By day, Kimberly Johnson is a University of Oregon administrator, helping guide young people through their academic path as Vice Provost for the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success. But by night, Johnson is a bestselling author whose young adult book This Is My America is being developed into a series for HBO Max. Not bad for a debut novelist who didn’t dive into writing until she was 32 years old.
Johnson, who grew up in Eugene and earned her Bachelor’s degree from UO in 2001, spent time volunteering with social justice organizations like the Eugene NAACP as a young person. As an adult, she began writing in her free time when she had a spark of inspiration, and then fell in love with the writing process.
The idea for This Is My America formed around 2014, during the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner became part of the American consciousness. “I wanted to help write a story that actually expanded out that Black Lives Matter isn’t just about police brutality, it’s about the entire ecosystem of racism in our country and the criminal justice system,” Johnson says. “So I really wanted to tell a story centering it with the activists.”
In This Is My America, Johnson tells the story of a 17-year-old Texan named Tracy Beaumont, who is writing letters to an organization called Innocence X to help get her innocent Black father off of death row. Tracy’s situation grows even tougher when her brother is accused of killing a white girl, which leads her to discover her small town’s racist history. Johnson calls her novel a “social thriller,” based on her passion for social justice and page-turning mysteries.
After its release in summer 2020, Johnson’s debut novel went on to earn a great deal of attention and accolades. Among her successes, UO chose it as their annual Common Reading Program selection and it became an NPR Best Book of the Year. States like Tennessee, Texas, and Florida picked it up as a recommended book for schools. Locally, some UO faculty members have added the book to their courses and Johnson participated in a teach-in session with teachers around Oregon. And then came the bidding war for the series, which landed Johnson the production team behind Gossip Girl and her own executive producer credit.
Johnson laughs with humility at her achievements. “It’s been incredible,” she says. “I honestly never imagined that my book would be as widely read and picked up in a lot of different ways as it has.” She’s excited about possibilities that translating the book into a TV series brings. As much as she loves reading all sorts of books, “I love bingeing series,” she says, “What I’m so excited about, is that around film and TV, you can have conversations around the [water] cooler. It actually forces—in a very public way—a space for people to have a conversation on these really important topics that I bled into the story.”
Beyond the series, Johnson’s future is even brighter. She already sold her second novel, Invisible Son, which will tell the story of a boy who goes missing amid a pandemic and a summer of racial reckoning. It’s scheduled to be published in Fall 2022.
Illustration by Dan Pegoda