Headlines about the shooting deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police are seemingly never-ending, and Jay Coles is engaging with this subject matter in his powerful, necessary and hype-worthy YA debut, Tyler Johnson Was Here. We asked Coles a few questions about his personal experiences with police brutality, connecting with his teen readers, his specially curated playlist and more.
Does it feel a bit unreal to have your first book published at such a young age? How did you find out about the great news, and how did you celebrate?
Yes! I’m incredibly lucky and incredibly humbled that I got my book (and name) out there at such a young age, which isn’t the norm in publishing. But when I signed with my agent, which was a huge deal for me in itself, I was certain people/publishers wouldn’t want my work. I code-switched in the text and it didn’t seem like those were stories publishers were asking for. Also, the subject matter of my manuscript felt very risky, even after The Hate U Give sold. But in just a short period of being on submission, my agent Lauren Abramo sold my book to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. She called me up one morning as I was getting ready to head out to teach a seventh grade English class and broke the news. As soon as I hung up the phone, I cheered with my roommate and then cried a little before going to teach. When I got home, however, I ate an entire box of Oatmeal Creme Pies.
You’ve said Tyler Johnson Was Here was inspired by events from your own life and the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you elaborate a bit?
Yes, it’s always a pretty vulnerable thing, honestly, and I always forget about this aspect because of the trauma and grief. My cousin lost his life to police violence when I was really young, maybe 8 or 9. At the time, I had no idea what “police brutality” meant, yet there was still so much anger and pain experienced by me and my family. When I was in high school, I remember seeing a lot of innocent black and brown boys and girls lose their lives to police violence on the news and social media. It felt like this tunnel of darkness that I couldn’t escape. It kept following me. I knew I had to do something to fight against that darkness, and it was to raise my voice, to speak up, to let out all the anger and frustration I had been bottling up over the years. So, I started writing Tyler Johnson Was Here.
You based your book on a poem you wrote for a high school creative writing class. What was the assignment, and how did it evolve into this novel in its final form? Does your teacher know about Tyler Johnson Was Here?
It wasn’t technically a poem first. Initially, the idea was a letter to my dad, then became a poem, but then it became a short story, and then lastly, it became a book. We had a simple assignment to write a poem about whatever we wanted. At the time, I had found a bunch of letters that I wrote to my dad. One of the letters was about my cousin and the pain I had been holding on to and then seeing/hearing about so many black people dying to police violence. (This letter also appears in the book). I took pieces of the letter, turned it into a poem, and then later a short story just for fun. Then, it became a book after encouragement from others. And no, this particular teacher who assigned me to write the poem has no idea I’m even published haha. However . . . Hey, Mr. Chad Andrews, if you’re out there and reading this: thank you. Look at how far I’ve come because of your encouragement!
How do you make a novel feel both memorable and authentic to young adult readers? Have your ideas about how to achieve these things changed as you’ve gone from being a reader to an author?
The first thing you need to know to be a successful author is know your audience. That can be cliche, but I mean that. You have to know them through and through. For instance, I write for teens. Because I was very recently a “teen,” it was easy for me to nail down the teen voice. For other authors, research through talking with teens to nail down their voice is essential. Also, it’s great knowing popular words, phrases, music, subject matter, etc. This is basic, but trust me, it makes all the difference for helping stories be relatable and not [become] dated so quickly. I don’t think a lot of YA authors I read growing up understood the importance of this.
Music is such a big part of your life, and you’re also a composer and conductor. How do you balance all of your creative interests?
It’s mostly simple. The blessing of doing music and writing full time is that I have total control over my own hours. I’m able to work on whatever I need to get done in a particular day with the help of my very detailed composer/author calendar. Some days, I compose music and work on my next book. Other times, I just do one of them. Days when I have an author event or a conducting gig, I make time at night to write. Like over time. Such fun!
You create playlists for your books as you write. How does this music fuel your writing? How does music shape the lives of both you and your characters?
Music is so, so important to my life and therefore bleeds over into my books. When I have an idea for a book, I create a playlist of songs that relate to the themes or subject matter of the book to help fuel my writing. The songs end up becoming very important to certain scenes and may even show up in the text. I like to think that music is a way into someone’s life. You can learn a lot from the music people listen to and love. Same thing with my characters.
Care to share your Tyler Johnson Was Here playlist?
1. “Feel” by Kendrick Lamar
2. “Hip Hop Ride” by Da Youngstas
3. “Until the End of Time” by Tupac
4. “Hail Mary” by Tupac
5. “Change” by J. Cole
6. “Power Struggle” by J. Cole
7. “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys
8. “He Is the Same” by Jon Bellion
9. “All We Got” by Chance The Rapper
10. “Martyrs” by Mick Jenkins
11. “Can You Hold Me” by NF
12. “Mine” by Beyoncé
13. “Hypnotize” by Notorious B.I.G
14. “Guts Over Fear” by Eminem and Sia
Marvin Johnson tells his principal, Mr. Dodson, that the TV show ‘A Different World’ “shows blackness in a way not many other shows do. It taught me that I could be successful, even when people think otherwise.” What other TV shows, movies and books do you love for this reason?
Shows: “The Fresh Prince,” “Black-ish,” “Grown-ish,” “Everybody Hates Chris”
Movies: Black Panther
Books: Tiny Pretty Things, Piecing Me Together, The Hate U Give, Dear Martin
Do you have plans for your next book yet?
I do. It has sold. I think that’s all I can say about it right now. I guess also this fact: I’m obsessed with it. More details soon!
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tyler Johnson Was Here.
Photo credit Victoria Ruth Photography