Bestselling authors talk candidly about race, injustice, and inequality

200902-Atlanta-Gilly Segal, left, and Kimberly Jones are the authors of “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
200902-Atlanta-Gilly Segal, left, and Kimberly Jones are the authors of “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight.” Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Atlanta writers explain how their novel resonates more than ever in today’s context.

When Atlanta authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal started writing “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight,” they were often met with the question: Is your book still going to be relevant upon release?

But a year after its release, America continues to grapple with civil unrest and the growing list of police shootings, from Michael Brown in 2014 to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and Jacob Blake in 2020. The book also became a New York Times bestseller.

The book’s narrative, inspired by an incident that happened during the 2015 Baltimore protests, follows teens Lena and Campbell — Lena, who is Black and Campbell, who is white — as they navigate a night of violent protests and civil unrest, facing their biases and relying on each other to get safely home.

Since its release, “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight” has been nominated for an NAACP Image Award and its authors nominated as Georgia Authors of the Year. The two have appeared in Time magazine, among other media outlets. More recently, it was announced that the book is in the early stages of becoming a movie, with Radar Pictures and Prominent Productions as the film production companies. And in June, Jones went viral in a YouTube video titled “How Can We Win,” where the author passionately talks about the impact of racism on economic inequality. The video, with more than 2 million views, caught the attention of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.”

"I'm Not Dying with You Tonight" co-authors Gilly Segal (left) and Kimberly Jones (right) pose, attending the NAACP Image Awards in February of 2020 as nominees in the category of Outstanding Literary Work Youth/Teen.
Courtesy Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones.
"I'm Not Dying with You Tonight" co-authors Gilly Segal (left) and Kimberly Jones (right) pose, attending the NAACP Image Awards in February of 2020 as nominees in the category of Outstanding Literary Work Youth/Teen. Courtesy Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Jones and Segal have different backgrounds. Segal grew up in Florida with a love for writing. Meanwhile, Jones hails from Chicago, where her activism started at a young age after joining the civil-rights-focused nonprofit Rainbow PUSH founded by Jesse Jackson. It was their role as mothers and writers that brought them together for the book.

“I think we’re seeing an incredible amount of activism from young people,” Segal said. “I think part of why we wanted to tell the story through this particular lens is because kids are part of the movement. Kids are part of how we create change, and it’s important to focus on them and encourage them in their stories.”

They met by way of a book club hosted by Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, where Jones served as general manager. "So, I went to the Little Shop of Stories when she was on shift" Segal said, "and I lurked around the store until she had a break and begged her to write this book with me.”

Lately, Jones and Segal have been active in what they call conscious and intentional work, participating in protests and calls for justice, and volunteering at food banks. At the top of 2021, the co-authors say they’re locking in plans to work with Title 1 schools, juvenile detention centers and nonprofit organizations.

The writers talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the book and how to keep conversations going about race and social justice. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Atlanta authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal make their YA debut with “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight.” Contributed by Sourcebooks Fire
Atlanta authors Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal make their YA debut with “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight.” Contributed by Sourcebooks Fire

Q: What has it been like working on a book like “I’m Not Dying With You Tonight” and having conversations around it when we’re actively living civil unrest and police protests in 2020?

Segal: In general, I will say it has been jarring but not surprising. I mean, the book is inspired by an incident that took place in 2015 (during the Baltimore protests.) So, I think on a smaller and more episodic scale, we have been living this — and communities of color have been living this — for a long time. One of the things that struck me the most while we were touring schools was how many students approached us after our talks and said to us, “Did you base this off of an incident that happened here at my school?” And then they would describe something that was one of the things that happened in the book — particularly the shooting that happened during the football game. A number of schools we visited went “Yeah, we had an event like that here.” That’s why I say it was jarring but not surprising.

Jones: The interesting part about it is when Gilly and I first started writing this book, we can’t tell you how many naysayers said to us “Is your book still going to be relevant upon release?” We’re looking around like, it’s been relevant for 40 years. What’s going to happen in the next two years? That’s the part that makes us sad. Gilly and I always say that we wish that this was a work of historical fiction, but it’s not. It’s a contemporary book, and it’s still a very contemporary book.

Q: For folks who are reading this, especially during a time of civil unrest, what do you hope that they walk away understanding?

Jones: One of the things that we hope they do is use it as a tool to open discussion. So that’s one of the things that we hope that they do. One of the primary things that we want them to walk away with is to understand that part of dismantling white supremacy, in America as we know it, is owning and accepting — and this is from the people who would relate to Campbell — is owning and accepting that because you have implicit bias that lives in you that you need to do work on; it doesn’t take hating yourself to grapple with that.

Segal: There’s a passage toward the end of the book that comes back to me a lot these days in light of where we are (in August of 2020) where Lena asks Campbell something... The gist of it is, “Where were you when we were peacefully protesting?” I think one of the things — and I probably wouldn’t have said this a year ago — but today, I hope one of the things people walk away from after reading the book is what does it take to pay attention to people’s pain and to really start on the path of creating change.

Kimberly Jones (left) and Gilly Segal (right) attend the NCTE/ALAN conference in November 2019.
Courtesy Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones.
Kimberly Jones (left) and Gilly Segal (right) attend the NCTE/ALAN conference in November 2019. Courtesy Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Q: Kim, you recently did a video that has gone viral, catching the attention of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” What has the response been so far to that video?

Jones: I would say the response, so far, by and large, has been very positive. I don’t know if it’s my team or the world, but a good chunk of the negative response has been kept away from me. So I haven’t received it. I do have my fair share of trolls, but they are in no way around the same number of people I get from the Black community that say, “Thank you, this is what I’ve been thinking. I just didn’t know how to say it, or I thought I would get canceled. I thought I’d be risking my life for saying this, so thank you.” But I also get just as many messages from white Americans and non-Black people who say to me, “I don’t really think I understood the economic piece of it until I watched your video.”

Q: I know you both have been active and engaging in conversations with the community. Tell me a little bit about some of the things you both have been doing to make sure that we are continuing to have these conversations.

Jones: One of the things I’ve been proactive about in the last month is beyond just showing up in the expected places that people assume I will be, like marches and lectures and interviews and things like that—and I’m happy to do those things—all of these different pieces are part of the clock that is ticking. But also, like today, I’m at a food drive. Because part of helping in this situation is we have economic disparities and food disparities and medical disparities. So we have to be conscious that even though there are many of us fighting these front lines, there are still daily situations that are affecting the populations that we’re fighting for. We have to create opportunities while we fight for the legislation.

Segal: One of the things Kim and I get asked a lot is, “What can I do? How can I help?” And one of the things we like to talk about is the wingspan. So, in a given month, we all touch a variety of different organizations, places, people. So, like Kim said for me, it’s my corporate day job. I work at an advertising agency. It’s my faith organization. I belong to a synagogue here in Atlanta. For somebody else, it might be their church or their mosque, or it might be their volunteer organization. It might be your own home. It might be your children or the people that you live with. So, what are the things that you can look at and touch within a month? Start there. The marches and the protests and all that is so important, but so is incremental change within institutions and people.

READ THE BOOK

“I’m Not Dying With You Tonight” by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal.

Available at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and more.