Unless you have experienced it firsthand or witnessed it in your own household, it would be difficult to express the unnerving boomerang effect of the pandemic on young adults who had just left home. For Leila Mottley, a native of Oakland, Calif., who was halfway through her second semester at Smith College, there was an additional logistical and creative problem: When she learned she had three days to pack her room and leave campus, her first novel was about to be sent to publishers.
How many teenagers were strategizing with officers while lugging boxes of bedding and books through their dorm basements in March 2020? Probably not a lot.
“It was very apocalyptic at that time,” Mottley said in a phone interview. “Nobody knew what to do.”
She had written the first draft of “Nightcrawling” in the summer of 2019, just after graduating from high school, while working as a substitute preschool teacher. She met her agents, Lucy Carson and Molly Friedrich, through novelist Ruth Ozeki, who taught Smith her advanced fiction writing workshop. Mottley hadn’t yet decided on a major when she went to Ozeki’s office hours and asked the novelist if she had any advice on choosing the portrayal. Other agents were circling, but Carson and Friedrich made the trip from New York to Northampton, Mass., to meet the former Oakland Poet Laureate and take her to dinner. That sealed the deal.
The team wisely decided not to wait out the pandemic, selling “Nightcrawling” at Knopf’s auction in April 2020. “It was the first book they sold during the pandemic,” Mottley said — and probably one of the first agreements negotiated virtually, with participants familiarizing themselves with cameras and mute buttons. The novel puts readers in the shoes of a black girl from 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 chose it for her book club and it became an instant bestseller.
Mottley’s publishing journey has been a whirlwind — thrilling, if tinged with loneliness.
“People call me an old soul,” Mottley said. “I would rather read a book and talk about something substantial than look at my phone.” However, she added: “I too sometimes want to look at my phone.
Elisabeth Egan is editor of the Book Review and author of “A Window Opens”.