Was Michael Jackson brown or was he white?
Can I make my hair like Michael's?
What did Michael Jackson like being better, brown or white?
Back in 2014, writer Mira Jacob's six-year-old son Z became obsessed with Michael Jackson. He wanted to dance like Michael, he wanted to look like Michael, and what began as Z's questions about his pop-star obsession spread into deeper questions about skin and color and race and family. Jacob is East Indian and her husband is Jewish, and Z wanted to understand who he was.
When Z learned about the killing of Michael Brown, a black man shot to death by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the questions grew more complex, and carried fear.
Is it bad to be brown?
Are white people afraid of brown people?
Is Daddy afraid of us?
Struggling to answer him, Jacob remembered similar questions she'd asked as a child, and what she'd been taught.
Now every question Z asked me made me realize the growing gap between the America I'd been raised to believe in, and the one rising fast all around us. I kept thinking if I could go back in time and make sense of the things I'd been told growing up, I would be able to give Z better answers, maybe even find a way toward that better country. Soon though, with news of the Black Lives Matter movement flooding our televisions, and the rise of Donald Trump, I would have just as many questions as he did.
To answer Z's questions, Jacob needed to wrestle America, and tackle her own American history. The writer, author of the novel The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing and shorter works of fiction and nonfiction, pondered beginning with essays. Then she imagined the responses.
"We've all seen the Comments section of something we felt was meaningful and heartfelt. Commenters deny, or make fun of, that writer's human experience so they don't have to take it in. It's much easier to do that than to engage with something, or to question the parts within you that made you feel guilty, or vulnerable in a way you don't want to feel."
An essay was wrong, Jacob decided. "I don't think there's any amount of racial pain that America actually responds to anymore," she told Spine. "I just don't know how to explain it anymore." And so she would not attempt to convince people to feel something, anything, about race or color or America. She would not do that work for them, would not write essays to guide towards, or push back against.
But she would process, for Z, and for herself. Somehow. Sitting in his bedroom one day, staring at the Michael Jackson albums scattered all over, she had an idea. She picked up the albums, brought them to the dining room table, drew Z, and drew herself. She placed them on top of Michael Jackson, on top of the albums, and she drew conversation bubbles, filling them with bits of real conversations she and Z had.
"I sat there with a pile of printer paper and cut out bubbles and wrote in them. It was hilarious. I didn't know how to write something so it would fit. It was a wreck on the table, but it was really exciting and energizing."
She didn't worry about facial expressions — she and Z were paper dolls, not actors — and she simply included the words they'd spoken. Writing was curating, "locating the part of the conversation that undid me." It was freeing, to record instead of explain, to capture the moments that sat strongest with her and let the reader figure out what to do with them, let the reader find the emotion.
And it became a project, and the project became a book, Good Talk, out March 26 from One World. Along the way, Jacob worked to figure out what to include, what conversations and which pieces of those conversations. Because she was including the now, with she and Z and her husband Jed, but also was including the past, she had to decide how the book would move through time.
"I have to write a thing through before I know how to structure it," she said. "I have to write all the possible parts. With [The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing], I literally restructured the entire thing with Post-it Notes and lost 200 pages."
With Good Talk, "I think I had to write 75 conversations in beats. What occurred to me after I had gotten all the conversations together, was that I needed to put what was my central urgency on the page: my son moving very quickly from a brown boy who had never known anything but a black president, to a world that was actively targeting people who looked like him.
"I took the conversations that we had that were specifically about that and pulled them into a frontline." She then divided the book into two, using a white background for the present and a darker background for the past.
On the technical side, Jacob put down the scissors and moved to the computer. "I taught myself InDesign, I taught myself Photoshop. I had never done any of it. I designed a font, and I hadn't really figured out how incredibly difficult that is." She pulled in graphic designer Pete Friedrich, creative director at Pageturner, "to help with the myriad things that can go wrong."
And then she handed off the manuscript to Random House. After a little back and forth – they wanted to clean it up, but Jacob argued that her font, based on her handwriting, and her hand-drawn bubbles best expressed the urgency, best allowed the crises inside her to spill out onto the page — the book was off to print.
Jacob's already been pulled into another, related project. Film 44 purchased the rights to Good Talk, which will be produced as a half-hour television series. Jacob is on board as an executive producer and writer. So soon after transferring her storytelling skills from novel to graphic memoir, she'll be tackling yet another medium.
Speaking with Eddie Huang, one of the other executive producers on the show, Jacob said, "I just want somebody who knows for sure how to write TV, because I haven't written for TV."
Huang pointed to Good Talk, an entire book centered on conversations … just like a script. "He said, 'I swear to god you've already done it. Stop freaking out!'"
Spine Authors Editor Susanna Baird grew up inhaling paperbacks in Central Massachusetts, and now lives and works in Salem. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Boston Magazine, BANG!, Failbetter, and Publishers Weekly. She's the founder of the Salem Longform Writers' Group, and serves on the Salem Literary Festival committee. When not wrangling words, she spends time with her family, mostly trying to pry the cat's head out of the dog's mouth, and helps lead The Clothing Connection, a small Salem-based nonprofit dedicated to getting clothes to kids who need them. Online, you can find her at susannabaird.com and on Twitter @SusannaBaird.