Aspen Summer Words: ‘Hidden Figures’ author Margot Lee Shetterly
[This is an updated version of a story that originally ran in the Aspen Times Weekly in June 2017]
In her first book, Margot Lee Shetterly did what every nonfiction writer dreams of doing. With “Hidden Figures,” she reshaped the understanding of American history by illuminating the overlooked stories of the black women mathematicians who helped put a man on the moon.
Long-ignored women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Christine Darden — who worked for NASA as “computers” at Langley Research Center — have been celebrated as heroes since “Hidden Figures” was published in 2016. The book became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and the basis of an Oscar-nominated blockbuster film.
Shetterly, who is teaching a workshop this week at Aspen Summer Words and speaking on two public panels, was living in Mexico and editing the expat-focused Inside Mexico magazine eight years ago when she began researching what would become “Hidden Figures.” A native of Hampton, Virginia, she grew up around Langley and the groundbreaking women who had bucked discrimination and racism in the still-segregated south. She wanted to know more about who they were and what they did.
“When I stared writing this book, it was the book that I wanted to read,” she told me in an interview before Summer Words 2017, when she gave an address at the Aspen Words summer benefit.
She began by interviewing retired NASA mathematician Kathleen Land and soon found herself poring over personnel files and local newspapers to piece together a portrait of who was at Langley and what impact that had on the space race.
Over her six years of exhaustive research on “Hidden Figures,” Shetterley found more hidden American history that she hopes to share. For her next book, she’s returning to the middle 20th century to tell the story of the black Baltimore venture capitalist Willie Adams and of the Murphy family, which ran the influential newspaper the Baltimore Afro-American.
Aspen Times: How did you go about researching “Hidden Figures”?
Margot Lee Shetterly: The thing about doing something like this, even if you don’t know how to do it — which is certainly the case for me — is you just take the first step and see where it takes you. Everything that I found led to something else. And every time I found any kind of clue, I’d say, ‘Where is this going to take me? Where can I go after that?’ So it was just following the filaments of the story. It was like unraveling a mystery or going on an archaeological dig. There was enough information for seven books. So I needed to be disciplined about the story that I wanted to tell, and that need to be told, that was the hard part for me. But also the exhilarating part.
AT: Growing up in Hampton, you knew part of this story of the women at Langley. But what surprised you as you dug deeper?
MLS: The sheer numbers of women involved in this, and also figuring out the story that happened there in my hometown, which surprised me. What really surprised me was uncovering name after name after name of these women, this core group of black women. And they were part of this larger group of women from all backgrounds working on truly important projects that advanced the knowledge of aeronautics and the space program. Truly, it completely overturned the idea that women are not good at math.
AT: Every page of the book has such amazing, granular atmospheric detail — it reads like a page-turning novel. How did you think about style? How did you find so much detail?
MLS: If I wrote an academic history book, chances are it wouldn’t find as broad an audience and it wouldn’t be a book that I wanted to read. Again, this was really about me wanting to write the book that I wanted to read — I wanted the kind of narrative nonfiction where you can’t wait to get back to the book because the story is so good and you can’t believe that it’s real. And it was important to, as much as possible, take readers inside the world of these women, to put the reader on their shoulders so that you could see what they were seeing. I spent so much time in the interviews asking over and over ‘Do you remember how you felt?’ Or asking their kids, ‘What did your mother say to you about this?’ And looking at photographs — I’d look at photographs for hours, just studying what people wore and what their offices looked like. And looking at phone books and floor plans, figuring out who sat next to whom.
AT: Were you pleased with the film adaptation?
MLS: I was thrilled. It’s an interesting process, seeing up close that you can’t take a nonfiction book and literally translate it onto the big screen. You have to take liberties, conflate characters, truncate storylines and add things that will make a narrative interesting and captivate people for two hours in a dark room. There were times I was like, ‘This is wrong! You have to change it,’ and they were right not to. There were times I said, ‘We have to get this particular thing right, it’s really important,’ and they listened. I think the film is great. Even now, watching the movie brings me to tears.
AT: It also brought the story to audiences who couldn’t read the book, like young kids – there’s now a generation of inspired little girls who found heroes in Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.
MLS: I’ve been stunned at the reception of kids and young kids who have gone to see it five or six time and are telling their parents, ‘I want to be like Dorothy Vaughan!’ Kids from all backgrounds. The movie is so powerful. As well-received as the book may be, there’s nothing like a movie to put it on steroids and extend the message of the story and these women. It’s been remarkable.