Author Angie Thomas's Rap-Infused Latest Novel 'On The Come Up' Is Tailor-Made for Audio

Back with her follow-up to "The Hate U Give," Angie Thomas talks with editor Katie O’Connor about how perfectly narrator Bahni Turpin embodies her work and how important the power of the voice is, especially in her latest novel.

The minute Audible Editor Katie O’Connor read the galley of Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give in 2017, she knew the story, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, was special. And once the narration by acclaimed actress Bahni Turpin hit, Katie made it her mission to make it Audible’s Audiobook of the Year. So it’s no surprise that she also pounced on the chance to talk with the author about her follow-up novel, On the Come Up.

Listen in as the two discuss how the authenticity of hip-hop influences Thomas’s writing, why Thomas absolutely trusted Turpin, her narrator of choice again, with all the rapping in the book, and how Thomas made another gem that grapples with important social issues without being an “issues” book.

 Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.

Katie O’Connor: Hi listeners, it’s your Audible editor, Katie O’Connor here, and I am so excited to be talking today with author Angie Thomas, whose debut novel, The Hate U Give, was Audible Audiobook of the Year in 2017. That book is now in its 100th week on the New York Times Bestseller List and was adapted into a hit movie in 2018. Her follow up, On the Come Up, is available on Audible now and we are so excited to be talking to her about it. Hi Angie.

Angie Thomas: Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

KO: Thank you for joining us. Also huge congratulations. Not only is your book out, but we saw that you also announced that there’s going to be a movie for On the Come Up. That’s amazing.

AT: Yeah, I am so excited. We got the team back together, so the director of The Hate U Give, George Tillman Jr., will be directing On the Come Up as well.

KO: That’s incredible. We can’t wait to see the casting news and who’s going to be Bri. It’ll be very exciting for, for all of your fans.

AT: I’m excited.

KO: You were like, yeah, me too. I want to know, too. So your new novel On the Come Up follows 16-year-old Bri, who is navigating a complex home life, high school, and also trying to pursue her dream of becoming a rapper. And I’ve read that this novel is more autobiographical for you than The Hate U Give was. And I also know that as a teenager, you were a rapper as well. So I’m curious if, because of those personal connections, you actually started writing Bri before (THUG’s) Starr.

AT: Actually, I didn’t, but Bri came to me in the midst of writing The Hate U Give. I always knew I wanted to write a hip hop story and I just, I wasn’t sure how to tell it. And as I was finishing up my first draft of The Hate U Give, I started thinking about a 16-year-old girl wanting to be a rapper and what would that be like? And maybe, just maybe, she could be in Starr’s neighborhood as well. And so she, she came to life over time and I started thinking about my own experiences as a teenager trying to pursue a rap career for a little bit and what that meant for me. So her story really did take bits and pieces from my own life, but eventually her story became her story and so I’m so happy with how it turned out.

KO: That’s wonderful. You just mentioned that it does take place in the same neighborhood. Did you ever consider setting it anywhere other than the Garden or around Garden Heights?

AT: Not really. I always kind of knew I wanted to go back there after The Hate U Give because, if for nothing else, I wanted to see what it’s like in the neighborhood after everything that happened in the first book. What’s the neighborhood like now? And then too, I thought it was important to get to know a character who lived there, who is the total opposite of Starr in a lot of ways. I never want my readers to think that even black girls from the same neighborhood have the exact same lives, or even have the same personalities, or the same hopes, fears, dreams, all of that. So I really wanted to return and show this new young lady, who’s totally different from Starr and then show the neighborhood from her perspective. So I wanted it to be her world, 1,000 percent.

KO: Yeah. And it definitely was. You know, I loved that fans of yours are going to be aware that Bri is living with the aftermath of the events of The Hate U Give, but the fact that you don’t outwardly name any of those characters, I think it just does such a nice seamless job of connecting the two worlds, while not making it seem like Starr is in any way directly influencing Bri and who she is.

AT: Yeah. Thank you. I’m so happy it worked. That was really important to me. It was really because, you know, there were times where I was tempted to bring in characters from The Hate U Give and part of me was like, “No, Angie. That’s the easy route. Don’t be lazy with it. Create her own world.” So there are little bits and pieces here and there where you pick up on stuff that may reference the other book, but I really wanted it to still be Bri’s world 1,000 percent.

KO: Yeah, it absolutely was. So you and narrator Bahni Turpin are pure magic together. Her just stunning embodiment of Starr, and now Bri, hit so many wonderful notes that do justice to the characters you’ve created. Did you talk to her at all, before she started recording, about the beat and the tempo of the raps?

AT: I didn’t, and that’s the funny part about it. I’ve only really met her one time and that was the only time we really had a conversation. So it’s funny because we work so well together without actually working together.

KO: That’s amazing. Yeah, you two just connect on a different level then.

AT: Yeah. Yeah. So when my editor asked me, do you want to maybe record versions of the rap yourself so that Bahni can hear it and learn how to do it? I was like, you know what? No, I trust her. I trust her instinct. And I already knew that she could rap because I’d heard a sample of her rapping and I was like, you know what, I believe she can handle it herself. So it’s all on her in so many ways, you know. She really brought it and she gave her style and her soul and heart to it. So I’m so thankful for it. She’s a phenomenal narrator.

KO: She really is. That’s amazing. I love that you have that level of trust with her. I think it’s so special in audio. Fans are just going to absolutely love it. So how has your love for rap and spoken word influenced how you write?

AT: Oh, it influences it big time. You know, I often say I want to write the way that rappers rap. And what I really mean by that is, for me when I was a kid, hip hop spoke to me because it was real with me. It was authentic with me. It was true with me and it never held back. And I think that’s what so many kids love about it, is that it’s still real and authentic. It’s something that they can not only relate to, but something they can learn from. You know, I learned a lot about the world by listening to hip hop. Some people may take that a certain way, but I really did. I learned a lot about the world. And that’s what I want my books to do. I want to write the way the rappers rap. Tupac’s my favorite rapper and one song of his could make you think, another could make you laugh, and another could make you cry. And I want my books to do the same thing that his songs do for so many people. So he’s like one of my biggest literary influences. Rappers, period, they’re my biggest literary influences.

KO: Yeah, I mean, I assumed that he was your favorite rapper, but it’s nice to have a full confirmation. And I know that Bri didn’t want to pick her favorite female rapper. Do you have one that you would pick or are you like Bri and you don’t want to call out just one?

AT: Specifically when it comes to Nicki versus Cardi, I don’t want to pick sides. I love them both. I think they’re both doing incredible things. But I think, my favorite female rapper of all time is Missy Elliott. I love Missy. She’s phenomenal. She followed me on Twitter and it was one of the best days of my life.

KO: That’s amazing.

AT: Yeah, yeah, but, no, she’s phenomenal because she carved her own lane. She never did what everybody else was doing. She was always Missy. She was always true and authentic to herself and she’s just crazy talented. Like she’s so creative. The fact that she not only produces and writes her own songs, but a lot of times she has so much input on the videos and her videos are just out of this world. So she’s my favorite by far.

KO: I love listening to the way that Bri approached her own rapping and how, even in a casual conversation with somebody, she would start breaking down words, counting syllables, dissecting meaning, and exploring rhymes. Do you ever do that when you’re observing the world around you and figuring out how something you’re seeing could fit into one of your stories?

AT: Yeah, in some ways I do, you know. I look at situations and I think about them, [like] how can I approach that through fiction? I try not to write issue books. I like to write books, good books that hopefully address issues. And I’m always thinking about things and what affects young black women and young black men especially. And how can I speak to them and then speak to the world through fiction about those things? So like with On the Come Up, when The Hate U Give was challenged and banned in some places and received so many censorship attempts, I thought about that as I was writing this book and how I can use that and that whole concept of freedom of speech not necessarily being free, and bring it into Bri’s story. So I definitely look at things not just in my own life but just in general and figure out how I can use fiction to paint the picture about them so that people can think about those things that happened in real life and hopefully come at them with a different perspective.

KO: That’s great and I love what you just said, that you don’t want to write an issue book. That you want to write a good book that deals with issues. I think that’s a perfect way to describe what you’re doing. And you know, you are. You’re touching on a lot of different social issues in both of these books. And you know, Bri in her personal life dealing with her mother losing her job, possibly facing homelessness, but then also dealing with having a reaction to somebody and potentially getting called aggressive. And you know, all of the associated meanings that go along with that because she is black. And so I’m curious about those themes, but also so many other relationships and issues that you touched on in the book. Was there a particular part that was the most challenging for you to write?

AT: I will say one thing that was challenging for me—it’s always challenging for me, that’s the romance part. [Laughter] I don’t have time for it myself, so I’m like, I don’t know what to draw from for that, but …

KO: I thought you did a great job! You had me rooting for both … I don’t want to spoil anything, but you had me rooting for both relationships.

AT: Well, I’m glad to know that. But I think one of the parts I really struggled with, besides even the raps because even though I tried rapping as a teenager, I’m not a rapper and it really takes skill to do that. And I wanted to pay respect to the skillset and to the craft. But for me, it was also just tapping into the struggles of this young lady and how she has to deal with being seen as someone she’s not all of the time. And making sure that even for me as the writer, I never force a definition onto her. I want my readers to define her for themselves at the end of the day because I want them to define themselves. So, you know, I had these scenes where she’s trying to figure out who she is and define herself. But at the end of the day, I’d never want to even play into one role more than another. I want people to see that she’s a flawed young lady. You know, she makes mistakes and that’s okay because we all do. And at times, that was even hard to deal with. You know?

And I have to say, I wrote something and I was like, Brianna, why are you doing this? Why are you saying this? You should know better than that. You know? And I had to pull back and say, you know what? No, let her say it. Let her do it. Even if it makes me uncomfortable. Let it make my reader uncomfortable as well because this is a business based on these young ladies that really exist. And who am I to dictate what they should and shouldn’t do or say? So I want her to learn and grow and I want my readers to learn and grow.

KO: I also think that’s part of what makes it so authentic as a young adult novel, too. These characters are not fully-formed adults. They don’t have the benefit of years behind them to know that maybe they should think a little bit more before they react to something. So I think it just adds a whole other level of authenticity to it. The fact that she does put her foot in her mouth a couple of times and that’s okay. She’s 16.

AT: Exactly. Exactly. You know, and it gets me, too, with other young adult books, I’ve seen adults write reviews about them. They’re like, well why did they do that? You know, they should know better. And I’m like, this character is 16.

KO: Yeah, they’re children.

AT: Exactly. They’re still children. And that was really the most important part for me was to show that this is still a child who is still learning and growing. Let’s not put adult expectations on her.

KO: Absolutely. Was there a character that was the most fun for you to write?

AT: I loved writing her mom, Jay. I really love that character. She was so much fun to write because she’s so complex, but I really enjoyed writing her grandparents, too. For a little comedic …

KO: They were great.

AT: Yeah, her grandparents, like her granddad and stuff. I have so many deleted scenes with him. Maybe one day they’ll see the light of day, but they were a joy to write in a lot of ways. And then, too, her friends, Sonny and Malik, I loved writing them as well and telling their stories in little bits and pieces. So it was a fun book to write at times.

KO: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, the Unholy Trinity, they’re a great group of friends that I think anybody would be privileged to be a part of. What are you currently working on?

AT: Well, I am gearing up to work on the On The Come Upfilm. I’m a producer on it this time around. I’m excited about that.

KO: That’s amazing. Congratulations!

AT: Thank you, thank you. And then I am working on my third book. I’m not allowed to say what it’s about, but I can give a little teaser. It’s also set in Garden Heights and it’s not a sequel to either book, but the main character is a character that my readers will know.

KO: Oh my gosh.

AT: And that’s all I can say at the moment. It’s a beloved character that my readers will know. So a lot of people love this character, so I hope they’ll be happy with this book.

KO: Oh my gosh. You are just setting me up to have like whiteboards up by my desk for the next year ‘til this is announced. I’m going to start flow charts to see who I think it could be …

I know you’ve said that teenage Angie might be shocked that you’re an author and not a rapper, but that you’re happy with that because novels afford you more space to share your message. And whether it’s in the lyrics of a song or the pages of a novel, I just want to thank you for sharing your words with us.

AT: Oh, thank you so much. That means a lot to me. Thank you.

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