Writing a Story That Had to be Told

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By John Black


They were stories she grew up on. Stories the family shared a they drove around town or sat around the kitchen table. It was only later, as an adult, that Margot Lee Shetterly decided they were also stories that needed to be shared with the rest of the world.


“We lived in Hampton, Virginia, and my father worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Langley Research Center from 1964 to 2004,” Shetterly said in an interview with Color Magazine. “As children, my siblings and I spent a lot of time in his office coloring on the backs of the computer paper they gave us. It was exciting to be in that grownup world with the adults around us – Black and White – working on their mysterious science projects.”


Even though she lived in the South, where the shadow of segregation was still a part of everyday life, Shetterly didn’t think the mixing of races at Langley was as culturally earth shattering as it would appear to a local outsider. “That so many of them were African Americans, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things,” Shetterly explains in the prologue to the novel she would eventually create from the stories she knew by hear’. “Growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”


While we all have stories that we like to share that we think would make a great book someday, Shetterly did it, expanding on those stories with a lot of research about the time, the place and the people those tales rose from. The result, Hidden Figures, is a fascinating read, one that reads like a fast-paced mystery, even if you think you know the outcome, that also manages to transports the reader back to a time few non-African Americans reading the book can imagine – or will admit – where simply being a woman of color was the single biggest challenge the lead characters in the book faced every day. Not ability or education or aptitude; you were judge primarily by your sex and the color of your skin.


The book, which has been turned into a movie called Hidden Figures starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, tells the story of a team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.

“One of my biggest challenges,” Shetterly said, “was finding the right balance for the story. That’s where the research really paid off. I wanted the reader to see the battle these women went through to prove they belonged in those rooms with the men planning the space missions, but it was just as important to show that their fight didn’t end when the business day was through. These were some of the smartest, bravest and strongest women of their generation, and in the end, that was the story I wanted to share with the world so they can never be forgotten.”


Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly, published by William Morrow Paperbacks is available now. The film, directed by Theodore Melfi and starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, opens Jan. 6.