In our year-end special, we talk to Andy Cohen, the man behind Bravo’s Real Housewives, about celebrity obsession. Then we break down some of the best podcasts of 2016 with help from Lauren Ober, host of NPR’s The Big Listen, and Brittany Luce, of Gimlet. And finally, Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly tells the stories of black female mathematicians who played crucial roles in the early days of NASA.
Hidden Figures has been adapted into a major motion picture out December 25, 2016.
Here’s a few highlights from the interview with Margot Lee Shetterly.
On what Hidden Figures is all about
First of all, Hidden Figures is a true story. A lot of people say, ‘Oh my God, it’s a novel, it’s fiction, you made up a great story.’ No, no, no. I didn’t make up anything. It’s all true.
Hidden Figures is the story of a group of African American women who starting in World War II go to work as professional mathematicians at something called the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory, in Hampton, Virginia, where I grew up, which is the kernel of what would become NASA.
The book follows them from the period during World War II through the moon landing and really, looking at their lives, tries to address issues of gender and race and all of the great sweeps of what we call the American Century.
On Shetterly’s experience growing up in a town filled with aerospace engineers
The thing about Hampton, Virginia is that it was a real defense industry community. So a lot of people did technical jobs working for the military, the military industrial complex, but there were teachers and doctors (too), so it was sort of what you would call middle America and seemed totally normal. But for me, an unusual proportion of the people that I knew because of my dad working at NASA, also worked at NASA, and also happened to be black. So it seemed normal. It really isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that it took until that point — when I started writing the book — to truly appreciate how unusual a community that was.
On the beauty of mathematics
For some reason math really does get a bad rap. It’s sort of seen as this thing that’s really hard and boring and painful and not creative, when in fact there’s a tremendous amount of creativity and beauty to it — that I think even if people are not technically proficient at math, they might still be interested in it the same way you can be interested in beautiful music even if you can’t play music. So math needs some rebranding.
On the amount of research she put into the book
Really immersing yourself in the details of someone else’s life is a lot of responsibility. You want to be as objective as possible in terms of the history, and representing what actually happened, but you really also want to be true to their perspective and to their point of view and to the circumstances of their life. So that was hard.
Doing justice both to the people who are living, like Katherine Johnson, who is here and can represent still her own story and her history, but really trusting that I had read enough and spoken enough with relatives and seen enough documents of the women who are not still alive, to know that I’d also represented them honestly and fairly and completely. I would say it was probably three years of real research before I even felt comfortable enough to start writing.
On why the stories in Hidden Figures are relevant today
Having worked in workplaces where I was perhaps one of few women, the only black woman, whatever it is — trying to negotiate those identities and trying to figure out: What is the balance between being assertive and aggressive and pushy? Is it better to be nice or is it better to be ferocious? I mean, trying to figure out all of those things in the workplace and looking at these women from decades ago doing the same thing, it was both informative and interesting, and it totally rang true now as much as then.