‘The Kindest Lie’ Is A Tender Meditation On Family

Without diving into sentimentality, debut author Nancy Johnson examines the bonds that bring people together — and the lies that threaten to tear them apart

The Newborn Baby, 1675, Matthijs Naiveu. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

You worked for more than a decade as a TV journalist. How did your work as a journalist impact the writing of this novel?

I developed an intense curiosity about people — their interior lives, the way they speak, how they move through the world, and more. That came from interviewing bankers and bail bondsmen, factory workers and farmers. I bring those keen observation skills and attention to detail to the characters I craft. They come alive on the page because I dig deep to ask the right questions, developing a true understanding of who they are and how they came to be the way they are.

Also, working in television news trained me to compose for the ear. When I sit down to write, I read aloud the scenes from the day before. I hear the rhythm and know when I’m striking the right notes.

I love that descriptions of cooking, food, and meals abound in The Kindest Lie. The story begins at a dinner party, where characters drink martinis and eat Chicago’s best barbecue; characters in other scenes eat dark chocolate truffles, honey baked ham, blackberry preserves, fried chicken, and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Food even makes appearances when the character isn’t eating; for example, in one scene, a character is jumped while “the smell of grilled meat wafted from somebody’s cookout nearby.” What role do you see food and cooking playing in the story?

I’m not a foodie, but I love to eat! In my own family, when we have large gatherings during the holidays, we sit for hours at the dining room table talking, laughing, and sharing stories over and over. Food brings us together and offers meaningful connection. In The Kindest Lie, when Ruth returns to her hometown and greets Mama for the first time after being apart for many years, Mama immediately wants to know if she’s hungry. Then she whips up buttermilk fried chicken, greens, and corn muffins. That offer to feed her granddaughter is an act of love. At the same time, there’s a lot of tension between the two built up over years of secrets. As they’re eating, you can hear the empty spaces in their relationship with the only sound in the kitchen being their forks scraping the plates. In the span of that one scene, you can see how food illuminates connection and separation.

Although it begins and ends in Chicago, the bulk of the narrative takes place in Ganton, Indiana — a small town that’s economically struggled in recent years. Could you talk about the inspiration behind Ganton, Indiana? How did you go about crafting such a lived-in setting?

The Kindest Lie takes place in 2008 during the Great Recession. Economic ruin dominated people’s lives, particularly in small towns that depended on industry. The auto plant was the beating heart of Ganton, Indiana, and when it shuttered, Ruth’s brother, Eli, and Midnight’s father Butch Boyd were left jobless. That loss exacerbated racial tensions in the town and especially between these two men.

A few people told me they Googled “Ganton, Indiana” after reading my book and were frustrated that they couldn’t find it. Ganton is a fictitious town, but I love that it feels so real to readers. I grew up in Chicago and have never lived in a small town. However, I covered news in Kenosha, Wisconsin after the Chrysler plant closed and recall the struggles that city had to survive in the aftermath. Also, I have family in the steel mill town of Gary, Indiana. So, I know these kinds of towns and have met the good, hardworking people who live in them.

What’s a breakfast dish that reminds you of home (whatever “home” means to you)?

I love a big, hearty breakfast! Home for me growing up was often my visits to my Aunt Mary and Uncle Melvin’s home in Anderson, Indiana. My parents and other relatives would be there. For breakfast, we’d often have buttermilk biscuits, bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs, and hot applesauce. My stomach was full, and my heart, too, surrounded by the people I love most.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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