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Bestselling author Nicola Yoon says her new novel is a Black ‘Stepford Wives’

“One of Our Kind,” by Nicola Yoon. (Penguin Random House/TNS)  (Penguin Random House)
By Chris Hewitt Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

It was during the COVID pandemic. George Floyd had just been murdered. Bestselling author Nicola Yoon was hurting. So she wrote.

“It all had a really profound effect on me, like a lot of people. I was despairing, and filled with rage and sadness,” said Yoon, who found the words of her new “One of Our Kind” pouring out of her. “The first draft took me six weeks, which is the fastest I’ve ever written anything.”

In the novel, a family – Jasmyn and King Williams and their son, Kamau – experiences disturbing changes when they move into an exclusively Black community. A passionate advocate for justice, Jasmyn realizes her neighbors have no interest in social issues or their identities as Black people.

Yoon’s young adult novels “Everything, Everything” and “The Sun Is Also a Star” were bestsellers that became movies. But “One of Our Kind” is intended for adults. We talked about why she had to write it, loving Minnesota writer Kate DiCamillo and being 1,000 years old.

Q. “One of Our Kind” is informed by recent events such as police shootings of Black people. Where did the idea for the book come from?

A. A couple places. This podcast I listen to, “You’re Wrong About,” was doing an episode about “The Stepford Wives” and how we remember that book (about strong women who lose their strength when they move to a mind-controlling suburb) wrong. It’s actually quite feminist, but people forget that. So, I thought, ” ‘The Stepford Wives,’ but Black.”

Q. You said the idea originated in a couple places?

A. Also, I had been on a panel about race with a friend and, later, we went to dinner and we drank too much wine and chatted. And he said, “Do you ever wonder who we’d be without the specter of racism?” It’s hard to imagine how you would be without this huge thing.

Q. After that talk and the “Stepford” podcast, you finally decided to write it?

A. A lot of the things I talk about in the book I’ve been thinking about for a long time – 100 years, because I’m 1,000 years old. I don’t think I could have written the book before. I don’t think I was a good enough writer.

Q. Wait. You’re 51. What do you mean you’re 1,000 years old?

A. I tend to ruminate and ruminate and ruminate forever. I’m the most annoying person to talk to.

Q. But maybe being 1,000 and ruminating makes you a better writer?

A. Yes! I like to think this is the best book I’ve written. I think that age and experience are good. My knees hurt now, but my brain works!

Q. Were you already a fan of Ira Levin’s novel “The Stepford Wives”?

A. I hadn’t read it. I knew the movie, but not the book. So I read it and I thought it was brilliant. It’s such a fierce and moral and feminist indictment.

Q. It does feel like there’s an agenda in your book. Do you hope to spur change?

A. The only way we ever get to some sort of mutual understanding and genuine empathy is through talking and listening. I don’t think it’s by lecturing. It’s genuinely listening to each other at the dinner table or in a coffee shop or wherever. I have friends who are Israeli and friends who are Palestinian or Palestinian American and I have learned so much because of the grace that friendship offers.

Q. The book doesn’t seem especially hopeful that we’re heading in the right direction.

A. I do believe in people, though. I do believe if we talk to each other, we can get there.

Q. You’ve said that you felt like you needed to write this book. Do you think your subconscious tells you what you need to write? Kate DiCamillo once told me she writes “behind her own back” much of the time.

A. God, that is so true. She’s amazing. She’s my little girl’s favorite writer. She is so smart. I write by hand and, later, I’ll go back and look at something I wrote and I’ll have forgotten it. I’ll think, “Did I really write that?” And the only way I know I did is that it’s in my handwriting.

Q. What are your hopes for “One of Our Kind”?

A. I hope the book is a conversation. Afterward, I hope people go out and talk to other people and they treat each other with grace.