'The Hate U Give' author interviews Arvin Ahmadi about creating more diverse characters
Debut authors share a special bond. And fortunately for us, Angie Thomas — the brilliant mind behind this year’s sensational The Hate U Give — and her friend Arvin Ahmadi, author of the forthcoming YA novel Down and Across, have given us a peek into what it’s like in this exclusive conversation for EW.
Down and Across follows Scott Ferdowsi, a high school student whose propensity to quit things is going to become a major problem when it comes to his impending college applications. When he decides to seek the help of a famous professor in Washington, D.C., he ends up meeting a college girl named Fiora Buchanan, which sets in motion an adventure that he could never have predicted.
In Ahmadi and Thomas’ chat below, they talk about writing (both began their debut novels while still in college), what it’s like to bring diverse characters into the world when you’re unsure how diverse the publishing industry really wants to get, and how hip-hop has inspired them creatively. Thomas also talks about the inspiration for The Hate U Give and teases her next project (spoiler: it’s not a spin-off or sequel, but it’s set in Starr’s neighborhood).
Check out their interview here — as well as the exclusive first look at the cover of Down and Across, below. Down and Across hits shelves January 30, 2018, but you can pre-order it now.
ANGIE THOMAS: What compelled you to write this story?
ARVIN AHMADI: Down and Across is the book of my heart. It’s the growing up story my teenage self would have loved to read and see himself in. I was the oldest son of Iranian immigrants, so I grew up with a lot of expectations. At least I felt I did. I felt like I had to do well in school, study something practical, fit a certain mold. But at the same time, I always wanted to forge my own path. Especially when you’re a writer, your imagination is constantly going wild. Down and Across was my way of exploring that journey. I started writing it my senior year of college after I watched this TED talk about grit that really put into words what I’d been struggling with. I thought maybe my problem was grit. I switched my college major, like, eight times and still wasn’t sure what I was doing. So I got gritty and wrote a book about a boy who runs away from home to figure out who he is.
AT: That’s so awesome, and funny, too, because I started writing my book during my senior year of college.
AA: And it’s interesting that we were both inspired by real-life events. What exactly compelled you to write The Hate U Give at that time?
AT: When I first got the idea when I was a senior in college, there was a young man named Oscar Grant who lost his life in Oakland, California. I was a lot like my main character, Starr, who was living in two different worlds. I lived in the hood but went to school in a mostly-white, upper class college here in Mississippi, so I heard two different conversations about Oscar. At home he was one of us. But at my school there were people who said, “Well, maybe he deserved it” or “Maybe he shouldn’t have done this or that.” They were blaming him for his own death.
So in my anger and frustration, I decided to write this short story about a girl whose best friend is killed by a cop. It was honestly just a way of getting my own feelings and emotions out there. I would write so much for the short story—too much for the short story—that one day my professor was like, “Darling, maybe you should turn this into a novel.” So I decided to do that later on, and I’m glad I did, because it ended up being cathartic as we see more and more young black people lose their lives at the hands of police brutality.
AA: Have you ever gone back and reread that short story? Or is it like, “Oh my God, I can’t even look at that anymore.”
AT: You know, I’ve tried and I can’t. I really can’t. I can’t even read old drafts of THUG. Honestly, I can’t read THUG because already I’m like, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done this” or “I wish I had written it like that” because that’s how hard I am on myself.
AA: I totally feel that. I’ll start reading an old draft and by the second sentence I’m like, ah, that sentence is terrible! Why did I do that! The way that it used to be, I can’t accept it anymore.
AT: For you, what was the most challenging part about writing this book?
AA: Keeping with it and finding the heart of the story. Because I was all over the place and I had this track record of quitting, I wanted to make sure that this book was really focused and ultimately had a message. But at the same time, I wanted it to be authentically me. I think in early drafts — I’m sure it was like this with you — you’re writing and not looking back. That’s why for me, revision has always been the harder part. That’s when you’re trying to find the heart of the story, that thread that will propel readers forward.
AT: That is so true. You know, though, I kind of prefer revisions. At least by then I’ve put something down. I’m in the middle of drafting right now and I hate it. I just feel like I’m trying to make stuff happen.
AA: I bet you’re hating that blank screen.
AT: It’s not as blank anymore so that’s a good sign. Also, I think it’s hard for us sometimes as writers, especially writers from marginalized backgrounds, when people say, “Oh, you’re writing about a topic that’s so difficult right now.” We’re just writing about our own identities. When people say that, it kind of catches me off guard. I don’t know if it catches you off guard. What is it like for you writing about this Muslim, Iranian character?
AA: To be honest, when I first started writing this book, Scott, my main character, was white. Then I made him half-white, half-Indian. As my friends read these drafts, they were like, “Arvin, this character is you. Why are you shying away from this Iranian character that is so rooted in the stuff that you’ve grappled with?” That was a real learning moment for me. When I was like, you know what? I’m going to write this authentically me character and I don’t care if it doesn’t end up selling. At the end of the day I’ll have written a book that I’m proud of and that’s my debut novel. I’m really happy with that growth.
That’s something I’ve become more confident about. Not only is it authentically me and the kind of book I could have seen myself in as a teenager, but I think this book is important — like your book and other books from marginalized authors — because of what’s brewing in America right now. We need diverse stories that show that black and brown folks, Asian and gay folks — we have our unique struggles, but at the end of the day, we’re more similar than we are different. We all worry about the future, we all deal with failure or s—ty friends, we’re all kind of just winging life. Seeing that in the context of unique struggles like police brutality or parental expectations, I think that’s why diverse books are important on a deeper level.
AT: Absolutely. I’m sitting over here nodding my head the entire time.
AA: I know! I’ve heard through the grapevine that when you started querying THUG, you were concerned your book might be too black.
AT: I was afraid because although there were calls for diversity, you always wonder, “Okay, how diverse do you really want it? Do you want the whitewashed diversity or the actual diversity?” Do you want a character who I say is black but nothing about them really seems black-black? There was a lot of fear going into it.
And then knowing even something as simple as, when I go into bookstores I wouldn’t see books in the young adult section with black girls on the cover. It’s stuff like that that discouraged me. But now I’m happy to see not just my book with a black girl on the cover, but there are other books with black kids on the cover, and I’m hoping that we’re finally seeing a change in publishing.
AA: I think in the future, that means books like yours will inspire other authors to not whitewash their characters or shy away from writing that too black or too Muslim story. Because the incredible thing — the thing I loved most about The Hate U Give... Well, no. The thing I loved most about THUG is that it gave me this story around Black Lives Matter and put it in empathetic terms. But at the end of the day, it was a story about finding your voice. That’s Starr’s journey. It’s about finding your voice. That is a universal lesson. I think the success of your story and hopefully the success of others will show that a story can be diverse but also have that universal message.
AT: I’m so excited for your book. We need more brown characters in books! And especially in our current political climate. We need to show teenagers that we’re all human. You’re hearing so many different things from people who are supposed to be leading us who try to say the opposite at times. I think books will be more powerful than anything a politician could get on television and say.
AA: I’m so behind that. If you’re a teen watching politics right now, how certain politicians aren’t looking out for your interests, one of the things you crave most is to see yourself in stories. You want to see characters who look like you taking control of their destiny. That’s how I hope our stories resonate with teens. If a teen learns from Starr to find her voice, or a teen learns from Scott that it’s okay to not have everything figured out — even if adults around you are telling you to do that — I think that makes a difference.
AT: Oh, I should ask about your journey as an author.
AA: Like I said, I switched majors like eight times in college. I had all these interests in history and politics and math and science. I ended up doing computer science, but I’ve always written. Even since I was 10 I’ve been a voracious reader and a voracious writer. In high school and college, it was always for the school paper as a reporter or blogger. Senior year, I started writing Down and Across and did it because I’d always been writing on the side. But then I graduated and I kept working on my book every single night, every single weekend. I’d pretend to be busy on Friday and Saturday nights and avoid friends to write this book.
AT: They’re going to find out when they read this.
AA: They’ll be like “That’s why he kept turning down plans!” Yeah, I did that and I kept getting more serious. And then I started going to book events, and the YA community, as you know, is the greatest community in the world. So accepting, so much fun, people get so excited about things — but it’s also incredibly mission-driven. It’s this amazing combination of doing something we really care about and making an impact. As I got more invested in this story, I went from hobby writer to “S–t, I want to do this forever.”
AT: I love that. Your friends might look at you funny now, though.
AA: Would you stay in on a Friday night and write?
AT: Oh yeah.
AA: Hell yeah.
AT: I’m an introvert! Definitely. For me, I don’t think people understand sometimes that you really do have to make a sacrifice to be a writer. So many people tell me, I want to write but I can’t find the time. Trust me. I have the same 24 hours in my day that you do. It’s just I have to fight for that time and fight to do it. Sometimes that meant not going to this event or hanging out with a friend on this night. Sometimes that meant it’s just me and my computer. And, yeah, that can be hard at times but it’s worth it, because I finally got that story out. It’s worth the sacrifice. I don’t think a lot of people realize that you can be a writer, you just have to put the time into it. That’s really the main thing.
AA: It’s a labor of love. At the end of the day, this book feels like your baby. I’m not a parent, you’re not a parent, but we know parents will do anything for the thing they love. That’s how I feel about my books and I imagine you do too.
What are you working on now, Angie? I’ve been seeing little tweets, hearing murmurs. Obviously you mentioned that drafting is killing you. Tell me more about what you’re working on.
AT: I’m working on my second book at the moment. It’s not a sequel or a spin-off to The Hate U Give, but it is set in the same neighborhood. It’s about a 16-year-old girl who, like so many 16 year olds, feels powerless and helpless. But she finds her power and her voice through hip-hop. I kind of call it my ode to hip-hop.
I don’t think we give it enough credit for giving so many kids not just a mirror to see themselves, and then some of these suburban kids a window to see what it’s like to be a young black person in America, but hip-hop has also empowered so many young people. It’s about a girl who’s lost everything and then she finds everything through hip-hop.
AA: That’s awesome. Did you read the profile of Jason Reynolds the other day?
AA: He was saying how hip-hop was how he found his voice. It was his poetry and literature growing up.
AT: It doesn’t get nearly enough props for that. We don’t give it enough props for giving kids what they needed when young adult books didn’t. There was a time when I didn’t read YA — when it was written for my age range — because I never saw myself in it. Instead of reading books, I listened to hip-hop. I let Nas tell me stories. I let Tupac tell me stories. I hope that with this second book, I kind of merge my two loves. My love for books and my love for hip-hop.
AA: Oh, that’s amazing. And just as a side note, books like yours give me hope that this industry is only going to grow. Because there are entire groups of young people and teens whose children’s literature hadn’t been speaking to them for a while. They had to go to hip-hop or poetry. Now those books are there, and they’re going to be readers for life. I hope that applies to Asian and gay and Muslim kids, all these marginalized groups who maybe didn’t see themselves in books and found other outlets.
AT: Definitely. Are you working on your next book?
AA: Yes! Mine, in a similar vein, is also about my other love. You’re a writer, I’m a writer. You really care about hip-hop; I really care about technology. I think about that all the time, in terms of the future. My second book is this futuristic story about virtual reality and this really badass girl who enters a contest on the YouTube of VR. She’s very smart and is very tactical about how she enters the contest and it turns into a really exciting story. It explores a lot of how the future will look and how we’ll be affected by living in virtual worlds and all this technology around us as it grows.
AT: That sounds incredible too. Basically you are going on my always-read list.
AA: Angie! Angie! You have no idea how much that means. I’ve been gushing about your book for weeks. My copy is making the rounds. Obviously you are on my always-read list as well.
AT: Well we always know we’ve got each other.
AA: We’ll keep each other in business.
AT: Exactly. I’m so excited for your book, and I can’t wait for everybody to see this cover. I’m just ecstatic for you.
AA: I’m ecstatic for you! This was my first ever author conversation-interview-thing, so thank you for making my first author thing a lot of fun.
AA: Obviously THUG is killing it and I can’t wait for the movie and your next book and to watch you become even more badass than you already are.
AT: Thank you so much. And I can’t wait to see everything that happens with you and this book. Everybody — I hope they put this in the interview — everybody, right now, stop what you’re doing, go preorder or put it on your Goodreads TBR. Down and Across! Now. That’s an order.
AA: She said it. Listen to Angie.