Throughout the fall of 2015, the weekly Powerball lottery game kept producing winning numbers nobody had chosen. The pot climbed, hitting nearly $500 million by late October. A lot of people, including Nicole Stone of Atlanta, who grew up knowing acutely what it was like to go without, couldn’t help but wonder, what if?
“The whole frenzy reminded me of my childhood and my mom and my aunt, who always saved their last dollar for a lottery ticket,” Stone says. “If one of them had $5 left, it’d be $4 in the gas tank and $1 for a lottery ticket. Even at age 10 and 11, that felt strange to me.”
The Powerball purse kept climbing until January, when winners in California, Florida, and Tennessee split the largest American lottery jackpot ever: a $1.6 billion prize. Stone didn’t win, but she had a subject meaty enough for a novel: Jackpot (Crown, Oct.) follows Rico Danger, a hardworking high school senior whose family—single mom, younger brother—ekes out a living on an income that never quite matches the trio’s meager expenses.
Rico has no college plans. Health insurance is only a dream. She’s working at an Atlanta convenience store on Christmas Eve when she sells a lottery ticket to an elderly woman. The next day, Rico learns the winning ticket was sold at her store. When weeks go by and no one claims the prize, Rico enlists a wealthy classmate with a reputation for excellent computer skills to find the woman, hoping to be rewarded with part of the $47 million in winnings.
Stone says she “grew up like Rico did”: she was a poor kid living close enough to an upper-middle-class area to be able to attend a good public school. She lived among kids who seemed to have everything when her own family was on the brink of not having enough to survive. She says that she wrote Jackpot with her teenage self in mind: “I’ve read a lot of poverty stories where there isn’t a lot of hope. This is a book for a high schooler who is living this existence—who needs hope in whatever shape it comes in. It’s important to me to write books that balance all the hardship with levity.”
Stone did not always want to be a writer. It took her three tries to finish college—a first attempt at the wrong school that lasted only a semester, then two stints at Spelman College, an all-women, historically black university in Atlanta. She completed her degree in psychology at age 28.
Stone credits the time off between semesters with giving her the space she needed to figure out what she would become. “In that gap, I realized I could be a writer,” she says. It was Veronica Roth’s Divergent series—specifically the dark-skinned Christina—that gave her the idea. “Christina was the first character I identified with wholly,” Stone recalls. “The way she was described, I thought we probably looked alike and there was a similar vibe when it comes to our bad attitude.”
Most importantly, Stone notes, Christina is still alive at the end of the series. “You can’t help but cry for Rue and Cinna and Thresh [characters of color who perish in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games]—and be really happy that Christina actually survives. It was the first series I finished where I thought, ‘Maybe I can write a book.’ ”
Stone’s first attempt, however, was terrible, she says, and her second was not even a book yet when she sold it on proposal in a two-book deal to Phoebe Yeh at Crown.
Stone’s agent, Rena Rossner, had sent Yeh a manuscript that “showed promise,” according to Yeh, but, she adds, “I didn’t feel the manuscript I received was the story that should be Nic’s first teen novel.” She called Rossner asking if Stone had anything else and got a description of the idea that would become Dear Martin.
Stone had been deeply affected by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, unarmed young black men who died violently at the hands of white men. She wondered how Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings about nonviolent protest would hold up in the Black Lives Matter era, and developed an idea for a novel about a boy, Justyce McAllister, who is having the same thoughts after his late-night attempt to help his intoxicated girlfriend get home safely results in his arrest by a white police officer who assumes that he is trying to steal the girl’s car.
“When Rena described the concept of Dear Martin, I was blown away,” Yeh says. “That was the book I wanted to read. I loved the premise: how Justyce was processing the events of his life by writing to Dr. King. Since I had read the original submission, I knew Nic could write a complete novel. So, based on an outline and three sample chapters, Nic received a two-book offer from Crown.”
Stone was given eight weeks to write a draft. The first attempt was nonlinear, told from eight perspectives, and clocked in at 79,000 words. Yeh told her to try again.
The published book is 40,000 words, told chronologically and exclusively from Justyce’s point of view. “The final book is night and day from the initial draft,” Stone says. “But it’s the same book, just boiled way down and infinitely better.”
That said, Stone recalls that she was still worried about Dear Martin finding its audience, given its release just eight months after Angie Thomas’s breakout bestseller, The Hate U Give, which also involved the racial profiling of black teens. “Knowing how big that book was, I was beyond shocked that Martin took off, because it seemed at the time there could only be one of each thing,” Stone notes. “The industry is changing.”
Stone’s debut was a YA Editors’ Buzz pick at BookExpo in 2017 and a William C. Morris Award finalist. She says that she is most gratified about the book being adopted as required reading in schools across the country. She is glad she decided early on to use her nickname, the androgynous Nic, as her pen name. “I thought from the beginning that a woman’s name on the cover of Dear Martin would be a mistake,” she says.
Stone followed up her debut with 2018’s Odd One Out, also YA, about the intersection of friendship and romance. After Jackpot, she has three books due for release in 2020. Clean Getaway (Jan.)—her first middle grade—follows an 11-year-old black boy and his white grandmother on an impromptu road trip. Then there’s a sequel to Dear Martin, told from the perspective of Quan Banks, an incarcerated black teenager who appears briefly in the first book.
“I did have a lot of boys write to me about Martin who said they appreciated seeing Justyce thrive but added, ‘That’s not my life,’ ” Stone says. “Two of them tag-teamed me in a text one day to say ‘We need you to write a book about us. We’re trying to make it to 18. You’re our voice.’ I cried but the message got through.” And she coyly says that she has yet another book, already completed, releasing in May, that has not yet been announced.
Stone has also sold Yeh a second middle grade about a girls’ softball team, inspired by her favorite film, The Sandlot. That’s scheduled for 2021. Add to her responsibilities two sons, ages three and seven, and it’s natural to wonder how she is getting everything done.
“None of this is necessarily healthy for me, but my productivity is fear-driven,” Stone says. “This is my Rico coming out. I am going to pursue and go after as much as I can so I never have to tell my kids we can’t afford something. It’s that and the kids who read my books who ask for more. Who could say no to that?”