Many of us at some point have looked back on some of our early work and cringed (or simply uttered something along the lines of, “I’ve come a long way!” Author of several novels including the starred-reviewed Tyler Johnson Was Here and critically acclaimed anthologies (Black Enough and Hungry Hearts), Jay Coles, explained why he thinks his first few books are bad. Instead of being authentic in his writing, he says he followed a formula that he thought would interest publishers.
“The writing and the story concepts were bad,” the composer shares with So Booking Cool. “And it was because I felt like I had to write a certain way; I couldn’t write African American vernacular English; I couldn’t write the Black experience, so literally all of the books I had written, to start out with, there was not a single Black character.”
The 24-year-old’s past characters were all White and spoke like they were “miniature E.E. Cummings.” He thought he had to be the next John Green. And while he has nothing against John Green books, he realized he was whitewashing his own literature. “And to me, looking back on those stories made them bad,” says Coles. “Not because all the kids were white, but I think because I felt like I had to do that in order to get published or get my name out there.”
It was the national headlines about the killing of innocent unarmed Black people that prompted Coles’ awakening. “…I was so frustrated in the media not sharing those stories, and books not reflecting the authentic experiences of Black people in this country written by Black people. And so, I was like, ‘gosh, I’m also complicit in that. I’m also complicit in the idea of not sharing those stories and not writing characters of color into my work.’”
When he first learned of Angie Thomas’ book deal for The Hate U Give (a New York Times bestseller since its debut in February 2017), he felt even more motivated to take on his new journey of storytelling. He’d already been working towards Tyler Johnson Was Here, a gripping novel about a boy, Marvin, who discovers his twin brother, Tyler, was murdered by a police officer following a party they attended. The book, in which the likes of Booklist, Entertainment Weekly, School Library Journal and Bustle have all praised, hits close to Coles’ home.
Watch the interview to learn more about Coles including why it is important for him to express his views about publishing; his foray into writing; why he recommends becoming a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); his advice for Black people navigating fear of stepping on toes when entering an industry; the importance of authors being apart of communities; his advice for authors regarding hate mail; the types of stories he wants to see about marginalized people; why he prefers audiobooks these days; and more! For more information, visit Coles on Twitter.