Raven Leilani on Being Drawn to the Unlikeable Woman
The Zadie Smith-approved author talks about her debut novel, ‘Luster’
Writer Raven Leilani has been quarantining with her partner in Brooklyn for the past four months. They haven’t left the city, and they don’t plan on doing so any time soon. While sheltering in place, similar to the main character in her debut novel, she’s been painting a lot. “A really wonderful friend sent me a bunch of canvases in the beginning, and when I paint, I feel like time ceases to exist, and during this moment, I really needed something absorbing to really help pass the days,” she says. More recently, of course, she’s been preparing to launch her book into the world, something she describes as being “the most insane, most surreal moment in my life.”
Luster follows twentysomething Edie on her search for meaning while working an administrative job in New York City. When she stumbles into the lives (and the open marriage) of Eric, his autopsist wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter Akila, things get messy as she finds herself unemployed and struggling to find her voice as an artist.
Ahead, we chat with Leilani about the kind of writing she likes to read, creating complex Black women characters, and the concept of loneliness.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
ZORA: What made you want to write Luster. What was the inspiration?
Raven Leilani: I started with art, which is a theme that creeps into a lot of my work simply because that was my first love, my first obsession, my first adult disappointment in terms of understanding what it means to come up against my own limits. I think there’s something very formative about knowing you want to put some kind of art out there — not even just visual art — and having a thing you want to say and understanding that you absolutely still need to work on the fundamentals, on the skill set that will allow you to communicate that thing effectively. It’s a deeply frustrating thing to not be able to communicate that, and I remember feeling that in the early days when I thought that I would work in the fine arts, and that is a feeling that I often wanted to tease apart on the page.
“I feel like when I started…