Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day plus a wonderful Monday! Today, I got the pleasure of working with Random House to introduce you to Dear Martin by Nic Stone on this remarkable and memorable day. Please be sure to keep reading until the end for a Q&A session with the author, Nic Stone, about this book, this memorable day, and more.
Q: DEAR MARTIN is your debut novel. How did you get the idea to write this book, and did you always think you would write for a YA audience?
The idea for this book came to me while I was at breakfast with my father—a retired police officer. I’d been grappling with the untimely death of Jordan Davis, a kid who ultimately lost his life over loud music. That particular case, combined with some of the “Dr. King would never!” responses I saw to protests engendered by the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a question in me: What would Dr. King say/think/feel/do if he were alive today?
And since the individuals gunned down in real life were teen boys, that’s the perspective I felt I had to take on to explore my question. I started writing pretty recently—four years ago—and all the manuscripts I’ve written so far (DEAR MARTIN is actually the third) have been YA-aimed, likely because in my head, I haven’t aged past seventeen. 😉
Q: Justyce McAllister is a seventeen-year-old student with a bright future, but he experiences racial profiling that makes him question how things seem to operate today for young black men. How did the character of Justyce come to life, and is he based on anyone from your own life?
Justyce was more or less fully formed when he came into my head, but he’s an amalgamation of a number of African American boys I know: my suburbs-bred little brother, my *hood*-bred cousin, the only other black kid I ever had in my classes, a couple of my friends who sold drugs at some point, with some of my own black-girl experiences tossed in there to spice things up. My goal was for his humanity to be the focus of the story so he’d be universally relatable, but for there to also be culturally specific things about the way he moves through the world that just about any African American reader could identify with.
Q: How did Justyce’s attendance at a private high school in Atlanta shape the story?
Atlanta is a very interesting place with a rich history—it was significant in both the Civil War and the civil rights movement. As such, the city is very diverse . . . but it’s still the South. Most of the private schools have a handful of students of color, but these kids often find themselves in classes with kids who are both very rich and very proud of their “Confederate heritage,” which can be confusing since people typically associate this particular form of bigotry with white people who are “working class” and uneducated.
Less extreme, but just as insidious, are the kids (such as Jared Christensen in the book) who, fully aware of the segregated history of the South, see diversity in their personal spheres and take it to mean racial equitability is a widespread reality. As such, these kids are generally unwilling to acknowledge their prejudices or check their subconscious biases when they come to light—racism is a “thing of the past” to them, so why would they?
I grew up dealing with both of these types of people in my public schools, but using a private school for the book added a socioeconomic factor that made the waters a bit muddier. And what can I say: muddier waters tend to make for a better (read: more complex) story.
Q: Justyce writes letters to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. throughout the novel, which is where the story title comes from. Can you tell us a little bit about how this idea came about? What do you think Dr. King would say about the state of race relations today?
Part A of this question is easy (and I touched on it a bit in the first question, but will go more in-depth here). On November 23, 2012— Black Friday, as we refer to the day after Thanksgiving in America—a seventeen-year-old African American boy named Jordan Davis was murdered in the parking lot of a gas station after a brief dispute with an older white man over loud music coming from the car Davis occupied. The incident shook me to my core, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
A couple of months later, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin (also age seventeen at the time of his death), and the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was born on social media in response. Then Eric Garner (forty-three years old) and Michael Brown (eighteen years old) were killed within three weeks of each other, and the protests now equated with the Black Lives Matter movement began in earnest. This is when I started to see people using quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to oppose the protestors.
Which didn’t make sense to me. To be honest, it made me angry. There was even a point when the mayor of my city begged protestors not to “take the highway” because “Dr. King would never take a highway.” This statement isn’t just questionable: it’s historically inaccurate. Dr. King and the people he led took many highways in pursuit of equal rights for African Americans in this country. One of the central tenets of the American civil rights movement was civil disobedience: an active refusal to obey certain laws as a form of peaceful protest. So the notion that Dr. King would be opposed to the Black Lives Matter movement and the nonviolent protests connected to it was galling to me. So much so, it made me want to explore current events in light of Dr. King’s teachings, recorded activities, and accomplishments.
Which brings us to the second part of the question: what do I think Dr. King would say about the state of race relations today? The truth is: I genuinely don’t know. In a campaign video with Jon Ossoff recently, Congressman John Lewis said of the times we’re living in, “I’ve never seen anything like this. . . . I’ve never ever seen anything so difficult.” This is a powerful statement from a man who was on the front line of the civil rights movement, who has been beaten and jailed for his fervent pursuit of equal rights for all. After allllllllll that, he says this time we’re living in now is the hardest thing he’s ever seen. That’s pretty telling.
What I can say: I do think Dr. King would be disappointed. While many of the things he fought for became legal realities shortly after (and I daresay, in response to?) his death, it’s clear many of his ideas—his sentiments regarding the way we view and treat one another—have yet to get down into people’s hearts. And that’s unfortunate.
Q: What is your favorite moment from the book?
There’s a scene where Justyce is in a mood after being snubbed by the girl he likes, and his best friend, Manny, shows up at Justyce’s dorm room to cheer him up by dragging him to a party Justyce has zero interest in attending. Manny has come straight from basketball practice and is in serious need of a shower, but he uses his body odor to coerce Justyce into going.
Justyce eventually succumbs, and unfortunately, things do not go well at the party. But I love the encounter in the dorm room because we see two teenage black boys just being teenage boys. It’s this humorous and (hopefully) heartwarming point of contact with their humanity, and a moment where their race (both are African American) is genuinely a nonissue. This is the kind of stuff that gets erased when a police officer sees an African American kid and—consciously or unconsciously—puts his hand on his gun. I wanted to capture as many moments like this as I could, but the “release of the full force of (Manny’s) funk onto the room” is by far my favorite.
Q: Do you have a favorite character from the book? If so, who is it and why?
Definitely Justyce. I love him because he’s not perfect. He messes up. Often. Many of his decisions have pretty hefty repercussions (like there’s an incident he’s involved in at the party Manny drags him to, and the details of said incident come up in a courtroom later on in the story).
But to me, that’s what makes him real. Relatable. He messes up. Yes, he owns his mistakes and takes strides to correct what he’s able, but he messes up. And I adore him for it.
Q: Where do you write, and are you working on a new book?
Wherever I can? Lol! I have a little one who is with me all day, so if I can pull off Starbucks or the library, I prefer to work there because I stay awake. Otherwise, I’m in a big recliner or in my bed—which is my favorite place to write, but is also the least productive place because I’m super prone to falling asleep with my laptop open (oops).
And yes, I am working on a new book! My second YA will be out in fall 2018. And it’s a FUN book, my friends. Spoiler alert: nobody dies! It’s a totally different genre. Top secret! Muahahaha!
Q: What is something that readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I was my high school mascot. It was this very buff, very masculine—goatee and everything—blue devil, and if I had a dollar for every time I almost got my ass kicked by dudebros from the opposing schools because they assumed the person taunting them and gesticulating from inside the male mascot suit was a boy, I’d be able to buy a replica of the suit to wear now. Fun times!
Q: What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?
Besides reading (duh, right?), I really love playing with makeup. I have an Instagram account (@booklookz) where I post pictures of makeup looks inspired by book covers. It’s an alternative creative outlet for me.
I also really love sleeping.
Q: There is much discussion in today’s literary world about the need for more diverse books. What is your response to this, and how do you hope DEAR MARTIN will fit into the conversation?
The need for more diverse books, to me, is a no-brainer. Reading lost its appeal for me for a bit in high school because the only black characters I saw in the books assigned to us were either slaves or were stupid. Not seeing people who looked like me as the heroes/heroines of the stories I read was detrimental not only because of the message it sent about the (im)possibility of someone like me being the hero, but also because when I finally worked up the courage to try to write a book of my own, I was wary of writing an African American main character. Not seeing black kids in books translated to “Nobody would read a book about a black kid.” Which brings me to what I think is a vital piece of this discussion: we need diverse books, and we need them from diverse authors. Everyone should be able to tell their own story as authentically as they can, not only so readers can see themselves (and be encouraged to tell their stories), but also so that people who are not like these “diverse” characters will be able to see that people they thought they had very little in common with actually aren’t all that different. There’s plenty of evidence that reading builds empathy and has the power to connect people. Who better to get connect to than someone you’re typically separated from?
With regard to DEAR MARTIN, my hope is that people will pick it up and go, “Huh! I guess diverse books DO work and ARE necessary.” If that happens, I’ve done my job.
Q: What do you hope readers take away with them after reading this book?
First and foremost: that the black boys they see—whether checking out a book from the library or shooting dice on a street corner— are people. They love and they feel and they hurt, and they have rights. The exact same rights every other citizen of this country is entitled to. That’s something I feel often gets buried because there’s so much societal fear of this particular demographic. Bottom line: automatically assuming the worst about young black males says more about us than it does about them.
Second, I really hope readers come away more willing to examine their own prejudices and check their biases (because we ALL have them). To actually think about what they fear and why they fear it. Acknowledge that our current societal constructs are not equitable for everyone. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, “The first step is admitting you have a problem.”
And last, I hope people—teens especially—come away from the book with language for these difficult conversations. I’ve had early readers come to me and say, “I didn’t really know how to put what I was feeling into words, and this book was so helpful!” I take that as the highest compliment.