Most of the authors who appear at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading are there to talk about their newest books. But this year G. Neri returns to the festival to talk about his 2011 graphic novel, Ghetto Cowboy.
In 2020, the book (re-titled Concrete Cowboys) will hit the multiplex in a movie starring Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin and Jharrel Jerome.
Neri based the book’s story about a father and his estranged teen son trying to rebuild their relationship on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, a nonprofit group of African-American riders who work to give second chances to horses and to kids.
Ghetto Cowboy is just one of Neri’s 11 books for young readers. Most of them are based on real stories, including Tru & Nelle and Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale — both about the childhood friendship of authors Harper Lee and Truman Capote — and picture-book bios Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and When Paul Met Artie: The Story of Simon & Garfunkel. Neri won the Coretta Scott King Prize for Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and his books have been translated into 25 languages.
He talked to the Times about seeing Ghetto Cowboy come to the big screen.
How did your book Ghetto Cowboy become a movie?
An indie filmmaker named Ricky Staub used to work for a big-time Hollywood producer. Ricky then left and started a small film company in the area where Ghetto Cowboy took place: Strawberry Mansion, Philadelphia. They knew the black cowboys and had made a couple of commercials featuring them in a very bold way. He made a splash with his first short film (also shot there with real people acting). The producer said it was time for Ricky to make his first feature, what did he want to do? He pulled out my book because it spoke about everything he was interested in saying. Then Idris and Lee Daniels got involved and things just took off from there.
How did you feel when you heard who would be in the cast?
The cast was perfect — I couldn’t ask for better than Idris Elba (Luther), Caleb McLaughlin (Stranger Things), Jharrel Jerome (When They See Us), Method Man (Wu Tang Clan) and Lorraine Toussaint (Orange Is the New Black). They were so good that when I first saw them, my reaction was not “Oh, there goes Idris Elba” but “There goes Harper” or whatever character they were playing.
Were you involved in the making of the film?
I am an executive producer and spoke with the director and writer throughout. I was on set more for moral support.
What was it like to be on set in Philadelphia?
Surreal and very meta. I wrote a book about a real place, inspired by real people, and there we were shooting in the actual locations with the real people on set or in the movie, talking directly with the actors playing characters inspired by them. Crazy.
Why is this story — based on a real-life one — important to tell?
Most Philadelphians who lived within 2 miles of this neighborhood had no idea this unique subculture existed. The city was openly trying to destroy it instead of celebrating one of their own hidden treasures. These cowboys have been saving horses and young people for decades with no one noticing. I felt their story deserved to be told and celebrated.
By G. Neri, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson
Candlewick, 224 pages, $6.94
Meet the author
Greg Neri will be a featured author at the free Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 2 p.m. in Pippenger auditorium. festivalofreading.com.