By Charlotte Matherly, contributor
Lamar Giles’ boss pulled him aside. She had to let one of her computer programmers go, she said, but if Giles still wanted the job, it wouldn’t be him.
Giles, though, was the only one on that team with something to fall back on — the book he’d published.
Giles knew this was his chance. He took the layoff and plunged himself into his writing.
Seven years later, Giles — author of young adult novels, a two-time Edgar Award finalist and founder of a literary nonprofit — rested his elbows on the table of a Harrisonburg cafe as he talked, swirling the ice cubes in his glass.
“It was the scariest thing in the world,” Giles said. “I’ve been raised [that] you don’t leave a job without another job … It really became, like, ‘Hey, I gotta figure out a way to make this work.’”
Giles, based in Harrisonburg, hasn’t returned to in-person events during the pandemic. Since last March, he’s done all his appearances, conferences and meet-and-greets virtually. Instead, he awaits the birth of his first child in August, and he’s “determined to do whatever will keep her safe.”
Until he can go back on the road — perhaps even with his daughter, he said — Giles is sticking with those virtual ways to promote his upcoming release, “The Last Chance for Logan County.” That book — the third installment of the Legendary Alston Boys adventures — will hit shelves Oct. 29. The story follows main characters Otto and Sheed as they fight a corporation attacking their fictional home area of Logan County.
Discovering a calling
Giles’ journey is a lifetime in the making. He remembers winning his first short story competition in grade school, and he loved books. It wasn’t until he read Stephen King’s “On Writing” during college at Old Dominion University that he realized someone could make a living from writing stories.
Growing up in Hopewell, Virginia, he said, he’d always thought he needed a job to pay the bills. Then, he could write on the side. His mom, who worked at a nearby factory, always told Giles and his sister to “work on our minds” — that way, she said, when they were old enough to work, at least they might be able to work inside and have air conditioning.
“I really had no concept of, you could create art … and have that be what you do to make a living,” Giles said.
Throughout his 20s, he sold short stories and wrote multiple novels, none of which got picked up by a publisher. But he was getting better with each go-around, and by the time he reached out to publishers about what would become his first book, he knew something had changed.
Giles hit gold when he sent to publishers his first YA thriller, “Fake ID.” The novel follows teenager Nick Pearson, who must solve a mysterious murder as he arrives in his new hometown, Stepton, Virginia. Giles sent “Fake ID” to 10 literary agents — seven of them wanted the whole manuscript “right now,” Giles said.
“For 10 years … it was like 100% rejection,” Giles said. “[I] went from, I was desperate to have an agent to now I could interview three agents and decide.”
The commendations, awards and wide audiences are nice, Giles said, but it’s not how he measures success. For him, two things matter most: making a living through impactful work and making his mom proud.
“She often tells me she’s proud,” Giles said, smiling. “I can’t beat that.”
Jody Corbett, Giles’ editor at Scholastic, worked with him on two novels and said what most impresses her is his talent for creating both breathtaking action and layered characters.
“Sometimes, for the sake of action and suspense in a thriller, you might sacrifice some characterization, but Lamar doesn’t do that,” Corbett said. “He finds a way to sort of bring all of that together.”
Giles hadn’t planned on being a YA author. When he started “Fake ID,” he’d originally thought of an adult woman for the main character of the mystery novel. But then, as books like the “Twilight” series became popular, he said he started thinking about how few teenage boys were at the center of adventure and thriller books while he was growing up.
Specifically, he said he remembers wondering as a kid why he never saw people who looked like him on book covers. He’d also said he loves science fiction, and whenever there were Black characters in a book, they’d usually die in the story.
“You’re seeing your own personal genocide,” Giles said. He paused, choosing his next words carefully. “It occurred to me that if I ever got to the point where I could create new stuff, I’m trying to be one of the people who put stuff out there that I didn’t see.”
Giles said breaking into the writing and publishing industry as a Black author wasn’t easy. He said he’d get rejections, even just 10 years ago, from publishing houses saying they had someone like him already. What they meant, he said, was that they already had a Black writer.
“[The writer] wasn’t writing anything like what I was writing,” Giles said. “It’s sort of like, ‘Hey, we sort of met our quota. We can’t bring another one in.’”
While he recognizes that his industry has made progress, especially in the past year, Giles said there’s more work to be done. That’s why he started We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit advocating for diversity and inclusion in children’s books — and their authors.
We Need Diverse Books aims to “create a world in which all children can see themselves within the pages of a book,” according to its website. The organization sponsors programs to support diversity in publishing, mentor diverse authors and illustrators and place more books in classrooms across the country.
The nonprofit — co-founded with authors Ellen Oh and Meg Medina — started off as a hashtag. The three had talked about it before, but Giles said that when a conference at BookExpo America highlighted the “best authors working in children’s fiction,” the list was entirely of white people, plus Grumpy Cat.
“Forty authors” — Giles paused for effect — “and a cat. The cat was the most diversity in their whole slate. [Oh] was like, ‘OK, launch the hashtag now.’”
And so #WeNeedDiverseBooks was born, which Giles said began trending almost immediately. After gaining the public’s and media’s attention, they launched the nonprofit in 2014. Giles stayed “in the trenches” fighting the good fight for diverse authors and books until his writing had taken off so much so that he had to step down in 2018.
‘Really important work for Black and Brown boys’
Besides making his mom proud, Giles hopes to entertain and educate through his writing. He tackles tough subjects such as homophobia, toxic masculinity and misogyny. Although he said choosing between books he’s written is like choosing between one’s own children, he’s extra proud of his contemporary YA book, “Not So Pure and Simple.”
“Not So Pure and Simple” was born from a grad school project. When the Me Too movement took social media by storm in 2017, he asked his wife, sister and friends what he could do to help unravel the patriarchy in his own community. Their answer: “Talk to other men.”
“If you’re challenging your friends or challenging people you meet who say these wild things, who have these harmful thoughts, that’s helpful,” Giles said. “I feel like I can’t be in a conversation with every guy in the world, but I can make this book that can travel for me … It makes boys, men think about the harm they could do and stop them from doing that.”
Medina — co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, Newberry medalist and Richmond-based author — said ever since she met Giles, they’ve been close friends. She jumped at the chance to praise Giles’ work, describing it as “inventive” and “funny” as he “calls it all out there on the table.”
“I am such a huge Lamar Giles fan,” she said. She jumped at the chance to praise her friends work. “[His work is] sheerly enjoyable … He’s creating a body of work that is really important for Black and Brown boys to see and to engage in and for all kids to see and engage in.”
Giles isn’t yet a New York Times bestselling author, but that’s not what he’s focused on. When he’s named to Best Of lists, he celebrates, but then, he said, it’s “back to work.” What’s more important to him is the reviews from his readers — making them laugh and feel loved.
“If I can make readers happy and I get the emails where they’re like, ‘Hey, thank you for writing a character that looks like me’ … that’s it for me,” Giles said, eyebrows raised. “If I can continue to make a living and give readers images that they aren’t used to seeing that makes them feel good, I’m cool.”
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