When I began writing Unraveling, it was a much different story compared to what it has now developed into. My early chapters and the notes for the project focused primarily on Jesse and Aaron. My vision was limited to exploring the dynamics in their lives that they were struggling with – respectively lost status stemming from familial/social causes and hedonistic nihilism that began following undesired repercussions of previous decisions. Put another way, the two main dynamics I wanted to explore were “what do you do when something occurs that’s completely outside of your control that you don’t want” and “what do you do when something happens that you don’t want but that was a result of your actions.” Because of this I conceived most of the other characters that I’d outlined merely as foils to their foibles on the path to achieve their goals – revenge over the person that had caused the loss of status and personal enlightenment.
A primary intention behind my writing, as I first conceived it, was to better understand my own personal development. Aaron and Jesse’s narratives contain a number of auto-biographical elements. As I continued to write out their stories and interactions, however, I came to realize that continuing with these limits not only made me miss out on developing some great characters but also caused me to exclude some of my own areas of expertise and interest. Since you’re supposed to write what you know about, I realized it was worth some time re-conceptualizing the project. Since doing that I’ve radically changed what I’d include in Unraveling.
As I decided to expand and explore the secondary character’s back stories I came to see how this not only made them richer persons in the book, but also added new depths to their interactions with Jesse and Aaron (and now others). Happy, for instance, was previously just a means for helping Jesse and Aaron get things that they needed. He became a business/social model for Jesse as well as a sage figure for Aaron. This transition from drug kingpen to force of benevolence in the community, think Stringer Bell/Damon Pope meets Huey Newton, required me to do more research as unlike Aaron and Jesse’s stories, which I knew well given they’re based on certain times in my life, I wasn’t as familiar with that type of psychological development. Put less delicately, I’m not black so I felt uncomfortable presuming that just through my imagination I’d be able to come up with a robust character for him and those around him.
To better write his character as well as those in his orbit, I decided to do research. Here’s what I came up with.
Autobiography of Assata Shakur
Angela Davis: An Autobiography
Black Against Empire
BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson
The Spook Who Sat by the Door
Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why
Thankfully, I’ve now completed the above research I wanted to have done before really getting into Happy’s chapter and am now a few books away from completing the research I’ve already started for Ela. While this was a long delay on the project, I look forward to being able to be able to write Happy’s chapter with greater verisimilitude to similar historical characters!