Debut author Zakiya Dalila Harris joins us on the podcast this week to discuss her novel, The Other Black Girl. Before becoming an author, Zakiya worked as an editorial assistant at a publishing house and she tells us what real life experiences influenced her book and what it was like being on the other side of the author-editor relationship. She also talks to us about her experience getting an MFA, the television adaptation of The Other Black Girl, and what changes in the publishing industry she’s seeing now and hopes to see in the future.
- Zakiya tells us about her novel, The Other Black Girl, and explains how it was both inspired by and influenced by her time working as an editorial assistant in a publishing house
- She talks to us about balancing writing and her day job while she wrote The Other Black Girl, and how a job teaching creative writing to kids brought her back to falling in love with writing
- Zakiya discusses her experience getting an MFA in nonfiction writing, including the positives and pitfalls of getting an MFA, and she tells us how she came back to fiction after finishing the program
- She explains how she went about plotting the ending of The Other Black Girl, what horror films and books influenced the ending, and why she’s open to the idea of alternate endings for her book
- Zakiya talks to us about adapting The Other Black Girl for television, how she got over her initial apprehension about the adaptation, and what aspects of the book she’s excited to explore on screen
- She tells us what it was like being on the other side of the author-publisher relationship, and talks to us about the editorial and cover design process
- Zakiya discusses the changes she is seeing in the publishing industry right now, and she shares what she hopes changes in the industry moving forward
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The Other Black Girl
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The New School
Night of the Living Dead
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The Black Kids
Zakiya Dalila Harris is a Brooklyn-based author with a passion for writing (and talking) about Blackness, books, and oldies music. She received her MFA in nonfiction creative writing from the New School and her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before becoming a Tar Heel, she was born and raised in Connecticut, where she cultivated a healthy appetite for cinnamon and fall foliage. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Her debut novel, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL, is forthcoming from Atria Books in the U.S. in June 2021, Bloomsbury in the U.K., and elsewhere around the world. A TV adaptation is currently in active development with Tara Duncan, Temple Hill Entertainment, and Hulu.
Transcript provided by Speechpad
Joni: Hey, writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel, the author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life. In this week’s episode, Joni and Deandra sat down with debut author Zakiya Dalila Harris, to discuss her book, “The Other Black Girl.”
Joni: Yeah. This was a really good interview. So, Deandra, you’ve all met from a couple of weeks ago. She was a guest on the podcast. But on this particular day, Steph was sick, and I asked Deandra to jump in and co-interview with me because it was Deandra who had read an advance copy of the book and told us, “You need to interview the author. The book is fantastic.” So, that explains the hosting situation here. But Rachel, I’m excited for you to read this book because I feel like it’s right up your alley. It’s really, really good.
Rachel: I cannot wait to read it. It sounds like it’s right up my alley, and it comes out next week, June 1st. I will be there, getting a copy.
Joni: Yay. So, Rachel and I have both interned in the editorial departments of Penguin Random House in Canada. And the book is set in the editorial department of a big publishing house in New York. And it’s really fun. I think everyone kind of enjoys those peek behind the scenes. It’s like we’ve talked before about reading about Conde Nast and those kind of big, like, New York media world. So, that’s fun. It’s also a bit of a thriller. It’s a really, really engaging story. Don’t wanna give any spoilers, so we’re not gonna talk about it too much. But we spoke to the author about why she thought this was an important story to tell. She also worked in New York publishing. She talks about her general journey to writing and publishing and how it was going from the industry side to being on the author side of things. We also talked to her a little bit about the adaptation for TV, which is coming up. So, it’s a great interview. It’s a great book. If you stick around to the end, we’re gonna include a little audio excerpt from the audiobook as well. So, stay tuned, and we hope you enjoy the interview. Thanks so much for joining us, Zakiya.
Zakiya: Hi, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here with you both.
Joni: We’re very excited to talk to you. We both loved your book.
Zakiya: Thank you.
Joni: To start off, would you mind introducing yourself for our listeners and telling us a little bit about your debut?
Zakiya: Sure. My name is Zakiya Dalila Harris, and I’m the author of “The Other Black Girl.” “The Other Black Girl” follows Nella Rogers, who is a young editorial assistant who works at Wagner Books, a prestigious New York City publishing house. She’s been the only Black person working at Wagner for the last two years or so, so she’s very excited when Hazel, another young Black woman, starts working with her too. But very quickly, things in the office get very weird. I’ll just say that. And Nella begins to wonder if Hazel is a friend or a foe. And intertwined with Nella’s story are the stories of three other Black women who have all chosen very different paths in life, but all of these women are bound by a secret that has implications for not just them, but for Black people all over the world.
And so, I am 28 years old. I wrote this book at the end of my time working in publishing, a couple years ago. I was an editorial assistant at Penguin Random House, and then promoted to assistant manager, actually. And I had been there for a few years, really enjoyed editing, always thought at some point I would become an editor, be the Black editor, if you will. Toni Morrison was often in my mind when I was working in publishing, since she was at Random House many years before. But at the same time, I was also noticing just how there weren’t any other people who looked like me on my floor. And there was one editor, a Black man who worked as an editor at my imprint, but other than that, it was just me.
And I definitely wondered about that. I would look at the table and I’d think, you know, how awesome it would be to see other faces that looked like mine, especially younger people, because at the end of the day, you know, a lot of us, and I say us, Black people, but also just BIPOC people, we aren’t able to kind of feel like we’re comfortable in these spaces, because there aren’t many of us, so we don’t feel like we can move up, and we end up leaving. And so, I was thinking about all of these things when I was writing Nella, and just kind of really wanted to express, you know, this drive that someone who’s young and wants to succeed in this business has, but at the same time, why they might not necessarily feel comfortable still being there. And yeah, just looking at the microaggressions, publishing as a whole, but then also just corporate society as a whole, and how toxic workplaces like that can be for a person.
Joni: What was it like for you to go from working behind the scenes in a publishing house to then going to the author side of things? Were you still working in editorial when you started writing?
Zakiya: Yeah. So, I started writing this, like I said, toward the end of my time there. I had just been promoted to an assistant editor. And I knew I was supposed to be really excited because I was given this book to work on, like, my own book, which is huge. And I just remembered going back to my desk and starting to cry, because I was like, I…because I’d also had this dream of becoming a writer at the same time. And those two things, I think, can work for people, but I think, for me, like, I had moved to the city a few years earlier to do my MFA in nonfiction creative writing at The New School. I’d gotten my degree. And then I had this job in publishing, thinking, “Okay, great. I’m still in the book world, but they’re such different things and such different muscles.”
And I knew… I think it came to the point where I was like, “If I take on this book as an assistant editor, I’m gonna have to give up my own dream.” And, because I really wanted to treat the author of the book that I’d been assigned the way I would wanna be treated, right? So, I knew if I was looking over my shoulder on my own work, which is what I was starting to do, more so, I wouldn’t be giving his work the attention it deserves.
And so, yeah, I had this idea for the book in January 2019. I was literally at the office. I ran into another Black woman in the bathroom, and I remember being so shook at seeing her, because I knew I was the only Black woman on the floor. And we didn’t exchange any moment, even though I was, like, trying to catch her eye. And, you know, it’s the bathroom, so I get it. It’s totally fine. But I went back to my desk and was thinking about this moment of, like, “Why was I so excited to chat with her?” And then, “Why didn’t she chat with me?” And then, “Am I overthinking all of this?” The idea for this book came into my head just as, like, what if there’s a woman, like, named Nella, like me, who’s been working in publishing, been the only one for years, is starved for contact with a Black person, and when they finally get that at the office, of a peer, rather than…because in publishing, there’s also, I noticed, like, a lot of the people of color are not working necessarily in editorial. They’re working at the front desk. They’re the mail people. They’re the wonderful messenger people. They’re IT.
So, I wanted to also get at that too, like, the different levels of class in publishing, too. So, yeah, I have this idea for this Nella working in this White workspace, and then another Black person comes in and it just is weird, like, things just happen that were not happening before, to Nella. And, yeah, it definitely took off much more from me than I expected, but I had so much fun just writing into their lives, expanding the world, and decided to quit after two months into it. And I picked up a job at a cupcake shop, which was actually really hard. I was, like, “This is gonna be low stress.” And no, frosting is very difficult. But I was able to do these part-time jobs and also get to write at the same time.
Deandra: And what was your writing process like when you were working, decorating cupcakes during the day, writing?
Zakiya: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I would… So, I had to get there pretty early in the morning. And I lived… My apartment was deep in Brooklyn. It would take me more than an hour to get to work at the time that I had to get there. But I was still… I’m a morning person, so, like, I will usually wake up really early to finish something or write something in the morning. And so, yeah, I would get up at, like, 4:00 or 5:00, like, get an hour writing in, then go to work. Sometimes I’d stay and write at the cupcake shop afterwards. And then a few months into the summer, I ended up getting a job teaching creative writing at this nonprofit called Writopia, and I taught children creative writing.
And I left the cupcake shop because I was like, “This is actually so stressful that I don’t know how to decorate a cupcake very well.” And yeah, I just… And I think it was good for me because teaching children was like going back to basics in so many ways to me. That’s when I started loving writing. I was, like, six or seven, I had a diary. I don’t know what I was writing about. It’s probably how annoying I saw my classmates or friends or whatever. But yeah, I’ve always loved writing. So, it was cool to get back to that and, like, the basics and what made me fall in love with storytelling.
Joni: I’m interested. How was the experience of doing an MFA for you? Because this is something that comes up a lot with authors is whether or not they should do it or how valuable it is.
Zakiya: Yeah. I mean, it’s always hard. I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about MFA programs, even before the book, because they are something that… I mean, there’s so many great things about them and then there are, of course, the pitfalls, you know. I mean, the student debt, like, it can be very expensive. And it’s hard to find necessarily the program. There’s so many things you want to look at, right? There is the faculty. There are the people who have gone there before. You wanna work with someone who ideally has had experience with what you’re writing about. And so, there’s that, but then, of course, finding a place that will fund you. It’s really hard to do. The location is important.
So, I mean, I think for me, I… So, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And then I remember my senior year of college, I was, like, at home. I’m from Connecticut, just like my protagonist. And I remember sitting in a Panera and being like, “What am I gonna do for the rest of my life?” as most college seniors do. And I knew I loved writing. And I was like, “Maybe I should just try applying for an MFA program,” but the only program at the time that I found that I hadn’t missed the deadline for was The New School. And I was like, “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.” And I applied to fiction and nonfiction, got waitlisted for fiction, and then got in for nonfiction. And I was at first pretty, like, bummed. I was like, “I’ve been writing fiction all my life. I don’t…” I had just started writing nonfiction in college. But I actually really loved it and really kind of started to come up with ideas of what I wanted to write about, and then, toward my second year, toward the thesis year of my MFA, I started writing mostly about my own experiences of being a young Black woman and a Black girl living in Connecticut.
At the time when I was a kid, I was the only one, so a lot of my experiences ended up going into Nella of just, like, being called an Oreo, being told I sounded like a white girl, like, all of those things. And so, I was really able to get it out in that MFA program, like, all of my personal essays and feelings and insecurities. And so, I loved that part. I do think it’s hard, though, because, you know, I do have so many connections from it, and I do think how I got into publishing was actually through a New School connection. And I feel conflicted about the fact that, you know, because I was able, very privileged enough to be able to do this program, you know, I was able to get my foot in the door that way, and I kind of wish it wasn’t that way.
And it’s not always like that way, but I do feel that at the end of the day, that is really where a lot of the best of the MFA comes from is the connections, which are really important. But then also, I was here with [inaudible 00:12:46] One of my first readers… Two of my first readers were my good friends from my MFA program. So, those are just, like, the most amazing things that you can’t possibly… I mean, you can find those in other ways, but the MFA program really did that for me. So, I could go on about MFA. Sorry.
Joni: No. It sounds like you had a really positive experience with it, which is awesome.
Zakiya: Yeah. Yeah. And I know not everyone is that way. I think timing plays such a big part of it. And again, if you don’t have a group of people who totally are engaging with your work on the level that you want your work to be engaged with, it can be frustrating, and it can feel like a waste of time and money in a way. And there’s just no way of knowing. I guess it’s just life, but yeah.
Deandra: Because your MFA was in nonfiction, did you think going out of it that when you did publish a book, it would be nonfiction? And did it kind of surprise you when you got this idea in your head and started writing this thriller instead?
Zakiya: Yeah. And that’s a really good question. I think I always kind of thought I would go back to nonfiction. When I worked in publishing, I worked for an amazing editor who edited mostly nonfiction, and then another wonderful editor who edited mostly fiction. So, I actually literally had access to seeing how both are made, both books are made, which was really awesome. Nonfiction though, I definitely saw a lot more of how there’s just so much work involved. I mean, I’ve worked with fiction a lot too, but I knew I’d wanna do… I love doing research. I love looking through archives, newspaper articles, all those things, so I knew I’d wanna do that kind of thing, but I hadn’t necessarily found a topic that really grabbed me enough to wanna do that.
Definitely, before I started writing this book, I was entertaining the idea of doing a PhD, but, again, it’s like, there’s so many things that go into it and I don’t wanna rush figuring that out. So, when this book idea came to me, I was, you know, like, “Whoa, this is taking me in this direction. I love it.” But I will say before this book, I had been working on and off on another book idea, also loosely inspired by research I had been doing. And for whatever reason that book wasn’t really taking off with me. I think I was getting too caught up in, like, I don’t know, I had an idea of what the book was in my head before I wrote it, and I think that idea was too rigid for me to make it happen the way, like, the natural way that this book did, “The Other Black Girl” did. But, yeah. To answer your question in a long way, I definitely was thinking about nonfiction, but fiction just came to me much more naturally, I think.
Deandra: And for this book, so, Joni and I both read it. And so, to not give any spoilers to anyone listening that hasn’t read it yet, did you always think the book was going to end the way it does, or did that shift as you were writing it?
Zakiya: Yes. I love this question. I did know. And I say this proudly, even though I feel like people might not necessarily wanna hear this. I definitely came in with this idea of an ending this way. I can’t think of the best way to say. I mean, I think it’s okay for me to say that, so, I’m a big horror movie fan. I’m a big thriller, sci-fi TV show fan, all of those things. And so, I definitely grew up seeing endings that had question marks. And for some reason, “The Blob” comes to mind. The very end they think they’ve… “The Blob” was in Antarctica And it seemed like everything’s fine and there’s, like, “The End,” and then the word turned into a question mark, like, literally on the screen, in the, like, 1950s sci-fi kind of creepy way. And I kind of feel like that’s the… I love that vibe, because I feel like that is life. I feel like you never know what’s going to happen. I think that also, realistically speaking, like, my character had been… My character experienced so many things throughout the book that the way that the book ends, it just felt like that made sense to me. I hope that’s not giving too much away.
But another ending I’ve been thinking about, too, especially while talking to people about the ending of this book, is the ending of “Get Out.” And compared with the ending of “Night of the Living Dead,” where “Night of the Living Dead” ends in this very, you know, you think you’ve gotten through this entire journey. The main Black protagonist has gotten through this huge, crazy zombie apocalypse, makes it to the morning, and ends up being shot in the very last moment of the movie, because they think he’s a zombie. Spoiler alert. Sorry. And, of course, that compared with the ending of “Get Out,” where things could be a lot worse, things could take a turn. He could be shot, but it’s actually his friend who’s in the cop car.
So, I don’t know. I love just talking about endings and thinking about endings. And I really want this book to kind of make people consider, you know, how could this have ended differently? Is it possible? What could Nella have done, or what could anyone have done to make this different, to make this end not the way it did? And so, yeah, I really wanted to inspire more conversations that way. And I’m also just, like, a very, I’m not gonna say bleak person, but I definitely, like, think about all the ways things can go wrong all the time. And, like, all the… Okay. If this happens and this… And so, Nella, also being that way, it felt really fitting for me.
Joni: I really like Ira Levin’s books. And I definitely…
Zakiya: I like them too!
Joni: I definitely got that vibe from yours. It’s kind of… What did you say? 1950s horror? I think it’s, what, ’50s, ’70s?
Zakiya: Yeah. Yeah. Yep.
Joni: He does endings very, very well like that.
Zakiya: Stepford Wives was totally also, of course, obviously, such a big inspiration for me for the book. I just remember seeing original movie adaptation a few years ago, and being so shocked at how good it was. I don’t know. I feel like… I don’t know if it’s because the Nicole Kidman version, I heard, was awful. I didn’t see the whole thing. Yeah. And so, I kind of expected it to be this, like… But no, I just remember feeling so taken aback and so terrified, and it was just done so well. And I think that idea of, you know, women being used in this way, it’s just… It was so brilliant and it, for sure, inspired me when I was writing.
Joni: I’m curious. Once the book is out and people have had time to discuss it and everything, would you ever consider, like, giving people different alternate endings or talking about that, or are you happy to let the fans speculate?
Zakiya: That’s a really good question. I’m a big fan of alternate endings. One of my favorite books growing up was the Goosebumps books, specifically, “Give Yourself Goosebumps.” And they have, like, there’s, like, just a series in which you can decide how the book ended. So, I did love that. I mean, I definitely am still open to that, because I don’t know. I think it could be a good practice. I think that as long as when, you know, we’re coming up with these endings, [inaudible 00:20:26], I do want them to kind of make sense for Nella. I do see a world in which Malaika and Owen have more of a hand in what happens in the ending too. And yeah. But yeah, I’ll leave it at that, because I have so many thoughts, too, about kind of where I see the book going beyond the ending. And I’d be curious to hear what other people think too, just about, like…because I think it comes down to, like, do you see the good in people or are you more of a, like, kind of hopeless realistic? That kind of thing. Hopeless romantic, hopeless realistic.
Joni: Audio [inaudible 00:21:05]
Deandra: We saw that the book is being adapted for television. Do you think that you’ll be trying to keep it as similar to the book when it is adapted to TV, or do you see, speaking of alternate endings and stuff, it going in a different direction?
Zakiya: Yeah. I mean, that’s a really great question. It’s been really fun working on this adaptation. I have… At first, I was a little…of course as any writers, I think, a little like, “Ooh. Like, how is this gonna work? This can’t… I only see this…” Because when I was writing this, I only thought as a book. I never had ideas of TV or movies. So I was really excited at the interest in adapting it. And the more I talked to people about it, it was like, “Oh, yeah. We couldn’t get more into Nella’s best friend’s life. We could get more into Owen, her white boyfriend, like, that relationship,” because there… I really wanted to, sort of wanted to give Nella a life not just at Wagner, but outside of Wagner, too, because she is a living human who gets her life stuck at work, but her life is awesome when she’s not at work.
She has got this circle of people around her. So, yeah, the TV show I think will definitely be diving more into just her outer life, and getting more into what makes her tick beyond just, you know, her passive-aggressive communications with her boss and her author. So, yeah, the show will definitely have that. I think it’ll be also perhaps a little more just spooky and thriller-y and Wagner itself will be an entity. It’s Wagner… Richard Wagner, the publisher at Wagner, is just such a larger-than-life character. And I feel like he could get more room, and then also Kendra and Diana. There are just so many characters, and I’m, like, listing them all, like, who did I miss? Jessie. Everybody has a backstory in my head. And it’ll be really fun to fit into the show what we couldn’t fit into the book, just because you really have to pick only so many lanes, and TV will just have so much more space to do more.
Joni: I’m very excited to see this.
Zakiya: Thank you.
Deandra: Me too.
Deandra: It must be so interesting as a writer, like you were saying, to delve deeper in these different ways you might not have thought about with, like, the backstory, like, if there is parts of episodes or whatever where you’re going into one character that you didn’t get to explore in the book. So, that must just be a totally different creative entity.
Zakiya: Yeah. Yeah. And when I was writing the book, I mean, I started it in January of 2019, my agent and I linked up in October, November of 2019. And then we put the book on sub and end of January 2020, like, this… The timeline is, like, such a crazy… And I still can’t believe how fast it happened. I was not expecting any of that at all. But the book was changing the entire time. At least 10 different drafts happened in 2019 of the book, some vastly different from others. And so, the book was constantly changing because conversations just, like, helped open it up more and more, like, oh, okay. When the book started, it was just really Nella and Chani, and then it slowly started to expand bigger and bigger.
And so, I imagine the same thing with the show will happen, where it’s like, “Oh, we can just pull at this thread. So, wait. What’s under there? Oh, but what’s under there? How does this all affect everything?” It’s been really fun and really fulfilling to see just people in another industry entirely to kind of get the book, and see it in their own way. It just really shows me that, you know, I don’t know, Nella has got a lot to say about our world and our environment.
Joni: From a writing perspective, what was it like for you to have someone else… Like, as a former editor, what was it like for you to hand over your book to someone and then work on edits like that? Did it feel… Was there some kind of relinquishing of control there because you’ve done that job, or…
Zakiya: Yeah. I mean, in a way, yes. But, you know, I felt more relief than anything. My agent and I had been really, like, had our heads together on this for a while, and then I had it, my head in it, for a while, and so it felt good to have someone else in the circle, so to speak. My editor, Lindsay Sagnette, at Atria is incredible. And I also knew, like, the moment I met her, that she would just really dig into this book and make up all the things that I didn’t think I could do on my own. She had worked on “Gone Girl” and has so many books under her belt that really just amazed me and killed me, and I really wanted this book to also do those things.
But, again, when I wrote this, I didn’t set out to write a thriller, per se. I mean, I knew there would be this kind of underground group or some forces at play, but I really didn’t have in mind, like, this is going to be a thriller, thriller book, you know, or a sci-fi horror book. And so, I really was excited to have someone who was looking at it in that way of how to really punch that out, because I knew that was something that I really wanted some help with. And I just loved it. I loved those conversations. To be treated like an author is just something that I’ve been dreaming about for years. So, it was great.
Deandra: Did you have any input into the cover design process? Because I’m obsessed with the covers that are being used for your book. They’re so great.
Zakiya: Thank you. Yes. Yes. When I was writing this, I definitely knew I wanted some kind of Blackness to appear on the cover. Ideally, a Black person, but anything that even hints about it. And that seems really vague. I knew when I saw it I would know. And thankfully, Atria was like, “Yes, totally.” My agent and I sent them a list of Black artists, and they took the list, went through it, and found the artwork done by Temi Coker, who is a Nigerian artist, I believe based in Texas now. And he had created this piece for Juneteenth, and it’s called “My Black is Beautiful.” And it’s this gorgeous image of the woman on “The Other Black Girl” cover. I think we had it flipped the other way. Her earring is a little different, the background is different, but it’s still her.
And it’s just a gorgeous piece of work. And they sent me… I believe they sent me… I have to clarify, but it’s a version of “The Other Black Girl” cover with Temi Coker’s work on it, and then another version that was…there was no picture on it, I think, but there was still some kind of element of Blackness on it, I believe. And I remember looking at both and being like, “Oh, my god, they’re so good.” But this girl, this woman that Temi Coker painted just, like, caught my eye because the profile view, the royalty is just, like, felt so bold and so Black and beautiful.
So, I was just really excited about that. And they made the cover of my dream. And I also just love the UK cover, too. They were talking about the cover, I think, in the summer of last year, which is so exciting. And we talked about, you know, similar things. I really wanted there to be some kind of Black or hair-related element on the cover, book covers. And so, yeah, I mean, this is a broken… I’m looking at it right now. It’s a broken pick. It’s just so… I just hear, like, a sizzle when they created this trailer that I think that’s where the sizzle in my head is coming from now. But I highly recommend everyone check out both of those book trailers. And yeah, they just look so gorgeous next to each other, too. I can’t get over it. I really feel like both of my publishers here and in the UK just, like, nailed it.
Joni: Do you have much input into marketing your book? I don’t know how much, like, what’s expected from you as an author from trad publisher, but do you do a lot on social media, or is there a way that you prefer to interact with readers?
Zakiya: Yeah. I wasn’t a big social media person at all before the book happened. So, like, to suddenly be on social media and then the pandemic happening, when everyone was also again on social media was, like, a little daunting for me at first. Yeah. I mean, I’ve slowly been just finding what works for me and just posting on it. So, just really sharing the little things about the book of, like, my process of getting first pass pages, which to me, like, I mean, I’ve had so many moments during this journey that I’ve been like, “Well, now I’m really an author.” Right? And so, like, the first one was, of course, selling the book. And then I think the second one was getting edits back, and then getting first pass pages, like, holding them and seeing them laid out like that was such an amazing feeling. And so I’ve really been trying to just take things that excite me, that I’m really into, and then I talk to my partner about, I’m like, “Oh, this is great.” And then I’m like, “Maybe other people might be into this too.”
So, that’s been my approach. But my team, both at Atria and Bloomsbury, and, yeah, and Canada have just been so amazing at getting the book out there, sharing it with people, sharing it with all kinds of readers, readers who are into thrillers or horror or books written by Black women about Black women. I feel like they have been able to find every possible reader, which has been amazing. And really, I think is what a lot of the heart of this book is about too, about publishing and how it can be more thoughtful and inclusive and trying to reach readers that are not the “typical readers,” you know? So, it’s been a dream just seeing where this book ends up. And I can’t wait for it to come out. It’s like…
Joni: I know. It’s amazing. It’s not even out yet and there’s a lot of buzz around it.
Zakiya: I know. I realize that as I’m saying this. I’m like, “Wait, it’s also still…” And so, yeah. I just feel really lucky, really lucky, because it’s, like, to be honest, like, having worked on the other side and also being on the other side now, I know not everyone gets this treatment. And I just feel really thankful and also hopeful that this will open up so many more doors for other books that are not conventional, that are written by Black, brown, BIPOC people, non-cis, just everybody who is not, you know, “the reader” that’s… I was gonna say the normal reader, but you know what I mean. The reader who is not often targeted by the publishing industry, not out of the publishing industry, but…
Joni: Yeah, it’s a thing, for sure.
Joni: Do you see publishing changing in the time that you’ve been in the publishing world?
Zakiya: I think so. I think it’s hard because things here… I mean, things are opening up, but I know a lot of the offices are still closed, so a lot of people are still remote. And I have a lot of really good friends still working in publishing. And I’m still in touch with both of my bosses, just talking about everything happening. And I do think it’s changing. I think that I’m loving being just, first of all, the fact that this book was received the way it was last year. Even before the George Floyd protests, it was received in, like, a very open way. So I was really excited about that. And I’m hoping that with everything that’s happened last year, everything happening right now the last few weeks in America, I’m hoping that those conversations will just keep happening. And yeah. So, I definitely feel that things are changing.
I do hope that with… I see more diverse people being hired especially at higher positions in publishing now. But my hope is that those conversations just keep happening, that we’re talking not just about how to hire more people higher up, but also how to keep people of color, because a lot of Nella’s experience is, you know, she’s already there, but she’s having a terrible time in a lot of ways. So, how can we make these spaces actually feel more inclusive, not just look more inclusive? And I think once we’ve found a way to not necessarily answer that question, but just know we have to answer that question at some point, and just taking those little steps to be more mindful about hiring people who are not necessarily, don’t have an Ivy League under their belt or don’t have a certain program under their belt.
And I say this as someone, of course, again, who got an MFA. I just feel like the more perspective we have from all classes, from all areas of life, the better publishing will be, because then we will be actually creating books that are not just for one person or for XYZ, all people across the board, which I’m really hopeful. I’m hopeful that this will happen, but, you know, I think one day at a time, and it will. One day.
Joni: If nothing else, they’re gonna follow the money. And so, the more books come out that are super successful, then the more…
Joni: …they’re gonna realize there is an audience for this that we’ve been not catering to for decades.
Zakiya: Exactly, exactly. I know. And it’s kind of crazy, because I definitely have a lot of Black women say to me, like, “This is the book I’ve been wanting,” and, like, “There hasn’t been a book like this.” And I guess it baffles me that there hasn’t. I know that there are people who have tried to write a book like this, that don’t fit into one specific genre, that are about a very specific person. I mean, “The Other Black Girl” has so many very specific Black music preferences and just Black cultural references that when I was writing it, I was like, “I don’t know if people are gonna be into this or know what I’m talking about. Will this be a problem?”
But I have been having people talk to me about the hair and how they’ve learned so much about Black hair and, like, had no idea. And so, yeah. I mean, I really hope that, like you say, this will tell houses that you can publish a book that will speak directly to Black readers, but also speaks to many other people as well. And also, it’s okay if it just speaks to Black readers, like, specifically. There are a lot of books that just speak to White readers, right? So, yeah, just having… Not setting a new standard, but just, like, opening up the board for all standards to be a thing.
Joni: Definitely. So, one of our favorite questions to ask authors is what have you been loving lately? It can be a book, TV show, podcast. Anything that you’ve been enjoying lately?
Zakiya: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. Let’s see. Okay. I’m looking at my bookshelf right now. I have to say “The Final Revival of Opal & Nev” by Dawnie Walton. It came out a couple weeks ago. Amazing book if you love music. It’s an exploration of this fictional Black woman who was, like, a punk rocker in the ’70s to, yeah, just has an amazing and very exciting career, but also has a very conflicted relationship with her White partner, music partner, who I believe is from the UK. So, it’s got a lot of music and fun and rock and just harrowing as well at the same time. So, I love that book because I also love music personally. I also just finished “The Black Kids” by Christina Hammonds Reed. I’m so bad with author names. It’s terrible. That came out last year. And it’s set in, right around the time of the Rodney King riots. It’s so good and…
Joni: Yeah. Good.
Zakiya: Yes. Yeah. And, let’s see. I have one more that I wanted to mention. Oh. “Greenwich Park” by Katherine Faulkner. I loved that book so much. It comes out I believe tomorrow in the UK. And as I say it, I’m not sure if it’s in Canada. But it is… I know it’s coming out from an S&S imprint sometime this year or next year. But it’s such an amazing thriller, set in Greenwich Park, and a woman who is pregnant starts to question just the people around her, is where I’ll leave it at that. So, I’ve been reading a lot of books that I’ve noticed now that I’m talking about them have to do with Black women and… Let’s see. Black women, a little bit of thriller, psychological thriller involved. So, those have been my jam lately, but I’m very excited to get into some light beach reads and stuff as it gets warmer.
Joni: Awesome. We will share the links to those books that you mentioned. What are you working on? What can we expect from you next?
Zakiya: I am working on the TV adaptation. It’s been taking up a lot of my time. It’s been a lot of fun. And I am also half part of a podcast for the American Writers Museum, called “Dead Writer Drama.” And every month, my co-host Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and I talk to authors about dead writers and the drama that they experienced and, created in some cases, that we didn’t necessarily learn about in high school and elementary school. So, it’s a very, very chill podcast from the American Writers Museum. And it’s been really fun. I, again, mentioned I love history, I love research. So, very fun to talk about all the tea that they spilled back in the day.
Joni: What was the name of the podcast? Sorry. I missed it.
Zakiya: “Dead Writer Drama.”
Joni: “Dead Writer Drama.” Okay. Awesome. I’ll check it out.
Deandra: I love that premise. That’s so great.
Zakiya: Thank you. Yeah. Our next one is going to be Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Joni: And where can readers find you online?
Zakiya: My Instagram handle is @zakiyadalilaharris. And my Twitter handle is @zakiya_harris.
Joni: Perfect. Okay. We will share those links, and we will also obviously share the link to your book for when it comes out in June. Thank you so much for coming on. This has been really great.
Zakiya: Thank you so much. This has been so much fun.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in checking out Zakiya’s book, we will have links to it in our show notes. And if you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to rate, review, and subscribe. For more tips on growing your self-publishing business, go to kobowritinglife.com, and be sure to follow us on socials. We are @kobowritinglife on Twitter and Facebook, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Wharton and Joni Di Placido. Deandra Lalonde was my guest co-host. Music was provided by Tear Jerker. Editing is by Kelly Rowbotham. And huge thanks to Zakiya Dalila Harris for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your publishing journey, sign up today at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.
You can find the audiobook for The Other Black Girl here!