Earlier this week Raven Leilani (author of bookseller favorite Luster) was named a 5 Under 35 honoree! The program, organized by the National Book Foundation, recognizes five young fiction writers (selected by past National Book Award Winners and Finalists, or previous 5 Under 35 Honorees) at a ceremony and are presented with a $1,000 prize. Other honorees this year include K-Ming Chang, Naomi Coster, Fatima Farheen Mirza, and C Pam Zhang. To commemorate this achievement, we’re sharing with readers the exclusive Q&A with Raven Leilani packaged with our Trust Fall box earlier in the year.
BookPeople: Luster is a visceral novel that looks at the aches and pains of an unemployed, love-hungry millennial caught up in a somewhat open marriage. Who and what inspired you to tell this story?
Raven Leilani: I wanted to write a story about black woman that made room for fallibility, for humanity. I like the word you used, ache. This is what I tried to write toward, and that’s usually how I start, with a feeling. I don’t usually know what a book is going to be until I’m in the middle of it. But I knew I wanted the text to be vulnerable in that way, to show a woman yearning openly, seeking connection and seeking her art. I wanted to speak to the messiness and brutality of that.
BP: You show such a stunning command of language in Luster and I found myself dog-earning page after page. Do these stellar sentences just come to you or do you have to constantly work at it?
RL: I work at it constantly. I spend hours looking for the right word, and that makes me a slow writer, but I don’t know how to write any other way. I love books where you can feel close attention has been paid to the sentence level, where you can feel the joy. And not just joy, but discipline. Beauty is important, but also clarity. Honestly, that was my biggest challenge, learning that beauty means nothing if it’s inscrutable.
BP: This book is dark, for sure, but also absolutely hilarious. Tell us more about the way you use humor in your writing.
RL: This book has a lot of dark corners. It was important for me to be candid on the page and be willing to go into the dark, but I wanted to make room for joy. Though I would say the humor is often a function of that darkness, there’s an absurdity to its relentlessness. And the humor is rooted in Edie’s rage, the dissonance between that and the public veneer she tries, and sometimes fails, to maintain. Some of it too is me enjoying a good joke, which has a lot in common with poetry and the fiction I love, where the language is oriented around the element of surprise.
BP: Female friendships prop this book up. What were you hoping to say through Rebecca and Akila?
RL: I’m most interested in relationships between women, the way they can be romantic and brutal. As I was writing Luster, I wanted to show how immediately these relationships become intense, how affirming it can be to meet another woman who sees you, treats your work and personhood with seriousness, what a relief that is.
BP: Who are your literary influences? And which writers do you keep returning to for inspiration?
RL: Some writers I love and look to for fuel to write are Kaitlyn Greenridge, Claudia Rankine, Zadie Smith, Susan Choi, Jennifer Egan, Garth Greenwell, Jericho Brown, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore, and Mary Gaitskill.
BP: Like Edie, you paint. How did this first love of yours make its way into Luster?
RL: I’m always writing from what was a hard and formative revelation for me—that no matter how much you love the medium, it takes time and copious failure to get to a place where you feel you can communicate exactly what is in your mind. If you ever do. I felt that first with painting, and as I wrote Edie, that was my challenge, writing about the part of art making that is about faith and grit and failure. I still feel it all the time, the absolute horror and embarrassment of articulating a thing imprecisely.
BP: What are some of the similarities between painting and writing?
RL: I think both require a hardness and a softness. Hardness in that you will need to learn how to weather rejection, to look at your work with cold eyes. Softness in that I think you need to be open and uncynical, curious enough about the world to respect what you see there before you try to put it down on the canvas or the page.
BP: Does your writing inspire your painting or vice versa?
RL: It’s weird, even though I can’t stop writing about art, I feel like in practice, they are entirely two different brains. Writing feels more mellow. I come to the page and it’s pouring out. With painting, I feel more insecure, more lost, and most of the process is trying to figure out what is wrong. During the pandemic, that dynamic flipped, and I was painting more easily.
BP: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
RL: I would tell her that private work doesn’t mean meaningless work. And I would tell her to read more.
BP: What are the last five books you read and loved?
RL: Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Ling Ma’s Severance, Danez Smith’s Homie, Katie Kitamura’s A Separation.
Luster and all titles mentioned in this interview are available for purchase from BookPeople in-store and online now.