The way two very different women find common ground is at the heart and soul of the novel Never Meant to Meet You (Montlake, $12.99) and its two authors—one white and Jewish, the other Black—talk to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how they came together to write it.
Yona Zeldis McDonough: How did you two meet and what inspired you to write a novel together? Can you talk about what that’s like?
Alli Frank & Asha Youmans: We spent four years together working in the same PreK-5 private school in Seattle, Washington. Alli was the Assistant Head of School, Asha was the lead PreK teacher, and we both served on the admissions committee for entering PreK and Kindergarten students and their families. While the admissions committee took this responsibility seriously, as did we, there is no way you can spend your days around the honesty of young children and the handwringing of their parents and not laugh at the humor and absurd moments that happen during this process. We discovered a common sense of humor and shared viewpoints on schools while decompressing after each session in the PreK kitchen while Asha was cooking up something delicious for the class to eat and Alli was sneaking a taste.
More times than we can count Asha would say, “One day when I write a book, this story will be in it!” Exactly two years after our final admissions team together, we signed a contract with Penguin Random House for our first book, “Tiny Imperfections.” It was sheer luck, a mutual love of books, and our shared desire to pivot careers to writing that had us discovering that when creating stories, Asha’s strengths were Alli’s weaknesses and vice versa. We always tell people, between the two of us we make one great writer.
YZM: How did those teaching backgrounds play into the story?
AF & AY: Hands down, educators are some of most practiced observers of human nature on the planet. Eyes, ears, and intuition are on point every second of every day. Between the two of us we have over forty years working in schools, taking in information about students, parents, grandparents, caregivers, and colleagues. We learned to respond to situations that were often joyful, as well as moments that were challenging and heart-breaking. Observing the wonderfully broad cross-section of life that flows in and out of school buildings has given us fantastic fodder for our stories. We feel so blessed to have been an intimate part of many students’ and families’ lives. It was those deep relationships that helped us confidently write about complex characters that may interact within a school, but live and thrive in the broader world.
YZM: Marjette’s grandmother warns her about getting too close to white people—why?
AF & AY: As the probable grandchild of enslaved people herself, Marjette’s grandmother would have certainly shared the history of her ancestors on American soil. Those stories would have included descriptions of life without freedom, the struggles of sharecropping, the oppression of Jim Crow laws, the threat of lynch mobs, the absence of basic rights. More pressingly, her grandmother would have guided her on navigating everyday life as a Black person and the particular skills of staying safe as a young woman. Though Black culture is joyful and stalwart, elders would be remiss in failing to teach the children of their family tree about the perils that existed in the world. In their experience, most of that danger would have stemmed from interactions with White people.
Asha’s own father grew up in the 1950s in a “Sundown Town” where being Black in certain neighborhoods after dark could result in arrest. Her grandfather told her about stepping off sidewalks into the gutter when White people passed by. Many Black Americans continue to discipline their youth about the tricky realities of existing in White spaces. Despite her children being half White, Asha teaches her sons many of those same lessons to this day.
YZM: Early on, Marjette says of Noa, “Her story is obvious from twenty feet away and without having to scratch an inch below the surface.” What does she mean by that, and does it turn out to be true?
AF & AF: First impressions and partially informed judgements are a real thing for all of us, as both the criticizer and the judged. That said, it is the next step, finding out if what you are assuming is true or not, that is the important one to take. Marjette’s first impression of Noa fits the trope of a blonde, white woman who has everything going for her including an easy life. She decides who Noa is based on distant observations and, because of her promise to ease up on her meddling ways, Marjette doesn’t take that second step, until she is forced to. As it turns out, getting to know her neighbor changes Marjette’s life in wonderful ways. It would have been a more obvious and common story if the roles were reversed and Noa, as a White woman, made a snap judgement of Marjette, a Black woman, and was then compelled to establish a friendship. We wanted to turn that more typical storyline on its head and explore what assumptions and judgements can look like from a Black perspective and what follows when that relationship blossoms.
YZM: Noa is Jewish and Marjette is Christian—how do those differences figure into their relationship and what do they learn from them?
AF & AY: We were very intentional in wanting Noa and Marjette’s relationship to resemble the centuries-long history in the United States of the Jewish and Black communities standing together from the co-founding of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to participating together in Freedom Rides and marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. The persecutions of the two groups share similarities throughout history and so do the resilience and joy of both cultures. Noa and Marjette learn what both subtle and overt acts of racism look like for each other and how those experiences affect the lives of their children. Ultimately, the bonds of these women and their respective families are strengthened by sharing their experiences through the lens of their varied intersectional identities. Today we are honored to be members of the Black-Jewish Entertainment Alliance and to have focused our creative efforts in Never Meant to Meet You on helping our country better understand the stories and struggles of Black and Jewish communities in America today.