In On the Come Up, filmmaker and debut novelist Hannah Weyer captures the fearlessness behind one girl’s struggle to seek a better life, and the beauty inherent in the journey.

How did Anna Simpson, on whom your protagonist AnnMarie is based, come into your life?

I met Anna Simpson in 1999 during the making of the independent film Our Song, which my husband Jim McKay directed. At the time, Anna was a 15-year-old girl living in Far Rockaway, Queens— a neighborhood often defined by its social isolation, Section 8 housing, and violent crime. It was there that Anna and I first became friends, though our upbringing, age difference, and day-to-day preoccupations could have kept us apart. Anna’s charm, grit, dreaminess, and honesty inspired a friendship that has developed and deepened over the last dozen years.

When did you realize that Anna’s life had the potential to inspire a novel?

A few years ago, when Anna learned I was trying my hand at writing short fiction, she said, “Well, you know I have a story to tell.” So I thought about Anna, and how she fought to upend her social isolation, put money in her pocket, and raise her child, to defy the downward drag of domestic violence that seemed to be her fate. I wondered about the small ways individuals try to level the playing field, turn a volatile home into a stable one, or simply find happiness when a sense of well-being isn’t the status quo. I knew these were questions worth exploring so I called Anna and asked her if she wanted to work together on something.

How do you see New York City as influencing AnnMarie’s life? When she leaves Far Rockaway to audition for the film in Manhattan, it’s the first time she’s left her neighborhood. As she says, she’d “never had a reason.”

To me, New York City is a destination point in our collective unconscious. There’s the recent Jay Z anthem that says, “Concrete jungle where dreams are made. Oh, there’s nothing you can’t do.” Songs like that can inspire us with a desire to fulfill a potential that seems like an inherent right, but on the flip side, it’s easy to imagine how they can also deflate—especially if the listener doesn’t have the means, money, or wherewithal to even make the journey. Anyone who’s been to Far Rockaway knows how very far away this enclave sits on the outskirts of New York City. I love that Anna took this risk in real life, with no guarantee of a positive outcome. It was the odyssey itself that I wanted to emphasize, rather than the outcome.

What is your hope for this book? Do you see it having a place in the classroom?

Yes, it is exactly the kind of story I hope teachers will bring into the classroom, especially to open up discussions about class, identity, family histories, generational patterns, domestic abuse, and the relationship between social isolation and violence in contemporary urban America. It has been my experience that kids can and will rise to the challenge when the material feels relevant and when characters appeal to them on some visceral level.