Alli Frank and Asha Youmans, NEVER MEANT TO MEET YOU: A Novel

Alli Frank and Asha Youmans, NEVER MEANT TO MEET YOU: A Novel

Zibby speaks to author duo and repeat MDHTTRB guests Alli Frank and Asha Youmans about Never Meant to Meet You, a sparkling new book about two outwardly different neighbors (a Black Baptist kindergarten teacher and a white Jewish cookbook editor) and the beautiful friendship that forms between them. Alli and Asha describe the origins of their writing partnership, the eye-opening conversations they had as they developed their Black and Jewish characters in a time of racial crisis in America, and their hope to highlight the simple things that unite us (like food!). Finally, they reveal what they are working on next and spill the secrets of their successful, long-distance writing relationship!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Alli and Asha. Thank you for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” now to discuss Never Meant to Meet You: A Novel.

Asha Youmans: Hi, Zibby.

Zibby: Hi. Ladies, Never Meant to Meet You, tell everybody what this book is about and why this was your follow-up to Tiny Imperfections. We’ll start there.

Asha: Never Meant to Meet You is a story about a group of women, specifically two women who are neighbors. One is a Black Baptist woman named Marjette. Her next-door neighbor is Noa Abrams, a white Jewish woman. For some reason, they’ve sort of avoided each other. They haven’t gotten to know each other. They haven’t crossed the driveway to meet or associate much. Something draws them together one day. There’s a tragedy in the neighborhood. They end up creating a really beautiful friendship that gets them both through some tough times in their lives. They come to realize that despite their difference in race and religion, outward appearance, or any of those other things that we judge each other on when we first look at someone, they really have a lot in common, not just as two women, two moms, two working moms, but their backgrounds. Being Black and being Jewish, their shared history in this country and beyond, there are some things that they recognize in each other. It creates a beautiful friendship that turns, really, into found family. It’s a funny story. It feels like, oh, there’s a tragedy in the street. Yikes. I’m going to get the tissues out. They come together over shared joy, laughter. They commiserate about life. In the end, it’s just a great tale about how even friendships that you find later in life can be a saving grace.

Zibby: It’s so true.

Alli Frank: The topic came to be — as you know, Zibby, because you were writing a book during COVID, creative input comes from being out in the world. Our first book, Tiny Imperfections, launched in May of 2020, which was not great timing. Great book. Not great timing. Then our agent’s like, “Okay, you got to get on that sophomore novel.” Basically, we had our families, and we had each other. It’s not really surprising that the story that came out of it was about a Black Baptist woman and a Jewish woman and dealing with the ever-expanding and shrinking and different kind of grief that was happening in the world, that was happening within our own lives, that was happening in everyone’s lives. How do you heal from grief? The big question, particularly of the time, was, is grief ever funny? Can you ever find humor in this very disparaging, hard time? The book came from really just looking at each other on lockdown in COVID.

Zibby: Wow. Have you read Catherine Newman’s new novel? I should send it to you. We All Want Impossible Things. It’s a humorous tale of hospice. That sounds terrible, but that’s kind of what it is, getting through the darkest times with humor. I don’t know if it’s a comp, necessarily, but just to your point on trying to find the humor in the darkest places at times is essential. Tell listeners — I know we talked about this last time, but it was a while ago — how the two of you teamed up to write books together in the first place.

Asha: We both have been teachers for years, twenty years plus, each of us. We met at a small private school in Seattle. Alli was assistant head of school. I had the classroom below her. I was the pre-K teacher. We did admissions together. There are very serious meetings that you have during admissions where you talk about three-year-olds and how they will add to your school community and how we may serve these three and four-year-olds. Very, very important stuff. After those moments, Alli and I would retreat down to my classroom kitchen and grab a snack and joke about what we had done during the day. Oh, my gosh, that one kid, his mom was going to have a heart attack when he couldn’t take his finger out of his nose. Things like that, just the lighter side of being with children, the wonderful side of being with children, how much they taught us on a daily basis and how much they taught us to laugh through the honesty of life. We would joke together. Oh, my gosh, when I write a book, I’m going to put that story in there. When I write a book, I’m going to put that story in there. Years later, we left the school. Alli called me up one afternoon and said, “Hey, I got an idea for a book. I want to know if you’ll write it with me.” I said, “Okay.” That’s what we did. We had no idea what we were doing, but we had no idea what we weren’t doing either. There wasn’t much to stop us.

Alli: I would argue — I’ve said this over and over. The true experts on humanity out there, and humanity from age three to age eighty-three, are educators because we are in constant observation of humanity and children and that era of parenting and then the gorgeous era of being able to be a grandparent. Between Asha and I, we have forty-plus years of observation of people and action. For us, the creation of story is not that difficult. We’ve had a massive trajectory on, how do we do this thing called write a book and then try to get an agent and then get it published? We’ve had so much story in our lives that it’s just fun recounting it all together and laughing about ourselves. We’ve been parents. We’ve had kids in schools. All those things. We’re daughters. We’re wives. Also, not taking it as seriously as everyone else because we’ve seen a whole generation come out the other end.

Zibby: Yes, I totally get that. Tell me about the Jewish/Black dual perspectives and the commonalities you two have found in writing, in the stories, in your characters, and in your own lives.

Alli: We really wanted to — again, during 2020, a massive rise in anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is the older persecution in the history of the world. Yet it’s the least discussed. It’s the least recognized. It gets the least media attention because it’s persecution of white people. We have a real interesting history in our country of Jewish people and Black people coming together because there is similarity of experience. Even if the outward appearance is different, there’s similarity of experience. There’s similarity of joy in overcoming and becoming accomplished when the world doesn’t want you to. There’s similarity of navigating the world. That’s something that we wanted to explore through sharing the joy of the two cultures, not just the tragedy. We are in this time in our culture where learning about other cultures, other ethnicities and races is through their pain. How many books and how much learning about the Jewish people is through the lens of the Holocaust? How much of the learning about the Black culture in our country is through the lens of slavery? There’s so much more that’s joyful and beautiful and full of love. That is what we want to do in all our writing. That was really important to us, particularly in this book because while Marjette and Noa aren’t exactly Asha and I, they do represent what we come from and what we love. We’re joyous people. We love who we are. We wanted to put that out there to the world.

Zibby: Excellent. I feel like there has been some social media banter — I don’t know if you feel like opining on this in any way. You totally don’t have to. When Black Lives Matter was going and that time in June with all of the horrific events that happened, the black squares on Instagram were pervasive. Everybody was putting black squares up. Then I heard when people were putting up blue squares when there was more anti-Semitism that it wasn’t being reciprocated on social media. Do you know what I’m saying? Did you hear about that? Do you know why? Is it not even worth discussing? Does it go both ways, the support? What do you think?

Asha: I would argue that the blue squares was not as big of an event as the black squares was. I have to admit I didn’t even notice it. I didn’t see that campaign to support the Jewish community in that way. What I did see was recent comments by very well-known people. That affected me greatly. I have to say that we can talk about whether or not something was popular enough or reciprocated, but I think that the most important point is to speak up when you see it. When those comments came out by an artist that’s globally known, I had to go to Alli and ask her, “Is it okay for me to respond to this? I’d like to do this with you because it’s hurting me.” I think the greater issue is, when you see it, you got to say it. Jamie Lee Curtis went on the Today Show and so eloquently said — I’m not going to quote it exactly. What does it mean when you hear these things and you don’t say anything? What does that say about you? My commitment is just, if I see it, I have to say something. I do think that Alli’s point that — discrimination against white people is one thing, but I don’t think people actually get that there’s a cultural aspect to being Jewish.

Alli: One thing that I have to say — it was probably the most emotional moment of writing Never Meant to Meet You with Asha. When we wrote Tiny Imperfections, we had a lot of challenging conversations about race because our protagonist and her family was Black. I had a steep learning curve. It was amazing. At times, it was hard. Asha and I write collectively through the lens of humanity. I’m not writing the white characters, and she’s writing the Black characters. We write everything together. When we were writing Never Meant to Meet You, January 6th happened. There was media footage of one of the men who had on a T-shirt that said “Six million is not enough.” Asha was really horrified by that and felt deeply when she saw that and was shocked by it. She was the only one I heard from within my wide network of people. I felt like, okay, Asha’s learning something in this process of our creativity about being Jewish and what it’s like to be Jewish. I just feel that there needs to be more, this creative reciprocity among people and acknowledgment that we all have differences to really watch for and listen to. That was a really important moment for me in our relationship. Now I think I’ve gotten better at being Black, and Asha’s gotten much better at being Jewish.

Asha: Can I mention one last thing about the connections?

Zibby: Yes.

Asha: Food. There’s food in our book, and for a good reason. Alli and I both appreciate food. It is something that, as human beings, is the thing that we can all agree connects all of us. We all have to eat and drink. We must eat and drink. We don’t have to live in the same type of home. We don’t have to have the same skin color. We all have to eat and drink. We’re the only species on this planet that cooks and shares food together. That means something. Let me tell you, when I go to Alli’s family’s functions — I got to go to her daughter’s bat mitzvah this last year. The food was amazing. When she’s with me, I cook up a storm. I just broke in her new — she built a new home and beautiful kitchen. I went and fried chicken like you would not believe in that kitchen. They were cleaning up cooking oil for days after me. Those things are important in both cultures and to human beings in general. Food has a big spot in this book.

Zibby: It’s funny. I’m Jewish. My husband now is Italian. Although, he converted to Judaism. I feel like food is so important to his Italian family as well. When you can unite over something you care about and literally ingest together, creating community, breaking bread, the old expression, it’s so uniting when there are so many other differences, or potentially can be viewed as so many other differences.

Alli: I think you bring up the perfect word. Uniting is the perfect word. What we need to do is find more commonalities, simple daily things to unite on rather that looking at these big schisms that divide us. They are the small things. Everyone has to get their kid to school. Doesn’t matter who you are. Everyone has to eat. Those are all uniting daily experiences.

Zibby: I wrote this essay a while back. It was talking about how stressed I was as a mom and how I had to sign up for parent-teacher conference on my phone and how my husband was trying to put his hand up my shirt or something. I was like, no, I have to sign up for this, or whatever. I don’t know. It was a whole thing. There was a Black mom who was in my kid’s class. She came up to me after. She had never been particularly nice, to be honest with you. She was very standoffish and whatever. She’s like, “You know, I never thought we had anything in common until I read your essay. I feel the same way. I feel like even though our lives are so different, the things we’re going through raising kids are so similar.” It was a shock to her. I’m like, yeah, we’re all people. Hello?

Alli: That’s a perfect one. Sex. Everyone is a sexual being. Every mother out there has had her husband or partner try to cop a feel when you’re trying to . Bad timing.

Zibby: I don’t even know why I’m bringing this up. What project are you working on now?

Alli: Oh, my gosh. Asha, let me know if I miss anything. We’re in copyediting mode of our third book.

Zibby: That’s far along.

Alli: Yes, which has some super huge news tied around it that we can’t say yet, but we’re really, really excited. I always forget, Asha, when’s that coming out?

Asha: It should be out in July of ’23.

Alli: A Better Half. That’s all exciting and wonderful. Then on the flip side, we’re at that point with book four where it’s chapter nine. It feels weird. I liken it to pants that don’t fit. It’s just uncomfortable. You don’t know, do I want these characters? Do I want this story?

Asha: Alli has a hard time moving on, Zibby. She falls in love with families in our books and feels like she’s cheating on them by writing about a whole new family. I have to encourage her. You know what? You can like this family and that family.

Alli: I’m a little bit of a mean girl at the beginning of every new book. I’m like, ew, I don’t really like them. They’re not that interesting. Ugh. Asha just rolls her eyes at this point. Now we don’t even need to talk. She just gives facial ques.

Zibby: Do you still work on Zoom?

Asha: Yeah, we do. We do a lot of FaceTiming, lots of calls during the day. We visit each other. I was just in Idaho, where Alli lives. She was in Seattle the week before that. Then she was in Seattle the week after I was in Idaho. We’ll see each other again in a couple weeks. We’re very close. It’s not hard to fly to see each other. We do our big work at that time, lots of reading out loud, lots of fighting through the hard issues, making sure the story’s right. We do all the big parts in person.

Alli: We want to feel it together. Since, again, it’s a Black woman and a white woman writing every word, every punctuation together, we believe that we need to be in person and agree on everything so we can go out into the world and defend what we write and defend what we do because it was fifty/fifty the whole way. When we get those really mean one-star comments, I guess we’re both awful. When we get the great five-star, I guess we’re both fabulous.

Asha: It’s funny. You mentioned, Zibby, that you had this woman that was sort of standoffish. That’s kind of how Marjette felt about Noa. You have a perception of a person. Perhaps that person felt the same about you. Then you realize, wow, that’s just how I’m perceiving the world. I got to really actually be in it. Alli and I face those moments when we’re writing together as well. There’s a scene where a possible mistress from the past shows up. Marjette, our character who’s the main voice in our story, she wants to go hands-on with this woman and give her all the smoke. Alli was like, “Wait a minute, no person would act that way.” I’m like, “Some would. I would.” We have to figure out, what’s the in-between that’ll satisfy both of us? Alli’s like, “I wouldn’t even break a nail over some guy.” I’m like, “I would break a lot of nails.”

Zibby: I will break a leg.

Asha: That’s right. I would do county time. When we talk about really collaborating, that’s one thing I hope people get when they read our books, is that it’s possible to collaborate very deeply and very personally with someone, even who looks opposite of what you are. That’s what comes in really beautifully in this story.

Zibby: If people are contemplating collaborating with somebody, what would your advice be on finding the right partner?

Alli: I would say my advice comes out of us doing none of this but just being hugely fortunate. It just randomly turned out that my strengths are Asha’s weaknesses, and Asha’s weaknesses are my strengths. We did not know that going in. When we say that, it’s from the creating the book side, but it’s also from the business of books side, negotiating contracts, social media, speaking, all that stuff, so looking at both sides. We just got stupid lucky that that turned out for us. For people who are consciously considering writing with someone, I think really making personal strength and weakness charts and sitting down together and comparing and contrasting those is really important because then you do know not just personality-wise, but skill-wise what you’re getting into.

Zibby: So step one is self-awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses.

Alli: Yes, total self-awareness. I think part of that, I hate to say it, comes with our age too. We’re self-aware. I think it also comes up for us when you work in schools. Kids are so painfully honest. We’ve had so many years of a lot of feedback from kids and from parents. We had no ego in this game going into it. We don’t really get bothered when we get negative feedback from editors or publishing houses or our agent. It’s really easy to just let it go off our back. That’s another really important conversation. How do you take criticism?

Zibby: That’s smart.

Asha: I would say when you find those issues that you just can’t agree on at that moment, I like to say that it’s good to give the person the grace of space to sit with what the issue is and to really reach for empathy. Not every experience that I’ve had is one that Alli can understand or that she’s been through, and the same for me for her. I might say to her, well, I have Jewish friends, and they do it this way. It’s not enough to just have a few Jewish friends and think that I know what that means. It’s the same for Alli. I have a few Black friends, and this is how they did it. Those could be outliers, maybe the one percent or something that the entire culture may have a hard time swallowing as the norm. We’ve had to let each other have a day or two to go deeper into ourselves, not to fight the point, but to really search for empathy and look for the resolution. For collaborating, I think that’s critical. Brené Brown talks about empathy as being the epitome of believing someone’s story when they tell you it. When someone says, “This is my experience,” you don’t doubt them and say, eh, that doesn’t happen. You take their word for it. That is so important in our working relationship.

Zibby: I love that. Everyone needs to feel seen and heard.

Alli: I will say one thing on a less-deep moment, it is also funny when you’re writing together — one thing that Asha and I have found in this process that’s really familiar that we’re challenging ourselves on each book — Asha’s been with her husband since she was eighteen. I have now been married for a while. We both have been really challenged at writing any of the romance or sexual parts of our books. first kiss is like? How does it really happen? It’s funny. People that read our books, I hope they see and acknowledge that with each book, we’re trying to dip our toes into something a little more sexy and then a little more sexier. That has been our hardest part of writing, which is just hilarious when we try to do it.

Asha: On the flip side of that, people say that we write divorce situations and feelings of a woman that she goes through or issues she goes through after she’s been divorced, and both of us have been with our partners for so — we haven’t been through a divorce. It’s like, hmm, maybe that’s where our fantasy lies.

Zibby: Interesting. Thank you both so much. Never Meant to Meet You, Asha Youmans, Alli Frank, get it today. Thank you so much.

Alli: Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Asha: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Alli Frank and Asha Youmans, NEVER MEANT TO MEET YOU: A Novel

NEVER MEANT TO MEET YOU: A Novel by Alli Frank and Asha Youmans

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