Zakiya Dalila Harris, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL

Zakiya Dalila Harris, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL

Zakiya Dalila Harris tells Zibby about how she knew it was the right time to leave her job in the publishing industry to focus on her own writing, the unsettling workplace encounter that inspired her debut novel, The Other Black Girl, and what her experience has been co-writing Hulu’s adaptation of her book with Rashida Jones.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Zakiya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Other Black Girl.

Zakiya Dalila Harris: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you today.

Zibby: It’s also nice, I feel like there aren’t that many whose first name start with the letter Z, so we have that.

Zakiya: Yes, it’s one of my favorite things about my name. I don’t know if that’s weird, but I’m sure you can relate.

Zibby: I have a little Z sticker right here on my desk. Next time I see it, I’ll send one to you.

Zakiya: I would love that.

Zibby: First of all, your book is on every list of anticipated books and blah, blah, blah. Oh, my gosh, how does that make you feel?

Zakiya: You know, it never gets old. I always am just so blown away by all the coverage, but then how diverse the coverage is too. I just couldn’t be happier about how it’s finding as many people as possible. I’m just really excited, so excited.

Zibby: Amazing. For people who don’t know what your book is about, do you mind giving the two-sentence description?

Zakiya: Absolutely. The Other Black Girl follows Nella Rogers, a young editorial assistant who’s been the only black person working at Wagner Books for the last two years or so. She’s really excited when Hazel, another young black woman, starts working in the cubicle next to hers. She’s like, yes, finally, no more microaggressions on my own. I can talk to someone about all of that. I can talk to someone about my hair and just being a black woman in this space. Then very quickly, strange things start happening in the office. Nella starts to wonder if Hazel is really all that she seems. That’s the main storyline. Then there are also three other black women’s stories that are interwoven between Nella’s story. They’re all connected by one very big secret that has implications not just for them, but for black women and black people all over the world. So that’s my — it’s maybe five sentences.

Zibby: That’s okay. I’ll take them. You did such a good job of, first of all, tackling such a big topic of the publishing industry in general and race. You have all these big things, but then little ways in which you tell the story. The way you get the reader to smell the hair butter when somebody comes in and the feeling that you’re sitting in the cubicle and looking around, it’s immersive. It’s so well-written. You feel like you literally are this person, which was great. I’m like, okay, today I’m in a cubicle and I’m working in publishing.

Zakiya: What else could you want from a book than to feel like you’re in a cubicle?

Zibby: I know. There you go. I particularly responded to the scene where — now I’m going to forget everybody’s name. I have all this written down. This is why.

Zakiya: No, no, it’s okay.

Zibby: Nella, right?

Zakiya: Yes.

Zibby: When she is trying to figure out if it’s okay to tell her thoughts about the subsequent book in an author’s oeuvre, if you will, and how the depiction of a black woman in that did not totally sit well with her. Should she say anything? Should she not? Tell me a little bit about that scene. I know you worked in publishing yourself. Has something like this happened to you? Tell me about this moment which becomes fairly significant in the course of the book.

Zakiya: I have to say that did not, thankfully, ever happen to me, not in that way. There were occasional things that were more subtle that I would kind of be like, hmm, okay, why aren’t we talking about this? Decisions of why we didn’t go after certain books, I would think, there are other reasons behind this that no one is saying. Nothing that blatant. Going back to your mention about the cubicle, I literally started that chapter while I was sitting in my cubicle. I was very much channeling the smells, the space, how you’re kept trapped in this area and you’re really trying to peel off whatever you can from the world because you’re in this little space and then also, of course, the lack of autonomy as an editorial assistant. You don’t have walls. You don’t have a door. You don’t have privacy. That translates also to the job itself in a lot of ways. You’re supposed to give yourself to your boss, to the authors, to everybody, really sacrificing your own, sometimes, sanity. I just remember going to my coworkers’ cubicles and being like, “Oh, my god, I have like eighty emails from this one agent,” those kind of conversations. You really have to just smile and work through it. In a lot of ways, you’re kind of customer service sometimes. You’re doing stuff behind the scenes too. It’s just all this crazy balance that I really wanted to get into. When you really love it, and I did when I started, you love it. You’re into it. You really don’t mind it. If something starts to get at you and you think, like Nella, oh, this place actually is really getting under my skin, with Hazel and all of those things, it can be a lot. I wanted to show just a few of those parts of the job and the work-life balance and how hard that can be, especially for a young person who’s not sure if it’s worth it or not.

Zibby: I remember my first jobs after college, I was also in a cubicle. In one job, it wasn’t even a full-on cubicle. I shared a desk with somebody else who was sitting right here. Every phone call, you’re just like, okay, we better be friends because — I remember having to — I snuck into a conference room, which by the way was glass, and had to put my back to the door to talk to my therapist or something ridiculous and sob.

Zakiya: I remember those. We had a room on our floor that would be the sobbing place, the personal calls. It wasn’t glass. I don’t understand why meeting rooms are often made out of glass. I feel like that’s kind of — I don’t know.

Zibby: Right? What’s that about? Ridiculous. Wait, so you started writing this at your cubicle. Tell me when you knew you had a book. Did you always want to write this book? Tell me when you decided to take the leap and leave your job and work on it full time. Tell me the whole story.

Zakiya: When I went into publishing, I had just finished my MFA in The New School in creative writing, nonfiction though. I got waitlisted for fiction. I had been sort of working on another book while working as an editorial assistant, trying to do both, which is really hard. Then after about two years, I was promoted to being an assistant editor, which was huge. I was given a book to work on, but I immediately was unhappy about it. I was like, if I’m going to be doing this other person’s book, there’s no way I can still be stealing time during the day and the morning and the night. I’m going to have to give myself to this job fully. I was kind of already doing that, but I still had a foot in my own writing. It’s hard to do that when you’re the editor on a title and you’re taking the lead. I had that happen. I was bummed. I was like, oh, this is kind of a sign when you’re realizing, maybe this isn’t for me. Then a little while after that, I had this moment in the bathroom where I ran into another young black woman. The interaction — well, we didn’t have an interaction. Seeing her stirred a lot of feelings in me. I was one of two black people working on my floor at the time. The other black person was a black man, an established editor who had been there for a while. I knew she was either new — I knew she wasn’t an author. I think she had a work badge.

I had all these feelings about seeing her. Then we didn’t have any moment. I thought we might have a moment. There was nothing. Then I went back to my desk. I just thought about it. That’s when the idea for this novel came into my head. I was like, what if there are two black women working in this super white workplace and one of them’s weird, something’s off with her? I’d always been into horror and sci-fi genre in that way, reading it and watching it. I started writing that scene of Nella in her cubicle. I’m not sure exactly when I knew I had a book, but every day after that, I was waking up early, staying up late. I got so into it in a way that nothing’s ever pulled me in before. I also saw an ending in sight way earlier than I usually do for anything. Even just having those bare bones — the more I wrote, the more I was like, wow, publishing’s such a funny world to write about. People are so funny. It just all came together. This is January 2019. Then in March, I put in my notice. In April, I was gone. I did it.

Zibby: When did you sell the book?

Zakiya: In February 2020. I’ve never written anything that fast. I don’t know if it’ll happen again.

Zibby: That’s okay. It doesn’t have to. Wait, whatever happened to the book you had been working on before?

Zakiya: I think my boss picked it up because it had been his book.

Zibby: No, no, the one you were writing.

Zakiya: Oh, sorry. That makes sense as a question. It’s still in my computer. I just haven’t revisited it yet. It’s there. I don’t know, I might go back to it. It’s hard because I was in such a different headspace when I started that. I do think this book has given me the confidence to feel like, okay, I know how I can kind of pull this together. With The Other Black Girl, one of the biggest changes and things that I needed to realize after the first draft was point of view and storylines. Before, it was just Nella’s voice. Then I ended up actually adding the other women’s voices in. They weren’t in as they are now. They were just in Nella’s head. With the other book, I feel like I’m going to have to also do a similar kind of, okay, voice, how that’s going? I think that can be really challenging to figure that out.

Zibby: I love how you had it seem very tame at the beginning. Not tame, that’s the wrong word. More traditional, like, okay, this is going to be a regular story. Then by the end, you’re creeping into closets and snooping around and stealing pages and finding all these dossiers. Oh, my gosh, crazy. That’s great. I wouldn’t go so far as horror. Do you feel like you learned even in the nonfiction program, how to do — some of the things, you can’t really be taught, can you, the pacing and all of that? What were more technical skills that you used? What just flowed out of you? If there’s any way you can differentiate it, I don’t know.

Zakiya: That’s a really good question. Like I said, I had Nella imagined. A lot of Nella’s opinions and her perspective, a lot of them come from my own experiences. When I did my MFA, I was writing personal essays about my skin and my hair and my relationship with where I grew up. I grew up in Connecticut in a particularly white neighborhood and went to a very white elementary school. I was questioning those things a lot when I was doing my MFA. Those parts really came out super easily for Nella. Then all of the women, because in a lot of ways I feel like there are bits of me in each of them — I think Kendra Rae is the furthest from me, but I kind of aspire in some ways to have the chutzpah that’s she got. I’m like, man, I’m always just so quiet and don’t speak up. Those parts really came easily.

The things that were harder were definitely pacing because, like I said, I never quite set out — I think that’s also, with the last book, why I also had a hard time. Pacing was just really difficult. I think that, really, I had to get a draft down and have someone else — my agent was a really big part of making sure things happened quickly enough. It starts slower. It starts in this grounded world. I really wanted the reader to get into Nella’s head and feel like she was worth caring about. Finding that balance between her life and then her life at Wagner — I could’ve gone on and on about Wagner Books more, and I did. I had to cut a lot of it. Balancing those parts with the faster-paced things and the more freakier things was hard, and really just going back and looking at, where do we find this? What is the most interesting way for the reader to find this out, and when? If they find this out here, then what’s going to be sustaining this part of the story? There are just so many threads, so a lot of Jenga going on.

Zibby: Yeah, the Jenga story. Did you love writing from a young age?

Zakiya: I did, yeah. I did. My dad is a writer. He’s a journalism professor and then had an op-ed column at the New Haven Register and then the Hartford Courant up until last year. He was always sitting at the table with a pen in his hand reading papers and just always was like, “This is really fun. I’ve been able to make a living out of it. It’s not that easy.” Very much from a young age, he was like, “You can do this if you want to,” which is really great. Both of my parents, when I quit my job, I was expecting a little more, oh, my god, what have you done? My mom was worried about health insurance, which is fair. They’ve just been really supportive. I loved reading. I was a shy kid in a lot of ways. For me, writing and reading gave me that escapism and allowed me to speak up in ways that I didn’t necessarily feel like I could do myself.

Zibby: I was the same way. I was so shy. Then when I would sit down, the words would flood out of my fingers because it was all holding it in. Just because you’re shy doesn’t mean you’re not thinking as much as everybody else. It’s all in there. It’s just not coming out anywhere.

Zakiya: Exactly. It’s such a good feeling to put it down. I had a diary at six or seven, a Mickey Mouse diary. I don’t really know why, but I loved it. I loved having that space.

Zibby: I have all these old diaries too. I’ve been debating, should I even go back and read? I’m like, maybe I could do a middle grade novel.

Zakiya: Yes, you should.

Zibby: Let me find my seventh-grade diary. What was I even thinking then? Then I’m like, should I show my seventh-grade daughter? I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t want her to know.

Zakiya: Do a dramatic reading.

Zibby: Exactly, in the living room or something. Have you gone back to your diaries at all?

Zakiya: You know, I haven’t. I have not. I have one diary that I started when I moved — no, actually, before I finished undergrad that then went all through there to my New York life up until two years ago. Then I actually, honestly, stopped writing. I need to do it again. I feel like I need that outlet because my fiancé, I don’t need to tell him all of my thoughts all the time. I need that space.

Zibby: I’ve gotten that advice before too. I don’t listen to that advice. I still tell him everything. That’s hard. I know. I’m like, what do you mean? Then I have a secret. I feel like there’s not always such a clear path from starting a job in the publishing world to actually becoming an author. I feel like it’s pretty rare to have a breakout hit, especially at your age. I don’t even know how old you are, but I’m assuming it’s pretty young. For other people out there — I remember when I was just out of college thinking, I want to be a writer, but there’s no path to being a writer when you’re twenty-one years old. Maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. Should you go into publishing? It used to be magazines. It used to be there were all these options. Tell me just a little more about those decisions you made. Would you recommend it to someone else?

Zakiya: I totally would. It’s not easy. I know when I quit, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just knew that I wasn’t happy in publishing anymore. At the same time, when I quit, I picked up a bunch of freelance jobs. I was also freelance editing. I was mostly working with black women authors. That was really great to be able to go back to that. Not go back, but to be able to work with other women of color who — I would’ve loved to have done that when I was working in publishing. I also didn’t know if or when I would have that chance. Flexing that muscle, trying to do that while working on my own book was really helpful for me. I wrote all of that summer. I was working for a little bit. I was working at a cupcake shop. Then I was teaching children at Writopia Lab, a nonprofit creative writing program in New York. That was really good for me too. When I was ready to query agents, which was really scary and exciting because I was like, okay, is where it’s actually becoming real, I did this for a reason, I made a spreadsheet. I had contacts, a little bit, in the publishing world, but a lot of people, I hadn’t spoken with, I didn’t know.

I really started from scratch in a lot of ways, not at all in the way that a person who doesn’t know the publishing world starts because I did know, of course, how to write a query letter. I’d seen examples. I’d seen what was effective. I knew the language, this needs this, all the publishing jargon. I started just finding people through QueryTracker and going about it that way. My current agent, actually, I met through a recommendation of a coworker who works at Doubleday. We were talking about my book. She was like, “Oh, there’s this agent who takes weird things sometimes, really cool, weird things. Maybe you should try her.” I was like, okay. Again, that’s through a publishing connection, but I didn’t know her and just cold-emailed her. I do feel like there is a way to do it that way, just writing the book and sending it out into the world. I also was reviewing books at the same time for The Rumpus. That, for the last few years for me, has been really good to just keep myself thinking about other people’s books and what’s working and how they work, the mechanics of it. That kind of process was really useful for me. I also did some ghostwriting. I’ve done a lot of different stuff that I’m remembering now, the fact that I was doing that. I guess it’s the whole point of being a ghostwriter, though.

Zibby: I did a ghostwriting project too a long time ago. That was kind of cool, though.

Zakiya: It’s kind of satisfying.

Zibby: It is. It’s nice. That’s the whole thing. It’s sort of like fiction. You have to find a voice and stick with it. It’s not your own. You got to run with it and see what happens. Good training ground. So are you working on another project now? What are you thinking?

Zakiya: With The Other Black Girl, I have been really still in this headspace because it’s kind of wild right now. I am thinking about sitting down and book two because I had so much fun writing the first one. Like I said, it’s not going to be that fast again, I don’t think.

Zibby: You don’t know.

Zakiya: You don’t know. Knock on wood. There’s that. Then I’m working on the TV adaptation, cowriting the TV adaptation of The Other Black Girl.

Zibby: That is exciting.

Zakiya: That takes up a lot of my time. It’s so exciting. I am watching all the TV now with a watchful eye, taking notes.

Zibby: What can you tell me about that? What’s public? What’s not yet?

Zakiya: I am cowriting it with Rashida Jones, which is really exciting. She’s so wonderful. My producers are Temple Hill and Tara Duncan. Hulu, it’s going to be, hopefully, a TV show. We just got our edits back for our first draft of the pilot, which is really exciting. They’re awesome notes. We’ll see. It feels like it’s moving along. I’m really, really excited to see all of the characters really play out in a real way, not just in my head, but on TV I think is going to be really cool to just get that much more into Nella’s head. The music and the outfits and the looks, the facial expressions, there’s so much that you can kind of convey in the book. To have this much more space to just blow up the world of Wagner is going to be really, really fun.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait to watch that. It’s so cool. That’s awesome. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Zakiya: This is one of my things, but I know not everyone agrees. I really think writing every day is super, super important. Whether it’s the project that you’ve been trying to finish or if it’s just journaling like we were talking about, I think that really making sure you’re taking time and carving time out for yourself, especially if you’re working a nine-to-five or multiple different jobs that are all different hours of the day, trying to have one consistent time where you’re writing, even if it’s just ten minutes. Not everyone’s like this. I don’t know if you’re like this, Zibby, but I would beat myself up for not — two days, three days go by, four days, and I haven’t even looked at the project. Sometimes it’s good to do that. Even if you’re just dipping in for a page and then dipping out, I feel like that can just make all the difference because the characters are fresh. You know it’s still there when you do have time to really sit down and do it. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Then the other thing I would say is just keep reading even if it’s not books. Book reviews are so rich and can be so good and a really interesting way to look at all the parts of a book. I think that can be really useful too.

Zibby: I have to say, I have now done over seven hundred episodes, and nobody has ever suggested reading book reviews before. There you go.

Zakiya: Wow, oh, my god, I feel so special.

Zibby: You should. I read book reviews all the time. I get so excited for the Sunday New York Times whole section, and The Washington Post and The Journal and the New York Post. I’m more a newspaper, regular ingest-er, if you will. I love it. Although, I’m always so afraid they’re going to tell you too much. It’s like how I feel about movie trailers. I’m like, ahh, I got to pause it halfway through. I agree. I think it’s really important. It’s interesting to see the elements that other people find really meaningful and the analytical dissection of some of the books. I totally agree with you. I think that’s great advice.

Zakiya: I think that’s one of the most important parts too. You can read two different reviews for the same book, and they’ll both take something completely different away from it. That’s a lesson that’s also really good for any writer. I’m trying to remember everybody takes something different. No book is supposed to be for everyone. I think that’s a really important thing to know and learn as a writer.

Zibby: Christine Mangan’s book, Palace of the Drowned, is coming out. I don’t know if it’s come out yet. I can’t remember. It’s based on a novelist who basically goes crazy after getting a terrible review, just to summarize. That’s not really what it’s about. It’s much more rich and full of stuff than that. That is one moment that sets her off and courses through the book. I keep thinking about that book when we’re talking about reviews. Maybe you should check it out. It’s actually very good.

Zakiya: I will.

Zibby: What are you reading now? I just have to ask. I’m curious.

Zakiya: I actually just started reading The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. It came out in January. It’s so good. The prose is so rich. Falling into a book during that time period set during slavery can be a lot. Again, I just started it, but it’s so rich. I’m really enjoying it.

Zibby: It’s really, really good. I interviewed him on my podcast, so you should go listen.

Zakiya: Yes, I will.

Zibby: He’s amazing. He’s so sweet.

Zakiya: I’ve heard. That just makes all the difference in a lot of ways. Then I also like going through — if you saw my desk right now, you’d be like, oh, my god, how are you living like this? All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris, which comes out in, I believe, November. It starts with this black lawyer finding her white boss/lover dead in the office. Chaos ensues. That and The Prophets together, it’s different, but it’s going to be a good read. I don’t know if you read two books at the time as well.

Zibby: I read like ten books at the same time. I’m all over place.

Zakiya: That’s a stupid question.

Zibby: No, no. I like to have different books. I feel like different books are better for different times of day. There’s some books I only read at night. There’s some books I like to read all day.

Zakiya: I absolutely agree.

Zibby: Your book, by the way, I like to read all day. You were not a nighttime-only book. I read it all throughout the day. Anyway, thank you so much for chatting. This was so fun. I’m really excited for you. Congratulations on all your success and everything to come. I’m wishing you all the best. I’m excited for you.

Zakiya: Thank you so much, Zibby. This has been so much fun. I really appreciate you having me on and reading.

Zibby: Of course. Take care. Have a great day.

Zakiya: Take care. You too. Bye.

Zakiya: Buh-bye.

Zakiya Dalila Harris, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris

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