What Aya de León Looks For in a Good Thriller

From a New York Times by the Book interview headlined “What Aya de León Looks For in a Good Thriller”:

What books are on your night stand?

Christina Sharpe’s “Ordinary Notes,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick: And Other Essays,” Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Clap When You Land,” Dany Sigwalt’s “This Book Will Save the Planet” (illustrated by Aurélia Durand), Evette Dionne’s “Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul.”

What’s the last great book you read?

“The God of Good Looks,” by Breanne Mc Ivor.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

As a working mom, my ideal reading experience for 15 years has been audiobooks. I’ve had 10 novels published since 2016, while teaching a full load and being the primary parent. Basically, if I had my hands free, I was writing a book. “Reading” became something to multitask while nursing, cooking, cleaning and driving.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I really wish more authors would write popular fiction about the climate crisis, set in the here and now. Most of what gets called “climate fiction” falls into the category of science fiction/fantasy. For years, dystopian books like “Parable of the Sower” have sounded the alarm. These are crucial cautionary tales. But as our window to take action gets narrower, I worry that these stories reinforce the notion that we are doomed to climate apocalypse. This is simply not true. Scientists agree we still have time to create a livable planet, but we have to make massive societal changes and divest from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, our leaders are moving far too slowly. We need to pressure politicians and corporations to take the costly and inconvenient actions that will save our species. Where are the popular books to accompany the building of a popular movement? I have written five contemporary novels about the climate crisis, but I want to see an avalanche of climate justice fiction in the next few years.

Which books got you hooked on thrillers?

In my early 20s, a dusty used paperback changed the way I saw spy fiction. “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” by Sam Greenlee, is a Black Power-era spy novel. It was the first time I could enjoy a spy story without having to root for an agent of empire.

Who’s your favorite suspense novel hero?

Jane Bond, James’s twin sister, from Mabel Maney’s “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Spy,” who is called in by Her Majesty when James is sent to rehab. Not only did it have social justice politics like Greenlee’s novel, but it was also hilarious, like all of Maney’s parodies.

What makes for a good thriller?

I love great character growth and fresh plots that involve some sort of social justice. However, if there’s too much violence or threatened violence against women or children, I move from a sense of thrill to a sense of dread. I also like a little humor to balance the tension.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Nigerian thrillers in the Pacesetter series from Macmillan, written by African authors in the late 1970s and 1980s. I still have a few of them around, like “Coup!,” by Kalu Okpi.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara and Stacey Abrams. I love Lorde’s and Bambara’s political fierceness, and both were early writers about trauma, politics and creativity. Abrams is such a political force — I’m thrilled that she has begun working on climate issues. Plus, I’m fascinated by the fact that she’s also a romantic thriller writer.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’m always putting books down, but not because they’re not good. Rather, the opposite. I find myself reading really good literary fiction written by people of color. I fall in love with characters who are careening toward horrible tragedies of patriarchy, colonization and war. Meanwhile, I do my reading in the cracks between work and parenting, and I know there won’t be time to recover from having my heart broken like that. There’s a class to teach, or a book deadline, or a school pickup, or I need to get dinner on the table. I just don’t have 48 hours to be shattered. So, I put the book down and promise to pick it back up when I have more emotional bandwidth. When I’m an empty nester, I’ll find myself reading the tragic but redemptive third acts of hundreds of novels by brilliant authors of color.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I don’t believe in being embarrassed for not having read certain books. I think that’s internalized classism. Teachers routinely use shame to control students. They may question our intelligence if we don’t respond enthusiastically to classic literature. Many of us carry that shame and self-doubt into our adult lives and feel bad about the books we haven’t gotten to. But I’ve decided to let all that go. Like folks say, “I said what I said,” I’ll say, “I’ve read what I’ve read.”

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