Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Nancy Johnson

A native of Chicago’s South Side, Nancy Johnson worked for more than a decade as an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalist at CBS and ABC affiliates nationwide. A graduate of Northwestern University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she lives in downtown Chicago and manages brand communications for a large nonprofit. The Kindest Lie is her first book.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title of the book works on multiple levels. The Kindest Lie centers on Ruth Tuttle, a successful, Black chemical engineer who has been harboring a secret—she gave birth to a baby when she was just seventeen and left him behind in the dying Indiana factory town where she grew up. The title reflects the lies she’s told herself over the years about outrunning her past. When she returns to her hometown to search for her son, she discovers that her grandmother and brother have been lying to her as well in an effort to ensure her success. Often, these well-meaning lies are borne out of love and expectations. Also, the title works on the macro level—America has been lying to itself for centuries, pretending to be more honorable and just than it really is.

What's in a name?

Names carry great significance in my novel. In the first chapter, we learn that Mama insisted that her grandmother be named Ruth. For one, it’s biblical, but more importantly this grandmother believed that a racially ambiguous name like Ruth would at least get her granddaughter to the interview.

Midnight is the surprising nickname for the 11-year-old white boy who figures prominently in the narrative. Adrift and looking for connection, Midnight attaches himself to a group of Black and brown boys from school and immediately he becomes known as the little white boy who wants to be Black. That’s why his friends gave him this nickname and he’s never sure if the kids he desperately wants to like him actually do or if they’re just making fun of him.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self would be very surprised that I’ve centered Black characters in my novel. In high school, I rarely saw myself reflected on the page and I didn’t realize that my experience and understanding of America were important enough to be part of the literary canon. Obviously, I hadn’t read enough to know the literary greatness of Black authors who preceded me.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are easier for me to write than endings. In the first paragraph of my novel, I tell you that Ruth Tuttle gave birth at age seventeen and pulled away from her little shotgun house in Indiana without her baby. Right away, you learn the secret she’s been carrying all these years. What you don’t know is how that secret will impact her marriage, the life of her son, and that of Midnight, a boy she meets who’s untethered and vulnerable.

I struggled to find the right way to end the book. I didn’t want a neat, tidy wrap-up. The story began with the palpable hope Ruth and her friends felt the night Barack Obama was elected president. I knew I wanted a hopeful ending that also felt earned. Ultimately, at the close of this book, there’s ambiguity and you don’t know what the future will hold for some of the characters. The ending felt real and inevitable to me.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I identify strongly with Ruth as a professional Black woman who wears a mask and code switches to navigate predominantly white spaces before going “home” to the Black community. One might think that Midnight would have been the most challenging character for me to write because of the differences in age and race; however, I connected strongly with his journey. As a kid who was bullied relentlessly, I often stood on the outside of things. I brought my own isolation and desire to belong to his character.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The 2008 presidential election inspired this book. So many people were hopeful because America had elected its first Black president. While I understood the sense of hope and shared in it, I recognized the fallacy of a post-racial America. The occupant of the White House had changed, but the racial divide remained deeper than ever. The Great Recession left Black and white families out of work and that scarcity exacerbated racial tensions in the fictitious town of Ganton. I set out to examine the interior lives of Ruth, Midnight, and their family members at a historic moment in America. I didn’t realize it in the beginning, but through those characters, I was also telling the story of America.
Visit Nancy Johnson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue