Nic Stone's poignant and timely Dear Martin hit the ground running on Amazon this past week, trending #1 in the YA literature category. A student of Jodi Picoult, Stone crafted what reviewers are calling a "gripping" tale that is loosely based on recent events surrounding the shooting deaths of unarmed black teens. The book, which tells the story of a young man who begins a journal of letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after he is racially profiled, is touching hearts and stirring conversation in light of current events and America's contentious political landscape. Here, we talk with Stone about the book, her process and her advice for writers.
interview by J.D. Myall
What was your life like, pre-book?
I've done a lot of different things. I went to college in Georgia Tech and hated it. My major was international affairs … I dropped out. I, like, decided I was going to try to become a model. I did a pageant. I eventually transferred to Spelman. After Spelman, I traveled and worked. I worked in West Palm Beach. I managed a formal gown store—that was fun, because it was during prom season. I went to Israel for the summer. I went to find God, and I met this guy. I eventually married him. I was a tour operator in Israel. I designed Holy Land tours. Then, I had a baby, and I was mothering and writing.
What is something about you that people would be shocked to find out?
I was a cheerleader, and I was also my school’s mascot. The mascot was a big, burly dude-type character, so that was fun.
Favorite writers as a child?
I loved Judy Blume, and the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald J. Sobol.
Is there a book that inspired you to be a writer or that has a particular influence on the characters you create today?
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. This was the first book that I picked up in my life where I felt like I understood the characters and the characters understood me. It was the strangest thing, because this was a book about five white girls that live in this very white world. They were sisters that committed suicide during the course of one year. It's super morbid, and it's really dark. When you’re sixteen and full of angst and you want the protection of your parents but you’d never admit it … you’ll understand this book. I was a teenager and I was like, “I get this book and it gets me.” It was kind of a coming of age story. It opened my eyes to the possibility of fiction involving teenagers. My debut novel is about a teen.
Tell us about this novel. What is the genre? What’s the release information?
Y.A. Literary. The publisher is Crown Books for Young Readers. It’s a Random House Imprint. The book [was] released on October 17th.
Describe this novel, Dear Martin.
It's about a 17-year-old African-American boy grappling with his place in the world. He’s a good kid that gets racially profiled one night while trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend get home without driving. As a result of the profiling experience, he starts a journal of letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Basically, he’s trying to see if Dr. King’s teachings can work in modern America.
Where do you write from, home or a coffee shop?
Honestly, whenever I can. Most of Dear Martin was written in my bedroom at home. Like, actually on my bed. Most of my second book was written at Starbucks.
Tell me the story behind the story. How did Dear Martin come to be?
I was in Israel when Trayvon Martin was killed. And so I heard about it, but there was a distance there, because of the ocean. My new life and geographical distances made a bit of an emotional distance. I came back shortly after the death of Jordan Davis, who was killed in the parking lot of a convenience store, basically after an argument over loud music. That story hit me really hard, because by that point I had a five-month old little boy. All of it together just got under my skin. My father was a police officer. I saw them as heroes, as somebody there to protect me. So for a police officer to kill a child who was unarmed was really jarring. Then, the Black Lives Matter protests kicked off. I kept seeing all these misused or misappropriated quotes of Dr. King used to put him in opposition to Black Lives Matter. That didn’t set well with me. I started to wonder, What would Dr. King have to say now? I wanted to address the notion that Dr. King would be opposed to non-violent protest. I started to explore these questions. After all of Dr. King’s hard work and the work of John Lewis, Rosa Parks and some of the lesser-known heroes of the civil rights movement … I wondered, What would they have to say now? I have a son, so I tried to imagine what he may face in his future. So I made this character that asked the question, “What would Dr. King do if he was alive in the 21st century?”
How long did it take to write?
This is a fun story. It sold on proposal. Then, I had the first draft done in seven weeks. I spent nearly two months almost sobbing in tears or raging as I researched and wrote. Then, we worked it and reworked it. Overall, from the time it sold to the time we got it completely finished, it was about two years.
How did you get your agent?
My first agent I got through my mentor, Jodi Picoult. Jodi came to Spelman. I met her there when she came to interview the president of the college. She was researching Small Great Things. She is a master of research. She taught me how to research. I helped with her book. She introduced me to her agent. However, her agent had never worked with YA before, so we eventually parted ways. My second, and current, agent, Rena Rossner, I found through the querying process.
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How did you cope with rejection during the querying process?
I kept writing.
What were your biggest learning experiences or surprises throughout the publishing journey?
The surprise was how long it took. It takes a long time. Learning the process—the marketing, the other books the big publishers are working on, the turnover. It’s exciting and surprising. It’s super slow on the back end … but when you’re launching things go super fast.
Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you break in?
I kept working. This was my third book. We submitted a different book to the editor that bought Dear Martin on proposal. She liked my style, but she wasn’t completely sold on the story we presented her. So we submitted a proposal for Dear Martin—and she bought that.
Is there anything you wish you could do differently?
No. Looking back, I can see how the past has lead me to where I am now. I am thrilled. I learned a lot from the books I have written. I have a few novels that may or may not be published, and I have two books being published. Through it all, I learned a lot about writing. I’m getting a lot of support and a good marketing push. I am happy.
Hardest sentence to write: first or last?
Neither. It’s all the stuff in the middle. I know the first line before I start, and I know how I want it to end, too, so the middle is the most work. You want to foreshadow without having spoilers.
What is the most important part of a novel: plot, characters, or setting?
Characters. I hope my books read that way.
How do you know when a novel is finished?
When I write the end.
Best advice you have heard on writing?
In high school, a teacher told me to write like a reader and read like a writer. I also love a Toni Morrison quote: “The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power. “
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Keep writing. Hone your skill. Figure out how you work best. Most people I know didn’t get their first books published. Some didn’t get their first four books published. You have to keep writing if your goal is to be a novelist. Even while you’re on submission, or even while you’re getting rejections, keep writing. Maybe your first book won’t get published, maybe your second will, or your fourth. Just keep writing.
What’s up next for you?
Dear Martin [came] out October 17th. I am writing a middle grade novel about a little black boy on a road trip with his white grandmother, but the road trip isn’t what he thinks it is. It’s gonna be a great read. I also have a trilogy of novellas coming out a year from now. It’s about three friends trying to grapple with sexuality, romance, friendship, and things like that. It’s about two girls and a boy, but it’s not your typical love triangle. The girls are trying to figure out how they feel about each other, too. That book will be out next year, but we haven’t released the title. It’s super messy, and I love it.
How can people connect with you?
J.D. Myall is a self-proclaimed literary lunatic, crazy about reading and writing is like breathing to her. Myall earned her BS in criminal justice from West Chester University, and has worked as a counselor for crime victims, addicts and the mentally ill. She is currently co-writing Crimson Reign, an exploration of race and class tucked neatly inside a feminist fairy-tale for the modern age. For more info. go to www.jdmyallbooks.com
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