Pamela N. Harris, a former school counselor turned writer, blends together elements of mystery and social justice to create the compelling, young adult novel, When You Look Like Us. Set in her hometown of Newport News, When You Look Like Us follows Jay Murphy and the search for his missing sister Nicole.
Jay struggles to balance academic and financial responsibilities in his effort to repay his grandmother for raising him. While he tries his best to help Mimi out, he also wants to help his sister get back on track so their grandmother doesn’t have to worry. When he hangs up on Nic after she calls him late one night at a party, he believes he’s doing just that—helping her get her life back together. Except Nic doesn’t come home that night, or the nights after that…
In this interview, Harris discusses her writing process, the consequences of stereotypes especially for Black teens from low-income communities, and releasing her debut novel during a pandemic.
How has your experience been publishing When You Look Like Us in a global pandemic, especially as a debut author? Was there anything that surprised you as you navigated this unique landscape in terms of difficulties or new opportunities?
It’s interesting because, in a way, I was lucky in that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Since this is my first published novel, I had zero expectations. Being an actual published author always seemed beyond my realm that I never had dreams about book tours or meet and greets or speaking at conferences. Publishing my novel was the dream—and I’m thankful that I’ve finally had the chance to get my stories in the hands of readers.
When You Look Like Us takes place in Newport News, Virginia. What influenced you to set the book in the town where you were born and raised?
This story was originally supposed to be set in Chicago. However, once my editors heard my tales about growing up in Newport News, they were like this is the setting. This is the story. They encouraged me to integrate my experiences into the novel, and once I got that greenlight, the words seem to fly onto the pages. I had a lot of unresolved feelings about where I was born and raised, and writing WYLLU was therapeutic in a way. Now I can’t imagine these characters living anywhere else.
Apart from the pandemic, we are also living in a critical social moment for the Black Lives Matter movement, with the widespread protests of last summer having gained increased media coverage. How do you see When You Look Like Us fitting into our current social moment?
I, and I’m sure many others, believe that I experienced a double pandemic. On one hand you have the virus, which impacted my family, and on the other hand you have the racial injustices that have been impacting my family and me for decades. When You Look Like Us definitely touches on both the micro and macro-aggressions that Black people who are also from low-income neighborhoods face. I always call this story a modern-day noir but set in my former ‘hood. But since my main character, Jay, is who he is and from where he’s from, it was important for me to include traces of systemic racism as some of the obstacles he experiences. I write realistic fiction and, sadly, society has misperceptions about Black youth from “bad” neighborhoods. I also thought it was just as important to show how those stereotypes impact Jay’s own perception of himself and his neighborhood.
In what ways has your background in counseling influenced your approach or process for When You Look Like Us?
I primarily worked with youth, so my counseling experience helped me get into the heads of my characters. I understood how they felt, how they talked, and what they chose not to say. But I also felt a great responsibility after counseling adolescents for so long to not write something just for shock value. While I wanted my story to be realistic with mystery elements, I also didn’t want to add anything sensational for the “wow” factor. I wanted to balance being informative and engaging, with more emphasis on the latter!
The title When You Look Like Us is especially fitting for the book’s theme of exploring characters’ self-perception compared to how others view them. The contrast between their personal and social perception is heavily influenced by racial and socioeconomic stereotypes. What inspired you to pursue this theme?
It’s funny because the title is the last thing that came to me during the process. This story had two different titles before. My editor at HarperCollins is the one that suggested the current title, and it was like a lightbulb cut on in my head. The title says everything I want readers to take away from the book. It seems to capture just how much weight stereotypes can have on certain groups of people.
When I was reading When You Look Like Us, I was struck by the incredible way in which you crafted your characters. Even the characters who aren’t central to the main plot of the story are well-developed. Readers are able to see their individual motivations and flaws, which made them feel more real. What influenced your process for crafting these characters?
First of all, thank you so much for the compliment! Characters and dialogue are my favorite elements of the writing process. There were a couple of scenes that did not make the final cut in the novel, but those scenes help me learn more about my characters. In the past, I’ve created character profiles—but writing those additional scenes was the best thing I could’ve done for this novel. It not only helped me figure out my characters’ individual voices, but also their motivations. Because of that, even the characters I know I was supposed to dislike captured a piece of my heart.
Lastly, what are some recent or upcoming releases that you are excited for or recommend readers to go check out?
Wow, there are so many to name, but I’ll try to keep it brief. The beginning of the year was chaotic for me, reading wise, so I’m excited to take a dive into my TBR pile this month. First up in my stack are Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant and Wings of Ebony by J. Elle. Both ladies are fellow 2021 debut authors and write a wide scope of the Black experience. They are also super sweet and talented, and I can’t wait to read their stories. I’m also psyched about the upcoming summer release, Blackout. With the authors being Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon, how can you go wrong?
When You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris was published on Jan. 5, 2021.