Sex, Books, and Politics: The Inspiration for my Feminist Heist Novel

What an honor to be joining the Debs class of 2016! Thanks to the founders and all the wonderful women writers in the previous classes who have paved the way for us. Female authors, although we are often overworked and underappreciated, are still some of the most generous people on the planet. It is a joy to be joining this tribe.

Fotosearch_u17549431Mommy, where do novel ideas come from?

My kindergarten-age daughter recently asked where babies come from. That question is a bit of a challenge, in terms of finding the age-appropriate language to explain to her. I used to work with teens, and learned how to be comfortable talking to high schoolers about sex. But kindergarteners? It’s much easier to explain to my daughter where she came from: me and her dad. But on crankier days, when I feel like I was the one who did all the work, I simply say she came from my body.

Similarly, I couldn’t tell you where ideas for novels come from–in general. But my own novel’s process of coming into being has a clear parentage. Uptown Thief, is the product of two different responses to pop culture, politics and the literary industry.

I love heist stories. I loved Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve, but I’m tired of the heist teams being boy’s clubs. How is it that the Ocean’s Eleven team member who had to be petite and flexible enough to fit in a box was still a guy? I grew up as a girl watching action movies, yearning to see myself in the main character, not just the girlfriend who stood on the sidelines and looked pretty. And another thing: when women finally did get their own heist movies, why did they usually end in tragedy? I was determined to write a heist story where the girls were the criminal masterminds, where they were committing crimes for the right reasons, and where the ending didn’t have to be tragic.

The other very real inspiration was the difficulty I was having getting my literary novel published. In 2005, I had been writing a book about black women and emotional healing that didn’t have a lot of commercial appeal. To be fair, I hadn’t been trying hard to get it published. I had only approached one literary agency. When I think back on my query, I cringe! Did I actually include a resume? And a CD of spoken word excerpts from the book? I will be taking the fifth on that one.

Thank goodness they didn’t hold it against me. In 2008, I queried that same literary agency with another novel, a spy book about domestic surveillance of the African American left. I actually got a call back from the assistant to the agent in 2009. In fact, she called on the precise day when I had finished the first draft of my sex worker heist novel. When I mentioned the new book, I believe her voice actually lit up. They would be very interested to see a draft of that. I told her I would need to revise and send a second draft.

The agency’s interest reinforced what I already knew: sex sells. My initial idea for the book was that I wanted to write something sexy and commercial, but I didn’t want to have a bunch of gratuitous sex that didn’t make any sense for the characters. One group that has a lot of sex is sex workers. And sex work sits at a very politicized location: gender, race, class, nation, sexuality, commerce and the body. It seemed like a wonderful place to set a book.

So the pieces all came together: heist and sex work. And it evolved into a Robin Hood story, where the money would be going to the community. So I developed the main character, Marisol Rivera, a former sex worker who got into the industry when she was orphaned at seventeen to keep her little sister out of foster care. She’s a protector. Now that her sister is grown and on her own, Marisol continues to play the protector role by running a health and multi-service clinic for women on New York’s Lower East Side.

I have a background working in public health and community non-profits, and we would often joke about needing to rob a bank to keep our doors open. So the recession of the last decade seemed like the perfect force to push someone like Marisol, intent on protecting her constituency, back into a life of crime. First she starts an escort service, then she begins robbing a group of corrupt CEOs to make ends meet.

That latter plotline was a major revision. I had a sex worker activist read the manuscript a few years ago. Originally, the heist team was robbing the clients. My activist consultant said this was a damaging stereotype to the sex work community. At first I was crushed, although it never occurred to me to ignore her feedback. I was writing as an ally to sex workers, so my deepest commitment was to fight stereotypes and stigma. But I was writing a heist book, and my entire robbery plot was on the cutting room floor. At first, I had no idea how to rebuild my story. However–like much critical feedback–even if it’s challenging, it actually makes the book better.

In the revised plot, the team is heisting corrupt CEOs who were involved in a sex trafficking scandal. This makes the political context of the story even more relevant, because there’s a huge current debate about sex work vs. sex trafficking. I was interested in amplifying the assertion of sex workers that it’s a false dichotomy and a false opposition. Sex workers are actually crucial activists in solutions to sex trafficking and I wanted to show that.

Ultimately, I hope I’m developing a new genre formula in women’s action fiction: feminist+heist+sexy+political+fun+drama+women of color. And I have a publication date of next July.

So it’s been seven years from idea to book. I still don’t know where the ideas for all novels come from. But mine came from the meeting between a grudge against male dominated heist movies and the desire to write something sexy and political. Now I just need a good, age-appropriate answer for my daughter about where babies come from.


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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to

This article has 11 Comments

  1. This sounds like a great idea for a book

    “…I’m tired of the heist teams being boy’s clubs.”

    Exactly. I’m catching up on the Fast & Furious movies these days, and one thing that intrigued me about the franchise was seeing that some critics understood that one appeal is how the protagonist team is always really diverse. We’re talking about movies where the one blond, blue-eyed white guy is actually (gently) teased for it by his black/Hispanic/female/Asian cohorts.

    Pretty different from The Avengers. 🙂

    As I say, some critics get it and some just don’t.

  2. I’m SO excited about your book! And I’m so thoroughly impressed with all the Debs— a great group to represent the 10th season. Can’t wait to learn more!

  3. This week’s post have covered a broad cross section of the creative sources of storytelling. We’ve gone from personal tragedy to family issues to threats from muffinless writers group members to personal passions (baking!!) and now to a crazy inspired mashup of George Clooney-if-he-were-girl and sex workers?? This is going to be a fun year on the Ball!

      1. Well, since it won’t be me (Hollywood is so ageist) I am open to all suggestions! Who is the feminine equivalent of George Clooney? Thoughts, anyone?

  4. Can’t wait for this one, Aya! Sounds like a fun, sexy, genre bending book, and I loved hearing the story behind the story. Also, I told my then 4yo EXACTLY how babies were made (and I do mean EXACTLY, because she asked and we have a deal I always tell her the truth), and it went just fine 🙂

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