Oakland, CA — Inspired by the true story of Oakland police officers involved in a sex scandal with a minor, “Nightcrawling” sets out to tell a story of sex trafficking, corruption and racism through the eyes of a young Black woman.
Kiara, a 17-year-old faced with absent parents and under the pressures of eviction, is forced into the world of prostitution and grows up too fast to provide for herself and her loved ones.
“Nightcrawling” is 19-year-old Leila Mottley’s debut novel and it has received rave reviews from The New York Times and The Economist.
Mottley, who began writing the book two years ago, wrote, “I wanted to write a story that would reflect the fear and danger that comes with black womanhood and the adultification of black girls, while also recognizing that Kiara—like so many of us who find ourselves in circumstances that feel impossible to survive—is still capable of joy and love.”
The novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, making Mottley the youngest author to be featured by the club.
YR Media’s Oyindamola Bamgbola spoke to the young scribe about the book, how she tackled the heavy topics and what she hopes readers take away from Kiara’s story.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
YR MEDIA: You were 17 when you started writing this book and it dealt with topics, such as self-harm, rape, and suicide. How did you navigate writing a book that discussed such heavy topics?
LEILA MOTTLEY: From the beginning of writing the book, I knew that I wanted to tell the most authentic story of Kiara, and I wanted to tell it how she would. That meant not shying away from topics that were uncomfortable. Part of what helped me to write the book authentically was that I never expected anyone to read it, so I wasn’t concerned about what people might think. It was liberating for me to write whatever I wanted and what the story warranted.
YR: The book has gotten a lot of attention and praise. How are you handling all of the attention?
LM: (laughs) Well, I haven’t looked at my phone for a few days. It’s been overwhelming. I have received hundreds of messages from people and I’m so grateful to see people pick up the book. I wrote the book three years ago and sold the book two years ago, so it has been a long time coming. Being able to share the book with the world and on Oprah’s Book Club list has been surreal. I’ve also been taking time for myself because there’s so much on the internet, but I’m really excited for more people to read it.
YR: What do you hope people take away from this book?
LM: First and foremost, I hope people fall in love with the characters and their stories. By investing in these characters, I hope it will make it more difficult for people to distance themselves from things that are political and see how we can all be complicit in the harm of Black girls and women. I wanted to show how interconnected we all are —-that even the people who love Kiara also harm her and how the lack of protection extends far beyond the system of policing. I also hope that young girls get to see themselves in this book and feel like their vulnerability is recognized and acknowledged.
YR: The ending of the book was bittersweet and Kiara never got the justice she deserved. Why did you want it to end like that?
LM: I knew in the beginning that I didn’t want the book to find justice or solace in the criminal justice system because it wouldn’t be authentic to look for hope in a system that has never provided it. I wanted the story to be about Kiara and her journey towards self-discovery. I wanted her to finally afford herself the grace and the care that the world didn’t give her. Even though the external world didn’t change, it was important for Kiara to go through an internal transformation.
YR: What advice would you give to other aspiring young writers?
LM: I would start by saying to write as much as you can without feeling pressured by who will read it or thinking about people’s expectations. It can be easy to lose your voice when you focus on how others might view your story. It’s also helpful to talk to other writers and share your work to get feedback. It can be difficult at times to receive feedback, but once you stop viewing feedback as a personal criticism, it can help you to grow as a writer.
YR: What’s next for you? What stories do you want to tell in the future?
LM: I have a poetry collection coming out in the next year and I’m currently working on my next novel. I can’t say too much about it, but it will be set in a different place and explore a few of the same themes as “Nightcrawling.”