Angie Thomas on Tupac, Honoring Young Black Men, and What’s Next
The author of 'The Hate U Give' and 'On the Come Up' pays tribute to the experience of Black manhood with 'Concrete Rose,' a prequel about Maverick, one of her most beloved characters.
January 6, 2021
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Abby West: Hi, I'm your Audible editor, Abby West, and I'm delighted to welcome the award-winning author of The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, to talk about her highly anticipated prequel, Concrete Rose. Welcome, Angie.
AT: Thank you so much for having me.
AW: Of course, without a doubt. With Concrete Rose, we get to know Maverick, Starr's dad from The Hate U Give, in his youth, as he's becoming a father at the age of 17 and dealing with life at 17, life as a new father, life in the King Lords and trying to leave the King Lords and figure out who he is. So we're back to Garden Heights, where, with someone we know and love, I know why we, as fans, wanted this. Why did you want to write Concrete Rose?
AT: I did not plan to do it initially. When I finished The Hate U Give, I thought I was done with this character, those characters as a whole. But Maverick was one of my favorites to write, even in The Hate U Give, even though he was the dad and, technically, in YA the dads are not supposed to be a favorite like that. But he was one of my favorites to write and then turns out he was one of my readers' favorites. Over the years, [Maverick has been] the character people ask me about the most, or they express their love for the most. It's always either "Maverick reminds me of my dad" or it's the moms who come in the line and they're like, "Oh my God, Maverick, I love me some Maverick. I would marry me a Maverick." And Russell Hornsby's portrayal of Maverick in the film only added to that because—
AW: He cemented it.
AT: He did. He did a phenomenal performance. I still think it's a crime that man didn't get some awards or at least nominations for that role. But, seeing him also on set, for me, really impacted me in such a way that I decided to write the prequel. We had a lot of conversations about Maverick, the character and the person. And the thing about Russell was, when he became Maverick, he was Maverick. When he walked on set, he walked a certain way. He spoke a certain way when he was that character, whether their cameras were on or not. I heard stories from other cast members about how he'd deal with the kids who played his kids. And it was very much in a Maverick way.
"Over the years, [Maverick has been] the character people ask me about the most, or they express their love for the most."
But having those conversations with him about the character made me dig deeper into the character myself and ask myself these things that I hadn't asked myself before. Like, what was his relationship with his mom? What kind of force was she in his life since his dad wasn't around? What kind of relationship did he have with his dad as a teenager, having a parent who's incarcerated, how did that affect him? How did he become the father and the man that we see? Who were the people in his life who helped make a difference and help make him the person we see later on? So I felt once I started answering those questions for myself I thought it would be a good idea to answer those questions for my readers in a book. So it took a while but, after really thinking it over and just really being drawn to the character so much, I was like, "You know what? Let's write this Maverick book. Let's get this out here."
AW: Well, I'm pretty grateful that you did that. You did that work. This is the first of your books to be written from a male POV and you tipped into this, what I'm about to ask you. Did it take work to orient yourself to that? Or was it easy because you knew Maverick so well? But you're saying you really had to dig in and get to know him better.
AT: Yeah, it was easier than I thought it would be because I had, I guess for all these few years, been really thinking about this character and how he navigates the world and who he is. And establishing so much of him in The Hate U Give as an adult really helped with him as a teenager. Because one thing that really stood out for me in The Hate U Give was Maverick is one character who never code switches. He never code switches. And he expects the world to "You know what? You're going to take me as I am. And whether you like it or not, that's on you, not me." And so, knowing that part of him, that mindset, I'm like, "Okay, so at 17, he wasn't code switching." At 17, he was probably a little hot headed at times and impulsive at times, and because he's now in The Hate U Give, a grown man who can look back on that and tell his kids, "This is how I did it. Learn from me."
So in a lot of ways, previous Angie gave current Angie the building blocks to access this character better. But I also went into it knowing I have a huge responsibility as an author. Whenever you write a character who is not of your identity, you owe it to the people who will see themselves in that character to get it as close to right as possible, or you're doing them a huge disservice. And again, we have a lot of discussions in kids lit especially about who can tell which stories and everything. And I will never tell somebody they can't write something, 'cause everybody can write what they want. I would say, "Maybe you shouldn't write it," but if you're going to write it, the least you can do is respect the people who are going to see themselves in this character.
So I had to talk to young Black men, I had to talk to Black men. And I also talked to authors who I know who've written Black boy perspectives. Nic Stone is a good friend of mine. So I had conversations with Nic. But I wanted to make sure that I respect Black men as much as possible and young Black boys as much as possible because society doesn't do that enough as it is. And the least I could do, as an author, is show some respect to them in crafting this character. So it wasn't as hard as I thought it was going to be, but I put a lot of pressure on myself because I wanted to get it right.
AW: One of the things I love, that I felt that you did an amazing job with, is sort of the dichotomy of the interior vulnerability and the exterior male posturing that was necessary for his space. I'm endlessly fascinated by reading things like Damon [Young's] book, and even from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s books, like understanding the thought that has to be put in as a young Black man, "If I don't hold myself a certain way and I don't say something a certain way, I'm vulnerable," but they're still interiorly vulnerable. And I think you showed that really well.
AT: Thank you. That was so important to me. That was so important because I know the real Mavericks, and these are young men that are often written off. They're not given the benefit of being human. As a society, we don't give Black boys that benefit of being human. We just don't. And it goes back to so many different factors, beyond current society. I could go back to talking about slavery and all these things, but here and right now, we just don't give them the benefit of the doubt. We don't give them the benefit of innocence. We don't give them the benefit of a full range of emotions. And I've wanted to show that. I wanted to show through Maverick, this young man, yeah, he's making some bad decisions. He's in a gang. Yeah. He sells drugs, but guess what? He also cries. He has fears. He has doubts. He lacks confidence at times. He is human.
"As a society, we don't give Black boys that benefit of being human...We don't give them the benefit of innocence. We don't give them the benefit of a full range of emotions. And I've wanted to show that."
And I feel it's sad that we're still at the point where we're asking the world to humanize Black boys. That should be a given. But I recognize that. And I wanted to show this young man, for all intents and purposes, people would see him as a stereotype. Let's be honest for a second. But I wanted to show there's a human being here who is making some bad decisions every now and then, but he deserves a chance. He deserves at least the respect of a human being. So it was so important to me and I took it so seriously. But yeah, I wanted those moments where he cries.
And I also wanted those moments where a Black man in his life validates those emotions for him and gives him permission to feel those things. And I'm talking about Mr. Wyatt, who was mentioned briefly in The Hate U Give, but he has a bigger role in Concrete Rose. And I hope that my readers see in Mr. Wyatt future Maverick, because that's what he was for me in that sense. But he gives Maverick that permission. And again, it was important for me to have a Black man doing that for him because they are not even given that benefit either, not just Black boys, but Black men, period, aren't given that benefit.
AW: I think you laid that groundwork with The Hate U Give: that grown Maverick, who everyone knew, had this complicated, what could be seen as tragic, backstory and was fully humanized to the point that we all loved him so much so that you could revisit and show his path that set up, "Okay, he is a complex human being, so I can enjoy his journey knowing he's going to end up here."
AT: Yes. That was important to me. And when you do a prequel, the concern is, okay, people already know how he's going to be okay. They essentially know how it's going to turn out. But for me, the best part, the part I enjoyed the most, was putting these things in there that you don't know coming in, like how he got to be this person. Because his life is not linear. I don't think anybody's life is linear. And there are all these twists and turns and things he has to overcome to even become that person we see later on.
So yeah, you know he's going to survive long enough to be the father we see in The Hate U Give, you know that. But you don't know the decisions he has to make along the way to get to that point. And it was eye-opening for me in figuring him out and figuring out these things. But it was a joy to write. I'm excited to see the reactions to some reveals from Concrete Rose.
AW: I am too. I'm deliberately staying spoiler-free in this interview. I want people to enjoy it. And particularly I've been listening to it. So this shift in identity meant that you also shifted narrators from the amazing Bahni Turpin, who performed The Hate U Give and On the Come Up. And now it's Dion Graham, who is also amazing. I know you were pretty deliberate in your choice with Bahni, especially having her rapping in On the Come Up. What drew you to Dion for this work particularly?
AT: I absolutely love everything Dion has done already. He's done a wide range of Black boy voices. And I think that was one thing that really struck with me, but I love his work, his previous work. I know he's done all of Nic's novels, Nic Stone's novels. And so when I told her that he was one of the options for Concrete Rose, she just sang his praises immediately. And she was like, "One reason I write books about boys is so that Dion could do the narration." I'm like, "That's a huge deal."
AW: That is major.
AT: That was a huge deal. So I did get a chance to touch base with him at some point before everything. And he made it clear to me that, "You know what? I'm going to give this my all, and I'm honored to be doing this and I'm going to make you proud." So I have no doubt he did.
AW: Let's talk about that representation some more, because the cover is a young Black man with a durag on, and it is fire. From the moment that came out, everyone was just like, "Yes. Okay. I know that guy."
AT: That was so important to me to have him with his durag, and then to have a Black boy with a durag surrounded by rose petals. That, for me, it was what I wanted initially. I told him I said, "I want him in a durag and I want rose petals." And so they were like, "Okay." I think the image we see on the cover is the very first one they sent me.
And it was so powerful. It was Maverick immediately for me. And I have to give credit to Cathy Charles, who is the fantastic artist behind the cover art. She did a phenomenal job. Check out her work for sure. But I saw it and I fell in love with it. It was definitely taken from my head. And the red is one thing I wanted from the get-go. Because if you look at my other two covers, The Hate U Give is white with red and black, On the Come Up is black with red and white. I said, "Okay. So it's obvious we got to go with red."
"I often say that Maverick is what Tupac would have been as a dad if he weren't famous."
And the fact that the name of the book is Concrete Rose and all the things. It just came together perfectly. But I'm forever grateful that Angie Thomas will always have a book with a Black boy on the cover and a durag with rose petals surrounding them. I'm so thankful for that. And if you get it, you get it. Because Black boys in durags and roses are not associated together, but there's beauty in that. And I love it. Absolutely love it.
AW: And I don't think I'm going out too far on a limb to say that the title is a hat tip to your favorite rapper.
AT: Yes, yes. It feels like this is the last of the Tupac-inspired trilogy. The entire name of Garden Heights was inspired by that poem by Tupac called "The Rose That Grew From Concrete." It's essentially about himself, apparently. He wrote it as a teenager. And it's about a rose literally growing in the crack of the concrete. And I've always been inspired by that poem and that imagery. And so I decided to name Garden Heights, Garden Heights, because for me it felt like a concrete garden. And here I was writing about all the roses. And that's the Starrs and the Bris and the Mavericks and the Sevens and all of them. So when I was thinking about Maverick's book, it only felt right to go to that image one last time with this novel, since Maverick himself as a character was so inspired by Tupac.
I often say that Maverick is what Tupac would have been as a dad if he weren't famous. If he was just an around-the-way guy, that's who he would've been as a dad. He would have been instilling his kids with the stuff about the Black Panthers. And he would have been active in the community. He would have been the bridge between the old civil rights movement dudes and the new gang-banging dudes in the neighborhood. That's who he was as an artist. That's who he would've been if he weren't famous. So it felt right that the poem that he used to describe himself could also be used to describe a young man like Maverick, a rose grown in concrete. So yeah, the title definitely came from him. This is probably my last book in Garden Heights. I'm saying that. Who knows? But for now I don't see myself going back.
AW: I don't think anybody would fault you if you did. I'm just saying.
AT: Yeah, I know nobody would. You know, there've been people who've been asking me for a sequel about Sekani. Which is possible. I will never write that off. I don't see myself doing it right now, but it's definitely a possibility. Because this young man will be the first person in his family to spend most of his life outside of that neighborhood, which would be fascinating to explore. But again, I'm not saying I'm doing it. If I did, that would probably be the book I do.
AW: Well, I know you're a little busy with middle grade fantasy right now. Is that what's going on?
AT: Yes. Yes. I’ve always wanted to write a fantasy book, and 2020 felt like the year to do it because if there's ever a time to want to escape into a fantasy world, it is now.
AW: It is now.
AT: And I say this as someone who for three books now I've written about real, real-life issues. The Hate U Give, the things that happened in that book are still happening. On the Come Up, the things that happened with Bri in that book are still happening to Black girls. And Maverick, even though his story takes place in 1998 and it's considered historical fiction, which bothers me, but it's still things that are happening today. And I feel definitely those books are important. Those types of stories are so important. But, as a creative, I had to take a moment away from that. I'm having to take a moment away from that and craft something a bit lighter, that can still deal with those issues, but in a different way. So my middle grade, we're calling it Literal Black Girl Magic. That's the code name, not the official name.
AT: Yeah. It's Literal Black Girl Magic, and I'm getting to craft the world that I want to see. A world for Black people where we are fully liberated. A world for Black people where we are fully free. A world where Black excellence is just a part of everyday life. A world where we are celebrated. I'm getting to craft the world where there's no police brutality. A world where Black kids can go in a store and nobody's looking at them funny. I'm getting to craft that. So it's kind of my response to 2020 and everything, being able to create a fantasy world where we're able to fully exist without that worry and that stress and those limitations that society tries to put up on us. So, yeah, I'm excited about it and I'm really enjoying doing it. It's been fun.
It's still going to be an Angie Thomas novel, don't get me wrong. But I'm infusing so much of our history, our culture, and our own mythology. Because we have so much folklore that people don't recognize nearly enough. And I'm getting a chance to bring that into this novel. So from everything, from haints to rougarous, all of that, I'm excited about it.
AW: You're switching genres but also switching age ranges. Which is the more difficult shift? Going to a younger age group or the shifts in genre?
AT: I think it's probably the shift in genre. I've had this character in my mind for quite a while. So her voice has been easy for me to get a grip on. When I first started trying to get published, I wrote a middle grade book and I didn't get far with it. And, I have to admit, that middle grade book was about a White boy, because that's what I thought people wanted. And because that's how publishing made me feel. But now I'm like, "You know what? Nope, I'm Angie Thomas. I'm writing about this Black girl. We're going to do this." So it is going to work out. But the shift is, definitely the hardest part is the genre change. Because even though I'm used to crafting worlds with a lot of characters and stuff, now, it's like, what does this person do? What makes this person unique? Oh, they're a vampire. Okay, cool. Gotcha. I'm bringing vampires into the Black community. So that's probably the hardest part.
But the thing about middle graders that I've recognized from even reading middle grade books and talking to middle grade kids, is that they are way more intelligent than people give them credit for. And my big responsibility is to not talk down to them, but talk with them, as a writer. And so I'm excited about that. And I've been studying the geniuses who already pull it off so well, like Rick Riordan and reading his works, and a lot of other fantasy novels written for that audience, so that I can make sure I respect them when I write for them. The same way that I respect teenagers when I write for them. Middle graders are way more aware than we give them credit for. And I'm going to keep it as real with them as I can through a fantasy book without getting banned.
AW: I was going to say you have a history of tackling some difficult topics that set some people off.
AT: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I still will, but in a different way. Already in this book, there's a discussion about what history has done to Black people in this country. There's already a talk about the way Black people have been treated in this country and how this new world that I've crafted learned from that. And I'm excited about talking about that because I don't avoid it. There's going to be a discussion in this book about what happened to Emmett Till. Because this was a young Black boy, who could have been a middle grade reader at some point. And a lie was made about him that cost him his life in such a brutal way. I'm not going to shy away from that for young readers, because a 14-year-old who picks up this book is the same age as Emmett Till. I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm going to still speak on it, just in a different kind of way. So it's going to be different, but it's still going to be an Angie Thomas book. I'm excited about it.
AW: Backing up. Do we think that Concrete Rose might be hitting one of those banned books lists?
AT: Oh yeah. I'm expecting it. I am totally expecting it. Besides curse words, there's nothing adults hate more than books that talk about sex and teen sex and teen pregnancy. And Concrete Rose deals with that. And it's a fact of life. It happens. It's real. Why avoid talking about it? And if I'm giving you a safe space to discuss it in the form of a novel, why not take advantage of that? But there are going to be people who don't like it.
AW: It's not like you're glamorizing it either.
AT: No, I don't. I am not promoting it in any way. I'm talking about it. This is, if nothing else, I hope this makes them not want to go out and do it. Not wanting to go out and get pregnant, want to be safe about it, want to take the right precautions, learn from what Maverick didn't do. So, for me, it's about keeping it real and keeping it honest with them. 'Cause Maverick's journey is not easy at all. And that's just the fact of life, being a teen parent is not easy. And I'm not going to glamorize it at all or gloss over it. But again, there are going to be people who are upset because it's discussed at all.
"It's Literal Black Girl Magic, and I'm getting to craft the world that I want to see. A world for Black people where we are fully liberated."
I had a conversation, at one point, with Elizabeth Acevedo, whose second book, With the Fire on High, has a teen parent. And that book has been banned even though it's a beautiful novel. But because the main character had a child at all, there are people who had issue with that. And this is how we end up with adults who don't care about lives other than their own, who become leaders, who don't care about lives other than their own. They're not shown different types of lives and different perspectives and are told that they're bad, bad, bad before ever getting a chance to read them. So that's something I'm going against as an author. So yeah, this is going to get banned. It is going to get banned. It's going to join The Hate U Give on the top banned book lists. I have no doubt about it, and I'm okay with it because every time you ban it, it just makes kids want to read it more. So ban away. They're going to sneak and read it anyway.
AW: It's going to get into the right hands. I cannot let you go without asking about the movie for On the Come Up and finding out what can you tell us. What's going on? I actually am not going to try to say her name 'cause I have not checked the pronunciation.
AT: It's okay. Wanuri Kahiu.
AW: Thank you.
AT: Yes, yes. She's our director. Wanuri is amazing. And honestly it feels like Wanuri is the perfect person to direct this. Wanuri is the director of another film, called Rafiki, which has been banned in her home of Kenya because of the LGBTQIA themes within the movie. So we're talking about a book where a girl is fighting censorship. Who better to direct it than a woman who is still fighting censorship? I'm so excited about it. We're in a great place right now. I'm thinking filming will be starting next year. We probably would be filming already had the pandemic not happened. That's just an unfortunate fact of life. But yeah, we are in an amazing place with it. We're already talking casting stuff. I can't say who, what, when, or anything like that, but I'm excited for when the news does drop about different castings. But it’s happening. It is definitely happening. I'm excited about it. I'm a producer this time. So I'm involved way more.
AW: Are you loving that part? Being involved more?
AT: I am. I'm a control freak, so... But I'm enjoying learning. I'm trying not to do too much controlling and learning as I go, but I am making myself heard. Let's make that clear. I am making myself heard. But yeah, it's been a great process. I'm excited and I'm honored because you don't just have me as a Black woman producer, but you have a Black woman screenwriter in Kay Oyegun, who is from This Is Us. Kay is amazing. You have a Black woman director. And for the most part overseeing the project has been a Black woman studio executive at Paramount.
So you have four Black women. You have a square of Black women who have been overseeing this project and handling it with such care and love for Black girls. So it's happening. The movie is happening. Again, because of the world we live in, things got put on hold a little bit, but it's happening.
AW: Has seeing your work go to screen and audio, having all these different iterations, does that impact you at all when you're writing or do you stay focused on the written word?
AT: It almost did. I almost let it affect me. When I first started writing On the Come Up, I almost let that affect me, especially thinking about the narration, because I was like, "Are they going to be able to find a narrator who can rap?" And Bahni was like, "Girl, I got you." So that turned out to be a blessing. I think we had asked her early on, when I was really working on the novel in the very beginning and I knew it was going to be about a rapper. I think I asked her myself, "Can you rap?" And she was like, "Yeah," so I was like, "Okay, cool, let me do this. I'm not worried about that part." But I've decided I can't worry about those things going forward. With Concrete Rose, I couldn't worry about who the narrator would be or what they're going to do with the film or TV show or whatever it may be. I couldn't worry about that.
My main concern was writing this story and doing this character justice. But yeah, at times I almost do. Even now in writing my middle grade, I'm like, "Okay, who's going to narrate this?" And if it's a film, now the producer side of me is coming in. "If it's a film, what's this budget going to look like? Maybe you shouldn't have that much there because it's going to be a higher budget." And then I had to shut that part of my brain up like, "Angie, add the explosions, girl, it's fine. Producer Angie will deal... it's okay." So I'm trying not to let stuff like that get in my head anymore.
AW: I love it. And now we know there'll be explosions and I love that.
AT: Unless producer Angie has the final say and that takes them out.
AW: No censoring. I don't want it.
AT: Nope. No censoring.
AW: Angie Thomas, thank you so much for talking with us today. I cannot wait for everyone to hear Concrete Rose and to get more and more storytelling from you. So thank you.
AT: Thank you.