Gilly Segal and Kimberly Jones were both part of a local YA writing community when they became friends. After reading about an incident that occurred during the Baltimore riots in 2015, the two women decided to write a novel about how teens would deal with such an experience. During that Baltimore event, when authorities learned that students were planning a protest, they closed school early, ordered the kids to disperse, and closed public transportation, making it very difficult for anyone to get home.
"As we read about the escalating, terrible, but also powerful events taking place in Baltimore, we found ourselves wondering how those students navigated that day," Segal says. "We wondered what would happen if two very different girls with very different life experiences found themselves trapped together in such a charged situation."
I'm Not Dying with You Tonight is set in a fictional Atlanta neighborhood inspired by the authors' home. The plot maps the journey of two high school girls from the same class as they try to safely make their way home after chaos descends on a high school football game. On their journey, the girls pass through a protest and end up in the middle of a riot. Lena is black. Campbell is white. Their race shapes each of their backstories and points of view.
The location is central to the story, as the girls must stray from their usual routes and walk down dangerous blocks. "As we began plotting, we walked the streets of our neighborhood, taking a route we imagined the girls would walk on their journey," Jones says. "We used that literal walk in our characters' shoes to draw a map of our fictional neighborhood and populate it with the people and places that made it feel real to us."
Lena and Campbell have different reactions when they encounter cops as they are trying to leave school. This juxtaposition illustrates how their experiences have given them wildly divergent worldviews. "One character's experience of police is that they are authority figures to whom she can turn for assistance," Segal says. "The other character's experience is that police are authoritarian figures who may present a danger. Putting them together in a scene where they're confronted with a parking lot full of police was bound to evoke opposite reactions from them."
"We wanted to think and talk about these topics in a very personal way," Jones says. "The cultural backgrounds of these two characters influence how they navigate and interpret the events of the night."
The book jumps between Lena's and Campbell's points of view; Jones wrote Lena's story and Segal wrote Campbell's. The authors used the dual points of view to strongly differentiate the characters' voices. "This is a novel about perspective," Jones says. "Writing from two points of view allowed us to personify that. Each girl views the events of the night through a different lens, informed by her life and experiences leading up to the riot. Rotating between two first-person points of view enabled us to dig deeply into each girl's character."
Yet these two characters are not entirely different. One crucial characteristic they share is that they're both girls, which "informs how they perceive their circumstances and the choices they make that lead them down a path toward unforeseen trouble," Segal says. "We like to wonder: if either of these characters had been male or male presenting, would the story have taken place?"
Their joint writing sessions gave the authors a new take on compromise, namely, that it is not about meeting in the middle. "Sometimes, one person had a passion for a particular point," Segal says. "Whenever that was the case, we followed that passion. The novel was always better served in the end by taking that route." Readers, too, will find that differences—and the will to seek understanding across them—can be powerful tools for survival.