Brittney Morris could not have imagined that a trip to the movies would profoundly change her life—and career trajectory. But that’s exactly what happened when she went to see Black Panther on opening night in early 2018. Entering the theater, she recalls, “was the very first time that I walked into a room full of black people and felt total and immediate unconditional love and acceptance.” That sense of belonging, and the “massive clash of different black ideologies” she saw playing out on the big screen, left her energized with the idea to write her YA novel Slay (Simon Pulse).
“I thought, ‘Somebody needs to make a Black Panther simulator video game, so I can jump into Wakanda whenever I want,’ ” Morris says. And then she realized, “I can’t make a video game by myself, but I can write a book about someone who can.”
Enter Morris’s protagonist Kiera, the 17-year-old black game developer who creates a multiplayer online role-playing card game Slay, celebrating a spectrum of black excellence and black culture.
Morris was working as a business analyst in Seattle when she started Slay, putting her “sensible” BS in economics to good use, but, she says, “writing had always been my first love.” She grew up in “an abusive home that was very authoritarian, where everything we did was restricted,” she explains, and there were not many opportunities to watch TV or movies.
Morris also experienced bullying at school. “The blank page was really the only space I had to express my feelings without fear of physical confrontation,” she recalls. “I really leaned into that—making up new realities that I didn’t live in.”
Video games were another early love of Morris’s, and she discovered them at the home of neighbors who moved in next door when she was about 10. Later, her parents “finally gave in and bought us our first Game Cube.” In college, when she couldn’t afford a game console of her own, “I got into watching video game Let’s Plays. I would watch other people play games and commentate over them. They were hilarious, and I got to experience the games for free.” To date, Morris estimates, “I’ve experienced more than 6,000 games. Watching Let’s Plays on YouTube is my TV.”
She kept writing through high school and college, where she founded the Boston University Creative Writing Club, and she had even participated in #PitMad, where unpublished writers pitch to agents and editors on Twitter, with a different book project. But, she says, “when I was inspired to write Slay, I knew it was way different. I felt physically uncomfortable until I got the book on paper.”
Morris wrote the first draft of Slay in 11 days. “I do not recommend that people do that,” she jokes. The rush was precipitated by her goal of participating in a fast-approaching #PitMad session. She wanted to be first out of the gate with a “Black Panther comp title.”
Slay received overwhelming #PitMad attention, and from there, Morris queried some agents who had expressed interest, as well as a short list of dream agents that included Quressa Robinson at the Nelson Literary Agency. Robinson quickly offered representation, then sold the manuscript in a seven-editor auction to Jennifer Ung at Simon Pulse in a six-figure, two-book deal.
The duo is currently working on Morris’s second book, a standalone title she describes as Dear Martin meets They Both Die at the End, tentatively scheduled for spring 2021. “It’s about two black teenage brothers, one who can see into the past and one who can see into the future,” she says. “The one who can see into the future has a vision of the younger brother dying in the next few days.”
For Morris, the new work offers “a social commentary on what it means to be a black person in the present, in that just to exist every day means grappling with the past and 400 years of oppression while also being faced with everything you see on the news about the school-to-prison pipeline and police brutality.”
Slay’s level of success so far (there is film and TV interest) enabled Morris to quit her job last year to write full-time. “Slay has definitely changed my life monetarily and emotionally,” she says. She and her husband now live in Philadelphia, where they’ve been enjoying adapting to a new city. “We finally got out of debt and bought a house and car, so lots of life-changing things there, in a practical sense,” she says. “And even if I had gotten nothing for an advance, just the satisfaction of hearing black teenagers say, ‘This spoke to me in a way that nothing else has,’ and, ‘I feel so seen’—it’s everything that I had dreamed in terms of impact. I’m humbled every day that I get to be in this position.”