Novels have always had a powerful way of enlightening us on race relations in America, from titles like Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to the modern blockbuster The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
Now, other authors are adding their voices to the much-needed dialogue on race relations.
Among those voices are Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal, gifted new authors of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight, a book Angie Thomas calls “a compelling powerful novel that is sure to make an impact … an absolute page turner”—powerful acclaim from one of the reigning queens of young adult fiction.
I’m Not Dying with You Tonight is a novel about two young women trying to survive the night as race riots rip through their city.
Inspired by an incident that occurred during the 2015 Baltimore riots, Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal decided to write a novel about teens dealing with a similar ordeal.
During the Baltimore event, authorities closed school early and ordered the kids to disperse. Public transportation was closed with the intention of preventing a planned protest. The loss of public transportation, however, made it challenging for many students to get home.
“We wondered what would happen if two very different girls with very different life experiences found themselves trapped together in such a charged situation,” Segal said.
This poignant and timely novel has been praised by literary greats and is now nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
Below, Ms. writer JD Myall shares a conversation she had with the two authors about the origin of their influential novel, their lives, and their creative processes.
JD: What were your lives like, pre-book?
Jones: I was a book seller at Little Shop of Stories. My energy was focused on selling books and making sure we had diverse books on the shelves. Prior to having a book of my own, my commitment was to making sure the world knew about other people’s books.
Segal: My day job for just over ten years is as a lawyer, where I read and write for a living. In a way, being a lawyer trained me to be a cowriter. As a lawyer, most of our work is collaborative. You make a draft of a brief or an agreement and you get it back bleeding red with someone’s comments … . It helped me build up a thick skin for the editing process—particularly editing with someone else—and understand that the contributions we all bring to it create a stronger piece. I’m less focused on my own individual things and more focused on the end product. I’ve been writing with the desire to be published for ten years; this has been a marathon.
JD: What is something that people would be surprised to find out about you?
Jones: People are always most surprised when they find out I was once a professional clown. I’ve held tons of jobs in entertainment, including producer.
Segal: I think people would be surprised to learn how long I’ve been devoted to YA literature and how much I love and read the genre.I work in a serious profession, I have a degree in English literature, and I spent a lot of time reading the classics and … grown-up literature. I find YA more compelling: it is really plot driven and the characters experience big and wonderful emotions.
JD: Who were your favorite writers growing up?
Jons: The book that rocked my world was Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. I am genuinely inspired by legendary urban fiction writers like Omar Tyree and Mary Monroe. I got to see Mary Monroe at the literary awards a few years ago. JD, you were sitting next to me when I started to fangirl out—I was thrilled by how fabulous she is.
Segal: The first book I remember really loving was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. The protagonist was like me: a nerdy girl—quiet and bookish—a girl who struggled. She struggled with peers in school and then went off and had this grand adventure. It was the first time I identified with a protagonist.
JD: Looking back, what do you think you did right that helped you break in and become the novelists you are now?
Segal: Persevere: write and fail and write and fail and write more until you hone your craft and find the right book to publish. I had three completed manuscripts and three partial manuscripts that I chucked before this.
Jones: Gilly is the reason I write YA. I freaking love YA, but I wanted to be a picture book author. I had three completed picture book manuscripts. Now I love writing YA. This is our first collaborative novel.
JD: Tell me the story behind the story. How did your current novel come to be?
Jones: We were in a book club together called The Not So YA Book Club. Truthfully, we were the old ladies. It was all these twenty-somethings and we were in our mid- to late thirties, we were both divorced; we had a lot in common.
JD: Tell us about your book.
Jones: I’m Not Dying with You Tonight is the tale of two girls: one black and one white. They have to survive the night when riots engulf their city. It’s interesting because multiple riots take place in the book. People always say that’s not plausible, … but Gilly spent time with a swat team who said it wouldn’t be plausible for multiple incidents not to occur in a riot of this size. The riot survivors I talked to said rioting was everywhere; like a brush fire sweeping the city. They said it was in different neighborhoods and parts of the city, so you weren’t safe anywhere. When riots get to the point that they make history [like Baltimore and Ferguson], they bleed throughout the city.
Segal: We wanted to show the differing perceptions of reality that two people can have within the same bleak circumstance. For instance, characters Lena and Campbell have different reactions when they encounter cops as they are trying to leave school. This juxtaposition illustrates how their experiences have given them wildly divergent worldviews. One character’s experience of police is that they are authority figures to whom she can turn for assistance. The other character is fearful: she sees police as authoritarian figures who may present a danger. Putting them together in a scene where they’re confronted with a parking lot full of police was bound to evoke opposite reactions.
Jones: The cultural backgrounds and perceptions of these two characters influence how they navigate and interpret the events of that night.
JD: I had the privilege of being one of your beta readers for this piece and it was an amazing fast-paced read. Kim, I remember doing a panel on diversity in fiction with you. At the time, you were a little saddened about an early review that you read. What was it like getting feedback from beta readers? How did you deal with bad reviews or harsh critiques?
Segal: The instinctive reaction to criticism is to have that initial crestfallen moment. That “Oh no, someone hated what I wrote and is personal to me” moment. But honestly, all the critiques we got were very helpful. They helped strengthen us as writers and our beta readers helped improve our novel.
JD: Tell us about the interesting research you did to create this book.
Segal: I got to spend an afternoon with a police captain and a member of SWAT in order to understand what actions law enforcement normally takes during a riot. The first thing I learned was that they don’t refer to them as “riots,” they call them “mass disturbances.” That said, Mass Disturbance was the title we originally subbed the novel under. Ultimately, it didn’t work as a title, but we kept it in the form of a section heading. The SWAT officer helped us understand how locations and settings factor into the mounting chaos in the novel.
Jones: We also interviewed riot survivors from Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Ferguson, which helped us understand what the experience felt like and the emotional intensity of the danger our characters were in. While the details of their personal experiences are not on the page, we honored the spirit of what they went through. We’re extremely grateful to those who shared their history with us and tried to be thoughtful and sensitive.
JD: How long did the novel take to write?
Segal: It took two years to write and four years to publish. We did about eighteen revisions, one round with our agent, and four with our editor.
JD: This story is constructed to incite dialogue on racial issues. What are some things you’d like readers to discuss after reading this story?
Jones: We hope that people see themselves in the characters and ask themselves if they have showcased the implicit bias they see on the page, no matter how hard that self-reflection is. Growth comes from that kind of reflection and discomfort.
JD: What was the most difficult part of this collaboration?
Jones: It was difficult subject matter that forced us to communicate honestly and have hard conversations. Fortunately, we came into the process knowing each other, being friends already, and caring about each other prior to this. I don’t think this process would have gone well with a stranger. I learned more about Gilly and her culture in an authentic way—she’s Jewish—I hope I am a better ally to her community now.
Segal: It was critical to be humble about those racialized conversations and make zero assumptions about what I knew. I stumbled along the way, but Kim was patient and thoughtful. We both entered this with a lot of love and a desire to talk about these things. Our friendship came first. We had a solid relationship before but writing this book made it stronger—we learned a lot about each other. I learned to be a better ally and allow people space to be their authentic selves … We hope this book creates a safe space for others to have hard conversations in their relationships as well. We learned an incredible amount from each other, about what it’s like to walk in one another’s shoes. We had those hard moments when we’d walk away going, “We need a break.” It’s heavy subject matter and there were days when we felt like the other person didn’t get it. But being willing to confront uncomfortable facts and accept the truth of others can be hard. I had to look at my own implicit biases and be honest about them. That was a necessary part of collaborating on this story: I had to learn to be a better ally to marginalized people. However, growth and change is possible when you’re willing to sit with the discomfort and learn from it. And when you learn more about a dear friend in the process, it makes the end result beautiful.
How can readers connect with you?
Segal: On my website: gillysegal.com; on Twitter: @really_gilly
Jones: On my website: kimjoneswrites.com; on Twitter: @kimlatricejones