5 Questions: Margot Lee Shetterly

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5 Questions is a series by Steve Duffy –

Margot Lee Shetterly with Steve Duffy

Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.” She is also the founder of The Human Computer Project, an endeavor that is recovering the names and accomplishments of all of the women who worked as computers, mathematicians, scientists and engineers at the NACA and NASA from the 1930s through the 1980s. Hidden Figures the movie will be released on January 6, 2017.

SD: Why do you think their story went so long without being told?

MLS: There are a bunch of reasons. The women started working during WWII and a lot of the work was classified. For the black women, they were segregated and placed in a separate office, so they were in a place where people probably didn’t see them.  The bigger reason that applied to all the women, not just the black women, is that what they were doing was consider women’s work. The men did the engineering and the women did the computing and the math. Engineering was seen as a higher level function. The work that the woman did was absolutely necessary, but more routine.  I think they were viewed as living versions of desktop calculators. Their work was not valued and I think that was the biggest reason why their story went untold for so long. 

SD: How important is this story to little girls everywhere, especially little girls in the black community?

MLS: I think it is really important. I do think that this is a story that transcends and that can be inspiring to people of all backgrounds, but I think partially to women and specifically to black women and girls. The kind of portrayals that are reflected back to them are so limited, but they are getting better both in television and movies. I really hope that this movie will help all little girls say “I can do that.”    

SD: How does it feel like to have your first book made into a movie?

MLS: It is amazing! It’s thrilling!  At times, I still can’t believe that it is real.  The real women that the movie is based on are so amazing and I am so glad that I could tell their story.  I am still receiving stories from relatives that want to share stories of the women that worked at NASA during this period.

SD: How involved were you in the production of the movie?

MLS: They hired me as a consultant. I did not write the script. They really did a good job at keeping me in the loop as the script was being developed. I would give my opinions and input after seeing different drafts of the script.  I really enjoyed and learned so much of the creative process and how you turn a book into a movie.

SD: As the author of the book, what did you enjoy about writing this novel?

MLS: I really loved conducting the research for the story. I become obsessed with finding out about these women. I loved the details of their story. Where they lived, what their houses looked like, what they wore to work every day and what their dreams were. I looked at so many photographs. NASA has done a specular job of archiving documentary evidence of the work the people did. Another part of it was that this book was kind of a love letter to my hometown. I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. The story was really about where I am from.  

For more information on Margot Lee Shetterly and to order your copy of her New York Times Bestseller Hidden Figures, visit www.margotleeshetterly.com. Hidden Figures the movie will be released on January 6, 2017.

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