Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal Talk with Roger

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Photo of Kimberly Jones (L) by Vania Stoyonova. Photo of Gilly Segal by Uchechi Anusiem.

This novel of two teenage girls telling what happened to them one dangerous night is preceded by the fact of two women who, inspired by the YA fiction they had been reading, decided to write a book together.

Roger Sutton: Where did I'm Not Dying with You Tonight begin? Who started it, as someone's mother might say?

Gilly Segal: This started in 2015 with a news clip about a high school protest in Baltimore [following the death of Freddie Gray]. When the authorities got wind of the planned protest, they did two really stupid things: they closed school early and told the students to disperse, and they closed public transportation in the area. So now they've told all these kids to go home, but the kids have no way of getting there. A bus got trapped behind a police barricade, and I saw a little clip of it on the news. The news moved on, but Kim and I are both moms, and we got really stuck on the fate of that school bus: "Wait a minute, what happened to the kids on the bus?" So that was the start of the story—we wanted a way to process what was happening at that time in Baltimore and Ferguson and other places.

RS: How did you know each other?

Kimberly Jones: We met in a book club for adult women who read YA, called the Not-So-YA Book Club. We were friendly from the book club, and then we went on a writing retreat together and realized we had a lot in common. At the time, I was the store manager for an independent bookstore, Little Shop of Stories, and one day Gilly came in and was kind of milling around. She is a lawyer by trade, so she had her bulleted list of what to say to get me to write this book with her. I stopped her and said, "You had me at, 'Let's write a book together.'"

RS: How did it proceed from there?

GS: Although the story was inspired by Baltimore, it's set in a fictionalized version of Atlanta. The very first thing we did was pick a neighborhood in Atlanta that roughly approximated the neighborhood we wanted to write about. Then we walked around. We started at a high school and walked the route we thought the girls would take. We plotted out the story based on that, because the neighborhood is as important a character in this book as the girls are.

RS: You knew where the girls were going, but did you know where the story was going? Did you know how it was going to end?

GS: I think we did. The story doesn't get neatly tied up with a bow because that's not how these events really—

KJ: Work out.

GS: —go down, yeah. We did know we didn't want the girls to suddenly end up best friends, all the issues swept behind them.

KJ: We didn't want them to have a kumbaya ending, start braiding each other's hair.

GS: That wouldn't be an authentic ending for them. We wanted them to have an arc, for there to be growth and change, but not to end with an "everything is magical" race relationship.

KJ: They're traumatized by the situation. It's not kicks and giggles.

RS: Kim, initially you wrote Lena, and Gilly, you wrote Campbell, but you told me the work sort of blurred?

KJ: When we first started writing, we each took responsibility for a character. As we began to edit, we went through the process side by side. We had to make sure the voices were correct in both of our chapters, because these girls play a primary part in each other's stories as well. We did pretty much the entire editorial process sitting next to each other, and that's where it blurred, because we started to write within each other's chapters. By the end, it wouldn't have worked if we had just stayed within our own character's chapters.

RS: Did you all have your own kumbaya moment of realizing what events looked like from the other's point of view?

GS: We learned an incredible amount from each other while writing this book, about what it's like for people to walk in one another's shoes. We had those moments, and we also had hard moments when we'd walk away going, "We need a break from each other." It's heavy subject matter, and there were days when we just really felt like the other person didn't get it.

RS: Can you give me an example?

KJ: There is a section in one of Campbell's chapters that was originally in one of Lena's, where Lena makes a statement that the police view Campbell as a poodle and her as a pit bull. Gilly said, "I think it's a brilliant thought, but I don't understand its placement in the story. I don't think we need it in the story." For me, when you're talking about a story about African Americans, how they deal with their perspective of the cops, it was super-important for that point to be in there. We eventually realized the line wasn't working because it was not in the right chapter. It's not Lena's responsibility to explain this moment to the world. It is Campbell's responsibility to see and understand this moment.

RS: We talk a lot about that nowadays, about how much responsibility the member of a less-privileged group should have for explaining to the more privileged why it's hard to be a member of that group.

KJ: The thing I love about Gilly is she was the one who had that revelation, not me. She came back to me and said, "Okay, I've thought about it, and I get why this is so important to you, I just don't think it's Lena's responsibility to do it. I think that's asking too much of her, that she has to guide Campbell through this conversation. Campbell's in the middle of the situation; she has to see it."

GS: That's one of the things I learned through this process, too: I have a responsibility to educate myself. Not simply to ask someone who is from a marginalized community to explain it all to me in terms I can understand, but to come to the conversation with my listening ears on—not to sound too much like a mom—to come to it humbly, with the ability to absorb and go out and look for resources on my own as well.

RS: One thing that intrigued me about the book was its being a minute-by-minute account of a very brief period of time. I thought that was brilliant. Did you know this would be the structure going in?

GS: That was always the plan. Much like we knew the neighborhood map was going to drive the plot, we knew the story would happen over the course of one night. Sometimes the things you experience in a very short amount of time can be transformative. It's only about four hours between when the characters start off at the school and when they actually get home. We wanted to put them in that pressure cooker of a limited location, lots going on, in a very short amount of time, and see how they would weather it.

RS: It's almost like reading in real time. You experience everything at the same rate as the people in the book do.

KJ: In my day job I'm a filmmaker, and that is my favorite thing in the world. My favorite movie of all time, the movie that made me want to go to film school, was High Noon. My dad and I would sit and watch High Noon every Saturday. That was our thing. I was always super-fascinated by the real-time nature of High Noon, so I was excited to attempt to do that in a book.

RS: I'm not sure I've seen anything quite like that before.

GS: Kim's experience with filmmaking is amazing for our stories, because it drives a fast pace. I love working with her sense of dramatic timing.

RS: Film and books both tell narratives, but they're very different media. What was it like for you, Kim, to transfer from one to the other?

KJ: The best thing I could have done was to co-author with someone who has mastered book structure. Often I would turn something in to Gilly—"Here's my chapter!"—and she would be like, "This is all dialogue, my love. That is not a novel."

RS: Oh, man, I wish I could get that on my Twitter feed. There are so many writers I want to say that to.

KJ: We understand each other's strengths and weaknesses. Gilly would ask questions like, "Where are they right now? What is happening? What are they seeing? What does that look like for her? How is she feeling at that moment?" And then I would come in with the quippy comments, and the fast-paced dialogue, and think structurally about where we should go to keep the pacing strong. For me, it was almost like cheating, because I had a teacher with me. I think we made each other better writers for it, bringing our different abilities to the story.

GS: Absolutely.

RS: So you met in this group of people reading YA novels. What YA writers or YA novels can you point to as being particularly inspirational to the two of you as novelists?

GS: The YA novelist that made me think "I want to do that someday" is Megan Whalen Turner and her Thief series. It was so beautifully and intricately constructed. When I got to the end of The Thief, I flipped right back to the first page and had to start over again.

KJ: I thought that my voice was a little harsh for YA until I read Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy. That's the book that made me realize there is space for a darker, grittier voice. I fell in love with that book.

RS: I've got to tell you, parenthetically, that you two are a dream interview. But I have one last question, which is: are you going to do this again?

GS: Yes, we are doing it again as we speak, as a matter of fact. We're working on another book for Sourcebooks.

RS: Can you tell me anything about it or not?

KJ: We can tell you a little bit about it. It's similar in style to I'm Not Dying with You Tonight, except we like to say that book is about how you bring two girls together, and this new one is about how you rip two girls apart. It is the story of two girls who take a knee at their high school football game and the fallout from it.

RS: Sounds exciting.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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