Unless you’ve experienced it firsthand or witnessed it in your own household, it would be difficult to articulate the troubling boomerang effect of the pandemic on young adults who have just left home. For Leila Mottley, a native of Oakland, California, who was at Smith College halfway through her sophomore semester, there was an additional logistical and creative wrinkle: When she learned she had three days to pack up her room and leave campus, her debut novel was about to be sent to publishing houses.
In March 2020, how many teens were strategizing with agents lugging boxes of bedding and books to the basements of their dorm rooms? Probably not much.
“It was very doomsday at the time,” Mottley said in a telephone interview. “Nobody knew what to do.”
She had written the first draft of “Nightcrawling” in the summer of 2019, right after graduating from high school, while working as a substitute kindergarten teacher. She met her agents, Lucy Carson and Molly Friedrich, through 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 the novelist asked if she had any advice on how to choose representation. Other agents circled, but Carson and Friedrich made the journey from New York to Northampton, Massachusetts, to meet Oakland’s former youth poet laureate and take her out to dinner. That sealed the deal.
The team wisely decided not to wait for the pandemic and to sell ‘Nightcrawling’ at auction to Knopf in April 2020. where participants master cameras and mute buttons. The novel puts readers in the sneakers of a black girl in Oakland trapped in a cyclone of trauma, poverty, gentrification, sex trafficking, and scammers. Our reviewer, Lauren Christensen, described “Nightcrawling” as an “empathetic debut”; Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club and it became an instant bestseller.
Mottley’s publishing journey was a whirlwind – an exciting one, though tinged with loneliness.
“People call me an old soul,” Mottley said. “I’d rather read a book and talk about something with substance than stare at my phone.” However, she added: “I also sometimes wants to stare at my phone.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and author of ‘A Window Opens’.