Angie Thomas On Writing About Manhood, Gang Life, Teen Parenthood, And More In "Concrete Rose"

"I hope that Black boys especially read this book and see that they are loved, as they are."

In 2017, Angie Thomas's debut novel The Hate U Give (aka THUG) hit the shelves. Within a week it became a New York Times bestseller and, just a year later, it was adapted into a major motion picture, starring Amandla Stanberg (who won a NAACP award for her role), Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Issa Rae, Common, and more. The story of a young girl as she grapples with the death of her childhood friend, an unarmed Black teen killed by police, continued an already-growing conversation about police brutality and racism in the US.

Now, four years later and after the release of her second novel, On the Come Up, Angie returns to Garden Heights with her THUG prequel, Concrete Rose — the story of Maverick, a 17-year-old who discovers he's a father.

I spoke with Angie via text message last month to discuss all things Concrete Rose — including teen parenthood, toxic masculinity, gang life, manhood, the Black community, and more.

Hi Angie! This is Shyla from BuzzFeed. Thanks so much for chatting with me today! How are you? I hope you’ve been doing well during these crazy times.

Hey! Thank YOU for doing this. I’m admittedly a BuzzFeed addict haha. I’m doing well, thankfully. How are you?

Haha I love that, that’s so good to hear. I’m doing well! Frankly, very excited for the end of 2020, especially since there are so many things to look forward to in the new year, including the release of Concrete Rose! For those that are unfamiliar, can you give a little description of the book?

Sure! Concrete Rose is a prequel to my first novel, The Hate U Give, and follows Starr’s father, Maverick. In Concrete Rose, he’s a 17-year-old who’s known around the neighborhood as being the son of a King Lord gang legend. While his father is in prison, he sells drugs to help his mom get by. His life is turned upside-down when he finds out he’s the father of a 3-month-old baby boy. Balancing school, street life, and a child isn’t easy, so when he’s given the chance to straighten his life up, he takes it. But staying on the straight and narrow isn’t so easy when King Lords run in your blood 🙃.

Not easy in the least! Now, we get bits and pieces of Maverick’s backstory in The Hate U Give, so I’m curious — how much of his story did you know before writing Concrete Rose and what parts did you need to explore further?

I knew some of the major things, like that his father was incarcerated when he was young, that he got involved in the gang and selling drugs at a young age. I knew about his relationships with King, Lisa, and Iesha, and I knew that he became a father at a young age. But I had to explore the details of all of those things, especially when it came to his reputation around the neighborhood. In THUG, he’s this pillar of sorts, but in Concrete Rose he’s just a kid in his father’s shadow. I also had to explore his relationships with his parents a bit more and discover who they were beyond his story.

Yes, he’s such a strong character in THUG, but because we only see him from Starr’s perspective, we don’t get the full story. Plus, I think it always takes kids a while to see their parents as their own person, and not just mom or dad, haha.

Yes, haha! There’s sooo much we don’t know about our parents. Starr definitely doesn’t know everything about Mav, which made writing his story a little easier.

The book takes place in the late ‘90s and when I was reading, I honestly felt like I had gone back in time. There were so many fun references, from fashion to sports to music. (The light blue beeper and sagging jeans made me LOL!) What was one of your personal favorite things from the ‘90s? Did writing about the past present any unexpected challenges?

The music is probably my favorite part of the '90s and being able to pay homage to that was fun. I was working on Concrete Rose as the pandemic and shutdowns began, and it was the best escape to be able to go back to that simpler era. Although it was definitely challenging at times. For instance, there were several scenarios where it would’ve made things sooo much easier if Maverick could just text somebody 😂. Instead, there’s this one scene where he leaves notes in Lisa’s mailbox because it’s the only way he can try to get in touch with her.

Yes exactly! I loved all the pager codes and the times he would call Lisa’s house and someone else would pick up because she didn’t have her own phone. Such a throwback!

Now, both THUG and your sophomore novel, On the Come Up, are written from girls’ perspectives. What was it like switching it up and writing from the male point of view?

It was definitely different, and I had to do a little more work than I’m used to. It’s so important to me to get things as close to “right” as possible when writing an identity other than my own. So I talked to young Black men, let Black men read early drafts and make notes, and I read other books from the perspectives of young Black men. It was the least I could do. Also I re-read THUG, but just the sections featuring Maverick so I could better write in his voice.

In that vein, so much of the novel focuses on gender roles. Maverick is repeatedly faced with what it means, or rather what he thinks it means, to “be a man,” from bottling up his emotions to being the provider in his family. But he goes through a lot of ups and downs before he really figures it out. What, if anything, did you discover about manhood while writing this book? And, do you have a takeaway message for boys who may read Concrete Rose?

I already knew how much toxic masculinity is thrown at boys, but I got an even deeper understanding of it while writing Concrete Rose. Even more than that, I got to see the toxic masculinity that Black boys particularly face. Society often dehumanizes them by making it seem as if they can’t cry or feel a full range of emotions — they are too often made out to be monsters. I wanted scenes in Concrete Rose where Maverick is vulnerable, where he cries, where he’s gentle, because we don’t get enough of that. I hope that Black boys especially read this book and see that they are loved, as they are, and they have the right to cry, to be vulnerable, to be angry, to be gentle, to have a full range of emotions just like anyone else.

My heart broke for him during certain scenes — at times it really felt like he was drowning with no way to the surface. And so much of what he needed was just someone to talk to and listen 💔.

He really did. I wanted to put people in his life who he could talk to at times, like Mr. Wyatt, even though Maverick doesn’t feel like he can tell him EVERYTHING lol.

I loved Mr. Wyatt!! He was no-nonsense, but he cared so much. Mav didn’t have a lot of examples of male role models in his life, so I’m so glad Mr. Wyatt filled that role. And you really get to see his influence on Mav in THUG. Aside from him, do you have any other favorite characters?

Yay! I hoped someone would see the influence Mr. Wyatt has on adult Maverick 😊. I really loved Dre, Maverick’s cousin. I think my favorite character is Mav’s mom, Faye. I loved writing her story, and Maverick’s relationship with her. She was definitely a “from scratch” character. She’s only mentioned briefly in THUG, so I got a chance to really flesh her out in Concrete Rose.

Faye!!! Faye is so incredible. Even though Mav obviously has to tackle a lot, he couldn’t do any of it without the support of his mom. She doesn’t get mad, she doesn’t yell or let him fend for himself. She always supports him and teaches him how to be a parent.

Concrete Rose tackles such heavy topics: teen parenthood, gang life, gun violence, postpartum, grief. Does that all take a toll when you’re writing? How do you balance the book with its lighter moments and hopeful messages?

It can definitely take a toll, that’s why I try to infuse lighter moments. Honestly, my favorite scenes to write were the cute ones with Baby Seven because they gave me a much needed break haha. Plus, he was just adorable. Concrete Rose may be the last “heavy” book I do for a while. 2020 has been a lot 😂.

Don’t I know it 😂. Well, this leads me perfectly to my last question. Roses and gardens are such a huge symbol in Concrete Rose, inspired by a poem from Tupac that starts, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?” I think the symbols can be interpreted in a few ways, but if the rose is Mav and the concrete is made of hardship, responsibility, and expectation, what is the crack that eventually helps him grow?

Oooh, great question! This will sound cheesy, but I think the crack is love. The love of his parents, his love for his family, his love for Lisa, the love Mr. Wyatt has for him, they all nurture him and allow him to grow. ●

Concrete Rose is out now!

Parts of this interview have been edited for length and/or clarity.

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