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The Authors Sparking Healthy Conversations About Race Through Compelling New Novel, ‘We Are Not Like Them’

75 percent of white people don’t have a friend of another race. That statistic was startling to close friends Jo Piazza and Christine Pride, so they decided to write a book about it. 

While the novel, “We Are Not Like Them” focuses on the friendship between a white woman and a Black woman, the plot is centered around the moment when the white friend (Jen’s) police officer husband shoots an unarmed Black teenager and the Black friend (Riley, a reporter) is assigned to cover the story. I talked to Jo and Christine about the conversations they’re hoping to inspire and why they think it’s actually easier to foster these discussions through a fictional story that goes well beyond race.  

Amy Shoenthal: What was the full story behind your inspiration to write this book?

Christine Pride: I was Jo’s editor when I was at Simon & Schuster. We had a great working relationship and got to be friends along that journey. We worked on one particular project together which was a tie-in to the show Younger, called Marriage Vacation. The show schedule made this project a really quick turnaround. Jo generously agreed to it and we were working on it around the clock, so we really learned to work well together under pressure.

As an editor, you have a million ideas. I wanted to write about a Black woman and a white woman who were friends. Jo and I had been discussing working together on something else, and this seemed like the perfect story for us to write together since we could bring our different experiences and perspectives to it. 

It also seemed like a good way to broach the conversation about race in America in a relatable, accessible, compelling way. It’s not an educational book for people to learn about the history of race in America. We really wanted to tell a story about a friendship and we thought commercial fiction was a great way to do that.

Shoenthal: I know you both weighed in equally on the development of the characters, but it’s easy to make the assumption as the reader that Jen is a reflection of Jo’s life experiences and Riley of Christine’s. That’s partially because of your races but the book also drew anecdotes from Christine’s family history in Alabama, Jo’s upbringing in Philly and more.

Jo Piazza: Here’s the thing. Christine will hear things in all-Black spaces that people won’t say in front of white people, and I will hear things in all-white spaces that people will not say in front of Black people. It’s very easy for readers to assume that the characters are you. We brought our life experiences to the page, but the characters weren’t us.

Pride: That’s a perfect way to describe it. The whole point of us writing together was to make the book authentic, and to do that you have to draw from your personal experiences. A lot of things you read in the book did really happen to me, especially the microaggressions.  

It should also be noted that every Black person doesn’t deal with race in the same way. Even if I say that I brought a lot of my personal experiences with race to this book, that doesn’t mean that any of that is representative of other Black people’s experience with race. 

It’s easier for Riley to stuff her emotions down, to not feel things. That’s the polar opposite of who I am as a person. I’m very confessional and open about everything. I’ve cycled through 1,000 feelings in the first ten minutes of this interview.  

We were really intentional about how we developed these characters. Most particularly with Riley because there’s still so few Black heroines in commercial women’s fiction. It’s easy for people to think that she’s representative of Black women in America today. And in a way, she is, because when you have so few characters they do gain an outsized importance. There were different stakes to getting Riley’s character right than with Jen’s character. 

Shoenthal: That’s a lot of pressure. Were you willing to give Jen’s character more flaws because there wasn’t as much pressure for her?

Pride: No, we had to give all our characters flaws, but it was very important to me that Riley not have stereotypical flaws and challenges. She was not going to have a teen pregnancy, she was not going to come from a broken home or have a drug addicted sibling. 

Piazza: Also, let’s be clear — Riley’s not perfect. We wanted to make sure all our characters had flaws because real human beings have flaws. Riley is lying to her boss about her relationship with Jen. She’s going behind people’s backs out of ambition. So I don’t think we gave Riley leeway because she’s the Black character or made Jen more flawed because we had any kind of agenda.

Everyone tries to do the right thing, everyone fucks up, everyone is running the gamut of real human interactions and emotions. 

That’s also not something that came with the first draft, it’s about layering on. Once you’ve got your character down, how can you beat the hell out of them and build them back up? The characters have to become real people or they just become stereotypes and tropes. We did not want to create a morality tale, we did not want to preach here. We are not saying, white people, you are bad, you’re all racist here. There are shades of grey in everyone in this novel.

My favorite character, and I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, is Lou (Jen’s mom.) She’s the worst! But she has good qualities too. Lou’s so fun, you probably want to hang out with her, you definitely want to get drunk with her.

Shoenthal: What conversations took place between the two of you that were somewhat delicate? You’ve said how you, Jo, had one instance where you made the comment that not everything is about race but Christine pushed back and said, for Black people, everything is about race. That interaction also played out between the two main characters in the book. What other issues came up while you were writing this?

Piazza: One of the things I hear a lot in white spaces, from people who say they are card carrying liberal progressives, is that not everything is about race. They’ll ask, ‘why are you making this about race?’ I thought that was an important thing to interrogate. We have a few different characters saying it in the book because we want to remind readers that race does, in fact, infuse everything in our lives. I don’t want to use the term white privilege but I think it is a privilege as a white person to not have to have to think about race. That’s one of the things we had to talk about and it went directly on the page.

Pride: We tried to show how much both Riley and Jen dread having these conversations, or how much Riley dreaded it, and how oblivious Jen was to the need for them.

That totally mirrored my and Jo’s early dynamic. Jen and Riley never had to talk about race until they absolutely had to, and it was the same with us. We didn’t really talk about race until we really had to, because we were writing this book together. 

Piazza: We wanted to take the conversations people are having in the workplace, and put them where people could lose themselves in the story without going cross eyed staring at flow charts. We wanted readers to feel like the story made them think without being preachy. Neither of us think that’s the best way to people’s hearts and minds. That’s why writing this as a fiction novel makes it very accessible. It’s easy to pick up, it’s easy to talk about. 

Pride: There’s really been a renaissance of non-fiction books about race in America over the past five years. Some beautiful, smart, cogent writing. But there are not the same amount of offerings in fiction. There’s also a huge swath of people who aren’t going to do a deep research dive but are still interested in the subject. 

Conversely, there are people who don’t care to learn about race but still feel like this is going to be a good story. So much of this book is about the relationships — the distance between the main characters and their mothers, the choices people make about things like career ambition and long term friendship. 

Shoenthal: You started writing this two years before the Black Lives Matter resurgence last summer. Did that period in time change anything in later drafts of the book?

Pride: We started in spring 2018 and finished in April 2020. And then George Floyd happened. It was such a tragic, bittersweet bookend to finishing the book. It felt like this book was going to be more important than ever, not in an exploitive way, but where people were paying attention to these things and wanted to talk about them more. And what better way to talk about this than through a novel you read in your book club?

The biggest change we made was to Kevin’s (Jen’s cop husband) storyline. We wanted to make readers think about what justice meant in Kevin’s mind, Jen’s mind, Riley’s mind, or Tamara’s (the shooting victim’s mother) mind. 

Shoenthal: How hard was it to write the scenes where Jen and Tamara interacted – the wife of the cop who shot the teenager, and the mother of the victim?

Piazza: The stories of shootings are so underreported. There are not enough deep dives about any of the humans behind it. We never know what happens behind the scenes. So we wanted to try to imagine what that would be like if that interaction happened. 

I did talk to a lot of shooting victims and they would actually meet the shooters in the courtroom. Mothers have gotten into confrontations with the cops, with the families, but we never hear about it.

We interviewed cops, cops’ wives, shooting victims, shooting victims’ mothers. And we really haven’t seen a full enough portrait of the shooting victim and their parents. We certainly never hear from the cops or the cops’ wives, the women behind the men who have done the shooting – what must that be like? We were just constantly asking ourselves, how would you feel if the father of your child murdered a child? That’s a lot.

Pride: These questions feel melodramatic in a way because they’re so big. There are so many ‘what would that be like?’ moments in the book. It’s really hard to put yourself in those shoes and put the weight and gravitas on it. 

The biggest fear I have for this book to be perfectly honest, putting out into the world is, did we do that justice?

Because of the polarizing subject matter, people will assume that we came to this book with an agenda, and without even reading it will be wary. Especially police officers who do feel besieged and vilified might be like, ‘is this another takedown?’ But on the flip side, there are the hundreds of thousands of mothers who lost their children and we wanted to be sensitive to that too. We threaded a really fine needle and were sincere in our approach. At least if we got things wrong, we hope our sincerity comes through. We were not callous about anything and we hope people see that. That’s all we can hope for. 

Jo: There’s just so much dividing us right now that hopefully fiction can be a bridge to finding the common bonds between us.  

Shoenthal: It’s almost a commentary on cancel culture, too.

Piazza: Everyone deserves to have a fuller picture of themselves painted. The knee jerk reactions today drive me insane. Everyone, please just take a damn breath, spend some more time thinking about things before you react.

Jen says at the beginning of the book how people used to love cops. She wakes up every morning scared that her husband is going to walk out the door and be killed. How does that make readers feel?

Pride: The thing that will surprise people most about this book is seeing that it’s as nuanced as it is.

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