In Conversation With ‘We Are Not Like Them’ Authors Christine Pride And Jo Piazza On Uncomfortable Discussions About Race, Identity Politics And The Importance Of Friendship
At Whistles, there are many types of literature we enjoy, but what inspires us the most is a story that not only makes us stop and think, but stop and feel. Our last Book Club brought together a collection of of-the-moment authors we admire, including Christine Pride, a writer, editor and 15-year publishing veteran.
In October, she published her first of two books, co-written with best friend Jo Piazza, We Are Not Like Them; a timely story of friendship, love, prejudice and betrayal. Following the event, we couldn’t wait to catch up with both authors to discuss how they brought this story to life collaboratively, how they navigated difficult conversations about race and why friendship was so important for them to explore. After all, what’s better than picking the brain of one immensely talented writer? Picking the brains of two simultaneously, of course.
This is an interview that will remind you of the humanity behind the headlines, the importance of self-examination when it comes to race and why our friendships require the same level of nourishment and open communication as the romantic relationships in our lives.
Can we start by you telling us a bit about your background and how you both got into writing?
Christine: I have been a book editor for 20 years, so I’ve been on the other side of things. I worked at all the major publishing houses and published a lot of wonderful writers and books, including Jo’s last novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, which is how we met. I never really had a burning desire to write something until this opportunity and idea came together.
Jo: I’ve been writing books for a little over 10 years now. I’ve been a journalist my entire life, which evolved into digital journalism, then podcasting and now book writing. So I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. And as Christine said, we met when she was my editor at Simon and Schuster.
Where did the idea for We Are Not Like Them first come from? What inspired you?
Christine: I had this idea simmering for a while but as I say, I hadn’t had a real desire to write. Yet after all of the gruelling headlines of police violence over the last few years, it just coalesced into this idea of what would happen if two best friends (one white, one black) were in the middle of something like this. If they were personally involved, how would it transform or affect their friendship? That was the nugget of the idea that I went to Jo with, in 2018, after we had just come away from working on her novel. It seemed like the stars aligned and we had an opportunity to take this provocative idea but also create something different by writing a book that would be informed by both of our perspectives. We knew it would be a better story than if either of us wrote it alone.
Jo: I have to say, as a journalist, I’ve covered a lot of these kinds of stories and a lot of gun violence. Yet I got chills when Christine mentioned this idea as I don’t think that the media has done justice for so many of these stories. We’ve experienced so much clickbait and superficial reporting, so this was a unique and interesting chance to really dig at the humanity behind the headlines. We think a lot of people have become numb to this kind of news and we want people to feel something again.
“This was a unique and interesting chance to really dig at the humanity behind the headlines. We think a lot of people have become numb to this kind of news and we want people to feel something again.”
Can you talk us through the process of writing your first novel collaboratively? How did it work?
Christine: There were phases to it. There were a lot of early conversations about the book and getting to know our characters, from who they were to how they met. Next, we created a really detailed outline that we could follow, which was critical. We then had a roadmap and we knew where we were going.
From there we would each just take a stab at drafting chapters and getting something on the page. Jo did a lot of heavy lifting as she was much less intimidated by the blank page than I was. We would then pass the chapter back and forth, which really means both of us were going into the document, whenever we were free to do so. It was a living, breathing Google document. Jo and I have never lived in the same place or even in the same time zone, so we worked by talking when we needed to and leaving each other detailed comments. It was ever-evolving, sentence by sentence and chapter by chapter.
Aside from living in different places and time zones, what were the main challenges you faced writing in this way?
Jo: We faced so many challenges. Figuring out how to collaborate with someone on a novel is almost like figuring out how to live with someone. You have to work out how to communicate and do so really clearly, so the other person doesn’t feel like their creative process is being trampled on. I remember the first time I wrote an entire page and Christine deleted it and rewrote it. I felt terrible and I thought she hated my work. In fact, not only is she a great writer, she is a great editor. So she was just editing and I had to learn not to take it personally. It’s just so different to writing alone.
Jo: I think it’s honestly a better book because having two people invest in a story is amazing. We read things out loud to each other and that’s not possible when you’re writing alone. Nobody else loves your book as much as you do – not your husband, sister or best friend. To have two people so invested means you can constantly discuss the characters and the plot – it makes the dialogue so much better. It’s such an incredible gift once you can make it work.
Christine: Also I imagine writing is a very lonely process. From being an editor for so long, the collaborative element of working closely with someone to create a product is a natural way of working for me. Writing together felt like an extension of that. It’s slightly different muscles and processes but the core of it is the same. Working one-on-one on a creative pursuit is something I find really gratifying.
“To have two people so invested means you can constantly discuss the characters and the plot - it makes the dialogue so much better.”
The book starts with a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenage boy. Did you always know you wanted to open the narrative in this way and what challenges did you face in setting this scene?
Jo: We always knew that this was going to open the book, in the same way that we also had the title from the very beginning. Christine thought of the title in the middle of the night – she always wakes up at like three or four in the morning with ideas. Amazingly our title has stayed the same throughout all of the publication, as has our prologue, which is rare. We knew that we wanted to really catch the reader’s attention in an incredibly visceral way and we didn’t want the shooting to just be a device. We wanted to give Justin some agency and we wanted to see that shooting through his eyes.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the title? Who are ‘We’ and who is ‘Them’?
Christine: We wanted a title that was memorable and stood on its own, even if you didn’t know what the book was about. Beyond that, we wanted it to resonate with the themes of the book. One of those is the divisive nature of our society at large right now. Everybody is so tribalistic and wants to identify with groups – whether they be political or social – and belief systems and so on. Yet on a more positive note, it also reflects the friendship that Jen and Riley have. They feel like they’ve created a special bond from being friends since childhood that not everybody has. It’s quite rare to remain friends from childhood to adulthood, so the sentimental aspect implies ‘we are not like that’ and that they have a unique connection. So the title works on a few different levels.
It’s so interesting to hear about that friendship aspect of the title. Seeing as this story is told from the perspective of two females, one black and one white, who are best friends, did your own friendship inspire you? If so, how?
Jo: It wasn’t just our friendship with each other, it was the strong friendships with other women too. It was important for friendship to be the backbone of the story because so much fiction centres on romantic love and romantic relationships. Yet we both have incredible and supportive female friends who are the backbones of our lives – and we wanted to celebrate that.
When it comes to the two of us, we started out as professional friends but it quickly evolved into something more. We knew that we liked working together but we also enjoyed each other’s company on a personal level. However, until we started this book, we hadn’t talked that much about race because we hadn’t had to. We really had to dig in and discuss our own experiences, as well as our feelings and our thoughts very quickly. A lot of the conversations and the tensions that Riley and Jen finally have are also because they haven’t had to talk about race before. They became friends at such a young age, which is really the only time in your life when you are colourblind. Those conversations are quite reflective of the conversations that Christina and I went through whilst writing this book.
“We both have incredible and supportive female friends who are the backbones of our lives - and we wanted to celebrate that.”
We Are Not Like Them is also told through a series of chapters of alternating perspectives, offering both an insight into both of Jen and Riley’s experiences. Why did you decide to write in this way?
Christine: We knew we wanted to do that from the beginning and it was one of the critical structural decisions we made. It was really important to get both of their perspectives as that’s where the drive of tension is. We wanted their perspectives to be equal and for them to have equal billing on the page, which meant being pretty rigid about the amount of cage time that they both got. That was the tricky part, as certain plot elements needed to happen in certain chapters for the timeline and the momentum of the book. It was a little bit of a puzzle to match and that’s where the outline we’d made came in really handy.
The book explores how racism and stereotypes can affect even the closest of friendships, can you talk about your decision to delve into this?
Jo: We’ve always wanted this book to spark difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race that I think a lot of white people are afraid of having. As we’ve been talking about this book, we’ve seen that if you haven’t grown up talking about race and or developed that muscle and that language, it can be hard. I personally was scared because I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to inadvertently say something insulting or even stupid.
So Christine and I really had to have a lot of uncomfortable conversations. I had to plough through my own anxiety and do my own work so that Christine didn’t feel like she was teaching me a PhD crash course or about 400 years of Black history in America. I put in the time to do a lot of self-examination of where my own biases and thoughts about my own white privilege came from. Sometimes it was a painful process and it’s an ongoing process. There’s no one ‘kumbaya’ moment but after three years of doing this together, I think we’ve gotten to a really great place in our friendship. I feel really grateful to Christine for going on this journey with me.
“We've always wanted this book to spark difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race that I think a lot of white people are afraid of having.”
Christine: I think a lot of the time race can be so abstract or intimidating, which only makes it harder for people to empathise with. That’s why we were so motivated by the opportunity to show people that can relate to both of these characters the ways that race is playing out their individual lives, as well as how it is a factor in relationships that needs to be acknowledged. Hopefully, the emotional impact will allow readers to see how these really tough subjects or experiences play out for real people.
“Hopefully the emotional impact will allow readers to see how these really tough subjects or experiences play out for real people.”
Was creating the character of Kevin more challenging than the two females? How did you shape him?
Jo: Absolutely. We really wanted to get Kevin’s character as accurate as possible but we didn’t want to paint him as a very clear cut villain, either. We wanted to show that there are shades of grey and there are nuances in all of these kinds of cases. In every instance, there is a human being behind these actions who is a complicated person. I have a lot of friends who are cops and we did a lot of interviews with police officers, police wives and even a therapist who was a police wife. We also interviewed council officers and we read a lot of books. We really did our due diligence to try to make all of these characters as fully formed as possible.
When you were doing this research was there any literature or things that really stood out?
Christine: It’s hard because within that time we absorbed so much, from first-hand accounts to Lucy McBath’s memoir and a book called Black and Blue by a Black police officer – just to name a few important sources. There were podcasts and articles too, we really immersed ourselves in lots of different angles and personal accounts. There wasn’t just one or two that were fundamental though – immersed is the best word to use because we were talking, reading and listening constantly. It was an osmosis of inspiration in that way.
I guess that's where the collaborative element probably really came into its own for you as well. If you're both discovering different things, researching various views and discussing it all, you're just getting even more inspiration, right?
Christine: Totally, that is true and sometimes in discussing things, you start to understand it in a different way or you can be talked into a new understanding. Whereas if you’re doing this solo, you read an article, think about it and then move on. It’s not as dynamic. Jo and I often had different reactions to interviews or what we were reading and experiencing. You get double the impact and twice the amount of inspirational sources.
Were any moments particularly that were uncomfortable to approach in the narrative? Did they open up new discussions or give you new perspectives?
Jo: A couple of moments. One that really stands out is creating Riley’s family, who in the beginning felt very perfect to me. As someone that writes about a lot of dysfunctional families and comes from a dysfunctional family, when we were drafting them on the page they just didn’t feel real. However, it was really important to Christine that we avoid a lot of the tropes and stereotypes that are often placed on Black characters and families. She wanted to create a happy and unbroken nuclear Black family on the page. I didn’t understand it at first. I didn’t think this had anything to do with race – I just thought it had to do with creating a family that felt believable. I really had to come around and see how this had everything to do with race. It was vital for me to think about race with regards to everything when creating our characters, which I’ve never had to grapple with before in my books.
“It was vital for me to think about race with regards to everything when creating our characters, which I’ve never had to grapple with before in my books.”
What did you learn about friendship through writing this?
Christine: Communication is key, especially for us as new friends doing something difficult together. In our case, it was writing a book. Yet even old friends can have all kinds of transformations in their lives, such as living together or drifting apart – there are all types of evolutions. This process reminded us how important it is to be able to talk about anything and everything – hard things included. That is such a hallmark of true and close friendship. You need to be able to bring your full, authentic self to the table and make sure nothing is off-limits. We all need that level of vulnerability to be able to strengthen friendships. This was also the journey for the characters we created too. They had to figure out how to take their friendship to a new phase and be more honest with one another.
In life, we focus so much on the communication within our romantic relationships and we can get lost in that - we’re all guilty of it. So much so, we often forget to maintain the same level of open communication and consideration within friendships. And that can be just as meaningful and rewarding, would you agree?
Jo: Totally. We need attention and validation there too. Romantic love gets so much airtime, and there are so many well-known rituals. We know what happens during break-ups, we know what happens during proposals and there are these distinct phases, markers and milestones that are all familiar. That doesn’t happen in the same way within friendships, so it makes factors more grey sometimes. Giving a friendship that level of nourishment was important for us to show on the page but it’s also so important for us to take that into real life. We hope our book is a reminder that friendships are just as nuanced and meaningful as other relationships.
For me, the book was a reminder that as you get older and your lives move in different directions, longevity and how long you’ve known each other isn’t always enough to maintain an evolving, important friendship. Have you found that to be the case?
Christine: Absolutely and so many people rely on that. You think, “we’ve been friends since first grade, so we’ll be friends forever.” A certain type of complacency sets in but you’re never going to be the same person you were in school or at 25 or 45 and you’ll end up in different places. That’s what Riley and Jen have to do too. They have to navigate those major life changes.
As well as prejudice, the book explores careers, professionalism, families and community. Was it always the intention to delve into these areas or did this come naturally in the writing process?
Jo: It was always our intention. We wanted to show the many things that could impact a friendship over 30 or so years. We really wanted to touch on class and what arises when one friend gets married and the other doesn’t, or when one friend has a baby. We wanted to explore how that all changes a friendship. As Christine said, we don’t have as much of a language when it comes to traditions or milestones around friendships. We wanted to convey the ways that female friendships get complicated, in all their good, bad, ugly and beautiful glory.
“We hope our book is a reminder that friendships are just as nuanced and meaningful as other relationships.”
What’s next for you both – another collaborative novel perhaps?
Jo: We’re under contract with HQ for another book!
Christine: It’s called You Were Always Mine, and we are continuing to look at race through intimate relationships. This is going to focus on a mother-daughter story about a Black woman who finds an abandoned white infant. It’s going to explore the collision course it sends her on in her own life, as well as the baby’s birth parents.