Leila Mottley will need a few more years before she understands what exactly this all meant for her. On Tuesday, June 7, just a day after her appearance on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” the Oakland writer marks the release of her debut — and one of the buzziest novel books of the summer — “Nightcrawling,” the culmination of a disorienting couple of years for her.
She began writing the book — a searing, lyrical novel following a teenager, living in East Oakland and struggling to stay afloat, who falls into sex work and is confronted with a corrosive justice system that threatens to swallow her whole — right before her 17th birthday . She finished it in the summer before she went off to college and soon found herself in a 13-way bidding war among major publishers. On her 18th birthday, she signed her book contract.
Mottley, who will turn 20 on June 15, is tired of the fixation on her wunderkind status, but she also understands it. “I’m very used to it because I’ve gotten it since I was 13,” Mottley tells The Chronicle during a video interview from her apartment near Oakland’s Lake Merritt.
She was Oakland’s youth poet laureate, graduated from Oakland School for the Arts at 16, had her work featured in the New York Times and was the subject of a short documentary that went to the Tribeca Film Festival. Before “Nightcrawling,” she had already written two novels she shelved, and the success of this one moved her to drop out of college.
“I read the first 10 pages of the manuscript and was just pretty blown away,” says writer Ruth Ozeki, who was Mottley’s writing professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. “I realized this is really different, that this is a person who’s got a very unusual voice and a very unusual talent.”
Mottley, somewhat unaware of the magnitude of her situation, came to Ozeki with an early draft and an absurdly long list of agent offers she had received after a writers’ mentorship program. Ozeki forwarded the manuscript to her own agents, who eventually became Mottley’s.
“Twenty-four hours after I sent them the manuscript, they had gotten into a car and driven from New York (to Massachusetts) to meet Leila and take her out to dinner,” Ozeki recalls.
When Mottley wrote the book over the course of a few months (she says she tends to write in a blaze, embodying her characters as if in a short, intense trance), she had no inclination of a readership. In hindsight, that kind of detachment from expectation helped her more freely probe the sensitive territories of her book. The early seeds of the novel come from a high-profile sex abuse case in 2015, when members of the Oakland Police Department were revealed to be exploiting an underage sex worker.
“There was this skew towards focusing on the relationship, the trust between the police and the community as though that existed beforehand,” Mottley remembers of the media coverage. “I remember thinking, ‘What about the impact on this young girl?’ ”
Years later, when she began writing “Nightcrawling,” she wanted to write a “story about police, sexual violence, where the narrative control is in the hands of the survivor.” Specifically, one that centers on a Black girl who is thrust into dangerous circumstances in a world where Black women and the specific forms of danger they face are often obscured, even while they are perpetually cast into the role of provider and protector.
In the novel, 17-year-old Kiara, whose father is dead and mother is absent, has to find ways to pay for rising rent and take care of both her elder brother, Marcus, who has naive dreams of becoming a rapper, and Trevor, a young boy next door without any reliable care.
“Especially with Kiara and her mother, both of them have been put in a caretaking position from so early on that I don’t think either of them ever even question it and it builds on them,” Mottley explains.
Growing up, when Mottley’s father explained to her and her brother the ways they would need to move in the world to shield themselves from the menace of police and of the world, the conversation was always tailored specifically to the violence Black men face. “I never got a specific talk about the other very particular ways in which the world inflicts terror on Black women,” Mottley says.
She adds: “If we’re always thinking about someone else, then we can’t ever be thought of.”
While Kiara becomes an underage sex worker (a real sex worker consulted on passages in the book) and is caught in the maw of the very institution meant to protect, her mother is gone, running from an unspeakable past that becomes more understandable “when you see that the only dream that Kiara’s mom has been allowed to have is her husband.”
Yet, while “Nightcrawling” offers a clear-eyed view of the unforgivable things that its characters do, it remains most critical of the cruel systems that give them few options to survive. The deepest tragedy, perhaps, is that Kiara is forced to confront this reality at such a young age.
“A lot of us have been stripped of that ability to be young when we are young and are always searching for ways back to it. I’m not sure if that’s specific to Oakland or not,” Mottley says of her hometown, where she says a harsh edge exists alongside a spirit of childlike vibrancy. “Kiara definitely is experiencing the ways in which she’s clawing for some of that back.”
Amid Kiara’s suffocating circumstances, there are faint glimmers of joy, often through watching over a young, still innocent Trevor. “It was really important to me that that world doesn’t end at the things done to (Kiara),” Mottley says, wary of stories that border on fetishizing Black trauma.
“A lot of people expect nothing from young Black women and expect that we have nothing going on inside of ourselves,” Mottley continues. She hopes that young Black women who read the novel are given permission to “acknowledge their own fragility and vulnerability and not see it as a weakness.”
Mottley is still unsure, though, of how to even conceive of expectations or a readership in general — she never envisioned writing as a financially viable career (early on, she asked Ozeki if her book advance would allow her to finally buy herself a used car ).
“She’s very solid,” Ozeki says of the spotlight Mottley will have to face. “What matters to her is the writing.”
To that end, Mottley is already working on another novel and has a collection of poetry coming out next year. She’s happily unsure of what else this all means — only that she has no plans of leaving Oakland.
“I don’t really have an idea of what life is gonna look like next for me, but I see some kind of positive in that,” Mottley says. “I’m just taking it day by day. That’s something that I haven’t really done in my life before.”
By Leila Mottley
(Knopf; 288 pages; $28)
City Lights, Mechanics’ Institute Library and Alfred Knopf present Leila Mottley: In-person conversation with Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. 6 pm June 23. Free, but registration and proof of full vaccination required. citylights.com