Q&A with Angie Thomas

Just over a week ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to the author of The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, for the book club I co-host – The YA RoomThe Hate U Give was our March Book of the Month, and it was amazing to have the chance to ask Angie a bit about her writing process and what influenced her powerful and important debut novel.

I interviewed Angie via Skype, which you can watch on The YA Room‘s YouTube channel, and optimised it for a written format here. I’ve slightly altered the questions and made minor changes to the wording to make the interview flow better for a written piece, and I’ve bolded my parts for your convenience!

If you’re interested in hearing a bit more about The Hate U Give, check out my review here.

Q&A with Angie Thomas

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Angie Thomas was born, raised, and still resides in Jackson, Mississippi as indicated by her accent. She is a former teen rapper whose greatest accomplishment was an article about her in Right-On Magazine with a picture included. She holds a BFA in Creative Writing from Belhaven University and an unofficial degree in Hip Hop.She is an inaugural winner of the Walter Dean Myers Grant 2015, awarded by We Need Diverse Books. Her debut novel, The Hate U Give, was acquired by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in a 13-house auction and will be published on February 28, 2017. Film rights have been optioned by Fox 2000 with George Tillman attached to direct and Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg attached to star.

Hi Angie! It’s lovely to meet you. Thank you so much for making the time to talk to me!

Thank you for having me! I’m excited.

Me too! Well, first of all, I’d like to congratulate you on debuting at #1 on the NYT bestseller list. How does that feel?

It’s amazing. I still can’t believe it. I’m still in shock. I’m really in shock that it’s been on there three weeks in a row.

It’s crazy! I’m so happy for you.

Thank you!

You’ve been on tour, right? How was that?

It was great. It was exhausting, but it was great!

Understandable! Did you go all across America?

Not all across America, more along the east coast. I went to Washington DC, Philadelphia, NYC and Atlanta. So it was mainly the east coast.

Wow, that’s so cool! Did you meet other authors there, or were you mainly just doing signings?

I did. I know a couple of them that I met. You know, Adam Silvera? He moderated my event in New York. I got to see a lot of people that I know too along the way, so it was great!

That’s so lovely! As well as taking over the charts, The Hate U Give has also been optioned for film. Did you expect your novel to take off in the way that it has?

I didn’t. It’s always a surprise, and it’s honestly a dream come true. Knowing that hopefully soonish there will be people playing the part of characters I’ve created it amazing. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.

Do you have any dream actors to play your characters?

I do, but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say!

That’s okay! Well, fingers crossed you get the people you hope for!

Thank you!

How much input do you have into the production of the film?

I have the executive producer title, and I’ve been very involved in the script writing process. I’m not writing the script myself, but I have given insight on characters. I actually had a sit-down meeting with the director and the screenwriter for an entire week and went over stuff, so I’ve been pretty involved. I also had an email from the director a few weeks ago and he was like, ‘There’s too many f-bombs in the script!’ So I’ve been able to help with quite a bit of stuff so far.

The Hate U Give originally started as a short story collection as a part of your senior project. How much of what you wrote then can be seen in the novel we have today?

There are three characters that basically remain the same, and that is Starr and Khalil. Those three have been there the entire time. The main difference between the short story and what we have now is that short story Starr didn’t actually see the shooting happen. She found out about it after. She was there when they found him in the street — at the crime scene. That’s the biggest difference, but there are still some similarities there. Also, the short story was a collection of short stories, so there were several different characters who had their own point of view, like Khalil’s little brother had a short story about it. Starr, of course. Then I had one from Khalil’s perspective. So it’s a bit different, but for the most part, the core of the story has remained.

That’s really interesting. Why did you choose to change the part of the shooting in the novel, as compared to your story?

Well, I wanted to give it from Starr’s perspective because I felt that it makes it even more personal. And giving this eye-witness account of it made it more personal. Even though the original way of her finding out afterwards and seeing him lie in the street, while that would have an impact on the reader, there was something about seeing it up close that has an impact on the reader. For so many of us, when we see, for instance, videos of things like this happening, it was a lot like the short stories — like finding out afterwards, It’s still not a first-hand, ‘I’m there while it’s happening’ account. It’s an aftermath reaction. So I definitely wanted something to make it even closer for the reader, and because I felt a thought it allowed me to explore Starr even more, because it made the connection even harder, and it made it unfortunately harder on her. So, in a way, I was able to tap into more feelings with her.

Did you struggle writing something so confronting?

I did. It was hard at times because it’s such an emotionally-taxing thing to write about, and I really had to go into a different kind of headspace even to confront it. So, it was definitely harder. It was much easier writing the short story version than this version. I also had to make sure, in writing it in her perspective, that I made it accurate. You know, as if this is how it would probably happen if it happened. It wasn’t just the logistics of it, it was also tapping into the emotional part and the personal connection that Starr had and felt to him. And in that moment of ‘I’m watching I care about lose their life’… it was hard. It was definitely different and harder.

It was definitely hard to read, but it’s such a powerful and important book. You have to read the confronting stuff.

You do, and you have to write it sometimes too. That’s how you get empathy out of people.

Was writing for young adults always your purpose? Even though Starr is a teenager herself, do you think that this restricts your book at all?

I was afraid that it would, but actually, it kind of has the opposite effect. Because sometimes adults who read YA, they are more likely to listen to a 16 year-old than they would a 30 year-old, so if Starr was an adult going through this, I feel like I could get more empathy out of someone having her as a teenager, because she still has her innocence and she’s still a child. So, it was kind of the opposite for me. At first, I was kind of afraid that I wouldn’t be able to reach as many people, but now I really feel as though I’m able to reach a lot of people because it’s a 16 year-old girl, and they’re more likely to listen.

How was the publishing journey for you? Did you experience any difficulties?

My publishing journey was very different from what you usually hear. I had a lot of rejections for another project that I worked on. It was a project for younger readers, and I had over 60 rejections, so it’s not to say that I never got rejected, it’s just this project was really different. I found my agent on Twitter. His agency held a question and answer session, and I just asked if the subject was appropriate for a young adult book. He responded and said not only that it was, but he’d love to read it. I signed with him a few months after that, and then a few months after signing with him, he submitted it to publishers. We had 13 US publishers wanting the rights for the book. It hasn’t been a ‘normal’ path to publishing — it’s been unique the entire time — and I’m amazed. I can’t believe it.

When your first one got rejected so many times, how did you overcome those moments of self-doubt?

You know, what you sometimes have to do is step away from it all, especially when you’re having those moments of self-doubt. Especially when you’re querying and getting a lot of rejections. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not only step away from that project, but step away from writing for a while too. It can be hard seeing other people signing with agents or announcing publishing deals and there you are with your rejections. It can get hard. I remember one time, I took a six month break away from writing altogether, and it was probably one of the best things I could have done because it allowed me to regroup and it allowed me to focus. Like they say, keep your eyes on your own paper. Like you’re in school and you’re taking a test. You need to keep your eyes on your own paper. Step away from it and look at other art forms, like listening to music or watching movies. Sometimes that helps me get through it. And having a great support system of not just writer friends, but friends who don’t care about writing! Connecting with those people is one of the best things you can do when you’re struggling after getting rejections.

Were you a part of a writing group? Did you have writer friends who helped you through that journey?

I wasn’t necessary a part of a group, but I did deal with several different kinds of writing groups. I was a member of the absolutewrite.com forum. That’s a great support system — I recommend that for all writers. I connected with people on Twitter, through Twitter contests and stuff. So I didn’t have a ‘group’ per-say, but I had people to connect with.

There are a lot of pop-culture references in your novel, especially relating to Tupac and Drake. Do you share the same taste in music as Starr, and do you have any recommendations of stuff to listen to?

I do. I love hip-hop. I often say that when young adults failed to give me the representation I needed, hip-hop gave that to me, so I’m a huge hip-hop fan. Tupac is definitely my favourite rapper. I like Drake, but I’m not a Drake fangirl like Starr is. I can listen to Drake, but I’m not like Starr is. She goes a little far with it! I listen to a lot of hip-hop, and like I said, it gave me the representation I didn’t get in books. I could see myself in Tupac songs more than I could see myself in, say, The Outsiders. So for me, it played a big role in that. But there are a lot of references throughout the book because as I was writing it, that’s the stuff I was listening to. I think I have a Spotify playlist that’s, like, 300 hours long! It was ridiculous.

Wow! For me — when I’m writing — I can’t listen to music. I’ll get distracted and start writing the lyrics and stuff!

Really?!

I can only listen to orchestral, or I have this app that plays sounds from a coffee shop, so it’s like you’re in a coffee shop. It’s great!

That’s awesome!

What type of research did you have to do for The Hate U Give?

I had to do interesting research. Like, if the government was watching my computer, they would probably knock at my door because of the stuff I google. I had to research gangs, I had to watch documentaries on gangs even, and the gang culture, because it’s an entire culture. I even had to do hard research, like reading about the court cases for George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. I had to read documents from the grand jury proceedings. I had to do a lot of legal research. I even had to have a lawyer look over the book to make sure it was accurate. There was all kinds of research. Even looking at things like sneakers, like the lining and stuff. I had to look up trainers and how to clean them, and it was a lot of different research. I don’t think writers discuss it enough — how much research sometimes goes into a book, because you definitely want to get it write. And if I’m writing stuff about a person who loves sneakers, I should get the proper technique down. If I’m writing about gang culture, I need to know what I’m talking about. If I’m writing about something in the legal spectrum, I definitely need to know. I have a folder on my computer right now still full of stuff for that book, so it goes a long way but it helps. It’s worth it.

Absolutely. Speaking of gangs, I loved the scene where they’re discussing how Harry Potter is about gangs. That was my favourite part! How did you come up with that? Has that always been a theory of yours?

It has, because, if you think about it, it makes sense! It really does! From my perspective, as a black woman, if these characters were black, most people would have already said, ‘She’s writing about gangs!’. But because they’re diverse and there’s just a diverse cast and it’s mostly white, nobody’s saying they’re gangs! But guess what? It’s still gang culture! I love those books, but I’m saying, they’ve got that going on! It’s like, Tupac once compared American politicians to gang-bangers. Like the Democrats and Republicans. Even Kendrick Lamar has made that comparison recently, you know, ‘Democrips and Rebloodicans’. You know, like someone’s blood. So it makes sense — it applies to them as well! So it’s funny for me when something where it’s not mostly black people it’s not considered gang, but when it is, it’s considered gang. So I don’t care what anybody says — Harry Potter is about gangs, and gang culture. I stand by that.

If you were in Hogwarts, what ‘gang’ would you be in?

Ravenclaw with Slytherin ambitions.

How much of yourself do you see in Starr?

I wish that I knew that my voice mattered when I was 16. The unsure-ness of not knowing whether your voice matters — that’s something I definitely identify with. And being two different people in two different worlds is definitely something I identify with, because that’s something I had to do when I was in college. I think Starr is definitely more outspoken than I am, and she’s more sure of herself that I am. I know, even now being the #1 bestselling author, I’m still unsure of myself. I promise I am. But I think we do have some similarities. We definitely share the strong family foundations, but she’s still a lot different from me. She’s definitely more outspoken, and she definitely has more of a temper than I do. I definitely wish that at 16, I knew that my voice mattered like Starr learnt.

I think that’s a really important message for readers — realising that their voice matters and that they can stand up for what’s important.

Absolutely. My biggest hope is that readers understand that their voices matter, and not that just their lives matter, but that their voices matter. I’m also hoping that people learn that empathy is stronger than sympathy. The more that we understand why someone is hurt and angry, the more likely we are to fight alongside. Those are my two biggest things: helping people understand that their voices matter and empathy over sympathy.

What are some of your favourite YA novels?

I love anything that Jason Reynolds writes, Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson. I also love History is All You Left Me, The Upside of Unrequited, When Dimple Met Rishi, Dumplin’ and The True Story of a Part-Time Indian. I love YA.

How long did it take you to write The Hate U Give?

I first wrote it as a short story when I was in college back in 2010/11, but I put it aside and picked it up late 2014 – early 2015. It took me about six months to write my first draft. The biggest part of writing is revising, so with the revision, it took about a year or more. So between the revisions I did on my own, the revisions I did with my agent, the revisions I did with my editor, it took about 16 months.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing habits?

Usually I try to spend a couple hours a day writing, and what I never do is make myself pick a certain word count. Because the truth of the matter is, whether I write a hundred words or two thousand words, it’s still a good good day because I wrote something. Whether it took me two hours or three hours to write one hundred words, or two hours to write two thousand words, it’s still a good day because I wrote. I’m always trying to sit down and do something. I don’t put those words limits on myself, and I hate that some writers feel less valuable if they don’t hit a certain word count. I’m trying now to devote a specific time to writing, and having discipline. Discipline is key, dedication is key, and not being so hard on yourself is key. So as long as I follow those three rules, I can get stuff done.

What was the best reaction to your book?

The best reaction was probably at my launch party. A local teacher brought a busload of her students. She literally drove them herself and brought them to my launch party. So many of them were excited not only to see an author that looked like them, but a black girl on the cover who looked like them. Seeing their excitement was probably one of the best things that has happened. And it’s also the time black girls come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for writing this book — I see myself’, that’s some of the best moments. Even more than hitting the NYT list, which is amazing, please don’t take that from me! But more than that is every time those kids tell me ‘Thank you for writing this’ or ‘I didn’t like reading until I read your book’ — that’s big. Those moments are definitely the best ones.

We’ve heard that you have another book in the pipelines. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

I’m writing my second book right now. It’s not a sequel to The Hate U Give. I used to call it a spin-off, but it is not. It’s since changed — it’s not a spin-off or a part of a sequel. It’s just set in the same neighbourhood. I call it my ode to hip-hop. It’s about a 16 year-old girl who’s a rapper. That’s all I can say.

Any ideas when it might be released?

Maybe next year! I think that’s what we want — next year.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

It’s probably two things. The first one is: it only takes one yes. The second one is that the next book may be the book. Sometimes writers get caught up on one project and we think that’s the one that will get us in the door and we revise it and send it our to agents, and we keep trying. But sometimes, if it doesn’t fit, don’t force it. So the next book may be the book. And like I said, it only takes one yes. I don’t care how many no’s you get and how many rejections you receive — it only takes one yes. I’m proof of that right now. Don’t compare yourself to other authors. I don’t care if you have writer friends who started out in the same position as you and now they’ve skyrocketed or something. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Focus on your own journey, your own successes — don’t compare yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘So and so is doing so well right now. That must mean I suck because I’m not.’ No, it just means that you’re in a different place. So keep your eyes on your own paper — no more comparing. Stop that. It doesn’t help at all. And celebrate your successes, no matter how big or small they are.

What books would you recommend for fans of The Hate U Give?

  • How it Went Down
  • All American Boys
  • Midnight without a Moon
  • Dear Martin
  • Allegedly

Thank you so much for making the time to chat with me!

Thank you for having me. This was fun!

Check out my original interview with Angie Thomas!

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Image of Angie Thomas used in header belongs to Anissa Photography. I do not claim ownership to this image.

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