13 Questions With Nancy Johnson

We caught up with the author of this months Zoella Book Club, to as what the inspiration was behind her debut novel, what the process for creating it was like and what she's working on now!

First off, how are you and how is your 2021 going?

I’m getting my second COVID vaccine shot soon so I’m closer to being able to hang out for hours in real bookstores, and I can’t wait! This is the year that my lifelong dream came true. The story of my imagination is out in the world now. The acclaim that The Kindest Lie has received—reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times—has been surreal. Also, Entertainment Weekly put my novel on its must-list. Still, the best part has been connecting with readers, hearing how the book resonated with them.

We’re so excited to be reading The Kindest Lie for our April Book Club, can you tell us about the process for writing it?

I always tell people it took me six years to write the novel, but that’s not exactly true. I wasn’t writing every day, week, or even month of that time. No one was waiting for the book so I could take my time. I’m not an outliner; instead, I let the characters speak to me and take me on a journey of their evolution. For my second book, I have a deadline, so we’ll see how pantsing my way through works out!

For The Kindest Lie, I started with the themes of race and class during the economic insecurity of America’s 2008 Great Recession. From there, I identified the characters who would inhabit this world and tell us something about these issues. That’s how I birthed Ruth, a successful Black engineer searching for the son she walked away from, and Midnight, a poor, 11-year-old white boy mired in the poverty she escaped.

Where did you first get the idea to write The Kindest Lie?

November of 2008 will always stand out for me because of two poignant moments: the death of my father and the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Weeks before the election, my father cast the last vote of his life for our first Black president. People in the United States and around the world felt a sense of hope because we’d transcended this barrier. At the same time, some were saying we were post-racial, but I knew that was a fallacy. I was inspired to write about the deep divide between Black and white America that was exacerbated by the financial strain. That’s how I conceived this novel.

A lot of people may know you better for television journalism at CBS and ABC, what made you decide to start writing fiction?

Television news gave me my storytelling chops, and for that, I’m grateful. In the news business, we had a saying: “If it bleeds, it leads.” I’d be covering an endlessly fascinating human interest story and then be diverted to a homicide. So, I left news and moved into public relations and corporate communications, which I still do today. Still, I yearned to tell the stories of my own imagination, particularly those about the struggles and triumphs of the Black community. A career as a novelist was the perfect fit.

The Kindest Lie looks at racism, classism and the divide between black and white communities in America. What are you hoping people will feel after finishing it?

Many of us exist in siloes, isolated from each other. We live in different neighbourhoods and go to different schools. There’s no sense of shared community and understanding of others and their life experiences. When readers sink into this story, they will undoubtedly see the world through a new lens. My greatest hope is that my novel will help us build empathy, and I believe in the power of fiction and books like mine to do just that.

Your book has been labelled as one of the most anticipated books of 2021, how do you deal with the pressure when you’re venturing into a new or different career path?

I’ve always been a writer and storyteller, so the transition to fiction wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for someone approaching it from a less creative field. Much of the pressure I felt was self-imposed. I desperately wanted readers to connect with the characters of Ruth, Midnight, Corey, Mama, and Eli. I’m delighted that so many readers consider them family now. As a debut novelist, I didn’t know what to expect. The acclaim from the industry and reviewers came as a pleasant surprise. The real pressure now is for my second book to live up to and exceed my debut.

What would your advice be for someone looking to start writing a novel despite working in a different field?

You are a writer, even on the difficult days when the words don’t come easily.

Use your unique life and work experiences to give your writing grit and depth and perspective.

Treat writing as a practice and always be a student of books.

Join writing communities; they will lift you in the hard times and celebrate you in your successes.

Be kind to yourself on the journey.

What are you currently working on?

I’m excited to share that I sold my second novel, PEOPLE OF MEANS, also to William Morrow/HarperCollins. It’s a dual timeline book about an affluent Black mother and daughter coming of age during national moments of racial reckoning in America. The story is set during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in Nashville, Tennessee and the 1992 Los Angeles, California riots after the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King.

Who are some of your favourite authors at the moment?

I’m devouring multiple books at the moment, loving them all. Right now, I’m reading nonfiction from Isabel Wilkerson as well as fiction from Naima Coster, Dawnie Walton, and Kate Quinn. Their brilliant works are instructive as I begin crafting my second novel.

What does your perfect weekend look like?

I’m such a nerd. My perfect weekend involves books, bookstores, and coffee shops where I can spend more time with books! I also love joining friends for dinner or going to backyard barbecues where the smoke from ribs on the grill wafts onto the street. Yes, I’m dreaming of summer already!

What do you always carry with you?

It’s so unsexy, but I keep an inhaler with me for my asthma. Let’s see, what else? Lotion, lipstick and powder are must-haves as well. And as you can imagine, I always have a book with me, even if it’s an audio one on my phone.

What would your last ever meal be?

I’d ask my Aunt Mary to prepare my last meal, even though I’m not sure I’d enjoy it knowing it’s my last one. On the menu would be lamb, sweet potatoes, cream corn, green beans, mashed potatoes, and her famous hot yeast rolls!

What is one positive piece of advice you could give to our audience?

Find your passion, whatever it is, and pursue it. Keep chasing it even when it’s elusive. If you can, use that passion to build a more just, loving, and equitable world.