Dolen Perkins-Valdez, TAKE MY HAND

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, TAKE MY HAND

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the New York Times bestselling author of Wench, joins Zibby to discuss her latest novel, Take My Hand, which grapples with the painful history of eugenics and coerced sterilization in America. Dolen shares what inspired her to write a fictionalized version of what happened to the Relf sisters, what she hopes the story will add to the current conversation surrounding reproductive rights, and what her writing process has looked like since the pandemic. The two also talk about the need for more writers’ retreats and what Dolen is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dolen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Take My Hand: A Novel.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez: Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: My pleasure. Can you please tell listeners what Take My Hand is about?

Dolen: Take My Hand is inspired by the true story of the Relf sisters. They were two little girls who were sterilized without their family’s permission at age twelve and fourteen years old in 1973. My book takes the perspective of one of the nurses who worked at the clinic who was involved with the girls. They were her patients. Her name is Civil Townsend in my book. She quickly learns that the work that she’s doing — she’s trying to do good for her community — is very, very complicated and at times, tragically harmful.

Zibby: I have to say, I listened to the first few chapters of this book before taking over and reading. The accents, I felt like I was in this community, in this time. The voice was so amazing. It was like watching a movie kind of feeling to it. Just thought I’d throw that out.

Dolen: I thought the audiobook narrator, Lauren Daggett, did a fantastic job. She really nailed it, the accent and the inflections. I wish I could meet her and thank her. She did a fantastic job. I’m hearing a lot of good feedback about the audiobook.

Zibby: Especially when the two girls come in or when she’s saying, “You girls are so young. What are we doing?” Eleven or twelve, it’s hard to believe all this stuff goes down and how it slowly played out.

Dolen: Yes. In real life, the Relf sisters were twelve and fourteen. I made my girls in my book eleven and thirteen, slightly younger, because I wanted to emphasize how vulnerable they were and that they were just children. Twelve and fourteen are children too, but I really wanted to further emphasize how young they were. Also, in real life, the Relf sisters’ mother was alive and well. In my book, the Williams sisters’ mother is deceased because I again wanted to emphasize their vulnerability, that they didn’t have a mother around as an extra layer of protection.

Zibby: Wow. Did you always know this true story? Did you uncover it at some point? Did you know you wanted to write about it? How did this come about and become a novel for you?

Dolen: I knew a little bit about it because my dad graduated from Tuskegee in the late 1960s. I knew more about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which he told me about. I didn’t know a lot about this case, but I’d always felt this connection to Alabama because of his time spent there. About seven years ago, I began to delve a little bit into it. I began to think, what really happened with those girls that I’d heard about in Alabama? It’s all over the internet, of course, so I just started to do some internet searching. As I learned more, I realized that this was major national news. This was in every major newspaper. This was in news magazines. It was a major story at the time. Yet we’re not taught about it in school. Many people don’t know anything about the Relf sisters, even people who are from Alabama. I just began to feel this sense of urgency that I needed to let people know what happened and to make sure that something like this never happens again.

Zibby: Of course, it’s incredibly timely that your book is coming out now with all of the family planning stuff up in the air again with Roe v. Wade and all of that. How do you feel about the confluence of these events?

Dolen: I tell people I started this book seven years ago. I didn’t plan this.

Zibby: No, of course not. I wasn’t insinuating that. Obviously, who could’ve known?

Dolen: I know you weren’t. People have been asking me this question. I say that to say I don’t have any really ready answers to comment on what’s going on right now other than to say that I hope that this book adds to that conversation in some way. I think we’re about to have some very, very painful conversations in this country. I was just listening to a podcast in my car on the underground abortion movement that’s evolving. It was just frightening to listen to, to be honest with you. I just hope that this book will add to that conversation by reminding us who will be the most affected by this ruling, poor women, women of color, disabled women. I tried in the book to make sure that there was a connection drawn between what happened to those girls and what was happening in the larger reproductive rights conversation.

Zibby: I think all conversations related to this topic now are super important, and exposing all of this and the repercussions. Not to get political, but it needs to be discussed and not buried. Your first novel came out in 2010, right? Wench?

Dolen: Yeah.

Zibby: Tell me about getting started as a novelist and then what it’s been like to continue producing consistently and working on books for the last twelve years. Did you always want to be a writer? Where did this all come from?

Dolen: I was always a reader. I’m still a reader. That’s my passion, is curling up with a book. I didn’t know any writers growing up. I didn’t even know that it was a possibility. I’d never met a living writer. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I knew I was a strong reader and writer, generally speaking, but I had never fathomed that it could be a career, something that I could actually make a living at. When I got to college, I published my first short story in a little romance magazine. I thought, wow, that felt really good. I was paid for that short story. I think I was paid $130 or something. That was a lot to me.

Zibby: My first article I wrote when I was fourteen, it was published in 1996 or something when I was sixteen. Anyway, I got paid $150. I couldn’t believe it. It was like I’d won the lottery.

Dolen: Exactly the same feeling.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe that I could get paid for my words, which just came out of my head anyway. It was amazing.

Dolen: It was. That was exactly the same. When I got published, this was ’96, ’97.

Zibby: Same time.

Dolen: Right around the same time. I was the same as you. I was like, I would’ve done that for free, and they gave me money. I still feel like that. I still feel like I would do this for free.

Zibby: Now I am doing this, a lot of time, for free, by the way.

Dolen: It’s true. Even when you are paid, if you were to work out the hourly wage, it would not be so good. I will say that I began to see it as a career in my early twenties. Actually, I wrote three unpublished manuscripts that were never published before I started Wench, which was the one that became published. It took me about ten years of just grinding and learning and reading and figuring out how to put a book together before I was able to get a publishing contract.

Zibby: Tell listeners a little bit more about Wench and what was it like for you when that book came out. Contrast that to now.

Dolen: I had the good fortune of working with a dream editor at that time. I have actually had that experience throughout my career. I have worked with amazing editors. My current editor, Amanda Bergeron, is fantastic, brilliant, and so supportive. I love her. I also had the privilege of working with Dawn Davis, who was my first editor. My first book hit. It sold tens of thousands in hardcover. We had a very modest marketing budget. I had a very modest advance. It came out at the beginning of the social media moment, and so we were able to capitalize on some of those social media word-of-mouth type of energies. It was great to actually have people reading my work. That was really my dream, is that I would write something and that people would read it. I think one of the reasons that Wench caught on is because it was this excavated piece of history, much like Take My Hand, about this resort where slave owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses.

It was a place that actually existed. I became very curious about it when I discovered it while reading a biography of W.E.B. Du Bois. That resort eventually went on to become the first Black college in the country, the first HBCU, Wilberforce University. Those early students were the sons and daughters of these enslavers and their enslaved women. I was fascinated by that. I began to think this might be, actually, a novel. I worried that my skills — writing a book is so difficult. I worried for a long time that my skills were not up to the task — I still worry about that, frankly — of capturing what I thought was really, really important history. I just plowed forward. I ended up with a great editor. I ended up with a great publishing house. The rest was history. I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my — once the ball started rolling in my career — it took a long time for that ball to start rolling. Once it started rolling, I have been very, very fortunate.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Are you already working on your next book?

Dolen: I am. I’m under contract for another book. Right now, it’s a bunch of pages that make no sense. People say, do you have a manuscript? I’m like, I have pages. I wouldn’t call it a manuscript.

Zibby: I would argue a lot of authors would feel that the drafts of their novels could be described the same way.

Dolen: It’s a lot of messy pages.

Zibby: Speaking of the process and the messiness of it, tell me a little more about the way that you write. It sounds like not with outlines, perhaps, judging from that last statement, but I don’t know.

Dolen: I do. I do work with outlines. That’s because before I published my first book, I had three unpublished manuscripts, and one of those was a four-hundred-page monstrosity that I had not outlined. When I got four hundred pages into the manuscript, I realized it wasn’t working and I needed to start over. I did not have the ability to start over. That was when I moved onto something else. I learned my lesson that I do need an outline. It’s not a detailed sort of thing. It’s just a rough sketch of scenes I need to write and a rough idea of where the book is going. Even so, as you’re writing, things take different turns. I probably should spend more time on outlining because my outline gets rewritten several times. When I say rewritten, I mean overhauled. I’ll start with my research. I’ll start with thinking about what I want my book to be about. I get ideas — I went to the National Gallery of Art with my niece this weekend in DC, which is where I live. I’ve had this idea ruminating about my next book. I saw a piece of art there that was very much what I think my next book should be about. Not the one I’m working on now, but the next one. I thought, oh, this is a sign, the fact that I see this art. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking about. It takes me a long time to settle into what I’m going to write about. For the next book, it’s just percolating. When I saw that art over the weekend, it just adds to it.

Once I settle on my idea, I start researching, which involves a lot of newspapers, looking at maps, reading other people, other scholarly books to learn about the period. I listen to songs if there’s music of the period. Then I start to outline. Usually when I outline, I take a weekend away. I’ll either go to a hotel room — I need three days of complete isolation from my family. I have two kids. My family has learned that’s my outlining weekend that I need at the beginning of every project. Usually, it’s three days of being in a hotel and ordering room service and just thinking it through. I have to do a lot of thinking through. After I have that outline, I feel a lot better. I come back into my world. Then typically, I have tried to write in the morning, but with virtual schooling and then with the upheaval of COVID, I have learned to be more flexible. Before COVID, I didn’t write to music. I was always a silent person. Now I’ve learned to write with music and with interruption. Then the other thing that happened was I don’t have these big blocks of time anymore, so now I just write in thirty-minute blocks here and there throughout the day. I’ll say, okay, I’ve got thirty minutes before the cable guy arrives. I’ll just go turn on my timer and write for thirty minutes. At the end of the thirty minutes, the doorbell rings.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. That’s how I feel about reading, all this found time, all these moments.

Dolen: Pockets.

Zibby: Pockets. So much time wasted on our phones. I know this is beating a dead horse, but it’s true. Those are the times. When you pull out your phone, pull something else out. Have the book in your bag. Pull it down.

Dolen: We’ve also convinced ourselves that being on our phone is work because we’re doing our social media. We’re doing our promoting and all this stuff. Sometimes it is work, but sometimes it isn’t.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s a fine line, and so easily distracted from one app to another. I’m always like, wait, why did I even pick this up? What am I even doing on here? It’s much easier to have an actual book. You know what you’re doing with it. You just open it up and read it. Speaking of books, you said you love to read. What are you reading now? What are some of the books you’ve read lately that you loved?

Dolen: I was just at a book event with Chris Bohjalian.

Zibby: I love him. Love him.

Dolen: I love his new book, The Lioness. I think he’s a wonderful writer. He’s a good friend to me. This weekend, I brought — I have not read this yet. It has been on my to-do list. I bought it when it came out.

Zibby: Oh, that’s good. I read that.

Dolen: The first week it came out in hardcover, I bought it, and I never read it. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton is up for this weekend.

Zibby: Amazing. I have podcasts with both of them if you want to do some background research before you dive in.

Dolen: I like to listen after I read.

Zibby: Me too.

Dolen: After I read, I’m obsessed. I want to find out everything I can about the people. I stalk them online after I’ve read. I have been known to email — I can get emails and find emails. I have been known to email writers at two AM after I finish their book. I’ve made friends that way, just writing them and saying, it’s three AM in the morning. I just finished your book. That was amazing. How did you do that? When people write me and say that, I always appreciate it because I know that feeling well.

Zibby: Yes. I do that sometimes too. Not that often, but sometimes. I’m like, I need to tell this author right now that I just finished it. It’s like we went through it together.

Dolen: It is. You have.

Zibby: They just don’t know it.

Dolen: They don’t know it, but they knew when they published it that they were building a community around that story. I love to write writers who move me.

Zibby: Very cool. Thank you so much. This has been so nice. I love the room service outlining method. Actually, it would be really neat to partner with different hotels and do outlining weekends with groups, writing retreats.

Dolen: I have heard that before.

Zibby: Oh, you have?

Dolen: But nobody’s ever done it. I know some bed and breakfast — there was one I had heard about in New Jersey that was doing writers’ weekends. There’s still a need for that. When I’m in a hotel, nobody in there is writing but me. It just feels weird. It’s nice to have a community. Then when you take your break, you can come out and have your coffee together. Then you go back into your cave.

Zibby: Maybe there’s a speaker or something.

Dolen: We need that.

Zibby: Let’s do it.

Dolen: There’s still a need, also, for parents, for writing retreats with childcare. There’s still that need.

Zibby: Interesting. I feel like I would not get anything done.

Dolen: It would be hard, but if your kids were occupied all day, think about it.

Zibby: That would be amazing. I know.

Dolen: If they had some kind of summer camp.

Zibby: If they know there is an access point to me, though, even in the most giant — they will find it. I need to be in another state to know that I am —

Dolen: — That’s true. I understand.

Zibby: If you want to plan it together, I love planning events. I’m going to look into it. I almost did a Moms Don’t Have Time To retreat with forty authors during COVID. Of course, it all came crashing down. Now I’m so burned from that that I’m hesitant to schedule something else, but I feel like a writing retreat would be so easy because all you’d really have to do is just fill up a Hampton Inn with a bunch of writers. Go down for the free buffet every morning.

Dolen: I would think there’s a lot of bed and breakfasts that would be open that.

Zibby: But that’s only, like, six. They’re small.

Dolen: They are small.

Zibby: I’m thinking I want to get a hundred authors together or something.

Dolen: Wow.

Zibby: A big thing. Everybody goes.

Dolen: There you go. I like that idea, especially if you can get good rates. The big thing is your meals.

Zibby: The meals don’t have to be that great if you have amazing company.

Dolen: Where are you located?

Zibby: I’m in New York.

Dolen: There is a place — look it up. It’s in Virginia. It’s called Airlie. Let me see if I got the spelling right. I think it’s A-I-R-L-I-E. Yeah,

Zibby: A-I-R-L-E-E?

Dolen: L-I-E. It’s a retreat-type place. It’s owned by American University. That’s why I know. The hotel rooms are gorgeous. They’ve got different little, not cottages, but different little buildings around the property that have rooms. They’re all updated and pretty and gorgeous. All the meals are included.

Zibby: I’m going to look at this later today.

Dolen: Nature walk. It’s horse country. There’s activities. There’s archery. It’s a retreat-type place. It would be perfect for something like that. It’s about an hour outside of DC.

Zibby: I think that could be really cool. I was going to do my event at the Ocean House in Rhode Island, which is right on the ocean. It was going to be gorgeous.

Dolen: Where is that?

Zibby: That’s in Rhode Island.

Dolen: Where in Rhode Island?

Zibby: In Watch Hill. They did give us great rates because the owner is an author herself.

Dolen: Is that Rosalie O’Brian? No. Oh, that’s a big place.

Zibby: Deborah Goodrich Royce.

Dolen: That’s beautiful.

Zibby: I had sold it out. I had sold out the whole retreat and another neighboring hotel that they owned.

Dolen: There’s another one that my old college roommate has in Rhode Island. It’s also on the water, Rosalie O’Brian’s place. Let me see what the name of her place is. I forget her married name now.

Zibby: I think this would be fun. Even a cozy winter weekend.

Dolen: She’s got a lot of rooms. It’s right on the water. It’s gorgeous.

Zibby: I want to do it again. People have been asking me to do another retreat, but this sounds much easier than organizing panels all the time, which is basically like a festival.

Dolen: I love the idea of a place that has some charm rather than a Hampton Inn.

Zibby: You’re right. I know. You’re right.

Dolen: Where we all feel like we’re in another world.

Zibby: Yes, a destination. You’re right.

Dolen: I want to get away from this world.

Zibby: I hear you. I think we should keep talking about it.

Dolen: Make it happen. Let’s talk.

Zibby: Let’s do it. I’m not kidding.

Dolen: Thank you, Zibby. It was nice to meet you.

Zibby: Thank you. Nice to meet you too. Bye.

Dolen: Bye.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, TAKE MY HAND

TAKE MY HAND by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

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