Though The Hate U Give (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) takes place in an unspecified city at an unspecified time, the story is as urgent and troubling as any of the headlines on which it’s based. In the novel, 16-year-old Starr witnesses a police officer shoot and kill her childhood friend Khalil after he pulls over their car as they are on the way home from a party. Author Angie Thomas based her debut novel on her own experiences, both as a kid growing up in Jackson, Miss., and as a young woman navigating a world where gun violence and police brutality are a frightening everyday reality. PW spoke with her recently from her home in Jackson.

You began working on this narrative when you were a senior in college, when you wrote it as a short story. Where did the idea come from, and what made you put it down—and then pick it back up again?

When I was in college, I, like Starr, was in two different worlds: I lived in what was considered the “hood,” but I went to a mostly white, Christian college in an upper-class neighborhood. I was close to my senior year when Oscar Grant was killed [in Oakland, Calif., in 2009]. At home, he was one of our own; at school, he deserved it. I was angry, and writing was the only way I could deal with it.

More cases continued to happen—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice. When those cases made the headlines, all I could do was write to deal with my emotions. Honestly, it was that or do something crazy. Then, when I saw Trayvon Martin’s friend being ridiculed for presenting herself in a certain way on the witness stand, I thought, “Oh, wow, why weren’t people celebrating her?” I was like her—I wanted to write this book for girls like her.

How is your own experience growing up a part of this story?

When I was younger, I thought that shootings were a natural part of life. When I was six, I was in a neighborhood park when some drug dealers decided to have a shoot-out. There was a kid in my elementary school who was accidentally killed in a drive-by. It wasn’t until I got older that I thought, “This is not normal.” Books helped me a lot: My mom always wanted me to read, to see that there was more to the world.

There are a lot of kids now who feel that [violence] is a normal part of their everyday life. I remember the writer I.W. Gregorio saying that we as authors have a chance to provide mirrors and windows. I thought, OK, that’s it: I wanted to provide a little bit of both. If nothing else, what was going on in the news gave me more motivation to get it done.

How do you balance the desire to be an activist—to get into the specifics of the Black Lives Matter movement—and the desire to tell a story?

I’ve always seen writing as a form of activism. If nothing else, books give us a glimpse into lives that we may not have known about before; they can promote empathy. There is the movement Black Lives Matter and the organization Black Lives Matter, and I respect what both are doing. I know [The Hate U Give] is an “issue” book, but I didn’t necessarily want it to be that way.

I wanted to make something that is so political seem personal. While I wanted Khalil to represent these young men who lose their lives and are quickly labeled thugs, I wanted [the plot of the book] to be its own thing. I didn’t want to disrespect anyone’s family, anyone’s memory.

Your bio mentions an “unofficial degree in hip-hop.” How does hip-hop influence your work?

When I was in the YA age range myself, I didn’t feel like there were a lot of books for me. In some ways, hip-hop gave me a mirror. Chuck D from Public Enemy said hip-hop is urban America’s CNN. And I got woke listening to hip-hop. It was people like Tupac calling for change, and people like Nas telling me that the world was mine.

I wanted to write a book like a rapper would write it—I didn’t want to hold back. Rappers catch a lot of slack: I’m not going to be cursing up a storm, but when I look at Nas... his first album is one of my favorites. I want to tell stories like that.

Did you always want to write YA?

Initially I wanted to write middle grade. YA scared me: there’s a lot of responsibility in being a YA author. It’s so important to give that age range the right books that reflect their world and show them themselves. YA does a fantastic job of being socially aware and at the same time entertaining.

I think I always knew Starr would be 16. I was just a few years older than Starr [when I started writing], but when I was 16, I was open to some things that I was afraid to say just a few years later. I also feel like because of her age, some people would be more likely to listen to her. Had she been an adult character, people wouldn’t have been as open to her.

What has reception to the book been like so far?

It’s amazed me how many people have said how it’s touched them. People have said, “I see differently about that, and I want to change some things.” I’m in Mississippi: I’ve had to have some conversations with some older conservative white people who have said, “I may be uncomfortable reading this, but can you tell me what it’s about?” People have also said, “I’m hesitant to read this because I have hesitations about the movement.” Or “Is this an anti-cop book?” It’s not: Starr’s uncle is a cop, and an excellent cop, in my mind. I say, “It’s not anti-cop, it’s anti-police brutality.” One gentleman said he wasn’t going to read it, basically calling me a radical. I thought, OK, I’ll be a radical if it helps people understand.”

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 Feb. 28 ISBN 978-0-062-49853-3