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Teenager Leila Mottley on writing her debut novel: ‘I’ve always done things at a warp speed’ | Fiction

“When I step away,” says Kiara, of her latest, hopeless attempt to find herself a job, as a shop assistant, “I make sure to make a fist and pound lightly on the glass display counter. Not hard enough to risk breaking it, but enough that the twentysomethings look over at me with fear in their eyes before I swing out the door and back on to the street.”

Kiara is the sparky 17-year-old protagonist of a debut novel by Leila Mottley, who is just two years older and looks set to face no such problems. With days to go to publication, Nightcrawling is already accumulating fans among writers such as Dave Eggers and Ruth Ozeki with its portrait of hard-scrabble life in the California city of Oakland.

It’s such an assured novel that I find myself checking Mottley’s age twice, just in case I have misheard down the line from the US, where she talks fluently and openly in an elegant, light-filled apartment. And yes, she confirms, she doesn’t turn 20 until mid-June, by which time Nightcrawling will be well and truly out in the world. Mottley is already an accomplished poet, with performances on YouTube, and two unpublished novels in her bottom drawer, so where did this precocious talent come from? “I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve always been writing poems and stories since I learned how to write. I’ve never felt I’m more talented than the average teenager, but I guess that depends on the teenagers you know. I was surrounded by a bunch of really, really talented young people. And so I definitely never felt that special.”

Nightcrawling is written with a poet’s ear and a novelist’s sense of character, structure and ambience. Kiara lives in an embattled neighbourhood where apartments have eviction notices nailed to the doors because rising rents, fuelled by an out-of-sight gentrification, have pushed them beyond the pockets of a marginalised community. She crisscrosses the city in search of work: “In the 10 minutes it takes to get to the other side of East Oakland, I slip into the lull of the bus, the way it rocks me back and forth like I imagine a mother rocks a child when she is still patient enough not to start shaking.”

This single, early sentence comes as a shock, slipped so lightly into the text that you could miss its queasy evocation of a consciousness shaped by addiction. Kiara’s father, a one-time Black Panther (a political movement founded in Oakland), has died of institutionally ignored prostate cancer; her mother is in jail, leaving Kiara in the care of her loving but feckless brother. The local swimming pool is full of shit, and she’s doing her best to care for a little boy who has been living on Cheerios since his junkie mum disappeared. Kiara’s attempts to pay the rent bring her into a horrifying confrontation with a corrupt and abusive police force, which is based on real case histories.

The seed of the novel was planted in 2016, when four police officers were fired and a further seven suspended in a major sexual misconduct case in Oakland. “It kind of consumed our local media for a few months,” says Mottley. “I was a young teenager, and it was a formative time for me. I remember paying a lot of attention to it, and noticing how the media disproportionately focused on the impact on the police department, and on what it would mean for the relationship between the police and the community. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, what about this young girl? What about the thousands of other survivors that don’t ever have their stories told in the media, or make it to a courtroom?’”

Night in Oakland.
Night in Oakland. Photograph: Thomas Winz/Getty Images

Mottley’s own background is very different (though Oakland is a small city, she says, so she knows what she’s writing about, and she insisted on having the novel read by a sex worker to ensure the accuracy of its portrayal of life on the streets). Her mother was an early years teacher who is now director of a preschool, and her father is a fundraising consultant with a sideline in writing. She was the baby of the family, with a brother three years older than her, and a half-sister 11 years older than him. “I didn’t grow up with my sister. So it was just me and my brother. And I think he would agree that the dynamic is a little bit different than you’d expect from a typical older brother and younger sister,” she says. “Sometimes I take the role of the older sibling. I’ve always done things at a warp speed, so it was a little strange when I graduated high school early and went to college early. I got my driver’s licence years before my brother, which has always been funny for us.”

She sped through her arts specialist high-school, where the timetable involved academic classes in the morning and your chosen art form in the afternoon. After a two-year dalliance with acting she switched to literature, “so for me that meant three hours writing every day”. At 16 she graduated, having edited an anthology of young queer writing, and spent a year as Oakland’s youth poet laureate. By 17 she was enrolled at Smith College, a famous liberal arts institution for women, across the country in Massachusetts. “Most people didn’t even think about asking me how old I was,” she says. “Only my closest friends really knew.” She met her partner on the first day of school because they were living in the same house.

Leila Mottley
Photograph: Saroyan Humphrey/The Observer

Searching for some sign of turbulence in her apparently frictionless life, I find Mottley on YouTube performing a poem, If Body Is Weapon, about a gay teenager on a family visit to Detroit. “I put a stone in my right nostril because Google says that is the gay side, and my uncle’s church won’t know that is the difference,” she recites. The poem speaks of her family “negotiating my body like warfare”, so how autobiographical is it? “Well, I do have a nose piercing,” she replies. “I wrote that poem when I was grappling with my distance from parts of my family, because we live in very different parts of the country. In the [San Francisco] Bay area, it is super normalised to have piercings and tattoos, and to wear your queerness when you’re a teenager. And that isn’t necessarily as normalised in the places where parts of my family are from: Detroit, say.”

A year and a half into her degree, the pandemic struck, so she collected the two credits she had already gained and moved back to Oakland, where her partner joined her in an apartment of their own. She’s now taking a couple of years out to get her writing career on track. One fascinating feature of her novel is that for all the embattlement in terms of class, poverty and social injustice, gender and sexuality pass without comment. At one point Kiara is befriended by a beautiful, tall woman with pink hair extensions that match her outfit. Is she trans? Yes she is, Mottley confirms, but it’s never made explicit. “That is the reality here,” she shrugs. “You don’t need to declare yourself in the same way that you might in a different environment.”

Nightcrawling is such a political novel that I wonder how political she is off the page. “I don’t describe myself as an activist,” she says, “because I know how much work and time and energy goes into that kind of organising and I don’t claim to do it – I’m in awe of the organisers – but I am very much a supporter, and I attend the protests.” With local elections coming up in June, there have been a lot of them. “Definitely there’s been a lot of response to Roe v Wade, and the many different policy changes that we are looking at right now. But I don’t think Oakland ever has a depressed political climate. I think we always have a very active one,” she says. Nightcrawling reflects its buoyancy, actively staring down social injustice but somehow managing not to be depressing.

Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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