Raven Leilani has become an almost overnight sensation with last year’s publication of her debut novel, Luster.
But the 31-year-old is quick to point out that her bestseller changed almost every page when she was writing and rewriting her chapters.
And at one point she was even contemplating killing off protagonist, Edie.
Luster, told through the voice of Edie, is a refreshingly honest view of a black artist’s awkward sexual relationships and hopeless career choices in New York City.
It has earned Raven a host of awards and celebrity fans, including Zadie Smith and Barrack Obama, since its publication.
The former painter, though, reveals that her plotting and planning regularly went out the window as her first novel developed.
And prior to being put under pressure by tutors New York University’s creative writing course, she was working on something completely different.
She said: “I went to NYU with an entirely different novel to work on.
“When my teachers asked me whether I had any real intention behind my project and I couldn’t articulate an answer – and then I started Luster.
“All I knew, was that I wanted to write something that felt honest and urgent.
“Because I was trying to scrabble together pages, I wrote in a panic and edited myself emotionally less, so the work came from a more vulnerable place.
“And some of the most vulnerable subjects for me, I guess, are art and intimacy and failure.
“I knew I was going to write about painting, and I absolutely knew that I was going to write about Edie’s experience in the middle of this open relationship, but the book kept changing as I was writing.
“It still feels crazy to admit this, but Edie was supposed to die.”
Luster explores race, gender and desire through the chaotic life of Edie, as she moves in with her middle-aged white lover, his white wife, and their black adopted daughter.
Prior to beginning her successful novel, Raven honed her craft with poems and short stories, some of which made it to print in periodicals.
Although the majority of her early work – during the five years between finishing college and starting on NYU’s creative writing course – was rejected, she never lost the desire to write.
Raven added: “Between college and NYU, I was mostly concerned with how to pay my student debt and how to pay my rent.
“I would come home after work and write.
“I remember the first time I started submitting poems – I got nothing but rejections.
“But I love writing so much, I was happy to be living in those worlds that I’d made.
“If you are taken with a subject, there is no shame in writing toward it until you’ve exhausted its possibilities. It’s okay to repeat yourself.”