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Interview: Margo Lee Shetterly on Why the Story of Hidden Figures Is So Personal to Her

You’ve all heard of Hidden Figures by now, the film that has grossed over $133 million at the box office and stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as the real-life scientists working at NASA in the ’60s helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit Earth.  For most of us, the first time we heard Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan was when we saw or read about Hidden Figures, but for author Margo Lee Shetterly, these women were no strangers to her world.  Her father was a NASA scientist and friends with Mary Jackson. To her they were “normal people.”

Inspired by these women and knowing that not everyone had heard their story, Shetterly began to write the story of NASA’s Hidden Figures. In an unprecedented move, her book agent had sent her 55-page book proposal off to Hollywood and producer Donna Gigliotti took the project under her wings. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, and the film became a box office and critical success. It’s also been nominated for three Oscars including Best Picture. I had the chance to catch up with Shetterly to talk about her debut and bestselling novel Hidden Figures, why this was so important and personal to her, and discuss her next project.

Your dad worked at NASA, and this was very close to you, so what stories did he come home and tell you at the end of the day?

A lot of it was normal. He got up and went to work. He was an atmospheric research scientist and that was his field of specialty which has to do with climate change actually. He’d come home and talk about some of the work he did. He had this extensive network with these vibrant women in it, and so he would see them all around. My parents would see them at social events and he’d go with these women and the other people he worked with to scientific conferences so I knew about them, I knew they worked at NASA, and to me, they just seemed like normal people growing up.

Countless stories were told about the space race, but none about these women. Why did it take us so long?

I think it’s because it was women’s work. I think people didn’t value the work women did, not just the black women, although, obviously the fact they were sequestered away for so many years is a double burden they were laboring under, but in general the work that the women did was something of an invisible work. We really did not value it. It was giving credit to our electronic computers and I think that’s how a lot of people thought about the work that they did. They were just cranking the numbers and they weren’t given credit for a lot of the intellectual contributions that they made.

In the book, you mention there was only one photo of the West Computing Section. Why was there a lack of imagery, or was it something that NASA kept classified?

It wasn’t more about classified. I think it was more because they fell between the cracks. The photographs were always taken of the engineering group. They’d be taken of the 4-foot supersonic pressure tunnel and the actual engineering group that had a goal. For example, you see the picture of Mary Jackson from the 1950s when she is standing outside with a whole group of people who worked at her wind tunnel. She’s in that photo. The white women in the photos are in the other groups.

I never found a picture of the East Computing per se, but I would find pictures of white women who were in those computing pools. I really think it’s because the black women again fell between the cracks. Nobody thought that any computing pool that wasn’t directly attached to an engineering group was worth taking a picture of. Because the West Computing, or black women, were less likely to be attached to an engineering group, they were photographed less.

In the later years, that started to change. I have pictures from the 1950s/ early ’60s of several black women who worked in a group together and there’s a picture of them together, former West Computers. The closest thing I found to a picture of the group per se was at Dorothy Vaughan’s retirement party.

At what point, did you think this is a story, and I can craft this into something?

From the beginning, it was this thing of where did the story begin and making that connection. There was this moment of aha which happened when my husband was listening to my dad talk abut these women, and it was how comes no one has ever asked about these women or thought it was interesting. We just knew them as normal people. The women themselves said, “We’re just normal people why are you guys making such a big fuss out of it?” you start researching and realize how connected they were to so many parts of American society, you realize how influential their collective work was to the space program and aeronautics and what a change they made.

For me, personally, that connection was figuring out what happened in my hometown. It was figuring out who were the people whose hard work made it possible for my father to do this work. That was the thing, this was who I am. This is really who I am and that’s what made it so personally exciting and moving for me.

What was it like delving into this research and making sure you got that balance right of technical and story?

I really got into the engineering and science. I had taken enough math and science that it wasn’t totally foreign to me. I knew a lot about NASA just because of my dad, but I had a lot to learn. I got interested and was fascinated and really fascinated to find evidence between connections between the work these women did. Like Katherine’s Johnson’s paper, The Orbital Equation of John Glenn’s flight, and then to see the results. It was really satisfying. It was a challenge to learn as much as I could, make sure that I had learned more than I needed to know in order to know that I was technically correct because it was really important to me to get the science right. Then, to dial it back enough that it wasn’t completely boring to normal people despite the fact that I thought that it was really interesting, and a lot of science geeks would find it interesting.

It’s funny because I got a lot of emails from scientists and mathematicians who were like, “There should have been more math, there wasn’t enough math.” “I can’t believe you skimped on the math, I wanted more.” I’m sorry.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were doing your research?

I was absolutely shocked by how many women there were. There were so many. It wasn’t just the story of Katherine Jackson or Dorothy Vaughan. It was a story of hundreds or maybe even thousands doing this work from, let’s say 1935, from the first five white women started working in the computing pool. The first five black women started in 1943 and all these women were on the job for decades. They went to work every single day at NASA and we didn’t pay attention.

It was an army of women. We had this idea that women aren’t good at math, but in fact, for the better part of the 20th century, that part of math was women’s work so it was shocking and it was thrilling to find that out. I think there are a lot of stories of the only women, the first women, the first black women, but I think the point is to replicate those successes.

That’s what was really surprising and thrilling. I read you came across Dorothy’s story while talking to Katherine.

I had the very good fortune to spend a lot of time with Katherine Johnson who I just saw a month ago, and she’s delightful. I knew who she was and knew what she had done. People had been writing about her since before John Glenn’s flight, she’s been on the record for a very long time, for a very small circle of people.

Mary Jackson actually worked for my dad at one point. She’s someone who had received awards from NASA and moved up through the ranks. Christine Darden, who is the youngest of the women who I write about in the book and is in college when the film is taking place so she is not in the film. She was promoted to the top levels of NASA and did well.

Dorothy Vaughan was totally lost to history and the first time I heard her name was with Katherine Johnson, and she said, “Dorothy Vaughan is the smartest person I know.” That was a really, “I’ve never heard this name Dorothy Vaughan” moment. I asked my dad, who started in 1964 as a co-op student and was there in 1966 full time and so was working there at the time Dorothy was. She retired in 1971.

There was an overlap but he didn’t know her. He knew others of her contemporaries but he didn’t really know her and didn’t know much about her. Finding out about her and what she had done and that she had been the supervisor of this segregated computing pool was really wonderful. It was like this whole thing had happened and nobody knew about it and we just didn’t pay attention to her. It was forgotten.

Not anymore. What you did was unheard of, getting optioned on a 55-page book proposal has seldom been done. Did you have fears or reservations when you had to hand it over to Hollywood?

Two weeks after my agent, her name is Mackenzie Brady Watson, she just turned 30 years old and is on her way up. Amazing. She sold it to Harper Collins and a super-short time after that, she got it into the hands of Donna Gigliotti. I don’t really know much about Hollywood, this is my first book, I was feeling a lot of pressure and I was coming back from visiting Katherine Johnson and pulled over into the parking lot of the Food Lion to take the call and did this call with her. She said, “Margo, we are going to make a movie out of this.” I thought I didn’t even have a movie much less a book.

Everything that she said on that phone call has come true, and the reason the movie happened so soon after the book is because she became a champion for this project. She insisted that this happen and that it happen with this caliber of people like Ted Melfi, like Wynn Thomas, like Allison Schroeder. I mean Wynn is an incredible production designer. She insisted on these things happening.

At the same time, I was very anxious about letting this go because it is my baby, I have a responsibility to these women and their stories and I can control that with the book. I also have to trust that the people who I option the book to have that same interest at heart and it turned out that they did. It has been a spectacularly good experience working with that team of the movie of Hidden Figures.

What’s so great about it, though, is it’s not just an American story, it’s just a great universal story.

Absolutely. It’s a universal story. I agree. I hope people take away from the book and the movie, especially at this time when people are divided, there’s a lot of strife and there’s a lot of us versus them, the thing about it is this is a movie that’s really meaningful, it’s a movie that’s making people see things differently, it’s making people hopefully see bridges between each other where they didn’t think there were. It’s doing that without turning a blind eye to the hard parts of history. I really hope that this movie is the movie for a good time right now.

What’s next for you?

Hidden Figures is part of a trilogy.

Oh my gosh!

Yes. I saw stories that I found when I was working on Hidden Figures. I’m already working on. It’s all really crazy. Also, a very interesting unseen, but not untold stories that also take place mid-century. One of the things people are really responding to is this isn’t a story with black people or women where history is just happening to them, or where they are just recipients of the actions of other people. This is a human story where the protagonists happen to be women and black where they get to be like white guys who are just doing their things. Loving math, loving science, and saving the world. What else do any of us want but that? I think that’s why people are responding to it.

That’s something we’ve really been lacking.

It’s a really groundbreaking kind of story and book. There are some books but not many, and there are very few films, and that’s what people are responding to. That’s what people want, it’s very human to want to be the protagonist of your own story regardless of who you are. That does not change if you are a woman or a black woman. It’s that treatment and this very protagonist form that is a very radical concept in a movie, and particularly in a Hollywood movie.

I’m excited for your new work.

They all have to do with the American Dream and I’m interested in that, and identity through work. I’m so so excited for it.

 

Hidden Figures is inspiring the next generation of little girls. Like these little girls who dressed up like the Jackson, Vaughan and Johnson for Black History Month. Their story went viral and here  are the cast members and Margo Lee Shetterly with the girls.