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Critiquing for Shades of Gray

When Erin Bartels and I agreed to be critique partners, we knew we had similar writing sensibilities and a commitment to telling emotionally resonant stories. Interestingly, both of our debut novels explore race in America. However, as much as we are alike, we approach the world and our characters from vastly different perspectives: She’s white. I’m black.

Erin’s novel, We Hope for Better Things, which releases in January, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It takes a compelling journey through the intertwined lives of three women—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.

I’m revising my first novel, The Kindest Lie, which tells the story of a black woman engineer trying to reconnect with her biological son. She befriends a poor, 11-year-old white boy. Their mutual need for family collides in one fateful night, exposing the fault lines of race and class in a dying Indiana factory town.

In anticipation of the release of Erin’s debut, we talked about the critique process and how we navigated the weighty, and often uncomfortable, topic of race as we provided our feedback.

Nancy Johnson: I had this huge fear all along about how I would tackle my predominantly black cast of characters. You may think that’s absurd since I’m black. But that’s the thing. I desperately wanted to represent the best of my community since we’re often perceived negatively in literature and media. Then I began to worry that I was over-correcting and villainizing my white characters. You flagged my blind spot on how I portrayed white parents.

Erin Bartels: Yes, I did notice when I read that, while black parents in your book were portrayed as fully three-dimensional, with both good qualities and bad, there really didn’t seem to be any “good” white parents. They were neglectful, inept, or abusive and seemed disinterested in their kids. I flagged it more as an observation than a critique. There are a lot of bad parents out there. But I think what I liked about your black parents was that even if at first Mama seemed harsh toward Ruth, as I read I could see why; I could see where she was coming from and how she thought that it was the best thing to do at the time. She was understandable to the reader.

I think it’s natural for us to make those characters we feel we know better more three-dimensional. One of the things I worried about in We Hope for Better Things was that some of my black characters would feel two-dimensional, that they would seem like they were only there to serve the storyline I had set up. Especially characters in the most historical of my three storylines, the 1860s. I just have zero real idea what life was like for them and research can only take you so far.

And though I’d had three black friends read the book before you did, I was worried that they weren’t saying everything that was on their minds as they read it. You mentioned that you struggled to know what to say and what not to say in your critique.

NJ: Yes! As I was writing my critique notes for you, I kept deleting the difficult parts. I agonized over whether to bring up the problematic white savior tropes. Still, it had to be said. In both the Civil War era and the 1960s, black people didn’t have much agency at all. That’s why I was sensitive to the depiction of white folks rescuing hapless blacks. Also, I wanted to see the black characters fleshed out more, fully realized as characters and not just a device to serve the interests of good white people in the narrative. What were your initial thoughts when you read what I had to say?

[1]EB: Honestly, I was so relieved when you pointed out problems. It’s like when someone points out that your fly is down, and you think, “How long has it been like that and no one said anything?!” I knew intrinsically that I hadn’t gotten everything right—I know I still haven’t gotten everything right—but I needed someone to show me exactly what I’d gotten wrong and, more importantly, how I could improve. And if someone who cares about you can’t be honest with you, you know who will? Reviewers. They’ll be brutally honest. So, I’m glad that you said what was on your mind and let me figure out how to improve the story. I’m not sure I was quite as helpful to you because the main white character in your book is a young boy in a lower socioeconomic rung of society, something neither of us has had experience with.

NJ: Indeed. One of my point of view characters is an 11-year-old white boy. I’ve been 11, but I’ve never been white or a boy. Often, white writers ask me for advice about writing black characters. They’re terrified of getting it wrong. While I’ve existed in white spaces my entire life, I didn’t know if I could pull off getting inside the head of Midnight, the white boy in my novel.

EB: What I find so funny about that, Nancy, is that when I read your story, I felt that Midnight was so vividly and lovingly drawn. His motivations were clear and comprehensible. His fears were real. His mistakes were felt deeply. He felt more real to me than Ruth, your black adult female protagonist, and I don’t think their races had much of anything to do with it. You and I have talked about how we both feel more comfortable and perhaps even more confident writing male characters than female. I don’t know if it’s because our main female characters are too much like us and therefore we find it hard to see them as fully realized characters at first? What do you think?

NJ: Yes, exactly. Maybe as a black woman writing Ruth’s story, it hit so close to home that I was afraid to “go there.” But in revision I think I did go deep and make it as revelatory as possible. For example, Ruth clicks the automatic locks in her car in a predominantly black neighborhood and feels immensely guilty for internalizing this fear of her own community. Also, when she’s driving with this white kid in her car, she’s worried about their safety in a white area and she’s acutely aware that she could be wrongly perceived as a mammy figure in his life. Those are just a few of the complicated, real moments I want readers to experience.

In your novel, Nora is a white woman who is thrust into this explosive situation of loving a black man during the Detroit riots in the 1960s. We talked about how much you have in common with her because you were raised to mind your own business and not draw attention to yourself in big political moments. But as a woman of faith and principle, there’s this pull to act on your conscience and take a stand. That’s a perfect example of where I thought you could draw upon your own internal struggle to make Nora’s story richer.

EB: One thing I’m looking forward to as our relationship as critique partners develops is getting one another’s unique point of view on things other than issues of race or diversity in our writing. By that I mean, on the next thing you read for me, I’m not going to be looking for your opinion as a black woman, but as a woman. And I felt that much of the time I was reading your book, I wasn’t thinking of myself as a white woman. Sometimes I was reading as a pastor’s wife. Sometimes I was reading as the mother of a young boy. I imagine that it could get irritating or tiring for you to only be approached for your opinion as a black woman and not any of the other things you are.

NJ: Oh yes, you definitely get it. While I’m passionate about race and diversity, that’s not all of who I am. I was bullied as a kid, not for being black, but for being smart and tall with an Afro at a time when the other girls at school wore their hair braided. In addition to being a daughter and a single working woman living in Chicago, I’m also a cancer survivor. I spent many years as a journalist covering everything from the Bush v. Gore presidential recount in 2000 to the Spice Girls concerts. So, like you, I bring a lot of life experience to the page as both a writer and critique partner. As I wrap up revisions on my own book, I’m anxious to dig in to your new novel!

Tell us about your critique partners. How have their perspectives helped you see around corners and improve your books?

What unique backgrounds and experiences do you and your critique partners bring to the relationship?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy Johnson [3] writes at the intersection of race and class. Her debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, is forthcoming in 2021 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is the story of an unlikely connection between a black woman searching for the son she never knew and a poor, 11-year-old white boy who finds himself adrift in a dying Indiana factory town. THE KINDEST LIE was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Nancy’s work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. As a television journalist, Nancy received Emmy nominations and multiple writing and reporting awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.