Lamar Giles is an author, speaker, and founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit dedicated to changing the face of publishing. After graduating from Hopewell High School in 1997, Lamar Giles attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. It was at ODU where Lamar Giles decided to pursue writing as a career, making his first professional short story sale at the age of 21. From there his work was featured in the DARK DREAMS anthology from Kensington Publishing, he was honored with a fellowship from the Virginia Commission of the Arts, and was a Top 10 finalist in the ScifiNow/TorUK International War of the Words Competition. His debut Young Adult novel, Fake ID, sold to HarperCollins in 2011, and since its publication in 2014 has gained national acclaim. Lamar Giles has spoken and taught at a number of middle schools, high schools, and for prestigious conferences and organizations like Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Virginia Children’s Book Festival, BookExpo America, and his work has been featured on NPR, CNN, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Flavorwire, Mother Nature Network, etc. In 2017, Lamar Giles released his latest book, Overturned, which has received positive reviews. Please enjoy my interview with Lamar Giles.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
Because I work at home most days, I don’t need to answer this question often. When I do, I tell the truth, “I’m a writer.” It’s a policy I’ve been reconsidering, because it requires much more explanation than “accountant” or “kung-fu mercenary”. It seems like people have an easier time wrapping their minds around any other career. They’ll try to bail me out by saying stuff like, “so you do that part-time?” or “Do you also write things for corporations, like ads?” Then it becomes a whole thing where I’m like, “I do some part-time things, like teaching, and consulting because I like to do those things, but my main job is writing books.” Eventually I either wear them down and we move on to safer topics, like politics and religion, or they abandon me to find the non-liars section of the cocktail party. I’m thinking about changing my answer to zookeeper, which probably isn’t too far from the truth.
The Changeling by Victor LaValle, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines, Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King, and I’m re-reading Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I have a hard time settling on a single book in any given moment.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
My earliest memory isn’t exactly a reading memory because I don’t think I could actually read yet. But I recall flipping through old issues (well, they were new at that time) of Amazing Spider-Man with my mom, who would sometimes read the dialogue to me, or she’d let me tell her what was happening based on my own 4 year old inference.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?
Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, because it’s a book that deconstructs all the wrong headed notions that lead young people toward what that perceive as necessary violence, when really there’s no such thing. It’s a timely book, written in verse, so the different structures of each page make you feel like you’re flying through what is deep and troubling material. The ending, chilling. I have been, and will be, thinking about that book a lot. I bet anyone who reads it will, too.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes. It was for a grade school writing contest that everyone in my class was forced to participate in. It was called “Giant Dinosaur Inside”, and was about a kid who digs into an unfinished box of cereal trying to get the Giant Dinosaur toy at the bottom and ends up unleashing a Godzilla-like monster. Took first place in the contest (though I was very likely one of a handful of students who took the competition seriously).
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
During my last year of college, I had a telemarketing job selling “Alumni Directories”. What’s an Alumni Directory? Something that makes absolutely no sense. They were like telephone books (remember those?) but for your university. And it was my job to convince you that you need one specific to your time at that university, in case you had to look up others who went there—even though you probably don’t know them—and give them a call. I’d have to upsell you for a nicer leather cover, or an additional CD-Rom so you could search the directory from your home computer. It was a miserable experience that got me cursed out nightly by either the customers, or my supervisor if I wasn’t meeting target goals. It’s one of two jobs I ever quit by simply walking out and going home. It was that bad.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
One, make sure that while you’re learning the craft, you’re also learning the business in equal parts. I’ve been around too many people who focus on one over the other. The artist who writes exactly what they want, while treating discussions of publishing as sacrilege. The mogul who’s printing t-shirts and doing cover reveals when they’ve only written an outline. You need knowledge of both sides.
Two, practice finishing. Don’t start the habit of giving up on projects when you’re in the middle and they feel like a slog. That always happens, and you’ll need to learn to fight through it now if you ever hope to finish and sell work on any kind of regular basis.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
I do. I read nearly every night and it’s the best habit I have. If only I could get my gym visits to that level.
This is tough because I also teach writing at the university level, so there may be textbooks I could recommend, but in some cases they’re expensive, and perhaps a bit dense for someone who’s not in a graduate level course. So, I’ll go with one book that gave me a lot of direction when I didn’t know there was direction to be had, and is very reasonably priced. On Writing by Stephen King is worthy of a spot on any writer’s shelf.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m cheating because I mentioned it in my last answer, but I read (or listen to) On Writing by Stephen King probably once a year. More than anything, I find the memoir portion of the book fascinating. And the story of selling his first novel (Carrie) is always inspiring.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It’s just one of the best books I’ve read in my entire life. For me, it’s the kind of fantasy novel I can recommend to friends and family who claim to not like fantasy. I’m like, “Just try it, then we’ll talk.”
Who would you say are the three writers that continue to inspire you?
Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, and Christopher Golden. In the limited interactions I’ve had with them, they were so smart, generous, and compassionate. Also, I love their work. I look up to each of them, and can only hope to have a fraction of the impact they’ve had on our industry and their readers.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I have a hard time labelling the things I like, because I feel a lot of it crosses genre, but I’ll go with some mix of Horror and Dark Fantasy. The Fold by Peter Clines is an example of a book that REALLY did it for me.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
No. I think there will always be a variety of readers with different preferences, so I think paper and ink will remain necessary to meet market demands.
What book do you feel humanity needs most right now?
That’s tough, and I don’t know a specific title. It would have to be something on empathy, though. So much empathy is needed now more than ever.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
It by Stephen King. I was somewhere around nine or ten years old when I read it, and I couldn’t believe someone could arrange common words in a way that made me feel actual fear. It felt like a magic trick, and I wanted to learn it. In a way, I’ve been chasing the secret to that trick ever since.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Oh my goodness, that’s tough. I sort of freeze whenever I get asked a question like this, and I always fall back on the authors instead of the books. So, I hope that’s okay. I’d recommend Jason Reynolds, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Dhonielle Clayton, Ellen Oh, Neal Shusterman, Laini Taylor, Meg Medina, Aisha Saeed, Daniel José Older, Matt de la Peña, Kwame Alexander, Sona Charaipotra…honestly, I could go on. Forgive me.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I read anything and everything, so I guess my plan over the next few years would be to read about Ultra-Marathoning, Particle physics, PTSD, Cake Decoration, obscure folklore, spiders, some true crime…again, I could go on.