and I wanted to create a story that spoke to that and centered about women. that,” Mottley says.
When she started writing “Nightcrawling,” Mottley was thinking about the messages many black girls are given growing up — to protect and care for the black men in their lives; put yourself second.
Although she and her brother had a conversation about police brutality, “I haven’t had a conversation about what to do if I’m followed at home,” she says. “How violence is different for young black girls and young black boys is often not recognized in all the conversations we have…So it was important for me to show the ways that sometimes black men don’t don’t even stop to think about Black Woman.”
It is a subject that she has also explored in her poetrywho is not afraid to plumb the darkness of these experiences.
For the novel, however, Mottley felt it was essential to let in hope and joy – something that shines through in Kiara’s relationships with Trevor and Alé, her close friend. The author did not want to reduce Kiara’s life to its darkest events. “It was important to me that I let my black characters have their entire lives and experiences,” she says.
Although some of those relationships borrowed from elements of Mottley’s family life, for Kiara’s struggles she relied less on experience and more on her own imaginative empathy – a process she called “l ‘one of the most magical aspects of fiction’. When she had a draft, she asked a sex worker to verify its accuracy and authenticity.
Diana Tejerina Miller, editor at Knopf, was particularly struck by the wisdom of Mottley’s characters.
“Here is this young woman [Kiara] who in her life isn’t particularly seen or heard or valued, but she’s such a strong, fierce person,” Miller said. “The way the novel treats her with dignity and respect and gives her a voice, I was fascinated and moved by her throughout.”
The manuscript landed on Miller’s desk at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many employees began working remotely. She and her husband struggled to balance their work while watching their two young children, trying not to “freak out about the world falling apart”.
“And here was this novel that was so rich and so powerful that it melted the rest of the world,” she recalls. “That’s how I knew I was addicted.”
When Mottley and I met, she showed up with a notebook full of poems, musings and ideas for her next novel, which she’s mum to but says will tackle similar themes to ‘Nightcrawling’. She took an indefinite leave from Smith College to work on her writing; English was her major – now she’s not so sure.
“My mentor, Ruth Ozeki, told me I should study something crazy different like physics and just have a good time,” Mottley laughs. “But we’ll see.”
Ozeki, author of “The Book of Form and Void,” was so struck by a writing sample Mottley submitted that she made an exception to allow the freshman into her advanced writing course.
“I remember reading [it] in amazement,” Ozeki said. “Leila’s voice is powerful, poetic and fierce. It’s a voice with unique authority that drives a story forward and compels you to listen.
Mottley always knew how to write, but it wasn’t until she became Poet Laureate, she says, that she learned to write to write — to write, in other words, for itself. The one who taught her that it could be a calling was her father, who worked in fundraising while moonlighting as a writer.
Mottley remembers hearing the hard clicks and pops of his typing late at night. “It influenced my idea that writing was something people did outside of school,” she says. So she tried and fell in love.
The people in his life feel Mottley couldn’t live without it.
“She pursued writing because it brought her joy,” Enriquez said. “There is such a difference between before she wrote for the day and after. The writing just centers it.
Mottley is the first to admit that she doesn’t have good work-life boundaries, but she’s been working on developing a healthier routine. A former night owl, she practiced going to bed at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m., “and it feels really weird to me,” she says.
Her mornings certainly got busier as her star rose. The afternoon of our meeting, she had just returned from two other interviews. It’s a level of media attention she’s not used to. During her tenure as Poet Laureate, Mottley mostly acted and did shorter radio interviews. “It wasn’t as intense,” she says.
“I feel the weight of it all and it has increased in recent weeks.” Although Mottley speaks slowly and thoughtfully, she struggles with anxiety. “I try to find any moment to breathe.”
One solution: pole dancing, which Mottley started practicing more than a year ago. “It allows me to center myself and not think about anything,” she says. “I am an overthinking person. I have a million thoughts every second, and it’s nice to be able to feel nothing and think nothing.
On the cusp of her 20s, the teenage phenom is just beginning to realize how much time she has left. When asked what she thinks are the advantages of being a young writer, Mottley pauses: “I have a lot of time to grow. My writing is very different from what it was when I wrote this book, so I think rapid growth means I’m going to be able to reinvent myself a million different times.