David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Month: October 2015

Virginia Pye On Books, Publishers & the Dreaded Sophomore Jinx

We first met Virginia Pye at the James River Writers Conference (another reason to attend what is a great conference) and we were immediately struck by how curious she was. How she asked questions. How she seemed to want to know. We believe this is one of the most important characteristics an author can have, especially one who is starting out, but it really applies to anyone. We were overjoyed when her first novel came out, and now she has a second. We thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to go through the process the first time, and then do it all over again.

To read the full interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: Your first novel River of Dust did so well, did you feel nervous about the sophomore jinx? Were you aware that second books are doomed to failure?

Virginia Pye: My way of dealing with the second book jinx was to write the next novel right on the heels of my debut. I have my editor to thank for steering me towards the story that became Dreams of the Red Phoenix. I had mentioned an anecdote about my grandmother that got him curious to hear more: in 1937 Japanese-occupied China, my grandmother chased Japanese soldiers off her front porch with a broom. I had always just taken it for granted that my grandparents were complicated and strangely heroic people. It took my editor, Greg Michalson, to nudge me into writing a novel inspired by my grandmother.

After exploring the ingénue character of Grace in River of Dust–a woman who is naïve at the start of the story and becomes steadily stronger as she faces greater and greater challenges and dangers–in my next novel I wanted to focus on a woman who is powerful right from the start and even quite headstrong and arrogant at times. Shirley Carson’s arc is almost the opposite of Grace’s: she must tone down her self-confidence and finally listen to others in order to genuinely help them and herself.

Once I got involved with Shirley there was no turning back. The story came fast–the first draft was written in a miraculous twenty-eight days. So clearly I had no time to worry about jinxes. I wrote on a tear and then I spent the next year revising with the help of my agent and editor. I really enjoyed myself writing this novel. I hope the reader enjoys it, too!

TBD: How do you get people like Robert Olen Butler and our good friend Caroline Leavitt to write such fantastic things about your work?

VP: My publisher, Unbridled Books, approached Robert Olen Butler and he kindly responded. I was thrilled that he loved the River of Dust. When I read his complimentary words, I thought I could just quit right then: I had done my job.

I met Caroline Leavitt on Facebook. I had noticed how she’s always generous with fellow writers, especially new ones, and I love her posts, which are often quite funny. When I noticed that we grew up one town over from each other in the suburbs of Boston and were both preparing to go back to our hometowns to do book events in the same month, I wrote her a private message. She wrote back right away and generously invited me onto her blog for an interview and then offered her kind blurb.

Books, especially first ones, have a way of connecting writers to people in unexpected ways. The enthusiastic blurb I received from Annie Dillard was the most surprising instance of that. Annie had been my teacher back in college. After a full year of studying with her, and working on numerous drafts of the same story, she wrote these words on my final draft: “I believe more than ever that you will write books for the rest of my life.” I took her words seriously and set out to do as she predicted.

Annie always had a policy of not encouraging former students to stay in touch. I respected that boundary, but had in mind for years that I would contact her when I finally published a novel. It took far longer than I had hoped, but approximately thirty years later, I finally sent her my first published novel. I didn’t ask her for anything, but simply thanked her for the crucial, life-directing role she had played when she encouraged me as a young writer. Apparently, I didn’t even include a return address or contact information. I just wanted the satisfaction of sharing my accomplishment with my former teacher.

To my surprise, two weeks later I received an email from her. She had tracked down my email address from my website and wrote to say that she was proud of me and that she was glad that I’d sent her the novel, but that she couldn’t promise to have time to read. As I composed a brief email reply in my mind that I intended to send to her the next day, I woke to discover a second email from her. She had stayed up all night reading River of Dust! She loved it and offered the most significant comments I could imagine. When I read her complimentary words, I truly felt that I had accomplished the life goal I had set for myself many, many years before.

Her emailed comments eventually became the blurb that appears on the paperback of River of Dust. Like so much about the writing process, I learned a lesson from that experience: sometimes things come to you precisely because you don’t push for them. Patience can be its own reward and can give greater gifts than we can imagine.

TBD: We’ve heard such great things about Unbridled Books. What are they like to work with? How do they approach getting you and your book out into the world?

VP: I can’t say enough good things about Unbridled Books. I have had the privilege of working with Greg Michalson, whose judgment and wisdom as an editor has been honed over decades. He has an unwavering sense of what works in a piece of fiction. I have learned an enormous amount from him about how not to overwrite and how to trust the reader to understand the intention of words carefully chosen. He is the master of eliciting the light touch in fiction.

Everyone who works for Unbridled is equally top notch. I’ve been impressed by their copy editor, Connie Oehring, whose work was flawless with both books. And the book designs for both River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix feature original covers by Kathleen Lynch and interior designs by Claire Vaccaro that capture the essence of each book and are impeccably done and, I think, quite beautiful!

The Unbridled publicity team has also been terrific. Working within a tight budget, they need to be especially smart and strategic. They’ve set me up at wonderful bookstores and conferences. Caitlin Hamilton Summie, who works for Unbridled and also has her own excellent marketing agency, is brilliant at positioning a book before publication and arranges terrific book tours.

I’ve also reached out a lot myself to local and regional bookstores. Each book event has been a meaningful opportunity to meet the crucial people who bring books into readers’ lives.

TBD: You spent a lot of your writing life doing short pieces. What has it been like as a writer to now approach the novel length story? What advice do you have about writing longer pieces?

VP: I have published short stories for years in literary magazines–which, incidentally, is no easy task. The success rate is something like less than one percent. But I have persisted at it for many years.

But my main love all along and main effort has gone into writing novels. I wrote my first novel in the Fiction MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. Shortly after graduation, a big, highly respected New York agent represented it and we both assumed it would establish me as an up-and-coming writer. But sadly, she failed to sell it. I was disappointed, but went back to writing and wrote a second novel before our first child was born. That novel also found an agent, but more work was needed on it, and I became distracted as a full-time mother of first a daughter, and then three years later, a son. When he went off to kindergarten, I finally delved back into my work and wrote a third novel. That one found a third agent who came close to selling it, but no luck.

Each unsold novel went into a drawer, and while that felt terrible, I could even tell at the time that they weren’t actual failures. I had learned an enormous amount about novel writing from the process of creating each new one.

With my fourth novel, I had the confidence to try a more complex story about three generations of an American family with ties to China. That bigger, more sprawling book took five years, and even then it never felt fully accomplished. Over thirty agents read it, some more than once. Eventually, I set it aside, too.

I then wrote a contemporary novel set in Richmond. That fifth novel has a very different tone–less literary and more a romantic comedy. I’m looking forward to returning to it and polishing it soon, in hopes of seeing it published someday.

After that change of pace, I returned to the opening forty pages of the sprawling multi-generational story set in China, and turned them into River of Dust: my sixth novel written, and the first to be published. I was able to write a deeper book, a more mature work, because of all the effort I had put into the previous ones.

Since finishing River of Dust, I’ve been on a tear, writing like I never have before. I immediately dove into the follow up book: Dreams of the Red Phoenix. And I’ve also now returned to the multi-generational work that tormented and fascinated me for years and have now revised it completely. I hope it will be the third and final novel I publish set in China.

In other words, my advice to writers who want to learn how to write novels is simple: write them. Write one, and when it doesn’t find a home with a publisher, or if you’re lucky and it does, go ahead and write the next. The only way to get better at writing novels is to practice.

TBD: Do you think getting an MFA is a big huge waste of money? Or not?

VP: My MFA degree bought me time. Two years to focus on my writing, though I did work at the same time. But, I enjoyed having the excuse to write and getting into the rhythm of always working on a book. Being in an MFA program offers a feeling of legitimacy that can help a less-established writer take herself seriously.

Getting an MFA also helped me to land teaching jobs as an adjunct at NYU and then U. Penn. I was also able to connect to my first agent through my MFA teachers, so that worked out, at least at first. As I mentioned, I’ve gone on to have other agents, and in the end am very happy with my current agent who I came to unconnected to my MFA.

I think that today’s MFA programs offer far more than when I was in grad school. They seem to teach more about craft and about the business. And they are a way to get to know your peers and, if you’re lucky, make lifelong writing friends.

But there are other ways to build community around yourself as a writer that are definitely less expensive. Many cities now have writing non-profit organizations that bring writers together and introduce them to publishers and agents. Going to conferences is a great way to take yourself seriously as a writer and to make contacts with people in the writing world. You can apply for residencies at artists’ colonies or retreats. There are many more options now than ever to find resources as writer–online and in person. Getting an MFA isn’t the only way to establish your career and to buy time to write, but it can be very helpful.

TBD: How has being involved with James River Writers helped you as an author? Why should writers attend a conference like the James River Writers Conference?

VP: Writing can be both lonely and discouraging. I have blithely shared my story of seven novels written and two published. I would have loved to be able to report a higher percentage published, but that wasn’t to be. As a result, I faced a lot of rejection. All along, as I was writing and submitting short stories, it became routine to find returned manila envelopes in my mailbox. I really could have plastered my walls with rejections slips, like the writer in Larry Brown’s Big Bad Love.

Though, as an aside, those slips steadily became more personal and encouraging over the years. We’re all just people in this business and if you subscribe to the same journals, and keep sending your stories or poems to the same editors, they notice that you care about what they do, and eventually vice versa.

The only way I know to not become too desperate in the face of these odds is to hang out with other writers who are facing similar challenges. I loved being a part of James River Writers, a literary non-profit in Richmond, Virginia. I ended up helping to run the organization for seven years. We had a membership of around four hundred people, which I think is great for a smaller size city. JRW puts on an annual conference, bringing in established authors and publishing professionals. I learned a lot from being around published writers, interviewing them on panels, and moderating their talks. And I learned a lot about the business from meeting agents and editors and publishers.

By being part of a writers’ organization, I became knowledgeable about how to be a published author long before I ever had my first novel taken. I think that helps a lot to demystify the process in which books are chosen. Breaking the isolation of writing is key to joining the world of published authors.

TBD: I hate to ask you this but what advice do you have for writers?

VP: No need to apologize. I love this question! I have been through the hard knocks school of writing and am happy to share my insights, especially if it helps prepare emerging writers in any way, though we all have our own paths. I’ve already stressed that the most important thing is to not stop writing. If you get discouraged, write your way through it. Assume you have not just one book in you, but many. If one is rejected by the world at this moment, set it aside and try the next. The time may come later for the rejected one to find its place in the sun. But your writerly mind needs to constantly be challenged. Don’t get so attached to a single manuscript that you think it is the only one that will make you a writer. Press on and try again. Believe, as Annie did about me, that you will write books for the rest of your life.

And all the while as you’re writing, read. Read only the best. Don’t clog up your brain with crappy prose. Read Maugham and Chekov, Carver and Trevor, Paley and Munro. Follow the careers–meaning read the books!–of current authors whose work you admire. And establish a budget that allows you to purchase and read contemporary fiction. Go to readings. Support fellow writers. Approach them and buy their latest and egg them on. They will be grateful and do the same for you when your time comes. Generosity and not jealousy will propel your career forward better than just about anything, except perhaps continuing to write the best books you can write.

Virginia Pye is the author of the novels Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust (Unbridled Books, 2015 & 2013). Her award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and her essays can be found at The New York Times Opinionator blog, The Rumpus, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at NYU and U. Penn. She divides her time between Richmond, Virginia, and her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

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Josh Funk, author

Josh Funk On the War Between Pancakes & French Toast, SCBWI & Getting Published

We first met Josh Funk at the New England SCBWI Conference. (If you’re not a member of this group and you’re interested in books for kids, as soon as you’re done reading this piece and sharing it with everyone you know, go join that group. If you haven’t been to one of their conferences, ditto.) We were struck with Josh’s fabulous combination of goofiness and seriousness. It’s something we aspire to at The Book Doctors. And when we found out his debut picture book was going to be dropping, we had a wonderful wave of serious goofiness come over us. It’s called Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, and it’s a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney. So we thought we’d sit down with Señor Funk and see what’s new on Funk Island.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
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The Book Doctors: First of all, congratulations. What did it feel like when you saw that first box of books arrive and you tore it open and there it was, your own baby book?

Josh Funk: Ahh, the Back to the Future moment: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”

Well, I didn’t exactly have the ‘open the box moment’ that you see in the movies (or at least that one movie). The first physical copy of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast that I got a copy of was the one the Sterling sales rep gave to Porter Square Books (in Cambridge, MA). I got a tweet from a friendly bookseller at PSB who said she found my book, so I immediately rushed to Cambridge.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing design. I knew it was going to have an embossed cover with foil, but it was really stunning. The book creaked a little when I opened it. I had seen a digital copy, but the clarity of the images on the pages was overwhelming compared to seeing it on the screen. And I think it smelled a little bit like maple syrup.

And then I jumped around giddily for about ten minutes before the booksellers asked me to leave out of fear I was scaring away all of their customers.

TBD: Why in the name of all that’s good and holy would you choose to get into the publishing business? Have you had your head examined recently? Been checked for brain parasites?

JF: Haven’t had my head examined lately. It’s possible I’m housing parasites. But the real reason is that I always read a lot of books to my kids. One day I thought, ‘I can do this.’

But once I joined my first critique group, then attended my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, I realized I had a lot to learn. But I also noticed that the kidlit community is so warm and welcoming and just plain fun. I quit my fantasy football leagues and started taking writing more seriously.

I’d like to think that even if I never sold a book, I’d still be happy just to be a part of the kidlit world.

TBD: How did you go about getting a book contract not only for Lady Pancake, but also for your next two books which are coming out?

JF: In the May of 2013, I gave up on trying to acquire a literary agent. I was getting almost no responses to my queries. Out of 35 queries for Lady Pancake, 1 agent responded with a rejection implying she read it (or at least read the title). The other 34 were made up of 10 form rejections and 24 black holes. I felt I was better than that, so I submitted Lady Pancake to 10 publishers via snail mail.

Around the same time, there was an open submission period to Scholastic via author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi’s Inkygirl blog. The Scholastic editor was looking for material suited for ages 0-5, and the only manuscript I had written for that age group was Pirasaurs! (most of my picture books are geared toward kids ages 4-8).

And then as late summer rolled around, I finished revising another manuscript (Dear Dragon) and decided to send it out to publishers that accepted submissions via email and online form.

By early November, Scholastic told me they were taking Pirasaurs! to acquisitions, Dear Dragon had garnered interest from two small publishers, and Sterling made an offer for Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast. All of that, plus a personal recommendation from a friend helped me obtain representation with an (awesome) agent. Over the next two months, my agent finalized the deals with Sterling and Scholastic and found a home for Dear Dragon at Penguin/Viking.

And that’s how I got an agent and sold three picture book manuscripts between November of 2013 and January of 2014. I know it’s a non-traditional path, but I feel extremely fortunate with the way it worked out.

TBD: Hasn’t anyone told you that rhyming books don’t sell? How did you overcome this ridiculous idea, and why do you think people keep saying that?

JF: Oh, boy. I have thought about this a LOT. Many rhyming picture books get published every year. So why do people say not to write in rhyme? Why is there this stigma? Well, there’s a single simple reason.

It’s very easy to write bad rhyme.

And lots of people do (please note that if you’re reading this and you like to write rhyming picture books, I’m not talking about you).

Everyone grew up reading and loving Dr. Seuss. Therefore, many people think that picture books are supposed to rhyme. When they start writing picture books, that’s how they write them. This includes me.

It’s a flawed way of thinking. Not everyone is cut out to write rhyming picture books. It’s actually rather difficult. I personally believe that a good rhyming picture book has an added level of charm. But there are so many mistakes you can make when writing a rhyming picture book (mostly to do with rhythm, all of which I’ve discussed in depth on my website and while leading workshops).

But here’s the problem. When a literary agent receives a query for a rhyming picture book manuscript, there’s a 99% chance that it’s bad rhyme. And it’s not worth the agent’s time to read 99 bad rhyming manuscripts, just to get to the one good one. And I completely understand and agree with that policy. Add to that the fact that it’ll be nearly as hard for an agent to sell a rhyming manuscript to an editor. I truly believe that this is why my query response rate was so utterly abysmal (in retrospect, I shouldn’t have said that the manuscript rhymed in the query).

I overcame this hurdle by first worked very hard to improve my rhyming, spending lots of time reverse-engineering critique partners’ comments.

Second, I bypassed agents. An agent is (rightfully) concerned with a writer’s entire body of work and career. If you submit a single rhyming manuscript embedded in an email query and that’s all they have to go on, it doesn’t make you a particularly enticing prospective client. But an editor is more concerned with a single manuscript. It’s not that they don’t care about you or your career, but if they like a manuscript, rhyming or not, that’s all they have to commit to.

I figured I’d have better odds of someone actually reading my manuscript at a publishing house. And at least in this case, I was correct.

TBD: What are some of your favorite things about being a professional author? What are some of the most horrifying things about being a professional author?

JF: I love getting to meet fun people. Like other awesome authors I admire. And super cool teachers and librarians like those in the Nerdy Book Club. Seeing my son’s face the first time someone asked me for an autograph (part confusion, part amazement, part pride) – that was pretty cool. I also get to travel a little more than I used to.

Horrifying? I guess a Misery-type situation would be horrifying. Other than that, I’m all peaches and roses.

TBD: We are big lovers of pancakes and French toast around here. I, myself, leaned toward the pancake. Olive, our eight-year-old, often leans toward the French toast. I think you can divide all of humanity into these two categories. How did you come up with this fantastic idea for a book?

JF: One Saturday morning, I asked my kids what they wanted for breakfast. One said, “Pancakes.” The other said, “French toast.” “Pancakes.” “French toast.” “Pancakes!” “French toast!”

While the arguing continued, I checked the kitchen, and as you might have expected, all we had were waffles. To top it off (literally and figuratively), we had enough maple syrup left to fill a single square on a waffle grid.

It was on the way to the diner that I came up with the idea.

TBD: What was it like working with your editor? Illustrator? Agent?

JF: Zaneta Jung (my editor at Sterling) is terrific. We had one phone conversation discussing her revision notes, went back and forth for a week over email finalizing the manuscript, and that was pretty much it. Zaneta (pronounced ‘zuh-net-ta’) has so much energy and excitement for kids’ books. She has a great eye for picking out illustrators, too. She definitely had a hand in finding Brendan Kearney.

Like many author/illustrator relationships, Brendan and I didn’t really talk much (or at all). Rumor has it that the publishers like it this way. Author talks to editor editor talks to art director art director talks to illustrator. This way, the publisher maintains complete control of the message (good or bad). I’ve had nothing but good things to say about Brendan’s work on Lady Pancake, which I think have been relayed to him. I’ve had a handful of quick conversations with Brendan over Google chat, but that’s about it.

My agent, Kathleen Rushall, is a rock star! I was extremely fortunate to sign with her while she was actively building her picture book list. She represents picture books through young adult at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and is strong in every aspect you’d want from an agent. She has a fabulous editorial eye, she has a good sense of what particular editors are looking for, she knows the business and contracts side, she’s extremely communicative, and she’s a genuine pleasure to work with. We, her clients, affectionately refer to ourselves at #TeamKrush. We even have a logo designed by author Jessie Devine for PitchWars.


TBD: What do you see is the value of going to a writer’s conference? And specifically how has being a member of SCBWI helped you in your career and as a person?

JF: I think going to a writer’s conference is valuable at many levels of your career. If you’re brand new to the writing world, you’ll be able to learn the basics. It’s important to learn not only the craft of writing, but also about the industry and its expectations (e.g. picture book manuscripts should be around 300-500 words).

Once you’ve learned the basics, you might meet people who will ultimately become your critique partners (this has happened to me).

Perhaps you’ll read a picture book manuscript at an event’s open mic session, which will validate that you’re on the right track (also happened to me).

Maybe you’ll have a good time, make some friends, and get to watch the one-of-a-kind #Pitchapalooza led by The Book Doctors (again, happened to me).

Conferences avail the opportunity to connect with agents and editors for critiques or casual conversations (networking is so important).

SCBWI kickstarted everything for my writing life. In 2012, I attended my first New England SCBWI Regional Conference as one of about 700 attendees. And in 2016, I’ll be co-coordinating the conference alongside Heather Kelly, writer and founder of The Writers’ Loft (planning is already heavily underway for next spring’s event).

In 2016, we’re trying something new. We thought it might be nice to hear from (and get face time with) leading educators and booksellers. We’re bringing in a panel tentatively called “The Voice of Reading” with Elizabeth Bluemle (author, bookseller, blogger at PW’s Shelftalker), Donalyn Miller (teacher, author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild, Nerdy Book Club co-founder), Susannah Richards (professor, expert in all things children’s literature), and John Schumacher (AKA Mr. Schu, school librarian, newly appointed Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs).

SCBWI has helped me so much in such a short period, I’m grateful for the opportunity to volunteer my time to plan the 2016 (and 2017) NE Regional Conferences.

TBD: I hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?

JF: Keep writing. When you finish a manuscript, write the next one. It’ll be even better than the last. Networking is half the battle. I’ve written a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books available (for free) on my website here.

TBD: And finally, how do you keep it so funky?

JF: I eat lots of candy corn. I wear Old Spice deodorant. And I’m 17% psychic.

Josh Funk is the author of Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast (Sterling), available now. Josh is also the author of the forthcoming picture books Dear Dragon(Viking/Penguin 2016), Pirasaus! (Scholastic 2017), and more. Josh spends his days as a software engineer writing Java code and Python scripts, and his nights and weekend drinking Java coffee and writing picture book manuscripts, alongside his wife, children, and assorted pets and monsters. Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA, and the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Find out more about Josh, his books, his schedule for public appearances, and more at www.joshfunkbooks.com and on Twitter at @joshfunkbooks.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Join our newsletter to receive more interviews and tips on how to get published. 

Premilla Nadasen author

Premilla Nadasen On Domestic Workers, Poverty, Cops & What Is to Be Done

I have long been interested in the plight of the domestic worker, so when House Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement came across my transom, I leapt on it. It’s a wonderful read, skillfully written and meticulously researched. So I thought I’d pick the brain of the author, Premilla Nadasen, and see what light she can shed on this dirty little secret of American life.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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David Henry Sterry: What led you to become interested in the plight of the domestic worker?

Premilla Nadasen: I live in New York City and a little over ten years ago I learned of the amazing organizing by Domestic Workers United, a coalition of community-based groups representing different ethnic and racial backgrounds. I attended some meetings and demonstrations and was impressed with their innovative labor organizing strategies–especially at a moment when so many political commentators lamented the decline of the labor movement. As a historian, I began to think about antecedents to this movement as well as earlier instances of household worker organizing. I knew about the history of organizing among African American domestic workers–but was surprised that so little had been written on the post-period. So, I decided to write a full-length monograph of this movement. I found that examining the history of domestic worker activism adds a new dimension to the civil rights movement and labor organizing.

DHS: I’m a first-generation American, and I feel it has given me a very different lens than most when it comes to looking at the United States in terms of race, labor, and the class system. Has being raised by assimilating foreigners impacted the way you look at this country?

PN: Definitely. The immigrant experience for me has been partly about seeing the United States as a land of opportunity. We emigrated from apartheid South Africa, a violent, repressive country. My father had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement and was a victim of harassment. The United States, at least on the surface, seemed to offer something better. It didn’t take long, however, to learn that the U.S. had its own structural race/class system.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan I was involved in a student organization that addressed both apartheid in South Africa and racism on the U-M campus. So, my immigrant experience and the barriers that my family and I faced enabled me to understand more clearly the brutal history of racism in this country. I don’t think, however, that the immigrant experience is uniform. There are immigrants who come here with both race and class privilege and use that to integrate into the power structure. Class matters.

DHS: How do you see the struggle of the household worker activists from the 1950s through the 1970s reflected in the world of 2015?

PN: Household workers of the 1950s and 1960s are the prototypical precarious workers. Precarious labor, so much a topic of conversation in the current moment, is work that is insecure, poorly paid, unprotected and unregulated. Workers may be employed temporarily or part-time, or be subcontracted or self-employed. Labor activists today are grappling with how to organize this kind of precarious worker–whether they are Uber drivers or adjunct professors.

I don’t see precarious labor as something new. Certain categories of workers, very often immigrants and people of color, have always labored in precarious conditions. Bracero workers from Mexico, Puerto Rican contract laborers, farm workers, domestic workers, among others, were denied many of the labor protections that were considered basic rights. So, even in the mid-20th century when most American workers seemed to benefit from good pay and generous benefits, some workers labored under precarious circumstances. Examining the activism of household workers in the post-WWII period can offer some lessons for contemporary organizers about how to mobilize this kind of workforce.

DHS: Do you see the relationship between labor, exploitation, race and class that you explore in your books reflected in the terrible events of the last year with video after video of police gunning down unarmed black men?

PN: The exploitation of African American household workers, their marginalization in the labor movement and their dehumanization on the job are ongoing themes in African American history. In many ways the struggle by domestic workers was a struggle for dignity, for recognition, for humanity, and for inclusion into the body politic. And this seems to parallel the contemporary movement against police violence.

The police violence directed at black people is not new, but has been with us for generations. What is new is that we are now able to capture some of that on video. The recent concern about police violence has been focused on black men as victims–to the exclusion of the many black women who have been victims of similar violence. The Black Lives Matter movement, however, has attempted to draw attention to the issues of gender and sexuality that inform state power and violence. Both household worker organizing and the Black Lives Matter movement mobilized against a larger male-defined narrative of racial injustice. Through their organizing these movements did center, and are centering, the stories and lives of African American women, which presents a different lens to think about both injustice and black liberation.

DHS: I’ve done a lot of work with traumatized people, and I found over and over again how telling stories can be a way of changing how people see themselves, how they see the world, and indeed telling stories can be a fundamental way to help change the world. Can you talk about the way storytelling impacted the people in your book?

PN: Storytelling was a central political strategy for African American household workers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It was a way for them to develop a collective identity–to see themselves as a constituency with a political agenda. It also tied their movement to the longer history of working-class African American women–very often their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts. So, they shared stories about domestic work that were passed down in their families, stories that in part shaped the historical narrative of African American women. These stories also illuminated some of the harshest aspects of the occupation and offered some guidelines for what decent domestic work looked like–what was considered appropriate or inappropriate for a household worker to do. Geraldine Miller, an activist, who lived in New York City, for example, was told stories of the “Bronx Slave Markets.” These were street corners where African American women stood during the Great Depression waiting to be hired as day laborers. These women were exploited and very often cheated out of their pay. Their bodies were bartered and looked over. Miller had heard stories about how potential employers would drive by “looking for the women with the most-scarred knees” because this was an indication that they scrubbed floors down on all fours. Miller repeated the stories of the slave markets in her organizing. It became a way to identify the occupation with the history of racial exploitation, but also, because she was outraged that women had to scrub floors in this way, Miller’s telling of this story implied that African American domestics would never, ever scrub floors on their hands and knees again. So, storytelling was incredibly important to this movement. It’s how they identified with one another and how they developed an agenda for reform.

DHS: What were some of the difficulties of writing this book? What were some of the joys?

PN: It’s always hard to write histories of poor and working class people because documentation is so limited. Poor and working class people, especially women of color, rarely kept diaries and letters, they didn’t preserve papers and documents, and they didn’t publish very much. Few journalists and writers took the time to interview them or tell their stories. Power influences what archival material is kept and whose stories are preserved. Middle class people are more likely to have contacts with journalists and publishers, so their experiences have come to define the historical narratives. Part of what I try to do is unearth those voices who were less prominent and who have been marginalized in the histories to see what they can offer in terms of thinking about struggles for justice and equality.

The joy in writing the book came when I uncovered their narratives and their stories about the lives and their work. I was fortunate that there were some oral historians and archivists who did preserve the stories of these women. I am thankful that there were people who had foresight and the wisdom to do this. The women in the book are truly remarkable. And I began to see the value in this history more clearly when I spoke to contemporary domestic worker activists who were empowered and inspired to learn of the women organizers who came before them.

DHS: What do you think can be done about the abuses that still occur with marginalized Americans and immigrants who toil as household workers?

PN: One of the arguments of my book is that the most effective movements are grass-roots movements–ones in which poor and working people are able to define their own struggle. And we know from history, as well as just looking around us today, that this is happening. The undocumented immigrant movement, Black Lives Matter, taxi drivers, domestic workers have established grass-roots campaigns to transform the conditions of their lives. So, I think a lot can be done about the abuses of household workers. But we have to take direction from those on the ground to see exactly how that will play out. Clearly, the myth that domestic workers cannot be organized was shattered long ago.

DHS: How does the world of domestic workers differ in terms of gender and race?

PN: Domestic work is a highly stratified occupation. There are white women and people of European descent who work as domestics. They tend to be the most privileged and highly paid. Undocumented immigrants of color who don’t speak much English are perhaps the most exploited. They have the fewest resources and often limited knowledge about their rights and how to secure them. Domestic work is fundamentally about power. And citizenship status, race, ethnicity, language, and gender, all determine the power differential between employer and employee.

DHS: When you watch the movie The Help, what was your reaction to it? I have some friends of color who were very offended by the fact that it had to have a pretty, skinny white girl as one of its heroes. I was curious about your take.

PN: The central theme in The Help is an old one in Hollywood: that of the white savior helping the less fortunate. From my perspective, the movie is less about African American domestic workers than about a young white woman’s journey of self-discovery. The domestic workers she encounters are simply an avenue or a platform for her to achieve that. Quite frankly, I’m tired of that kind of portrayal. We need to move beyond seeing African American history as a backdrop for white empowerment and give poor and working class people the space to tell their own stories and share the narratives of their lives.

Premilla Nadasen is an associate professor of history at Barnard College, Columbia University, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States. A longtime scholar-activist, Nadasen works closely with domestic workers’ rights organizations, for which she has written policy briefs and served as an expert academic witness. She also writes about household labor, social movements, and women’s history for Ms., the Progressive Media Project, and other media outlets.

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