Unless you experienced it firsthand or witnessed it in your own household, it would be hard to articulate the discombobulating boomerang effect of the pandemic on young adults who had just left home. For Leila Mottley, an Oakland, Calif., native who was midway through her second semester at Smith College, there was an added logistical and creative wrinkle: When she received word that she had three days to pack up her room and vacate the campus, her debut novel was about to be sent to publishers.
How many teenagers were strategizing with agents while lugging boxes of bedding and books down to the basements of their dorms in March 2020? Probably not many.
“It was very doomsday at that time,” Mottley said in a phone interview. “No one knew what to do.”
She’d written the first draft of “Nightcrawling” in the summer of 2019, right after graduating from high school, while working as a substitute preschool teacher. She met her agents, Lucy Carson and Molly Friedrich, through the novelist Ruth Ozeki, who taught her advanced fiction writing workshop at Smith. Mottley had yet to decide on a major when she went to Ozeki’s office hours and asked the novelist if she had any advice on how to choose representation. Other agents were circling, but Carson and Friedrich made the trip from New York to Northampton, Mass., to meet Oakland’s former youth poet laureate and take her out for dinner. That sealed the deal.
The team wisely decided not to wait out the pandemic, selling “Nightcrawling” at auction to Knopf in April 2020. “It was the first book that they sold during the pandemic,” said Mottley — and likely one of the first deals negotiated virtually, with participants getting the hang of cameras and mute buttons. The novel places readers in the sneakers of a Black girl in Oakland who is caught in a cyclone of trauma, poverty, gentrification, sex trafficking and crooked cops. Our reviewer, Lauren Christensen, described “Nightcrawling” as an “empathetic debut”; Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club and it became an instant best seller.
Mottley’s publishing journey has been a whirlwind — an exciting one, if tinged with loneliness.
“People call me an old soul,” Mottley said. “I would rather be reading a book and talking about something with substance than staring at my phone.” However, she added, “I also sometimes want to stare at my phone.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”
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