In 'We Are Not Like Them' Art Imitates Life—and (Hopefully) Vice Versa

Read an excerpt from the thought-provoking new book. Then, keep scrolling to discover how the authors, Jo Piazza and Christine Pride, navigated their own relationship while building a believable world for Riley and Jen—best friends, one Black, one white, dealing with the killing of an unarmed Black boy by a white police officer.

christine pride and jo piazza authors of we are not like them
Julia Discenza / Courtesy

I see that tears are streaming down her face. I open the door and slide into the front seat. The last time I saw Jen cry was in first grade when Lou shaved her head during a lice outbreak because it was cheaper than buying the expensive shampoo. I rush over to the passenger side and let myself in. Did something happen with Chase?

“I can’t take it, Riley. I can’t take it anymore!” She launches in as if she expected me all along. “It’s just too much. I’m so fucking tired of all these people treating my husband like a villain and a scapegoat.”

These people?

“Kevin’s not a racist, or a bad apple, or a ‘symptom of the systemic ills plaguing the police forces across America.’ ” She jabs her finger at the radio. She was clearly listening to the same morning shows I was. “This is such bullshit. And now in a few hours that stupid DA is going to stand in front of a zillion TV cameras and announce she wants Kevin’s head on a platter. Can you believe that, Riley? And on top of everything, I feel like you’ve abandoned me and that’s making all of this even worse.” Her tears escalate to full-blown sobs. “I don’t care, I had to say that. I’m mad, Riley. Really mad.”

I haven’t gotten a word in edgewise, but I stare out the window at the swirling red lights of an idling ambulance and try to figure out how to respond to this tirade.

“Well, Jen, to say I haven’t been there for you that’s not really fair. I told you, I’ve been trying to cover the story and I’ve been busy—”

“Yeah, yeah, Riley, you’re always busy. I mean, when are you not busy? So whatever.”

Her tone is bruising and annoying, frankly. Maybe Jen can’t relate to eighty-hour work weeks as a receptionist, but she shouldn’t judge me. I don’t have a chance to defend myself, as she’s already moved on. She turns to face me, shoulders squared, confrontation in her eyes.

“Tell me this, Riley. Do you think Kevin should go to jail? I just need to know.”

So we’re doing this?

“I don’t know, Jen, that’s not really for me to decide.”

“I know that, Riley. I’m just asking what you think. If you think Kevin’s some sort of racist monster, like everyone else seems to. Is that why you’re angry at him? At us? Because that’s not fair.”

“Not fair? First of all, you can’t say my feelings, whatever they are, aren’t fair. Also, if you want to talk about unfair, let’s talk about how unarmed Black men are being shot over and over and over. It’s endless, Jen. Endless! Do you think that’s fair? And most of these killers never face any legal consequences. I have pages of stats for you on that if you’re interested. So yeah, maybe it sucks that Kevin is being put out there as an example when so many police officers have gotten off for doing the exact same thing. But the world isn’t fair, Jenny.”

She’s biting down hard on her bottom lip so at first her words are a little slurry. “But I just don’t think you understand how hard this has all been. I kept trying to explain on email. I’m all alone and people are making all these judgments and they’re treating Kevin like he’s some sort of ‘issue’ to be dealt with. Like we have to be punished on behalf of all white people or something. Which is ridiculous, when Kevin risks his life every day to make sure people—Black people too!—are safe. All the attacks, they’re so personal. This is destroying me and I don’t deserve it. I just don’t.”

A flash of fury jolts my entire body. This was classic Jenny, always self-absorbed, always the victim. Maybe I’ve indulged these tendencies too much. Part of our friendship, of any relationship really, is the tacit agreement to allow a generous latitude for flaws and grievances. A trade-off that goes both ways, glass houses and whatnot—and besides, if you start holding your friends accountable for all their flaws, if you let the annoyances add up on a mental spreadsheet, the whole thing could come toppling down. I think back to our time at the bar the night of the shooting, how comfortable it was, both of us settled in our ways, how much I appreciated it then that one could truly know, and accept, someone the way she and I know and accept each other. It’s a paradox, loving someone precisely because you know them so well, inside and out, and at the same time nursing a tiny fantasy that they can be different in the specific ways you want them to be. Maybe it isn’t fair to expect Jen to change after all these years. But it’s eating at me, her inclination to be aggrieved, to always be so quick to think life has been unfair, that it should be easier for her.

“Are you kidding me, Jen? Destroying you? First of all, this isn’t about you. And second, talk about hitting close to home? Or it being personal? Every time a Black person dies an unwarranted or unnecessary death, it’s personal to me, Jen! It cuts close to home. All of it does. All the times I’ve been followed, questioned, second-guessed, judged, scrutinized, deemed inferior. All the vile comments I have to deal with—for the last ten years of my career, for a lifetime, not just for a few weeks. Everything that happened with Shaun! I mean, just weeks ago I learned that someone in my family was lynched, Jen. Strung up from a tree and riddled with bullets! So don’t talk to me about fair or how life is hard for you, okay? I’m not diminishing what you’re going through, and I want to be there for you, I do, but you’ve got to realize that you’re not the only one struggling.”

We both sit in a sort of stunned silence at all I’ve unleashed.

“I’m sorry, Rye. Okay. I’m sorry I haven’t been a better ally. That’s all they’ve been talking about this morning—ally this and ally that.” Her condescending tone irks the hell out of me.

“But there you go again, Jen. Yes, you could actually be a better ally! They’re using that word because it means something. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And that starts with looking at your behavior and your biases. It’s like when you slammed the door in that reporter’s face and screamed that your best friend is Black and that’s why you can’t possibly be racist. Come on! And I debated calling you out on it, but I didn’t, and maybe I should have just said something right away instead of letting it fester.”

Jen looks confused. “But you are my best friend and you are Black. So what?”

“It felt like you were using me as a shield. And by the way, you don’t get points for having one Black friend. I mean, you’re not hiding any others anywhere, are you?” My sarcasm is a low blow, but Jen isn’t the only one who’s “really mad” now.

“Jesus, Riley. Ouch.”

“I’m sorry, Jen, but it’s the truth. It’s weird to me that all of your friends these days are white.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do? Go out and introduce myself to every Black woman I see on the street and say, ‘Heya, want to come over and watch The Bachelorette with me?’ ”

I can see Jenny’s knuckles turning white on the steering wheel. She looks like she’s trying to focus on her breathing, to calm herself down. She glances at the clock. I know she probably has to get up to Chase and maybe this is enough for now. I’m at the end of my rope.

“Maybe I should just shut up, then. I’m never going to say the right thing.”

“That’s not what I want either. The last thing I want is for you to be silent and pretend none of this is happening.”

“Well, it’s not me that doesn’t want to talk about things, Riley. You’re the one that’s always so closed off. You’ve never said anything like this to me before, and yeah, it totally sucks to hear it, but it sucks even more that we’ve been friends for almost thirty years and suddenly you’re unleashing on me like I’m your enemy. Like you’ve been thinking all this shit and keeping it inside forever.”

She’s not wrong. “Look, Jen, I’m sorry if you feel this is coming out of nowhere. But put yourself in my shoes. I didn’t want to be the Black girl always talking about race. That’s no fun. And I don’t know what your reaction would be if I told you about all the shit I have to deal with because I’m a Black woman. What if you didn’t have the right reaction? ”

“What’s the right reaction?” She seems genuinely curious and confused, like she truly has no idea.

“Like showing me you get it, Jen. Or at least that you’re trying to.” I want to reach over and grab her by her ratty sweatshirt and shake her.

“Well, maybe you need to give me the benefit of the doubt. You never give anyone the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I haven’t been all politically correct and perfect, but maybe I’m scared too. Maybe I’m scared of saying the wrong thing or something stupid and everyone pouncing on me and calling me a racist because I use the wrong words. Even you.”

I feel a pressure to explain myself, but I also have to get to work and Jen needs to get to Chase; we don’t have enough time. I wonder if we’ll ever have enough time. “I don’t know, Jen—do you really get it? Do you get that my life and experiences as a Black woman have been completely different than yours as a white woman? Do you understand why people are destroyed right now, Jen, destroyed by Justin’s death? And not just the Dwyers. It’s what it signifies—all the ways that Black people, people who look like me, aren’t safe. Everything you’re saying about the shooting makes me question whether you understand any of this. And maybe it’s not fair, but it just brought up a lot of stuff that we never talk about or acknowledge. Like I talk to Gaby about race all the time and I never do with you. And we’re supposed to be best friends—that’s a problem.”

“I never said I didn’t want to talk about race with you. I just don’t even think of it most of the time; I don’t even think about you being Black.”

“That’s exactly my point, Jen!” I yell so loud a woman walking by looks over her shoulder. I watch her for a minute and try to summon some perspective and calm. “I need you to think about it, especially with what’s going on. You’re so blindly focused on Kevin, which I get, that you’re not seeing the larger implications or issues. It’s a privilege to never think about race. I don’t have that privilege. I love you, Jenny, but I just need you to, I don’t know, wake up a little more.”

What I really need is an out. I need out, period. I’m exhausted and I’m going to be so late to work.

“Look, the reason I stopped by was to bring this for you, and let you know I was thinking of you.” I thrust the bag at her.

“Thank you,” she says sincerely, but tosses the bag in the back seat without looking inside.

“How’s Chase?”

“He’s okay. I’ve gotta get upstairs. The pulmonary team is coming at nine to test his breathing and then more doctors will be there to try to take out his feeding tubes, and then a CAT scan. It’s a busy morning. It’s a terrible day. But I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that.”

“Of course you can say that, Jenny.”

Neither of us moves though; neither of us knows how this conversation ends. Or even if it is an end. Maybe, just maybe, as hard as it is, it’s a beginning. Who knows.

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Marie Claire: Could you tell me—because it's a book about friendship and you two are friends and chose to write it together—a little bit about your friendship: How you met, and how you would describe your relationship now.

Jo Piazza: Christine was my editor on Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, but we very quickly became friends. I turned in that book the day when I went into labor. Then we edited it with me breastfeeding Charlie, and Christine typing in the changes for me because I had no hands. We became close, and we started talking about— Well, also we worked really well together on another project, the Marriage Vacation book for Younger.

It was so much more of a collaboration than an editor situation, because it was so fast. I would dash it off, and Christine would be like, "Let me fix it. I got this." We were on text constantly, and we really enjoyed working together. And that's a rare thing to enjoy writing together, because writing is such a lonely process. We just started having this conversation: Christine had had this idea for a while. I'll let you jump in with that.

Christine Pride: After we finished Marriage Vacation, that was in 2018. It was around the time— Stephon Clark had just been murdered, and there was a lot going on in the news at that time. We started talking about this particular book and this particular idea. And I don't want to say [it was] a lark, because that trivializes it, but we really started it as kind of an experiment in this idea that we could write together. And the idea itself [of best friends, one white, one Black, dealing with the police shooting of an unarmed Black man] lent to it being a book that we should write together. It would be a different book if either of us wrote it separately, but the benefit of it would be that we could take on these two different perspectives.

JP: One of the things we talked about early on is—as our friendship deepened and we started talking about race a lot more—we had never really seen an interracial friendship done very well in commercial women's fiction. We just kept developing that idea. Christine came on our book tour for Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win; she did a road trip with me through the South going to bookstores. That obviously raised new and even more interesting questions about race. So we had that experience together, and the book just started coming together. Then it was interesting; when we went out to market with it, I remember someone was like, "Well, there's been a lull between police shootings. Maybe it won't still be an issue." And we're like, "Hopefully not," but then we know what ended up happening.

MC: Having had a writer/editor relationship, how did it shift to be writer/writer, and how did you deal with tensions of who's going to write which parts?

JP: So much trial and error.

CP: It was harder than we thought it was going to be.

JP: I will say, we were both all-in on the whole book. Neither of us took scenes. Neither of us took characters, which we think a lot of people are just like, "Oh psh, obviously ..."

CP: "You're the Black one, you're the white one."

JP: But, no. We really both wrote both characters and the whole book. In the beginning, because Christine is such a talented editor, I was more comfortable with the blank page. I was a tabloid newspaper writer, so I can sit down and just bang it out. Then Christine would edit it, and sometimes she would rip the whole thing up and completely rewrite it.

That was hard in the beginning, because I remember feeling like she was just kicking my baby out of the house. It was really emotional, and I didn't entirely have the language to express how emotional it was. I would just get frustrated and mad. We had to find some really strong communication in the beginning, it was almost like marriage counseling.

CP: Definitely.

JP: We hit walls and we were both frustrated and didn't know what to do and how to get past it, but we did get past it. I think that our friendship and relationship is so much stronger. We just started working on our second book.

MC: Making the conscious decision to not have Christine write the Black character and Jo write the white character—were there tensions there? Were there points where you said, "That isn't the lived experience that I've had, what you're suggesting"?

CP: Definitely. I think it was a lot harder for me, which I wouldn't have known until [I] started writing a book, because [as a Black person] you think about race all of the time and you talk about race all the time. Then translating that to the page, [I thought], It’s in your brain and your experience, and capturing that on the page will be seamless. And it's really hard to do it in a way that's not— I mean, I was trying not to [describe] experiences about being a Black person; [and instead] to just have Riley obviously embody the experience that she's living.

I feel like there was a little bit of a limitation, because it's not Jo's lived experience, and so there's a lot of editing back and forth, like, "Oh, I know what you mean, let's say it like this." We did have to talk a lot about giving these characters conflict—obviously characters need conflict and there was serious conflict here—but that their friendship would be credible enough. As a Black person, I was really sensitive to the fact that you wouldn't necessarily have a close friendship if race was something that you never talked about.

It was toeing a line between giving them enough conflict, but making it credible enough that these things hadn't come up in their relationship before. I think that that was drawing from so many of my interracial friendships, that was an opportunity but also a little bit of a challenge.

JP: I approach all of my fiction as such a reporter. It's just how I know how to world-build. And so when I was writing Charlotte [from Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win], I interviewed more than 100 women who'd run for office and who'd run campaigns, and so that's my go-to, that's my muscle. As I was trying to build Riley's world and her family, there were times when probably I was acting like a reporter to Christine, and so maybe even interrogating the experience as a Black woman.

I didn't feel when I first started doing it that that could be exhausting—"Tell me more about this microaggression, like tell me more about this"—because it was such a go-to, because it's what I would do with any character. But it's different when you're interrogating the lived experience of [a person and their] race. It's something that I had to become much more sensitive to and aware of, because it had to be exhausting.

MC: The specific excerpt that we're running is the climax of the book. One thing that was interesting to me is that, up until this climax, the reader is getting each woman's perspective on the events through their thoughts. And then Jen and Riley finally have to say their thoughts out loud.

CP: We wanted to draw out their parallel thoughts and narratives as much as possible, to build to that. We were being especially intentional about it for Riley's story, where she doesn't want to have these conversations—they're not a thing that she wants to do anyway, personality-wise. But she's also busy and there are 1,000 things going on, and she doesn't know how she feels. That gave it a credible way for this confrontation to be so delayed. And we wanted it to feel like by the time that they have it, the reader is like, "Oh my God, what are they going to say to each other?" specifically, I think, "What is Riley going to say to Jen?" because she's the one who’s more bottled up.

Then I think the tension is, "How is Jen going to react to Riley's tension all throughout?" I think the tension for a lot of Black people is, If I say how I really feel, what am I going to be met with? Guilt? Derision? Gaslighting? You don't know, and so it's almost easier not to broach it. When she had to do it, we wanted to see how much their thoughts would align with what they'd been [thinking before] and how much they would change by virtue of this conversation with each other.

JP: Yeah, how much they would actually be able to get out. One of the things that we really wanted to do with this book was— people can present as one way, and then what do they say behind closed doors? What are they saying, the "very woke" white person in the workplace? Then what are they saying to their white family and friends at Thanksgiving dinner? We wanted to show that, and we tried to show that with Jen's in-laws.

Christine said it so well: As a Black person, you're so scared, If I come out and I'm honest, what will you say to me? How will you judge me? How will this change everything? One of the things we wanted to get across, then, from Jen's point of view is this terror—especially in the wake of George Floyd—of saying the wrong thing or something stupid, of misspeaking and not being able to dial it back. Just not knowing how to articulate what is in their head in a way that is not offensive, because it can be such a tricky line.

We wanted to get that fear, and that fear just felt so raw in the face of a relationship where everything else had been fair game.

CP: And easier.

JP: And easier. Like, you know about my mother's terrible boyfriend, you know about the weird sounds my husband makes when we have sex, but just this thing is what is so hard between us. The confrontation scene is so important.

This moment is what I think readers will talk about and be able to [ask themselves], "But how would I have said that?" To have the characters as proxies for their interracial friend they probably don't have, because we know that 75 percent of white people don't have a friend of another race.

You can talk about the hard things through these characters, and not have to talk about them through yourself, which is very, very difficult for most people.

MC: With cancel culture nowadays—and this is a friendship so there's a little bit of a difference there—there's such a fear of saying the wrong thing, that people don't say anything at all. Do you feel like there's advice for readers in this scene on how to approach these conversations, whether it's just being comfortable in the uncomfortableness of possibly saying the wrong thing?

JP: We used to really get into it in the beginning as we were figuring out how to talk through these things. We've had some heated conversations about cancel culture, because I think it means different things to us. As a white woman writing this book, yes, I live in fucking terror of being canceled. I'm like, Will people assume that every terrible racist thing that our white characters say comes out of my head? How can a person even create those things if they don't have these feelings?

Or when I'm explaining the book, I'm like, Am I using the right words and saying the right thing? Maybe I'm not, I don't know. What I want to come out of this book is for us to be able to have the spaces to have conversations where you're not perfect, where you're a little bit uncomfortable, but it's okay, and that there's grace. Christine has very different thoughts on cancel culture, because you're like, "I'm not worried about getting canceled."

CP: Well, I think my [issue] with cancel culture [at least in the context of our book and race] is that when you say, "People are worried, people are worried, people are worried," that assumes white people. It centers the white experience in cancel culture. It's like, "All people are so afraid of cancel culture, and what can we do about it?" but that's not true.

JP: It was very important to us to not make anyone clearly—

CP: Right or wrong, good or bad. Racist, not racist.

JP: And to get across [that] everyone's a little bit racist in a different way, and so we did not want to have a fully demonized police officer. It was very important that we did not do that. We had someone early on read it and say, "Well, I don't care if all police officers hate this book, or if you piss off all the white people, you should be," and I'm like, "That's not where we're coming from."

CP: Right, definitely not.

JP: We want to present everyone in this book as a very complicated human being dealing with difficult shit. I think it was harder to humanize Kevin—I mean he's someone that murdered a child. But we did want to talk about the complicated factors that went into that murder and the complications of being a police officer, and dig into that. For the research for this book, we interviewed cops.

CP: We talked to a lot of cops, cops' wives.

JP: We discovered the entire subculture of LEO wives on Instagram, which it really—

CP: A world unto itself, I admit.

JP: It is a world onto itself. And we interviewed a lot of these LEO wives, because you're trying to think about: Jen as a wife, especially as a pregnant, new mother and new wife—where are your loyalties? And how can you reconcile that your husband is a murderer, but also he's the father of your child? How do you get through that? We had to give everyone nuance and gray areas, and that's what I don't think we see enough of, especially in commercial fiction. It's like, "You're good, you're bad, you're a villain."

MC: Audiences like to put people in neat boxes and know who they're supposed to root for. I don't think I was rooting for a particular character, but I was rooting for Jen and Riley's friendship.

The reader comes in right at the seismic shift in their friendship. It's not like the book starts when they're little girls. But as a reader you get the sense: "Oh, these two people are like sisters, practically, they're so close." It's not false to the reader to feel like, "I want this friendship to survive," and so you do empathize and sympathize with both of them.

CP: I think that actually goes back to [your question of] advice or what our themes are in terms of having hard conversations. If there's one thing that we hope is a takeaway, it's that you have to go there, it's kind of unavoidable. They had to, as much as they were both avoiding this [confrontation] for whatever reason, they had to go there and they had to have this conversation. I think that that's the lesson—if there is an overt lesson to be drawn from the book—these conversations have to happen, and they're going to be uncomfortable and everybody is going to be worried about reactions on both and all sides.

I think Black people are at such an advantage in this way in terms of, we talk, think— I mean, I think Baldwin said, "To be black in America is to have a Ph.D. in white people." We think and talk about race all of the time, so there's a certain kind of fluidity there and a certain lived experience, education, all these things. It's top of mind, and so you're coming into conversations potentially in an unbalanced way.

We just have to be able to talk about these things. And on the part of Black people, that involves bracing yourself for people to say something completely fucked up or to start crying. That is a very real thing.

JP: I did cry once. Because you said, "If we can't have these conversations of race, we're not real friends."

CP: Which is true.

JP: I was like, "Well, then everything I thought about our friendship is over." And that was our big point that we got through.

CP: That is the lesson. You can't have a friendship—

JP: But we hadn't had to have those conversations.

CP: Unless you talk about race, which is just like Riley and Jen.

I think that was part of our strategy or the intention of having them be such long term friends. Their friendship would've been different if they met at college or after college. But when you meet as kids, you just take for granted that you're not that different. And you grew up together so you feel like, We did everything together from first grade on, so how could you have such a different experience from me? They had to then realize that, as adults, they do have different experiences. That, I think, comes as a surprise to Jen.

MC: I think she sees herself as not a privileged person, because she was poor, the child of a single teenage mother, so she doesn't view herself as having any privilege, without realizing the inherent privilege that she had from birth, regardless of her socioeconomic circumstances.

CP: To her, Riley is the lucky one.

MC: The book is alternating chapters of Jen and Riley's perspectives, and the confrontation is in a chapter that's told from Riley's perspective. Why did you make that choice, and how might it have shifted if it had been in Jen's perspective?

CP: It was a puzzle almost. The structure is so fixed that you have to figure out when these things were going to happen within the timespan of the book. Some things had to happen in Jen's chapter or Riley's chapter just based on timing, but I think it was fortunate that it worked and intentional that it was from Riley's point of view, because she was the one who needed to say the things. Since she had everything bottled up and she was the one who we were like, "Is she ever going to be honest with Jen?" I think it was important to see it from her point of view, because I'm hoping that readers are rooting for her to say something, like, "Just tell her how you feel."

JP: Get it out there already. I don't think that that's rare. I think it does speak to the stories we choose to present to the world.

CP: And it's in keeping with Riley's character. Part of her being able to be a successful person in the world is compartmentalizing a lot of things, and once you compartmentalize one thing, you start to compartmentalize everything. Part of her journey as a character is seeing her make this decision to actually be— Like even in that moment when she was like, "I'm not prepared for this," her reflex is to skulk back to her car and drive to work, her happy place, but she moves forward. I hope that readers would be rooting for her in a different way than if we saw Jen bridge this conversation, which I don't think she wants to have either, but it would've been a very different dynamic if Jen had said, "We need to talk about these things."

CP: She's more confused, genuinely confused, like, "What is going on in our friendship?" which is a fair question for her to ask.

JP: Well, and Jen, her character, she sees herself as a victim and she paints herself as a victim so often, and so that chapter couldn't have been from her point of view, because we had to give Riley the agency in that chapter. Because Jen, even in subsequent chapters, even though she understands there had to be the confrontation, still feels put upon, and that's part of who she is.

I think a lot of white readers will see themselves in that; that they're like, "But this isn't all about race, why do we have to make it a thing?"

MC: Right, she just wants it to be about my husband, the trial.

JP: This is my life. This is what's happening right now.

CP: "You never liked Kevin."

JP: "You never liked Kevin. It's not about race." I think that is something—even though it might be hard for readers to take in—it is one of those things a lot of white people don't say out loud. They're like, "Why is everyone making this about race?" I have heard that behind closed doors. And so that's something we wanted to get out there, because I think it will ring true in a lot of readers' minds and make them think, Oh, well if I can think about that, then I can start to think about some of these other things.


Excerpt Copyright © 2021 by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza. From the forthcoming book WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza to be published by Atria Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.

Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio from WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza; read by Marin Ireland, Shayna Small, Kevin R. Free, and Chanté McCormick. Copyright © 2021 by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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