Author Angie Thomas’s debut YA novel, (Walker Books), looks set to be one of the biggest teen books of 2017. John Green has called it ‘a classic of our times’, and Kirkus described the book as ‘necessary’ and ‘important’ in a starred review. On her recent book tour of the UK and Ireland, Thomas visited Eason’s in Dublin to discuss The Hate U Give with Irish author Deirdre Sullivan.
The Hate U Give tells the story of Starr Carter, a black teenage girl who is the only witness when her unarmed best friend is shot by a white police officer. Though the premise feels extremely timely, Thomas said that it was the fatal shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009 that sparked her desire to write the short story that later became a novel. Even the title spans a long period of recent American history, as it is drawn from the anti-racism acronym THUGLIFE (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone), made famous by Tupac Shakur. For Thomas, THUGLIFE means that ‘what society feeds into you affects us all’. The title also references the term often used by the media to describe young black men such as Oscar Grant, or Tamir Rice, who die in police shootings. ‘It seemed appropriate,’ Thomas said of her title choice, adding that she often turns to Tupac’s music and videos for inspiration.
On the subject of diversity in fiction, Thomas noted that music was more resonant for her as a young adult than books, as music offered more opportunities to see her own experiences reflected. ‘It was easier to see myself in a Tupac song than as Bella in Twilight,’ she said. ‘Hip-hop’, Thomas noted, ‘picked up the slack for black teens that books had dropped.’
The novel depicts many varied experiences of being black in the US. Asked by Sullivan to talk about code-switching – Starr’s ability to present herself differently in her neighbourhood than she does in her privileged mostly-white high school – Thomas described code-switching as almost a ‘survival tactic’ for African-Americans battling stereotypes in their daily lives. Starr’s two father figures in the novel, her father Maverick and her maternal uncle Carlos, present two different aspects of the black experience. Thomas remarked that although Carlos doesn’t speak in African-American vernacular, lives in a middle-class area and works as a police officer, he is no less black than Maverick, and Maverick, with his slang and his more radical politics, is no less intelligent than Carlos.
It was important, Thomas said, for her to depict a strong and good father in Starr’s life, to counter the stereotype that black children in the US do not usually have a father figure in their lives. ‘There are plenty of black children, even in the ghetto, with fathers, active in the home or even outside,’ Thomas said. ‘I wanted to show a father who was active and involved.’ Sullivan was especially fond of Maverick, calling him a ‘soft, lovely dad’, which made Thomas laugh, as the character himself – a former gang member – wouldn’t like to be called soft.
On her writing experience, Thomas was refreshingly open. After signing with her agent, Thomas estimated that her book underwent a further seven or eight drafts, including copy edits. Thomas also praised her editor, Donna Bray, for supporting Thomas’s unique voice and perspective, saying that Bray was always willing to look up terms unfamiliar to her and reluctant to remove anything solely to make the book more accessible to a white readership. The audience, Thomas said, ‘was the black kids that don’t see themselves in books.’
Sullivan asked Thomas to talk about her experiences balancing writing with a day job. As Thomas began to answer, she dissolved into knowing giggles, having caught her mother’s eye offstage. ‘She knows!’ Thomas laughed. She wrote The Hate U Give mostly while employed in a ‘megachurch’, with over three thousand members. As secretary to a bishop, she was the first port of call for the large congregation. In spite of such a busy role, she wrote before and after work. ‘It’s easy to say I don’t have time,’ Thomas said. ‘But you have to fight for it.’ Though she admitted day jobs can ‘suck’, she added that not having electricity also sucks, and that no one really wants to be a starving artist.
Class and money are two key elements of diversity in fiction, and Thomas is keenly aware of them. Later, on the subject of libraries, though she joked that while she and her publisher both love bookshops, she emphasised how libraries are vital in struggling communities. As a child, Thomas was almost caught in the crossfire during a gunfight, and to soothe her daughter, Thomas’s mother brought her to the library, so she could see worlds beyond her own. Growing up, Thomas said, she didn’t often have new books, and she is conscious that having any at all was a privilege – the result of sacrifices made by her mother.
Sullivan asked about how Thomas banishes self-doubt while writing, and Thomas’s response was that she could only achieve that by ignoring the rest of the world, including the idea of getting published, and writing solely for herself. ‘I couldn’t think about audiences,’ Thomas said. She expressed wariness about writing for the market, or for what an agent may mention on Twitter, or to follow a trend. She also agreed with Sullivan’s assessment that, once a book is published, the writer becomes a small business owner.
If you write for yourself, according to Thomas, your story will find readers. ‘There’s something in every story that connects us on a human level,’ she said. In a room full of admiring Irish teenagers with books ready for signing, it seemed impossible to disagree.