Nancy Johnson on exploring class, race, and motherhood in debut novel The Kindest Lie
In the Obama era-set book, Black engineer Ruth and a white child living in her hometown change each other's lives.
Nancy Johnson has always been a writer.
Although she has been working in journalism for over a decade, when looking at her childhood she remembers reading and writing being one of her favorite activities. "I feel like I can honestly say that it started my writing career when I was in first grade," she shares. Eventually, after telling other people's stories, Johnson wanted to start shaping narratives to tell stories that are important to her. Fiction allowed her to have that control and shape the narrative of her community.
Specifically, Johnson thought about growing up in the very segregated south side of Chicago and not seeing her experience on the page or characters that looked like her. "The interior lives of people who look like me and have my life experience do indeed matter," she explains.
Set right after Obama's historic presidential win, The Kindest Lie centers on a Black engineer named Ruth who heads back to her hometown in Indiana to get answers about the child she left there as a teenager. "It's a book about race, class, and family," Johnson explains, "It's a story about the choices that we make in our lives, and how tethered we are to our past, and how much our past dictates who we are today."
We spoke to Johnson about exploring the intersection of race and class, the lies we tell, and all things The Kindest Lie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did The Kindest Lie come about? What inspired your debut?
NANCY JOHNSON: When I wrote the book, I had no idea that we'd be having this national conversation that we're having about race in America right now, but I was inspired to write the novel by the events that transpired in 2008. It was a really difficult bittersweet year for me. My father was diagnosed with lung cancer and I convinced him to vote early in the presidential election that year. So here was my father, who had survived World War II and the Great Depression and Jim Crow, casting the last ballot of his life for America's first Black president.
After the election of Barack Obama as President, I remember so many people saying that we were moving into this post-racial era and that was obviously a fallacy to me. While I felt that we were progressing and moving forward, I knew that the racial divide was still very deep.
How did you create the characters Ruth and Midnight? What made them the right ones to put at the center of this story?
Ruth is an Ivy League-educated Black engineer and I thought it was perfect because we usually see this one image of what it means to be Black in America. Here we have a woman who is successful, got a good house, she's got a great husband – she's living what so many people consider to be the American dream. That doesn't mean that everything is going well for her, that she's not under racial pressure or economic strain. [Ruth] is trying to be Ruth 2.0 living her life in this upwardly mobile environment in Chicago yet a piece of her past is in this dying Indiana factory town. I thought she'd be a great person to show how many in the Black community are straddling that line between living with a foot in two different worlds and trying to make sense of that.
That's Ruth, and then Midnight was the perfect character for this. For one, I have a lot in common with him, even though I've never been a boy or white. I know what it's like to live on the outside of things and I thought that's the perfect character to put into this story. He's easily influenced and has a father he wants to impress and emulate, but he's a bigot. He's looking for something, he's lost his mother, so Ruth coming into his life [fulfills] that need for him.
Ruth's search for her child could be told with Midnight as a character in her story. Why did you choose to incorporate his perspective into the book?
I didn't want Midnight to just be a vehicle for assisting Ruth. I thought it was important to give him some agency and that goes back to why I wrote the book in the first place. I did want to give voice to the concerns of different kinds of people in different corners of America. Midnight [comes] from a working-class white family and I wanted to give voice to that, what he was experiencing, and what his family was going through.
What was it like writing from the very different perspective of Midnight?
When I decided to tackle this racial divide, I knew Midnight needed to be white. I did write in a few scenes when I first started this book, where Midnight was actually Black and I was telling the story of Ruth bonding with a Black kid that she's met who was really in need. But, I [wanted] to show this division in the tension of Black and White America, so I needed to make Midnight a white character.
As a Black person in America, I've had to navigate white spaces my entire life, but, in addition to that, I did rely on friends who have sons. I talked to few young white boys and they were able to fill in on things like their favorite video games, and the mischief that they get into. I was able to get a flavor for what the life of an 11-year-old white boy might be like. Also, I did draw upon my own experiences with being bullied as an outsider. I understood on a visceral level his loneliness and his longing for acceptance because I had experienced the same thing myself. That's another thing I wanted to explore: the common humanity that we all share, even if we are different in terms of our race or socioeconomic background. There are certain things that bind all of us.
What made the time right after Obama's presidential win the right setting for this story?
[The] time period was unique because of the pressure that was put on so many people in the country in 2008. People were struggling just like today. There was the economic recession, the great recession, so Ruth and Midnight, both came from auto plant families. People were losing their jobs, so I just think this was a time of economic strain and scarcity. In those times, the divisions of race and class became more evident and pronounced. Ruth's brother Eli and Midnight's father are exhibiting all this toxic masculinity that I say is really a result of that pressure [and] economic strain as they're both trying to achieve the American dream.
There are many characters surrounding Midnight and Ruth in this story. Did any of them jump out as favorites as you wrote the book?
My favorite character to write was Eli, Ruth's brother. [He] does represent so many Black men in America who are trying to make it in a world that wasn't necessarily designed for them to excel and prosper. I connect with that in a fundamental way and his story seems to flow so effortlessly for me and it was a joy to write this character.
There's a scene where Ruth is in the bar with Eli trying to get information from him because he knows what may have happened to the son she walked away from. He starts opening up about his struggles – the fact he's out of work and emoting in a way that's she's not used to. The fact that so many Black men don't open up in that way about their pain and quite often run their pain off on the basketball court or, like Eli, bury his pain in the bottle or inside a woman, but rarely do they talk about.
With the title The Kindest Lie, what were you trying to explore about the lies people tell?
The title works on several levels. Many of the characters withhold information, and they tell lies with the best of intentions. They do it often to protect the people they love. For example, Mama lies about the identity and whereabouts of Ruth's son because she wants to protect her from life in their dead-end town. She doesn't want to saddle [Ruth] with a child.
Sometimes the characters lie to themselves because the truth is too difficult to face. You have Ruth who lies to herself, thinking that she can outrun her past. She thinks that physical distance and time can separate her from her family and her community, but it's just not that easy. And then finally, I would say that America has told itself the kindest, most insidious lie of all, and that's that we are more inclusive and honorable than we really are.
The Kindest Lie really dives into the intersection of race and class. What did you want to explore?
Race and class don't exist in a vacuum, one impacts the other. Racism didn't cease to exist in America with the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, or when we elected, and reelected, our first Black president. It's not going to disappear. I wanted to explore how persistent and pervasive racism is, but our experiences are shaped not only by our race but also our class. I wanted to look at a time of economic strain, the recession of 2008, and see both Black and white folks who are hurting, out of work, and dispirited.
At the same time, you see the extra burden carried by Black folks who are poor, but also those who are upper-middle-class, and they're coming against the same power structures, such as policing and the criminal justice system, so there's nuance there. When you've got a kid like Midnight, his family is poor and struggling, so there's a whole class piece, but they don't have the burden of being Black and there's an element of privilege there. We see that when Midnight is with his friend Corey, a young Black boy, at a convenience store and Corey is getting hassled by the owner and that's about race. Even though both 11-year-old kids in this dying, Indiana factory town, their experiences are different based on the color of their skin. At the same time, Cory is coming from a higher socioeconomic background, so he also has some advantages that Midnight doesn't have, so there's fluidity between the limits of both face and class.
There are a few instances where children are shown to be processing race and its significance. Why was it important to include that topic in the novel?
That was another reason to have a child-like Midnight in [the book]. He is impressionable and vulnerable, I wanted to show that the children are watching the adults. They're watching every single thing that we do, what we say, and how we respond to racial differences. Midnight is picking up on what he's seeing and hearing from his father, who has some very strong views on race and on the Black community. Even though Midnight is a kid who hangs around with a lot of Black kids and has genuine friendship, he's picking up on and being influenced by what he sees around him from the white community. I didn't want to be too moralistic about it, but I did want to reflect on the way children process so many big ideas, including race, at such an early age.
The birth of Ruth's child is at the core of the story and there's a lot happening in that birth scene. What was writing that scene like and what did you want to convey?
I rewrote that scene many times trying to strike the right tone. I really did want to juxtapose the pain and struggles of giving birth as a teenage girl at home in her bedroom with Ruth's struggle with the push and pull of these two different elements of her life. The push and pull of where do I go from here: does she pursue her dreams or stay with her child? She has a grandmother and brother who are telling her to not look back and leave this child to go on with her life, but this is her child. There's this struggle with what's the right decision to make and I think it's amplified by the pain and magnitude of the moment of actually giving birth.
The Kindest Lie explores many different ways women choose to raise children and dissects the idea of a "perfect mother." What were you aiming to explore or say about motherhood?
In books, and on the large and small screen, we often see two extremes of motherhood. You've got the perfect mother, and then on the other end, you've got the out-of-control deranged mother. Rarely do I see mothers who feel real to me, women who are messy and complicated and doing the best they can with what they've got, and often mothers are judged harshly when they choose to walk away from their children. That's exactly what Ruth does in this book. That is not an easy or popular choice.
Also, we don't usually see older Black women mothering and in a certain way. The character of Mama for example is 78 years old and makes questionable decisions to protect her grandchildren, but we also see women of that age mothering and being the caretaker, but we don't see them as fully human. In this book, we see her outside of her mothering role. We learned that she had dreams of going to Julliard to become a professional singer, she also has a love interest.
Verna Cunningham has to have a talk with her son about how to comport himself when he interacts with the police about keeping your hands visible and those are the kinds of conversations that white mothers don't usually have to have with their children. There are so many different kinds of mothers who are making different choices in their lives, and I wanted to show that full range of complexity in The Kindest Lie.
What do you hope people take away from The Kindest Lie?
My hope is The Kindest Lie will force us to ask the right questions and spark honest dialogue about race and class in America. We [recently] had a pivotal election in America and elections have a huge impact on our lives. I think a novel like this can help us to develop empathy when we get to know people and experiences outside of our own, so that's my greatest hope for this book.