An interview with "Luster" author Raven Leilani

Sarah Gelman on August 17, 2020

An interview with

If you haven’t yet heard the name Raven Leilani, you will. She’s the debut author of one of the most buzzed about books of the season, Luster, which we named a Best Book of the Month in August.

Edie, a Black millennial, is barely scraping by in New York and in a relationship with a married white man who lives in New Jersey with his wife and adopted Black daughter. After being laid off, Edie is invited by her boyfriend’s wife to live in their house.

Raven Leilani has managed to write a novel that’s funny, uncomfortable, beautiful, and sensual. She spoke to us by phone from Brooklyn. This is our conversation:

Sarah Gelman, Amazon Book Review: It’s exciting to talk to you right after your book has been published. How does it feel to have it out there in the world and creating such a splash?

Raven Leilani: It feels extremely surreal. You know, I think when I came to this process it was with well-managed expectations in general around publishing. I used to work in publishing so I've seen the other side of it. I would have been happy with even a fourth of this buzz, but it feels really wonderful too. To know that [your book] is out there and that people are really connecting with it. I wake up and I get these nice pings on my phone of people wanting me to know what page they're on—that’s a dream. It really is a dream of what you want when you publish a book.

You worked at the publisher Macmillan while you were in grad school, and you perfectly captured the spirit I felt in publishing: “That artistic urge, for a lot of us, is often impeded by the work we have to do to survive.” I think most in publishing have aspirations to be  writers. Why did you choose to make Edie an aspiring painter?

I think we've all heard a lot of chatter about the subject of books being a writer and I love those books. I love those movies. And in fact, it's a more direct line to my life because I was really drawn from balancing my job and trying to write.

I write about art over and over. It keeps finding its way into my work because that's where I started. I started wanting to be a painter. I did a really rigorous art program at a wonderful public high school. It wasn’t just that I loved it, it was the first time I came up against the frustration of having a thing you wanted to communicate, and not being able to communicate it effectively. That’s a central frustration to making anything—whether it’s a book or a painting or food. It felt deeply formative for me to understand that failure is integral to making anything, and grappling with that in order to realize that artistry.

Buzzfeed calls Luster “the next great millennial novel” and notes that you don’t think millennial is a dirty word. Were you intending to write a millennial novel or was this just a function of your own experiences?

I do think it's a function of my own experience. But, it would be a little dishonest or glib of me to say that I didn't go into the book having read the sorts of millennial fiction that is generally evoked in the conversation and having watched all the millennial television shows being evoked in the conversation. I did understand that there was kind of a blueprint ahead of me, or a rubric, and that there are some things about that that I actually wanted to indulge.

I wrote parallel to my own experience. I wrote the experience of a young Black woman. She’s 23, maybe that’s Gen Z. But she's a millennial woman and I’m a millennial woman. And I'm writing from the experience of wanting to seek meaning in your work and in your life in a moment of extreme precarity, whether that precarity is economic or is a global threat like global warming.

The idea of being a young Black woman complicates the idea of what we talk about when we talk about millennial culture. It’s a different thing for Black millennials. Normally when you talk about millennial fiction or millennial TV there is a real preoccupation with work and its absurdity of meeting those late capitalist demands, and also the meaninglessness of that while trying to seek meaning.

This person is a Black woman up against racial and gender boundaries that impede her ability to make art. I think central to the millennial culture is instability. So to me, “millennial” isn’t a dirty word because I think it’s a worthy subject to talk about and how a young person finds their way through that.

Many have noted that Luster seems to defy genres and that is part of what makes it stand out so much. Were you worried about the novel getting pigeon-holed into a specific genre?

One hundred percent, and I think I owe that to having worked in publishing and also having had previous books rejected. The feedback from agents was invaluable in starting a new project, but one of the core criticisms were the questions: “Who is this for? What is your market?” It’s not that their feedback oriented me to write towards a market, but it made me think about the industry. I had that in my mind as a Black writer. We are definitely having those conversations around the space that we are afforded to tell our stories, and to tell them as specifically and as weirdly as we want.

The thing I worried about in writing this story, in terms of millennial fiction—which, I'm totally fine with because I am a millennial and it's in the text quite clearly—was writing a “dirty book” that is a little strange and commits to a distinct point of view, there’s no plausible deniability built in there. I worried “What would my comps be?” It’s easier for there to be a comparison when it’s less general and more specific, and I was writing more to be specific.

Speaking of defying genres, the focus on ComicCon and your knowledge of that subculture was really surprising to me as a reader and felt very authentic. Is this a personal passion of yours?

One hundred percent! Even in my short fiction it's cropped up a couple of times. Fandom is really important to me and in terms of the book and the story it was important to me to give Akila—a young, Black woman—something that she really loves and a moment of joy. This book has many dark corners, so it was important for me to make space for her excitement and her joy and also to speak to fandom.

I've been to a handful of ComicCons. I started going as a young teenager and I've dressed up a few times. I really enjoy going and I enjoy the act of fandom, which is earnest, and for me earnestness in life is crucial.

Fandom, hopefully, animates the book. In writing, I made a lot of jokes. There is kind of an irony between what Edie is feeling and what she is actually saying. But I did also want to make room for the moments of life where irony has no place, where it is pure love.

It’s interesting that you tried to write other books and finally decided to write this one. What did you change about your approach so that you could write Luster?

I would say that in my previous projects I had a different way of writing, which I think is my most natural way of writing. I do not know what it is but I just kind of have to write to put it out. I didn't really understand that until I started my MFA and I had mentors who made me be rigorous about how I wrote. I looked at my previous projects and they were preoccupied with the idea of beauty and originality—and that didn’t get me very far. It ended up where the thing that came out was a kind of inscrutable dense thing that was maybe only pretty to me. And that’s fine, but I wanted to write a book that people wanted to read.

In this book, I began to try and orient myself in a way that the writing was communicative, welcoming, and hyper-structured in the way that I think the best screenwriting is structured. That too was a function of my MFA, where I stopped being preoccupied with the style and started looking at stories and their technical composition.

It’s all well and good if you’ve written something that you like, but if a person is only going to make it to page 30…I wanted more than that. I wanted someone to finish my book all the way to the end. And so I started looking at the way the things that felt compulsive to me were structured. I took that and tried to make a story that would hopefully compel a reader to go all the way through.

What does a book tour look like in the summer of 2020?

As you can imagine it's totally virtual. I normally write in bed, I don’t write in public. Now I’m doing all my events in bed. I painted the wall behind me bright yellow. I made a space where I could do interviews and events. There’s an element of that that’s both cool and also strange. Cool in a way that it’s not a room full of people, but it feels more intimate with the person you're having the conversation with. It’s like a conversation is being witnessed as opposed to giving a talk. But because I can't see the audience and I can't feel them, the energy is totally different. At an event, I read three pages of my book before I start the conversation and the book has jokes in it. When I read those lines it's dead silent. But it’s cool in the way that access is different. They don’t have to worry about a room being too full or too sweaty.

This is my first time around and it's really weird. I don't have anything to measure it up against. This is sort of establishing what publishing is like, and that’s weird, but it has really truly been positive. I’m grateful for that because I think in that moment where we’re all improvising, it easily could not have been.

What are you reading or have you read recently that you’ve loved?

There are so many really great debuts out. I love Days of Distraction by Alexandera Chang. It's genius. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is wonderful. I love How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang, Want by Lynn Steger Strong, Lakewood by Megan Giddings, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card, A Burning by Megha Majumdar, The Lightness by Emily Temple. I just gave you a laundry list, but there are so many books that just came out that are really worth reading.

On less recent books, I really loved Severance by Ling Ma. I feel like I constantly go back to White Teeth by Zadie Smith because she’s genius. I loved Writers & Lovers by Lily King, which is also pretty recent but snatched me up in the way you hope all books will, and Homie, a poetry collection by Danez Smith.

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