“With everything happening, my hope is that people will understand the duress that Black people go through day by day trying to function and still do a good job and still be present….Those things take a toll on your social health, your mental health, and also they pass down generation to generation.”
J.T. Ellison: Hi! Good morning. How are you?
Zakiya Delila Harris: Hi! I’m good. I’m good. How are you doing?
Ellison: I am fantastic, because I get to talk to you today, and I’ve been so excited for this conversation because I loved the book. But first off, welcome to A Word on Words.
Harris: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Ellison: Tell me where you’re coming from for our special at-home edition today.
Harris: I am in my apartment in Brooklyn, in my office where all the magic happens, or at least I hope.
Ellison: So, I’ve got to say congratulations because outside of the pandemic messing with you being able to go out on tour-
Ellison: Frustrating, right?
Harris: Yes. Yeah. I mean, I also had worked in publishing before writing this book, which I imagine we’ll get into, so I definitely had an idea of what publishing a book would look like. And then, of course, a couple of weeks after, we sold the book to Atria, the world just shut down. So, I was very much like, “Are people even caring about books?” And that lasted for like two days because just book Twitter, bookstagrammers, everyone has just been amazing and still invested and even more so invested in reading and talking about books. So, it’s been a blessing in disguise, even though that also feels… I mean, I’m trying to find the silver lining.
Ellison: Just having pandemic books out is incredibly difficult. To do it for your debut is 10 times harder. But I agree, I feel like there’s been such an incredible influx of people that just want to read books and want to share, and that’s fantastic. Is this the first book you’ve written?
Harris: Yes and no. So, I had started writing a different book about… So, let’s see. I finished my grad program and I studied non-fiction writing, did my MFA at The New School in 2016. And right around that time, I was really interested in… I was reading Baldwin, I was reading Harry Newton’s autobiography. I was getting really involved in just learning about the Black Panthers and the more radical approach to just changing the condition, the way that Black people are treated in the US and throughout the world. And so, I started writing a book that was in that space of just young Black people living in America in a time when, of course, police shootings are happening, Black people were being murdered and no consequences were happening to the people who are doing these things.
So, I was in that space for a while of trying to make this novel work, but at the same time, I had just started working in publishing in end of summer of 2016. So, I was trying to write this book, trying to be an editorial assistant, which I’d never been in publishing before that, so it was learning a lot. I wasn’t able to make that book work, and I still have it in the back of my mind, like hundreds of pages of it, but it didn’t click the way that this book clicked. When I started writing it, I just had an idea already of where it was going, how I wanted it to work, but also, I was really open to just letting the characters speak to me more so than trying to make it work in its own way. You know what I mean? So, it happened a lot more organically and just came together a lot more quickly for me than my other unfinished books.
Ellison: You have plenty of time. I get that. I totally get that. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you came to the writing life, just your path to the page, and then I want to talk about the book.
Harris: Yeah, definitely. So I grew up loving reading and writing from a very young age. I wrote my first book when I was maybe six or seven. It was called Aren’t You Tired Yet? and it’s about a girl who doesn’t want to go to bed and wants to come up with reasons to stay up late. I illustrated it and gave it to my dad to look over. My dad is actually a writer. He teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. And then he also had a column for the Hartford Current and, before that, the New Haven Register for awhile. So, he was always around the house grading papers with, he called it, his mighty red pen, where he would just be marking up his college student’s work. Yeah, it definitely had an impact on me of just seeing that this could be a profession where you’re… I mean, he’s of course also teaching, but just being in that world of words was something I was really excited about as a kid.
So, when I went to college, I went to UNC Chapel Hill, and they didn’t have a major in creative writing, which looking back, I think it was better for me that they didn’t. So, I majored in English lit, minored in creative writing. Definitely, though, was telling myself… Writing’s hard. It’s hard to get a job that you can sustain yourself fully on just through writing, and so I had in my mind, like, “Oh, I could do more research, maybe go the academic route.” After that, though, I did decide to do my MFA in nonfiction writing at The New School. And it was kind of a last minute thing. I applied for both non-fiction and fiction and got wait-listed for fiction, actually, and so it was like, “Okay.” I had written a few nonfiction pieces in college and really enjoyed research and talking to people, doing more biographical work.
I did my MFA and loved it, had a lot of great classmates, great instructors who helped me hone my writing. And that’s when I really started getting interested in writing about race and my Blackness and what it meant to me, because this was right around the time of Eric Garner, Philando Castile. I was living in New York City for the first time as a young person, not in my college bubble. I was definitely thinking more about the world and just what was happening and how I’d been raised and looking at some of the things that as a kid I experienced that I never really thought about until I was in my early 20s. That also, of course, fed into The Other Black Girl, too, because a lot of my experiences are what happened to Nella and what experiences that Nella had growing up.
Ellison: That’s a perfect segue. Let’s talk about the book. Tell me about the story.
Harris: The Other Black Girl follows two women working at Wagner Books. We have Nella Rogers who is a young editorial assistant who has been the only Black person working there for about two years or so. So, she’s really excited when Hazel, another young Black woman who is from Harlem, comes and starts working in the cubicle next to hers. She thinks that they’ll be able to bond over the microaggressions, bond over Black hair, be friends, have another person that she doesn’t have to necessarily code switch with, she can just be herself. But a series of very strange things start to happen in the office, some weird power plays happen, and Nella starts to receive these strange notes, and Nella begins to wonder if Hazel is friend or foe. But at the same time, intertwined with Nella’s story, are the stories of three other Black women, Shawnee, Kendra Rae, and Diana, all of whom have chosen very different paths in life, but they’re all bound by one secret that has implications for Black people all over the world.
Ellison: I’m really interested in the other backstory and the historical aspect of this. Diane’s a writer, Kendra Rae is her editor, and this is back in in the ‘80s. Did you base their bestseller and those characters on anyone?
Harris: Kind of. When I was working in publishing, I certainly had Toni Morrison in mind as the person that I would look to of having worked in publishing. I mean, there were many years between us, but I still felt like if she could do it in that time, maybe I can also do it now. And so, I definitely had in mind with Nella, Nella’s story, of looking toward these two women who worked and… Kendra Rae was an editor at Wagner Books and Diana an author. I really wanted to have that as this beacon that she looked back upon, because I know as a Black woman, I have often talked to other Black women who are older than me, my dad, who they’ve all had experiences working in corporate environments and just talking about what has changed and what hasn’t changed. It really felt important to me that Nella had this example of two Black women making this wonderful book happen. Yeah, I definitely had Toni Morrison in mind. Yeah.
And in terms of influence, for Diana, I also had Oprah in mind, too, of this kind of person who… Like in present day, Diana is larger than life. She has such a big power, and it’s really inspiring to see in a lot of ways. So, definitely had them in mind, but also I wanted to really imagine for their book, Burning Heart, that became a bestseller in the ‘80s, I was imagining what kind of book I would have really liked to see, the kind of book I would like to read. Because, again, I mentioned Black Panthers are something that I’ve just been so fascinated by, and I just thought it’d be cool to imagine this fake book… Not fake book, fictional book. Fictional’s the word.
Ellison: It’s a beautiful parallel for what Nella goes through. She wants to be an editor, she’s trying so hard, and she’s just banging up against all these walls.
Harris: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. And it’s also kind of… I mean, I wanted her to have an anchor because so much of her time at Wagner Books is really hard, but there is still this glimmer of hope that she looks too. Right? And so, I definitely wanted to explore that, too, of how things can be really, really hard, but our ancestors, the people who came before us, also had it really hard. And if they were able to push through in their own way, then maybe we can, too. But of course, with Nella’s story, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Ellison: Much more complicated. So, without giving anything away, can you talk about how you use hair and haircare as a metaphor?
Harris: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, hair was really important to me. I said this at the beginning. So much of me is in Nella. I experienced my own kind of awakening, racial awakening, when I was living in New York for the first time, cut my hair off at a Dominican barbershop after being so tired of having relaxed hair. Nella goes through a similar situation, but Nella’s also been so used to not feeling like she fits in with Black society. And I use quotes because, I mean, it’s not a monolith, it’s so much more nuanced. But Nella grew up feeling like she wasn’t Black enough. She grew up in a mostly White space. So, for her, hair is the way that she’s able to connect with other Black women. Black women are so diverse, but we also still, one of the things we share, and not across the bat, but one of the things we share is just hair and how our hair has been…
We’ve always felt this pressure to do something with it that fits into the mainstream, to some extent. Like some people have been able to maintain their sense of self and maintain their hair as it is without feeling those pressures. But I know for me, I got my first relaxer when I was 10, and at the time… I mean, all my friends were White, they had straight ponytails. I wanted that. But also, Ashanti, Beyonce, a lot of the Black women in mainstream had straight hair, and so I was always thinking about that and wanting that, too. So, with Nella, she’s older, I just wanted to really explore how hair can be a connective tissue for Black women, but also it can possibly break us apart, as well.
Ellison: Yes. Yes. This is a hard book to talk about because…
Harris: I know.
Ellison: It seems like it’s going to be one thing, and you’ve done a magnificent job of sleight of hand. And for a debut novel to have that level of sophistication with it, it’s magnificent.
Harris: Thank you.
Ellison: You mentioned code switching earlier. Can you talk about what code switching is and why fitting in is so important?
Harris: Yeah. So, code switching is… It’s very nuanced, but it can be as simple as using a different pitch of your voice with a certain group of people. Usually code switching is used to describe what non-White people do around White people. I don’t know what the technical term is, but at least for me, every time I have seen the term code switching, it means specifically a Black person switching up the way they talk, maybe what they talk about. I feel like code switching goes beyond talking, though, and goes into, also, your actual behavior. And I think the way you dress, and I also even think it goes into self-censoring yourself. And Nella has had such…. She spends so much time at Wagner Books really censoring herself and making sure she fits in, she’s seamlessly part of the Wagner crowd because she doesn’t want to stand out too much.
She also doesn’t want to come off as the angry Black woman trope or like the ungrateful person to be here, because at the end of the day, Wagner Books is this very prestigious publishing house, and she really, really wants to ascend the ladder to one day become the Black editor at Wagner Books. And I think she also has a sense that when she gets up there to the top, she doesn’t have to code switch anymore, but I mean, that’s something that she can’t possibly know. And also, I feel like the system at a certain point will take that ability… I think the system at some point will make you forget that you’re code switching in a way, too. Not always, but sometimes.
And so, yeah, I mean, I wanted to explore that. I also think it plays a big part in her conversations with Hazel, too, because Hazel also has her own way of code switching, but like I was saying, code switching is very nuanced and there’s a gray line, or there’s a fine line, between code switching and selling out. And so, I also wanted to get into that, too. And it’s hard to talk about because I don’t think it’s something… I mean, Black people talk about it, we talk about it, but it’s hard to have that conversation widely because the nuance often will get lost, I think. I think every case by case is different in terms of what makes sense to do for code switching versus just open yourself up, like tell them what you think, but sometimes it’s not that easy.
Ellison: Right. And she certainly runs into that at work. And then Hazel comes in and just usurps her and usurps her position. So is Hazel the villain in the story?
Harris: I get that question a lot, and no, she’s not the villain. She definitely… And that was a hard thing to do. Right? I really wanted Hazel to, by the end of it, you feel like you understand why Hazel is the way she is, and that’s partly why I had the Kendra/Diana storyline, too, because I really wanted to show that there are so many different perspectives on just how to be successful, what one should do to get to the top. And Hazel, especially, I have to say, over the last few weeks, the last year, having been, of course, going through this pandemic, all of us living through this pandemic, and also just seeing all of the really terrible things happening in the world, trying to tune all of those things out enough to be like… I don’t even know. Not normal human being, but just to be able to be creative, to be social, to be able to talk to people and still keep yourself intact, it’s really hard.
I mean, I know when I was working on edits for this book last summer during the George Floyd protests, it was really hard, and there were actually a few moments that I rewrote because… Or not rewrote, but went in and just had far more feelings than I had when I was writing it in 2019, because I was really experiencing that, “How do I tune this out enough? I need to care. I’m always going to care, but how do I tune this out enough to still take care of myself and also protect my work?” So, I’m hoping that Hazel will be seen as… Yes, Hazel has a very complicated view on things, but Hazel’s complicated view comes from a larger, wider problem that is systemic and that puts a value on Black bodies. And I think it’s not just publishing, I think it goes beyond publishing and into this country itself. I’m hoping that people will get Hazel, still feel for Nella, but just have a lot more empathy for both of them.
Ellison: I think you’ve done that.
Ellison: I don’t even like to use the term villain talking about her. She’s an antagonist.
Harris: No, yeah. Definitely.
Ellison: She’s an antagonist. She’s the other side of the coin.
Harris: Exactly. Totally. And that’s such a good point. I’m so glad you said that because I do really see Hazel being this like “what if” version of Nella at the beginning of the book. Like what if I had grown up in Harlem? What if I had had this kind of experience being around Black people all the time as a young person? Would I have cut my hair? I mean, would I have straightened my hair? What would I have done? And so, definitely think, just as Kendra Rae and Diana are also two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways.
Ellison: So, what is the most important takeaway for readers. When they close the cover, what do you want them to think, and what do you want them to take away from this?
Harris: It depends on the day. It depends on the day. I think, for me, especially with the George Floyd verdict, with everything happening, my hope is that people will understand the duress that Black people, especially Black women, go through day by day trying to function and still do a good job and still be present. It might seem small, I like to think that a lot of people do understand that, but the events that Nella experiences day to day, and those anxieties, are real. And those things take a toll on your social health, your mental health, and also they pass down generation to generation, as we see in the book. So, my hope is that people will see this and think more about that and also how we can make that not be the case. Right?
How can we make, not just publishing more diverse, but how can we make media more diverse? How can we make the educational system more diverse? Because I also didn’t have my first Black teacher until I think my senior year of high school, and that was like I took a Black lit class in high school. So, there’s issues there. She’s in the entertainment industry. I’m hoping that by having such a specific portrait of these four women, we’ll be able to step back and actually really think about just how we can make diversity more meaningful and how we can not just put people in top positions, people of color into top positions, which is fabulous, but how can we retain the younger people or the people who are not in the top positions? Because entry-level jobs are really the way a lot of people get in, and if you’re not taking care of those people, Black people, people of color, non-cis people, just anybody who’s not the majority in a lot of these industries, then you’re not going to have a more diverse workforce.
So, I’m hoping that this will make people think about those more serious issues, but I also just hope people come away with another portrait of what Black people look like, what Black women look like. It’s not the definitive portrait of Black women by any means, but we’re not a monolith. And I just really want to show that we are not perfect, we make obscure references sometimes to music that came out 40 years ago, we’re concerned about curl patterns, and we’re thinking about also if we can afford to have this dinner or say what we’re thinking about this particular issue at work. We’re juggling so many things, and my hope is that this will really show that we’re here, we just deserve a real honest to goodness look, and more than a look.
Ellison: I’m laughing because that’s your Luther Vandross essay, which I loved. Maybe we can put a link to that in the transcript because it was just awesome. https://www.guernicamag.com/zakiya-harris-please-sample-responsibly/
Harris: Years later. I’m still reeling from that.
Ellison: I can imagine. I can only imagine. So, we’re nudging up into the publishing conversation that I want to have. So, really quick, how did you end up leaving publishing to write? What was the nudge that you were like, “That’s it, I’m going to go write my book?”
Harris: There were a series of nudges. Let’s see. 2018, about two years in, I was promoted from editorial assistant to assistant editor, which is huge. As I write about in the book, it’s really hard to move up, so I was, of course, ecstatic that my bosses trusted me. And one of my bosses gave me a book to work on. And that’s also just a huge gesture of trust. And I remember, though, getting this book, like a very good book, really important book, wonderful author, but I remember going back to my desk and sobbing to my coworker, who was also a writer, who got it. I was just like, “I want to do this, but I also know that this is going to be my life. At this point, the commitment level goes up so much more because I’m the point person on this book. I have a duty to my author as the assistant editor on this title.”
And at the time, also, I started writing this book. So, I was really, really into writing this book. I would wake up early in the morning, go to work, write at my desk. Like over lunch, I would write, stay up late. I was so into the book, and it just kept coming out of me faster than the other book. And all of those things together just made me realize like publishing is not where I want to be doing right now. I will always be constantly wondering what would have happened if I had seen the book through. Fortunately, both of my parents were very supportive. Again, my dad’s a writer. My mom was concerned about health insurance, as moms should be.
Ellison: Like moms do.
Harris: But ultimately, she was so supportive, as well. But honestly I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all if my partner hadn’t happened to also be moving in with me at the same time, because, I mean, I couldn’t afford to live in my apartment on my own off of like a part-time job. So, when I decided to quit, I put in my notice, and I was nauseous. I was like, “Is this a good idea?” But I was like, “You know what? It’s got to happen. I already have been feeling a little stuck and this isn’t the thing I want to be doing right now.” So, I put in my notice, I got a job at a cupcake shop in the Village, which I thought would be lower stress, and it actually ended up being really stressful because frosting cupcakes is really hard.
But I did that, and then a little bit after that, I got a job teaching creative writing at Writopia Lab, which is a nonprofit. And I had so much fun just getting back to basics, because like I said, that’s where my love of writing began, was when I was younger. And to take the capitalism out of it just really brought me back, and I think it definitely helped me really keep working on my novel and finish it.
Ellison: That’s awesome. So, okay. So, you mentioned this a tiny bit before. Obviously, this is an incredibly timely book, and you mentioned that you did change some things in the story based on the changes that started happening last year. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Harris: Yeah. Just to be clear, when I say I did changes, the changes were so subtle that I feel like they’re not actual plot point changes, but more so of like that moment… I don’t want to give a spoiler, but the moment in the bathroom, that moment I just imbued with so much more feeling because I knew what that feeling was like, of wanting to really just disconnect. So, that was probably the biggest change that I can remember off the top of my head. And it was so cathartic for me. It was really hard to go back into that and really dig into all of the frustrations I was feeling, the hopelessness, and I think definitely revisiting that passage… I haven’t read the book in full since I’ve been editing parts and parts, but I’m like, “I can’t carry this whole thing right now.”
But I think when I do reread it soon, I’m going to definitely have a lot of emotions reading that part because I know where my head space was in that moment, and it was just like, it was really sad. But also, I hope that it will, in a lot of ways, resonate with a lot of readers, Black women, who are also have just felt a lot of resentment and hopelessness and are trying to find a way to just keep… Again, being present, engaging with other people, and trying to find ways that we can find a way to connect and regroup and ways to just make change happen, or at least feel like you’re making some kind of difference.
Ellison: So, our readers, some people may not know that publishing has been undergoing a sea change, and there’s been more diversity in hires. The base salaries are coming up, so you can actually live on your salary, especially in New York. That’s incredibly helpful. The number of books being bought by authors of color is going up, and hopefully there’s some more parity in the advances. The model’s still broken, and can it be fixed?
Harris: This also depends on what day you ask me. I think that there’s so many good things happening. I think when I was writing this book, I knew publishing… Publishing was the world that I knew. I’d been in it for two and a half years. I mean, when you’re in a place like that every day in your cubicle, it’s in your blood. Right? But I do remember starting it and being like, “Is anyone going to be against this part of publishing being the focus of the book?” Because I was like, “Is publishing ready to look at this in this way?” And I did have an agent be like, “Maybe you want to change it. I don’t think this is right,” like when I was querying, and I remember crying and be like, “No, I hope this isn’t the case.” But I do think that just in the fact that this book was so well-received here, also in the UK, and also even in the film and TV space, which I hadn’t been having fathoming before, it struck me as like, “Okay, people are ready to start talking about this.”
I was having conversations with publishing houses, really direct conversations about the lack of diversity, and that felt to me, that was miles ahead of what I felt like I’d seen when I was working in publishing. So, I definitely felt hopeful about that. And I think the #publishingpaidme hashtag has been also super informative, too. But yeah, I mean, I think until we’re back in… I say we. It seems publishing’s still in my blood. Until we’re back in the office, I feel like that we’re not going to really know. Because I think that, again, so much of publishing is being in the building with one another, talking about these things face-to-face, and you can’t really get that same vibe off Zoom. You can, I think we’ve made it work in our own ways, but I really think we won’t know until we’re in the office.
But I do think that what needs to happen, again, like I was saying, is thinking about how to retain people of color at entry-level positions, and also just maybe trying to find other ways to get people in through the doors that are not through certain colleges, publishing programs, my best friend’s neighbor knows someone who could do… That kind of thing keeps it from being diverse, which I think is what we need, especially if… Publishers are controlling the conversation in a lot of ways about what we value, what’s important, what’s worth learning about, who should get a voice. And that’s a lot of power. So, I think the more thoughtful we are about the people who are young and starting out, or even just starting out, you don’t have to be young to be an editorial assistant. I don’t mean to make it just super young people. But the people who are at entry level positions got to find a way to keep them and move them up because it’s not going to be truly diverse or truly widespread and fair. I use the word fair, even though fair is such a hard word to define, until that happens.
Ellison: There was a quote that I marked in the book on page 33. “Her coworkers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn’t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house.” I mean, that just really struck home for me, the diversity in the books that are published and the stories, but the people doing it are not diverse.
Harris: Yeah. Yeah.
Ellison: Makes no sense.
Harris: No, definitely. Definitely. And that’s the thing, it’s hard, it’s really hard, to be a young person of color in these spaces and feel like you have to explain to someone why this matters. It’s like of course we all understand how nuance works, but why is this something that isn’t necessarily… like you don’t have the tools to talk about it. And of course we know it speaks to, again, a broader problem. It’s not just publishing, it’s happening everywhere. But I do feel like books are supposed to be this really pure, wonderful thing, which they are, but when you think about all the times that a book doesn’t get published, why is that, the reasons can be very valid, but also they can be…
“A book like this hasn’t happened yet, so we don’t know what it looks like, why should we put ourselves out there to publish it?” is language that happens. I mean, I can go into the comps, how we talk about books, what we value, but I won’t go on. Yeah, it’s definitely something that I hope is addressed and we keep talking about, because once… I think the hardest thing, too, is talking about it, to start that conversation. And here we are, and I feel really good about things
Ellison: Me, too. We’re having this conversation and hopefully this is… I feel like you’re going to bust down some walls with this story, I really do. I’ve want people to read it and understand what you’ve done here. Not only is it just a fantastic story and a lot of fun and very well-written, it’s a very important story to read. It’s really important for all of us to read it.
Harris: Thank you.
Ellison: I’ve got like 5,000 more questions, and they’re giving me the high sign. So, just heads up, producers, we’re going to go for another at least five minutes, so hang in there, because I’ve got two things and then I want to do my lightning round.
Ellison: So, this is heading the Hulu for a TV series. Can you talk a little bit about that? And do you have a dream casting? Or how far along are they, and what’s going on with that?
Harris: Yeah. So, I have been working on the pilot script with my co-writer. I just turned in my first draft, and I’m very… I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve never done this kind of writing before. Also intimidating. But it’s just been really fun getting to spend more time with my characters. I mean, I wrote this book in 2019, which isn’t really a lot of time to be with these characters, and so I’m really having a lot of fun thinking about their backstory and what music would be playing when they’re walking in because I’m such a big music person. And just really exploring how to punch up the drama, get people really invested in this weird world of Wagner Books, and really see everyone come to life, literally. We haven’t really talked to casting yet. It’s still pretty early. But I mean, I am always keeping eyes on…
Every time I’m watching something, I have a Google Doc where I’m like, “Ooh, this actress and this person.” I mean, I love Angela Bassett, pretty sure I reference her in the book a few times, if not at least once. So, I mean, I would honestly… She would be an amazing, amazing either Kendra Rae or Diana. I could see her making either of those work. More so Kendra Rae, though. I feel like she’s got that fire. Yeah. I mean, Kiki Palmer, I’ve been thinking about, Kiki Layne who was in The Old Guard, which is a very good movie. It was released on Netflix. And she’s also, I think, in the new Coming 2 America. I mean, it’s been so fun because there are so many talented Black actresses that I would love to see more of just as a consumer, and if it happens to be with The Other Black Girl TV show, I wouldn’t be just stupid happy. Yes. Fingers, toes crossed.
Ellison: Okay. So, I want to do a lightning round because you’re too fun, I could talk all day.
Harris: You, too.
Ellison: And they’re going to kill me. Okay. So, favorite author.
Harris: Oh. At the top of my head, I have to say Baldwin, James Baldwin.
Ellison: Favorite word.
Harris: Favorite word. I have to say fun. I say that’s fun a lot. We have a tally up on our chalkboard, and my partner, every time I say that’s fun, I have to mark it down. So, right now I’m going to say fun.
Ellison: Perfect. What’s your least favorite word?
Harris: Least favorite word. I’m sorry. These are lightning questions, and I’m answering like lava. Least favorite word I would say is… I mean, honestly, I have to say… It’s a phrase, but cancel culture. There’s something about it that I could go on. The phrase has been… It’s just changed, so I feel like that right now that’s the first thing that comes to mind.
Ellison: Favorite city.
Harris: Favorite city. I have to say Brighton in the UK. I studied there a few… well, when I was in undergrad, and it was just amazing. It’s like right on the water, and it’s like a Providence kind of vibe, very diverse, gorgeous, just gorgeous beach, lovely people. So, Brighton.
Ellison: Favorite indulgence.
Harris: I Love Lucy. I have the whole season on my book case.
Ellison: If you’re up at 2:00 AM, what are you most likely doing?
Harris: I am probably… That’s a really good question. I mean, lately, it’s writing, I’m writing. I’m a writer. I’m going to say writing.
Ellison: I thought you were going to say, “I’d be streaming I Love Lucy.”
Harris: I was going to say that. I was like, “I should keep my answers different.” Writing and watching I Love Lucy at the same time. I like to listen to things in the background I’m when I’m writing. It’s very strange.
Ellison: What’s the first thing you do when you get up?
Harris: First thing I do is turn on the coffee machine.
Ellison: Favorite time to write.
Harris: Late at night, these days. Late at night. I find that the push to… Because I usually want to go to bed, but I know when I write late at night, I will focus more so I can get more done. And that drive keeps me from looking online and checking my phone and all those things.
Ellison: What’s the best part about writing?
Harris: When it just clicks. I can’t describe it. Just when you write that sentence or you tie everything together and you just get that feeling of like, “Oh, I did it. This is what I’ve been trying to express,” and it’s there, it’s just magic.
Ellison: I love it. What’s more fun to write, fiction or non-fiction?
Harris: That’s hard. That’s really hard right now. So much of my fiction has also been informed by nonfiction, so I’m going to say fiction. I’m going to say fiction because I feel less concerned about really trying to get certain things right and I can just focus on the character. So, fiction.
Ellison: And finally, can you share a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Harris: Yeah. So, I am, let’s see, I am currently just started co-hosting a podcast for the American Writers Museum with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, and it’s called Dead Writer Drama. https://americanwritersmuseum.org/blog/awm-podcast/ And we basically just talk about dead writers, dead American writers, and all the messes they made and all the mistakes they made and their letters to one another. It’s just really fun. We talk to a writer every week, and we just did Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So, that one’s coming up soon.
Ellison: Oh, I can’t wait to listen to that. Hemingway’s one of my favorites.
Ellison: Zakiya, this has been fantastic. I hate that we have to stop.
Harris: I know. Me too, me too, but I would love to stay in touch because this has been so much fun. Again, it’s been so fun, and I’m happy to be here. I’m so thankful.
Ellison: Well, thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.
Zakiya Dalila Harris Recommends
Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour
The Final Revival of Opan and Nev, by Dawnie Walton
The Kindest Lie, by Nancy Johnson
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, by Grady Hendrix