Nancy Johnson ’93 worked for more than a decade as an award-winning television reporter for CBS and ABC affiliates before moving into corporate communications and public relations. “Still,” she says, “I always wanted to tell the stories of my own imagination, particularly those about the Black experience in America.”
Johnson has accomplished just that in her debut novel, The Kindest Lie, named one of the most anticipated books of 2021 by Newsweek; O, The Oprah Magazine; and Elle. Set in 2008, on the cusp of President Barack Obama’s first year in office, the novel follows the story of Ruth Tuttle, a successful Black engineer who begins to search for the long-lost child she left behind when Ruth was only a teenager. She returns to her Rust Belt hometown in Indiana, only to find the town burdened by unemployment and racism. There, she forms an unlikely friendship with a young, poor, white boy.
Johnson discusses the intersection of race and class, and how novels can promote anti-racism.
What was your inspiration for this novel?
The election of Barack Obama [’06 H] in 2008 inspired me to write The Kindest Lie. The hope that so many Black people felt was palpable. We believed once again in this elusive idea of possibility.
What floored me though was that some thought America had entered a post-racial era because we had a Black man in the White House. I knew that was a fallacy. During the campaign and throughout his presidency, there was this outsized level of vitriol and hate toward Obama that had nothing to do with policy differences. It was naked racism. At the same time, some in working-class white America felt forgotten and unheard. I was intrigued by this racial divide and wanted to explore it in fiction. My goal is always to spark meaningful conversation and have people see the world, the lives of others, and themselves from a new perspective.
Can you say more about the unexpected connection that forms between Ruth and Midnight? Can you say more about their friendship, what it means to you, and how it subverts expectations?
Friendship can be messy and complicated, for sure. It also requires trust. When we're building these relationships across lines of race and class, it can be incredibly challenging. The key is to not be colorblind but instead recognize differences in people and understand how those differences impact their daily lives.
In writing this novel, I wanted to portray the nuances of race and class through the lens of these two characters. Ruth, a successful Black engineer, and Midnight, a poor, 11-year-old white boy, share a love of science and a common need for family connection; beyond that, their journeys diverge. Ruth leads a solidly upper-middle-class life in Chicago, yet she’s still marginalized on the job and fears the worst when she sees a white cop hassling a Black boy on the L train. By contrast, Midnight is part of the working poor, with a father who has just lost his job at the auto plant; however, he’s able to move through life a lot more freely than his Black and brown friends. So, the budding friendship between Ruth and Midnight is always a fragile one because of the age-old imbalance in equity between Black and white America.
How do you view fiction in relation to your work as a journalist? What role do you see fiction playing in today’s climate?
Journalism taught me how to tell stories, and that was foundational training that I bring to novel writing. At times, nonfiction has its limitations. Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd, many in white America began their anti-racism reading, and much of it was nonfiction. While those books helped define racism and white privilege, they lacked the power of story. In fiction, I can build empathy in readers by taking them on a journey with characters who stand in for people they may never meet. Understanding the impact of racism happens a lot more intuitively when you can experience it through characters you’ve grown to love.
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.