Angie Thomas talks about her debut YA novel, The Hate U Give, which tells the story of Starr, who is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend by a police officer.
What inspired the book?
I was inspired to write the book back in 2010/2011 after the death of Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot by police in Oakland, California. At the time, I was a lot like Starr – I attended a mostly white, upper class college while living in a mostly black, poor neighborhood. Every day, I found myself in two different worlds where I had to be two different people. I also heard two very different conversations about Oscar. At home, he was one of our own, but at school he may have deserved it. From my anger, frustration, and hurt, I wrote the short story that would later become The Hate U Give.
Why did you decide to write the book from Starr’s point of view?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write the story from the point of view of a young black girl. With so many of these cases of unarmed black people who lose their lives, the victims are young - Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice to name a few - and so many young people are deeply affected by the losses. But a lot of times, the focus tends to be on young black men, and I wanted to show just how much it affects our girls as well.
How much of it is drawn from real life?
I tried not to draw from real life cases too much for multiple reasons. One, these are actual human beings we are talking about, not simply hashtags - it's not my place to tell their stories. But I wanted Khalil to reflect them in a way.
Were you nervous writing about such a controversial subject?
Yes, I was extremely nervous - so much so that I was afraid to send it to literary agents. I knew it was a timely topic, but if you say, "Black Lives Matter" to 3 different people, you will get three different reactions. Sometimes they're positive, and sometimes they're not. But I felt like I wrote the story straight from my heart and I stood by my words, despite being nervous about how people would receive them.
Was it difficult to get the book published?
Surprisingly, no. While I was afraid to send it to literary agents, one day an agency held a Q&A session on Twitter. I asked if the topic of my book was appropriate for a Young Adult novel. A literary agent responded and said that not only was it appropriate, but that he would like to read it. A few months later, I signed with him, and a few months after that, 13 US publishers fought for the rights as did multiple UK publishers. The book I was so afraid of ended up being the book for me.
What were you most nervous about in the publishing process?
I was the most nervous about the reception. Even after all of the publishers fought for the book, I knew ultimately that potential readers could make or break it. So far, the response has been incredible.
How did you arrive at the title of the book and how do you think it reflects the story?
The title comes from the infamous "Thug Life" tattoo that Tupac Shakur had across his abdomen. So many people know him for that tattoo, but most people don't know that it was actually an acronym for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everybody." He explained that as meaning that what society feeds into youth has a way of coming back and affecting us all. That's exactly what happens in the book.
What message do you want readers to take away from the book?
That empathy is more powerful than sympathy.
What’s happening with the film adaptation and how involved are you with that?
The script for the film is currently in development. Audrey Wells is penning it, and George Tillman Jr is set to direct. I've been very involved in the process - from having day-long meetings with Audrey and George to multiple phone calls in a month where I give insight. I've been very happy with the process so far.
What has the reaction to the book been so far?
The reactions to the book amaze me every single day. I've had so many teens in particular reach out to me and thank me for writing it. I think that because the topic is so timely, that's helped create a lot of buzz.
What role do you think literature has to play in examining difficult real-life issues?
Literature plays a huge role in examining difficult real-life issues. I see writing as a form of activism - it can give us windows into lives and issues that we may not otherwise have, thus promoting empathy. And when you understand an issue and share the feelings of those who are directly affected, you're more likely to join in on the fight. Literature births activists.
What is next for you?
I'm currently working on my second YA novel. It is not a sequel, but more so a spin off of The Hate U Give. It's set in the same neighborhood and some characters from The Hate U Give have major roles in it. I can't say much about it, but it's causing me to put my hip hop/rapper past to use.
The Hate U Give is published by Walker Books on the 6th April.