Interview: Leila Mottley

Leila Mottley’s debut novel Nightcrawling has all the hallmarks of being one of the greatest novels of her generation, making her one of the brightest literary talents of 2022.

Leila Mottley has achieved a lot of success for someone so young. At the age of 17, she penned her debut novel Nightcrawling (Bloomsbury) which has gone on to place her on the literary world stage. 

From becoming Oprah Winfreys 96th Bookclub pick, to a New York Times Bestseller – if she never needed further proof that her talent is destined for big things – Mottley has secured a nomination for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize, making her the youngest author to date to be selected.

Moving forward with the kind of trajectory most of us could only dream of, Leila (now 18) is able to sign her own contracts and is fast becoming one of the brightest literary talents of generation Z.

In her novel Nightcrawling, based loosely on a true story, Mottley deftly shines a light on the issues that have largely been ignored. Mottley’s young protagonist Kiara takes on institutional corruption at the highest order, making for a visceral, tragic, and at times heartbreaking narrative that threatens at times to overwhelm save for Leila’s genius pragmatic styling and lyrical prose. 

We caught up with lovely Leila just prior to her Booker Prize nomination, to see how she’s been spending her time, and to ask her what she’s been reading.

leila mottley night crawlling
Credit: SF

Happy: Heya Leila, what are you up to today?

Leila: Today is the day of the week that I use to rest, restore some of my creative energy, and take care of my mental health. I try to keep answering emails to a minimum, and instead, I focus on things that bring me joy, like swimming, reading, or seeing friends.

Happy: Tell us about your neighborhood, what do you love/not love about where you live?

Leila:  live in Oakland, where I was born and raised, and where I’ve spent pretty much my entire life. I’ve lived in different neighborhoods throughout my life and there are things I love about each of them. I love the small businesses that I’ve grown up going to, and I love that there’s a lot of immediate access to nature. One of the hardest things about living here is the rapid amount of change and gentrification that has happened over the past ten years, and there are parts of the city where I no longer feel as welcome as they’ve been taken over by people not from here.

Happy: Describe your average workday?

Leila: My average workday varies, and I think that’s one of the things I find most appealing about writing full time. Sometimes it takes me two hours to do my writing and sometimes it takes me the whole day, but every day I give myself a goal of a number of pages or a certain section of a chapter to complete. My writing routine has shifted between when I wrote Nightcrawling before the pandemic and now, and I’m still figuring out the balance of how much I write at home in my office versus in a cafe surrounded by other people. But no matter what my workday looks like, there is always coffee.

Happy: What about your ultimate day?

Leila: Right now my ultimate day would be one of leisure. I would get to sleep in, spend time at a beach or in the redwoods, and do whatever I feel like whenever I feel like doing it.

booker prize
Credit: Twitter

Happy: You have executed your debut novel to perfection, unabashedly throwing a visceral light on the issues you feel strongly about. Through your work, you are bringing transparency to things that have been left too long in the dark. Whats next for you, in terms of writing?

Leila: I am always going to be interested in telling the stories of forgotten or overlooked people, particularly black women and girls, and while I don’t want to give away too much about what I’m working on right now, there are definitely some similar themes as Nightcrawling but through a completely different viewpoint. I love history and I love research, so looking at past events from the lens of fiction is something that I want to explore in my work in the future as well.

Happy: Which book are you currently reading?

Leila: I’m currently reading Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. It’s about two intertwined families and I think Tayari Jones has such a gift at using multiple perspectives to tell a story.

Happy: What did you read or watch growing up that fuelled your passion for storytelling?

Leila: I read constantly as a kid and watched plenty of TV as well, so I think that I was always surrounded by different kinds of storytelling, and I started writing stories as soon as I learned how to hold a pen. I would say Jesmyn Ward and Ntozake Shange are two authors whose work showed me that books could be written in the way that I think and write, and that it was okay to break traditional form.

Happy: What did you read or watch last that opened your eyes and mind to a new perspective?

Leila: I really enjoyed The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka and thought it was such a brilliant use of second-person perspective. I’d never read anything like it before.

Happy: Is there a book that you consider a must-read that imparts valuable life lessons?

Leila: I think Hunger by Roxane Gay is such a stunning memoir that really challenges notions of diet culture and fatphobia and what it means to exist inside our bodies and reconcile with trauma.