Leila Mottley on being the youngest ever Booker nominee: ‘It took me a while to process. It’s a huge deal’

Leila Mottley, who wrote her debut novel Nightcrawling at 17, discusses racist US policing, her Oakland, California home, and her historic Booker nod

Leila Mottley on being the youngest ever Booker nominee: ‘It took me a while to process. It’s a huge deal’

By Francesca Steele

Since Nightcrawling was bought in a fierce bidding war a few years ago, Leila Mottley, the 20-year-old author, has already written – and discarded – two more novels. Mottley has been ferociously productive from a young age, with two (unpublished) novels already written before she even started Nightcrawling a month before her 17th birthday. “They were just practice.” Age 20 and five novels already under her belt. How does she do it?

“My dad was a playwright in his spare time, so I’ve always been very aware of how hard it is to get your work out there,” says Mottley over video from California, cheerful, and neither precociously arrogant nor girlishly grateful for her success.

“I grew up writing but also knowing just how hard it was. All the dream was taken out of it, if you see what I mean, and I think that helped me develop discipline without the need for external validation.”

She certainly has external validation now. Nightcrawling, which she completed in just nine months (“I totally immerse myself in it. I journal in my characters’ voices – I really get inside their daily life”) is an extraordinarily moving and propulsive debut, longlisted for the Booker Prize a few weeks ago (she is the youngest person to ever be longlisted).

Its protagonist Kiara is a 17-year-old black girl in Oakland, California (where Mottley herself lives and grew up), forced into sex work trying to meet rent hikes. Her father has died, her mother is in prison and her older brother is too busy trying to make music to take care of her, leaving Kiara with only herself to depend on. When the local police force abuse her instead of helping, she has nowhere to turn.

Despite the upsetting premise, it’s often a strangely uplifting book, written with a sense of lyrical urgency and optimism rooted in Kiara’s fortitude and love for her young neighbour Trevor, for whom Kiara takes responsibility when he is abandoned by his addict mother.

“Trevor lets go of my hand, slippery, sauntering ahead, his steps buoyant. Watching him, I don’t think anybody but Trevor and me understand what it’s like to feel ourselves moving, like really notice it. Sometimes I think this little kid might just save me from the swallow of our gray sky.”

Mottley drew on the real-life 2015 case in which the Oakland police force was found to have sexually exploited a young black woman after pulling her off the streets.

“Most of the news reports were about the cops but I kept wondering about that girl, what had she experienced, what was it all like for her.” She considered the idea that sex work can be empowering for some (a sex worker read the book to ensure it felt accurate) but came to the conclusion that for Kiara “this is all about survival. She does this because she has to.”

Nightcrawling really brings alive the fear Kiara’s world has of the police. “

The cops believe they are invincible. They want me only to show themselves they can have me, that there will be no consequence to putting a gun to my head, to taking me. They want me to feel small so that they can feel big.”

Mottley’s life is very different from Kiara’s; she grew up with a fundraising consultant father and a pre-school teacher mother, attending a specialist arts school and living in financial security. But I wonder about this fear, and whether, as a woman of colour in America, Mottley has herself felt it. Mottley, who generally comes across as quietly professional rather than overtly passionate about her answers, seems instantly animated.

“I think any black child growing up in the US knows that fear. At least once a year my dad would tell us stories about what to do when you come into contact with the police, or you know, how not to come into contact with the police. I grew up with that embedded fear. But I think those warnings are really interesting because they’re attempts to control something that we actually have no control over. It doesn’t really matter whether you wear a hood or a suit.”

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley

Was the book upsetting for her to write?  “Yes, and no. I think because I wrote it from Kiara’s perspective, I didn’t feel the extreme weight of it. It didn’t feel depressing to me, or tragic, because I don’t think that she views herself that way. Where there were scenes that were hard to write, like anything with the cops, I knew they were coming and I would try to structure my day around knowing this was going to be a hard one.”

The other thing that Mottley is passionate about is Oakland. As a teenager, she attended a specialist arts school where she was encouraged to write for several hours every day. Aged 16 she became Oakland’s Youth Poet Laureate, a position for which she performed poetry live, toured schools and led poetry workshops for budding writers. She describes a city with a uniquely liberal attitude to many things, including queerness. Nightcrawling has several queer characters but references are done with such a light touch, you nearly miss them.

“I absolutely love Oakland. The Bay Area is somewhere you don’t even have to announce your queerness, even in a world like Kiara’s. In Oakland, loads of people don’t even bother coming out anymore. I did, but it was immediately like a shrug and move on sort of situation.”

Mottley’s brother and sister aren’t big readers, she says, and although they did go to the library a lot as kids, their household wasn’t obsessed with books. She has always read, but for her, writing’s the thing. “It’s kind of like meditation for me. If I don’t do it for a few days I start to feel off. If I hadn’t ever been published I’d have got another job but I’d have had to keep writing in my spare time.”

It must be strange, I say, to have knocked it out of the park so soon in her career. Does she think it will affect her writing going forward? “It did. From the moment Nightcrawling had a publisher it felt strange and that’s why I discarded some of the stuff I initially wrote after that, because I felt a bit exposed. Before I don’t think I had even told my friends or my girlfriend what I was working on. But I think I’m getting used to it now.” Was she surprised about the Booker? “It took me a while to process. At first I was like, ‘Um, OK,’ and then two days later I turned to my partner and said, ‘I think I got on the Booker!’ But yeah, it’s a huge deal.”

The book is a literary success but I wonder if she also hopes its exploration of certain themes will achieve something practical. Mottley’s answer is quick and clear. “I really hope it will shift the conversation about police violence to include what that means for black girls. And I also hope that it allows black girls to feel more seen. That’s what I wanted as a reader growing up.”

What I’m reading now If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery. It’s about a Jamaican family in Miami and comes out in October.

What I’m reading next? I want to read something else by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I read Americanah when I was 14 and loved it.

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