Nancy Johnson, THE KINDEST LIE

Nancy Johnson, THE KINDEST LIE

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nancy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Nancy Johnson: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m a huge fan of yours. I listen to your show all the time. It’s just a delight to be. Thank you.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice of you to say. Thank you. Your book, I could not put it down. I read it in a day or something. I thought it was so good. I loved the whole thing, but the beginning introduction and first couple chapters on the heels of the Obama election and all of that, I have never seen an election results situation like that in contemporary fiction. It was so strong. It was just so great. The leading down the road with all the people wearing white and that whole event, it was so visual and fantastic. Then of course, as the book went on, you just got more and more immersed. In terms of awards for openings, I felt like —

Nancy: — Thank you. I think that’s one of those times in history, everybody remembers where they were on election night. It was such a monumental time.

Zibby: It’s so great to watch it through fictionalized people. It’s different to take contemporary fiction versus historical fiction and — I don’t know. It’s just really neat. It was great.

Nancy: Thank you for that. I’m glad you enjoyed that.

Zibby: Tell me about the inspiration for writing this novel. I saw in your bio you’ve won all sorts of prizes for first novels before. Tell me how you got into fiction after your whole career in TV and everything else.

Nancy: I’m from Chicago. I worked in television for eleven years as a reporter. I got tired of it because it turned into that whole if it bleeds, it leads kind of thing. I’d be on a really cool feature story that I loved and was interested in. Then the pager would go off and the scanners would go off and you’ve got to go to a triple homicide a couple counties over. I got tired of that. I think that was the training ground for moving into writing fiction. I’ve always been curious about the world and been a storyteller, but now I get to create the world of the stories. That’s the best part of it. Also, just training in terms of writing for the ear and being able to hear the cadence of a story, so much of that’s important in broadcast journalism. I use a lot of the same techniques when I’m writing my fiction. The inspiration for The Kindest Lie came November of 2008 when Obama was elected president. It was a bittersweet time for me personally. My father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer during that year. It was so difficult. He was looking forward to Obama being president.

I remember at one point he was in hospital. You know how the doctors ask questions just to see how lucid you are, like, what’s the date, what’s your date of birth, that kind of thing? The doctor asked him, “Who’s the president?” This was in October of ’08. My father in this croaky voice said, “Barack Obama.” The doctor said, “Well, hold off, not quite. Not yet.” I knew that it was important for him that Obama become president, and so I convinced him to vote early. He voted early in October. He was very sick. By the time of election day, he was confined to the bed. Here was a man who survived World War II and the Great Depression and Jim Crow. He cast the last vote of his life for America’s first black president. That was just so pivotal. That election was such a point of pride for us as a family. I think for so many in the country no matter what your political persuasion was, it was kind of that moment of saying, America, we did this. We made history. We overcame something by electing a black president.

The thing was, I had a lot of folks say to me, we are now in a post-racial era. I knew right away that was a fallacy, that there was nothing post-racial about it. All I had to do was go on my social media feed. Back then, Facebook was just kicking off and getting started. I remember going on Facebook and just seeing the ugliness and this bitter divide between black and white in America. So much of it was not about policy debates. I could’ve understood and respected that, but it was deeply personal and it was racially motivated, a lot of what I saw there. Then through the first two terms, those two terms of Obama’s presidency, we saw so much racism, a lot of racial violence, so I knew it was not a post-racial period at all. This was something I was very interested in, was just how we were all in these separate entrenched corners, black and white America. Then I tried to think of, who are the characters that I could create in fiction who could inhabit this kind of world? I was interested in the tiny, small lives of people, of characters who could speak to these larger macro issues. That’s where the idea for the book came from.

Zibby: Wow. That’s great. Really beautiful. Yes, I would say we are definitely not in a post-racial era. I feel like things have become magnified and everything has been spilling out, good, bad, ugly, recently. There’s no better time for a book like yours and the empathy that characters bring, just stories to show how all this racial divide I find just — I don’t mean to sound stupid. It’s just that we’re all people underneath. All this attention to color I feel undermines how similar we all are in so many ways. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox here. Yes, that was a pivotal moment. You captured it beautifully in your story. Your story also contains a lot of secrets and the damage keeping a secret can do in the secret keeper and in the secret keeper’s relationships. What happens when the secret comes out? When should it come out? I was actually thinking, I don’t know if this was the kindest lie. Was it kind? I don’t know. Tell me about choosing this title. Do you even see it as a lie, the secret that was kept?

Nancy: First, maybe I should tell you what the book’s about a little bit.

Zibby: Oh, yeah. That would be good. Sorry.

Nancy: Just so people know what the book is about. It’s about race, class, family at the dawn of the Obama era. It centers on Ruth Tuttle, a black woman engineer. She’s a very successful chemical engineer in Chicago on the come-up. She’s got this great husband, great life. He’s ready to start a family, but she can’t do that until she makes peace with her past. She’s been harboring this huge secret that she gave birth to a baby when she was just seventeen years old. She never told anybody about it. Her husband doesn’t know it. She decides to go back to her hometown, which is a dying Indiana factory town, of her youth to try to search for her son. When she gets there, she meets and forms this unlikely connection with Midnight. It’s a white boy, eleven years old. He’s nicknamed Midnight. He’s adrift also searching for his own sense of family connection. He’s really mired in that very poverty that Ruth managed to escape. When the two of them come together, they’re just on this collision course of race and class. It ends up upending both of their lives. That’s the background of the story. The title, The Kindest Lie, it’s so interesting. I kept thinking, will the publisher change the title? A lot of times, you come up with a working title. Then it changes as you go along in the publishing process, but it stuck. I was excited about that. I chose The Kindest Lie because quite often, we keep secrets, we tell lies for the best of reasons, the best of intentions. That’s what I meant by The Kindest Lie.

The grandmother in the story — I don’t want to give too much away. That’s Ruth’s grandmother, the character Mama. She’s keeps a lot of lies. She tells a lot of secrets and tells lies, but she does it not to be malicious. She does it to protect her grandchildren. It’s out of that love that she tells lies. Then I also think the other level of lies is that there are lies that we tell ourselves. Ruth, in this story, is lying to herself in many ways because she thinks she can outrun her past. She’s got this nice, fancy life, chic in Chicago. She’s upwardly mobile, great job, great husband, all that. She thinks that this is it. I can just live this life and not worry about what I’ve left behind in my hometown, and not just her son who she left behind, but also her family. They’re the ones who convinced her to never come back. Still, she’s left them behind, this community that she grew up in and the family that she was part of. In that way, she’s lying to herself because as we find in the book, she cannot outrun her past. Then the other level on which The Kindest Lie works is America. When you look at it in a larger sense, I think America has lied to itself about how good it is, how decent and honorable it can be. It’s not always decent and honorable to everybody in the country. We still have so much work to do as Americans. I think a lot of times we wrap ourselves in the flag. We like to lie to ourselves and pretend that we’re better than we really are when there’s really so much work to do.

Zibby: That was beautifully said. In the book when you were just talking about how her family wanted her to leave everything behind, it almost became not her choice. They were like, go, go, go, we’ll take care of everything. A lot of the text, and maybe this is because I went to Yale, but I feel like there was a lot about Yale in the book and how her going there was a totally life-changing moment and from there on she could study engineering. She could get this amazing job. It was a huge turning point. It was the fork in the road, so to speak. You can go this way or you stay here. You obviously depicted what happened would she have stayed when we see what happened to her brother and the other people who work in a factory town and the effect of that. Tell me about that. Is it really one moment? Is it those one-decision nodes that change everything?

Nancy: I do think so. I think it’s all about the choices that you make. Sometimes you have that one moment in time to make a decision. Your life can just go in a certain direction or not. I think that’s really what Mama is getting at with saying, you need to leave this behind, and that sometimes leaving is the best way, that you have to make a decision or your life trajectory can change forever and it can go the absolute wrong way. I think that’s what the message from Mama was. We have the scene where Ruth gives birth at home in her bed. It’s a really difficult scene. I was really dealing with the two difficult things, going into labor, giving birth to a baby, but also at the same time dealing with the emotional labor as well of trying to decide, what do I do? I’m having this baby. In a way, she’s like, I want to hold onto this baby. This is my child. Yet she’s also dreaming of what’s beyond this tiny bedroom in this little shotgun house in this little auto plant town. That’s Yale. That’s life beyond. I do think that there are times in life where we make a choice. Even if you make a choice, it may not be the wrong choice. Whatever the choice is, I think it just impacts the rest of your life and the way that’s going to go. I think you also have to revisit too.

Zibby: It’s like a sliding doors moment. Sometimes the decisions are the ones you make. Sometimes they’re by chance. The decision of what to do with a child born either too soon or in the wrong circumstances is a very politically fraught one in and of itself. It is part of the book which also touches on politics in its opening scene and as a theme that courses through it. Was there any intention of why she had the baby? Were you trying to make any sort of statement, or was this just the mechanism to tell the story you wanted to tell?

Nancy: I think it was a mechanism to tell the story. You mentioned that opening scene with the election night. It’s in that scene that Ruth and her husband, Xavier, at different points are thinking about what it means to have a child at this moment in time, in history. She’s brought a child into the world and she’s excited about this new era and this new president and all the promise of opportunity for black people in America, but she doesn’t really know what situation her son is in. She’s assuming the worst, that he’s languishing in the poverty that she managed to escape. I thought that was interesting, this whole idea of a child out there. Children, we think of them as the future and think about what the opportunities are for them. We all want the best for our children. We want them to have a better life than you had. That’s part of what the character of Mama is wanting. She’s got a lot of unfulfilled dreams of her own that we find out about in the book. Yet she wants the best for her children and for her grandchildren. Just that legacy of generations and always wanting the next generation to go beyond and exceed the opportunities that you had, to me, that’s really interesting. That’s one reason for having childhood and motherhood be a part of this narrative.

Zibby: The scene where — I don’t think I’m giving much away, but when Ruth goes home and Mama has a gentleman suitor trying to fix the toilet and she feels like even though Papa is not here, having another man in the house rubs her the wrong way. You mentioned, sadly — I’m so sorry about your father and having lung cancer. I’m wondering if that stemmed from some sort of situation with your own mom? Did your mom start dating again? Where did that particular scene come from? Just out of curiosity.

Nancy: No, that did not happen. She did not start dating again or anything like that. I was just really thinking how things change with loss, with the loss of Papa. He was the patriarch of that family, the foundation that they all clung to. Then when he was gone, that really interrupted everything in the lives of the characters. Mama’s had a hard time moving on, and then Ruth too. Ruth was very tethered to her grandfather. I think that’s one of the reasons that she got involved with Ronald, her high school boyfriend, and got pregnant. It’s because she was looking for that love and looking for that male figure in her life. I was just really interested in someone who’s not present but still has such a huge presence in the life of the characters in the book. It was very difficult for Mama to move on. It’s kind of like she’s trying to find herself too just as Ruth is trying to find herself. I thought it was interesting that you’ve got a black woman, seventy-eight years old. You don’t usually see that kind of a character on the page and someone who’s not just there to take care of the people in her life. She’s doing that, of course, but she also has a love interest. To me, that’s interesting for a woman that age to have that on the page. She has, like I said before, unfulfilled dreams of her own too. She’s really her own person. I thought that was pretty cool.

Zibby: My grandmother recently passed away at ninety-seven. When she was in her early nineties, someone tried to set her up with a man who was ninety-five. She was like, “Don’t be silly. He’s way too old for me.”

Nancy: That is so cute.

Zibby: It just never ends.

Nancy: It’s true.

Zibby: It just doesn’t end. Tell me a little more about the writing of this book, the actual writing. Did you structure the whole narrative beforehand? Did you outline? Where and when did you write it? Tell me about all that.

Nancy: In the writing circles, people talk about being a plotter where you outline everything or you’re a pantser where you write by the seat of your pants. I’m definitely more on the pantser side of things, so I did not outline anything. I never had an outline the entire time. Then sometimes it takes you a little longer. It took me six years. Of course, this was the first book, so it takes a little longer because you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing. You’re kind of fumbling around in the dark as you write the book. As a writer, I’m definitely interested in what keeps me up at night. What are the burning issues that are on my mind? That was the whole thing with the election and the racial divide and the class divide in America. That’s where I tend to start, is with what I’m really passionate about at the time. Then from there, it’s all about the characters. I’m definitely a character-driven writer. I’m really interested in delving deep into the character motivations. Why do they do the things they do? What is it in their past that informs their present? Those are the things I definitely get excited about as a writer.

Then the ideas come to me at the most inconvenient times. I’d say most of the ideas I get or a lot of the most brilliant ones I get, or exposition or snaps of dialogue, come to me when I’m driving on the interstate. I’m here doing sixty, sixty-five on the interstate, driving along. An idea will hit me. For safety reasons, I can’t write it down. I usually pull out my iPhone. I use the voice memo function of the phone and just talk into it. It sounds really weird later when I listen to it, the ramblings when I’m on the interstate. You might hear horns honking or crazy noises. If I don’t do that, I lose it if I don’t get the idea down right then. Then I’d say in terms of where I write, because we’re in the pandemic, I’m usually writing at home. When I was writing this book, I wrote some of it at home but a lot of it at Starbucks. People wonder, how can you write in a coffee shop? For some reason, that whirl of the cappuccino machine is kind of cool. I like the rhythm of that. I can write to that kind of noise, and people sitting right next to me talking. Maybe because of my news days, I’m accustomed to just writing on the side of the road or in the back of the police car going on some kind of drug raid or wherever. It doesn’t matter. I can write pretty much anywhere and block out the noise. That’s my writing process.

Zibby: Back to you at Starbucks. What is your go-to Starbucks drink when you’re working on your writing?

Nancy: Funny thing is I don’t drink coffee. I don’t like the taste of it. I love the smell of it, but I don’t like the taste of it. I drink hot chocolate. I’m really into things that are sweet. I like hot chocolate really strong, five pumps of mocha, no whip cream. Sometimes the whip cream cuts down the chocolate-y part of it. I love chocolate.

Zibby: I am totally with you. Whip cream is a distraction.

Nancy: It’s a total distraction from the — nah, that’s okay. Sometimes they make a mistake and they put it on there anyway.

Zibby: I am a fan. I just actually tried the Starbucks peppermint hot chocolate for the holiday theme. I would not do that if I were you. I would skip it. You can skip it.

Nancy: Oh, really? That probably also cuts down on —

Zibby: — On the chocolate.

Nancy: On the chocolate, yeah. It’s all about the chocolate.

Zibby: The best thing at Starbucks, and then I’ll get back to your writing, is the chocolate-covered almonds. Have you ever had them there?

Nancy: I have not had those.

Zibby: They keep being sold out everywhere. I feel like somebody else knows that they’re so good and is snatching them. If you ever see a pack, they’re the best chocolate-covered almonds, extra chocolate-y.

Nancy: I will look for those. People probably are hoarding them.

Zibby: Really good.

Nancy: Okay, I’ll try that.

Zibby: Are you hard at work on another book now? You must be. I can’t imagine that you’re letting it go at this.

Nancy: No, I don’t want to be just a one-book wonder. That’s for sure. I can’t say a lot about it yet, but I am working on something new. The thing is, I’m still waiting to finalize these initial three chapters and summary, which is called option material, to send to my editor to see if she wants to acquire it for William Morrow. Fingers crossed about that. I can say that it’s again about race, class, and identity, so some of those same themes that I’m always interested in but at some different moments in history. I seem to always be fascinated by certain moments in time like the big national moments and how individuals fit into that, individual lives fit into those big moments. That’s what I’m looking to do again. A lot of people have asked me when I’ve done other interviews or just check Goodreads, people want to know about a sequel to The Kindest Lie. I don’t have any plans for that, but if Hollywood is listening and wants to continue the story of Ruth and Midnight on the big or small screen, that would always be fun. I think there’s probably more to tell about where those characters go from here. Hopefully, somebody will do that.

Zibby: You could do a whole spinoff about the lesbian couple. I’m forgetting their names. They were really interesting too. You had that one scene where one of them confides to Ruth, “You’re so lucky that you can just touch the person you love in public. It’s not that easy for us,” and the feeling of being emboldened after the Obama win and how much more public they were in their displays of affection.

Nancy: I think that could be another story too.

Zibby: That could be another good book if you’re running out of material.

Nancy: Yes, I think that would be fascinating.

Zibby: They also have — I’m late to this party. Have you heard of Scribd?

Nancy: No. What is it? I’m even later than you to the party.

Zibby: They have audiobooks and books. It’s almost like Audible in a way. They summarize. They’ll have articles, excerpts. My point is they have Scribd Originals. They’re like ten thousand words. You could do a Scribd Original on just the two characters.

Nancy: I love that idea. I’m writing that down, Scribd Original. It’s audio?

Zibby: No, you can read it too.

Nancy: You can read it too, okay.

Zibby: I’m interviewing someone who wrote one shortly.

Nancy: I’m thinking about those — aren’t there Audible Originals too?

Zibby: There are Audible Originals. This, you read. There’s probably an audio version as well.

Nancy: That’s another format, I love that, to extend the life of the story and of the book. That’s actually a good marketing idea too, to do that kind of thing.

Zibby: I know.

Nancy: You’re good. I like that.

Zibby: I’m good.

Nancy: I need to hire you to feed me all the best ideas. I love that.

Zibby: Part of this podcast is my unsolicited advice.

Nancy: That is the best. I really like that.

Zibby: I’m kidding. Speaking of advice, what advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Nancy: I would say for authors to really be true to yourself, to whatever the intention is for the book that you want to write. Stay true to that, to what’s authentic and real for you. I talk to so many writers who say, “You know what? I think I might want to write about vampires because I heard vampires might be coming back in vogue. I’ll do domestic suspense because I hear that’s kind of hot. If I put ‘girl’ in the title, it’ll definitely sell.” I don’t think you can write to trends and do your book any justice because then you’re just writing to market. You’re writing what you think people want to read and what you think is going to sell. I think what’s going to sell and what’s going to be successful is what comes from your heart, from your soul, from your passion. That would be my main advice. Just write what’s true to you.

Also, be gentle with yourself too. Going through the pandemic, everybody is just going through so much emotionally right now. Our lives are crazy even though we are tethered at home and sequestered. Be gentle in terms of how often you write. I don’t necessarily believe you have to write every single day to be a successful writer. I think you write when you feel compelled to write. Also at the same time, I think you have to be disciplined too. If you ever want to get anything done, I think you have to keep plugging away at it and not always writing just when you feel like it because you may not always feel like it. Sometimes you do have to push yourself, but don’t feel that you have to do it every single day. As long as you’re getting words on the page and you are telling the story that only you can tell, that’s going to resonate with other people because it’s your story.

Zibby: That’s great advice. You make me want to stop what I’m doing and start writing.

Nancy: Start writing. There you go. That’s my gift to you.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks, Nancy. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” As you can see, moms also don’t have time to do podcasts. Thank you for your great book. Let’s stay in touch.

Nancy: Definitely. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Nancy: Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Nancy Johnson, THE KINDEST LIE