Episode 17: Marcia Chatelain Writes Anywhere She Can

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In this episode, I interviewed Dr. Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of two books. The first, South Side Girls: Growing up in the Great Migration, came out from Duke University Press in 2015. The second, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2021. I spoke with Marcia about how she approaches writing history, the reasons Franchise was rejection by some editors, and the lessons in journalism that she learned at our mutual alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism.



Kate Carpenter 0:00
Hey, history writers. Before we get to the episode this week, I have a favor to ask. Believe it or not, there are just a few episodes left before the end of season one. And while I get a whole new round of great conversations about the writing craft ready for next year, I want to hear your writing advice. I’m putting together some bonus episodes featuring you. If you’d like to have the chance to be part of Drafting the Past, go to and click on Send Voicemail on the right side of the page. Leave a short message telling me who you are and the best writing advice you know, and you may be included in an upcoming mini episode of drafting the past. Okay, back to the show.

Kate Carpenter 0:48
This is Drafting the Past, a podcast devoted to the craft of writing history. I am your host Kate Carpenter. And this week I will thrilled to speak with Dr. Marcia Chatelain.

Marcia Chatelain 0:58
It is a pleasure to be here. I love talking about drafting anything. So I’m excited for our conversation.

Kate Carpenter 1:03
Marcia is a professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of two books. The first, South Side Girls: Growing Up in in the Great Migration, came out from Duke University Press in 2015. The second, Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America, won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2021. I spoke with Marcia about how she approaches writing history, the reasons Franchise was rejected by some editors, and the lessons in journalism that she learned at our mutual alma mater, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.

Marcia Chatelain 1:44
When I was a kid, I loved writing, I loved writing stories, I love reading mysteries, I actually consider my first book The Mystery of the Missing Backpack that I wrote in second grade, I remember my second grade teacher had an assignment where we would actually make, we would write a story, and then we would make like hardcovers out of like cardboard and like she brought them and we could have a, we could have a full book and it was just, you know, I really always loved it. And as I got older, and I went through high school, I thought I was going to be a journalist. And so I actually went to school, at the University of Missouri at the Missouri School of Journalism in the late 90s. And, you know, I was of that like, kind of last generation to go to journalism school to be expected to write for a magazine, I didn’t learn how to, you know, shoot film, I didn’t learn how to edit, I just learned magazine writing. So I think, for me, long form, writing has always been something I enjoyed. And it wasn’t until I did my PhD, that I started to really grapple with my identity as an academic versus a writer. And I think on some levels versus a teacher, well, let me start out just with the nuts and bolts of writing, because these are the things I really nerdily love to talk about. When and where do you do your writing. And like, wherever I am a believer, you just get it done wherever you can get done. Gosh, I like to make fun of those memes, those corporate memes of like productive people, it’s like, what does the CEO of Uber do, you know, every morning and it’s like, wake up at four, meditate, do 10 hours of CrossFit, you know, take calls from all over the world, I, I make fun of that stuff. And I’m the academic version of that, I really believe that you that no one should do anything. It has helped me to learn how to write and be kind of creative in any space, I don’t need an absolutely quiet room, I don’t need the perfect coffee shop, I don’t need the perfect outfit. I just need to know that something needs to get done. And I think that it has really suited me well. Now that I’m a parent, but I write everywhere right now your look, we’re zooming from my beautiful home office. I’ve had this for two years. It’s gorgeous. It’s a lovely place to write. But like truth be told, if I had back in the before times, if I had a flight delay, I’m, you know, finding a corner of the airport, and I’m writing too much time in a taxi cab from the airport to an event I’m going to write. So I really just I believe that like if you got a bunch of work to do, you have to break it up into chunks and just do a chunk of it wherever you can.

Kate Carpenter 4:22
Are you a person who’s pretty deadline motivated? Or can you motivate yourself to keep writing?

Marcia Chatelain 4:26
A little from Column A column B? There’s always like a breaking point where I’m like, oh, no, the school year is going to start and I haven’t fulfilled this. I tried to be pretty good with deadlines. I mean, in academia, deadlines are kind of a suggestion, not a requirement. And I’ve tried to become more professional with my deadlines. You know, I’ve done a little essay writing for popular publications. And those deadlines are usually pretty firmed. The writing is shorter. I try to have kind of internal deadlines and then I have this kind of panic that everyone’s going to be mad at me and so And I’ll do whatever it takes to just get it done.

Kate Carpenter 5:03
Do you mostly write then on a laptop?

Marcia Chatelain 5:05
Yes, a laptop. I might, when I’m in the drafting process. So I’m working on a book right now. And it’s just all over the place. And so sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll take note cards or post it notes, and I’ll write every single thing I want a person to learn in a chapter. And I might visually put them out in front of me. So I can think of the direction that the story goes in, I can, I can go deep into a rabbit hole. And I can write unnecessary ages and things that no one needs to know, or cares to know. And I think that this is something that happens, I guess you grow out of it after graduate school, but not really, it’s that if you find something in the archive, you want to share it, because it took a lot of time. And you were really tired that day, and you stay in there. And so you want someone to know, but I try to, I try to have some real goals as to what the learning outcome of every chapter has to be. So I try to draft that outlines. And sometimes I’ll write it down on pieces of paper. And there’s this weird thing that people say you can’t write a book in Microsoft Word. I don’t know why. This is a generational thing. I also do two periods after the two spaces after the period. Oh, no. I’ve been I’ve been told about that from from younger people.

Kate Carpenter 6:22
How do you organize your sources and your you know, as you sort of put material together? How do you stay organized?

Marcia Chatelain 6:28
Horribly. You know this for this book that I’m writing now, I’m trying to stay more organized. So what I did is, for this current book, I started a Google Doc. And it is a giant checklist. And each part of the outline is a chapter. And then all the sub heads are everything that I would like to know in order to write this chapter. So it has links to archives, links to articles. And there was a seven week period this summer where I had no childcare, which I feel like is my greatest accomplishment. We have this wonderful nanny who cares for our son, but we’re working and she was gone for the summer. And so in that seven week period, I developed like a 20 page to do list. And I gave it to my research assistant, I said, you know, hunt these down, hire someone to go to these archives in other states and like just dump all the material into this outline. And I feel like that is the most organized I’ve ever been in my writing process. And so I’m very proud of myself for that. She helps me keep my notes and my citations together. When I was finishing franchise. It was like the shining, I locked myself in a hotel for a week. And I would just you know, I was on a different timezone. So I would just send, you know, can you check? Can you follow up on this? Can you make sure this was correct. And I really wish I had a better way of organizing because now that I’m taking pictures in archives, and not like photocopying sheets of paper, it can get really unwieldy and just these huge databases to go through. So I’m always experimenting on how to do it better.

Kate Carpenter 8:00
I’m sort of relieved to find out that you have a research assistant, because between teaching and you seem to be doing tons of travel for speaking, how are you balancing that with continuing to ride on a new project?

Marcia Chatelain 8:11
I don’t I don’t have any balance. And that’s the other thing I want to say like, I mean, you, I think I think it’s like moments, right? So there are moments where I do the four o’clock am waking up to write, I don’t do it for years on end, I might need to do it for two months. And then there are times where, you know, I can write casually in a coffee shop because there’s no pending deadline. So I always change it up. So the research assistant is a new thing. So for my first two books, it was just me going to every single archive, and then being super discreet, in my material. Now that I have a child, and now that I can’t travel as much, I’m really dedicated to like communicating with someone to help organize my research. So this is this is new. And so in those years when I was on the road a lot when I was you know, teaching full time, when I was trying to get a book done, it was really, it was a lot, I really, at some moments stretched myself thin. And I really believe that I had to go to the archives, I had to look at every piece of paper and I think that I had to relent when we adopted our son because when I was writing franchise, it was not a big deal for me to go go to Portland three times in a two year period, to make sure this piece of paper that I think is there was there and make sure I look at it. You know, now I’m trying to be a little bit more reasonable and saying, you know, I can trust someone else to take a picture of a piece of paper like they can do it. But my research assistant has been with me for many years. And you know, initially she started with just helping me organize things that I needed for a lot of presentations. I used to be on the road like 20 to 40 times a year giving talks and stuff. Now she’s almost done with her PhD she can take a real real surge roll, which is kind of exciting to be able to watch someone get stronger with archive, she can, you know, hire the research proxies for me and I don’t have to really supervise her that much. And so it’s just amazing to see kind of her growth and expansion as a researcher, and then really seeing at a career point where I really need to depend on other people and just be comfortable with that.

Kate Carpenter 10:22
I actually kind of love hearing about that, you know, because so often, I think, in academia, and especially in history, we really sort of champion the, like, lone genius working away in their tower study.

Marcia Chatelain 10:34
Child care, elder care, you know, and can have everyone you know, outsource your needs, like, Sure. And those were great years. I mean, I consider them my years on the road, were really fun. They were very exciting, I got to see a lot of really cool things I used to see friends. Now I just have to be home. And so, you know, even now, because I live in DC, I do have a lot of access to archives. I’m debating whether I, I need a proxy even in DC, because just having a long day at the archive, and sometimes be really tricky, you know, with a one and a half year old.

Kate Carpenter 11:08
Continuing sort of these basic questions. What does revision start to look like for you, then?

Unknown Speaker 11:14
Oh, man, that’s a disaster too. I will write and write and write, I’ll write long, I’ll write really boring, write unnecessary things, write ideas that are contradictory to the open ideas of the drafts look really bad. And then when I when my when I revise, if I’ve gotten feedback, I’ll try to know the places where the feedback can help the chapter. But when I go back, what I start to do is just start thinking about it like a lecture that I’m giving my students. So what’s the opening anecdote? What are the, you know, three or four takeaways that I want them to have? And how are we going to move through it? And I’m really big on using this metaphor for riding, it’s like being on a highway? What’s the on ramp? And what’s the off ramp? Like, how are we getting into this? And how the hell do we get out of it? Because I think that facts for the sake of facts are just kind of like, we’re just going to spend some time here for no reason, I can get very sucked into that in my writing. And so what I try to do is to say, All right, we’re gonna get on, we’re gonna get on to, you know, the complicated politics of black business in 1968 here, and by the time we leave, it’ll be 1975. And something else has happened. And you know, like, go, go, go, what are we going to do? So my revision process is really structured around that. And then the best tool for revision for me is the text to speech function on my computer. I have to listen back. Because when I listen back, I catch all the errors and it’s so weird. I don’t even have to be looking at the screen. But as I listen to the computer, read it back to me I can I catch mistakes, misspellings, just things that sound a little weird. And so I’m a big, big believer in text to speech. I tell my students use that for their turn in their papers. And it really, really helps.

Kate Carpenter 13:08
Do you have a group of people that you rely on for feedback? Or do you have sort of a regular writing community?

Unknown Speaker 13:15
You know, at different points have had writing communities right now? It’s kind of funny. I think, when I first started, who read my stuff for me, you know, once I had a developmental editor read my first books outside girls, a franchise I had worked on for a long time and some of the individual chapters had been workshopped. I did one down at University of Georgia with Cindy Hannah vich. And Scott Nelson. And, you know, if you really want someone to read thoughtfully, you know, Scott Nelson is like, you know, pulling up five books about McDonald’s and Cleveland in 1973, just because he reads really deeply. A lot of a lot of the chapters were seminar papers. So I had gotten some really good feedback. The Americas initiative at Georgetown had read some chapters. You know, it’s funny, I don’t know if anyone had read the whole manuscript, though. Well, the people who read the whole manuscript before it was done was my research assistant, Emilie, and then my editor Katie Adams, but I think that also represents the kind of difference between working in academic publishing versus trade publishing, and trade publishing. Your editor is like a traditional editor, there are line editing they’re reading deeply. You know, in academic editing, the editor is more like a coordinator because you have the readers reports.

Kate Carpenter 14:33
Has your process changed, especially between two books, but over over time, generally?

Unknown Speaker 14:38
I think that I don’t know if process changes so much as your emotional capacity to be a writer changes. That makes sense. You know, I when I was working on my first book, I had a really hard time finishing my dissertation. Some was like the hell of my own making. I was engaged and getting married, and then I was starting a job without being done. And there’s a reason why you’re not supposed to get a job before you’re done because it’s so stressful, but we got on the other side of it. So, finishing my dissertation was like a long national nightmare. And then going back into revising for my first book, I treated it like a school assignment and not my own scholarly work. I’m very proud of my first book, because I think it makes an intervention in this question of archive, and it sets up some really important things to think about race and girlhood and the process for finishing that book, I treated like an assignment. So every time I got to read a report, I thought it was like my dissertation adviser saying do this or do that, instead of using the feedback to kind of deepen my intellectual stance. And so by the second book, I kind of felt like, okay, all bets are off, I’m leaving it all on the table, I’m gonna write about McDonald’s, I’m gonna read about a corporation. And I’m going to just just kind of pivot, I’m going to learn a whole new set of literature and a whole bunch of stuff. And again, I think I had a lot of privileges in being able to do that. I was tenured, I was at an institution that have a lot of resources for research. I had really good graduate students and undergraduates to help me in the research process. And I also feel like I had I should I feel like I could do this. I don’t know, I felt like I felt like I could. And I don’t know if it was because I was confident that I had already published a book, or because of the very positive feedback, I was getting to the idea. And in a way that I think, again, reflected just being more articulate with my ideas, and just more confident as a historian. And so now, I think what my process is, is I’m less concerned about like, will I get tenure? Or what will my colleagues think, to more thinking, like, I think about teaching like, this is an invitation to a series of ideas? How am I going to issue this invitation as broadly as possible? And how are people going to, you know, feel transformed, or edified or challenged by what I offer them? So I think more about audience now than I ever did. I also think about like, when my son like if he ever gets old enough to read my books, like, What would people think? Because I think about this a lot, I think about kind of this is like so I mean, I’m so deep in middle age, as I said earlier, you know, I think to myself, like, what does this mean for my son to know who I was before he was born. And then like, after I die, very few people have the opportunity to leave things behind that are tangible for their children, right? Like, we can go into like, property and inheritance. But you know, I think about this, I’m like, you know, my son will be able to watch me in like, a PBS documentary, after, maybe it’ll be creepy and haunting, I don’t know. But who knew Oh, that was my mom, and then show other people in a way that when my mom passes away, I can maybe show pictures or you know, when my grandmother passed away a few of her pictures. But there’s this way that I think of my intellectual creation as being for him in a way just to kind of know, like, things that were interesting to his mom, that I think also has kind of changed, maybe my sense of urgency to even create.

Kate Carpenter 18:17
I’m really interested, actually, and you’re saying this, and how you think about your work now, in terms of opening up the conversation as broadly as possible. I was struck when you were talking about drafting that you I think you use the phrase, learning objectives for a chapter and then takeaways, rather than the chapters arguments, which is usually how academics tend to like, think about their organizing a good point, do you? I mean, do you think about that, in terms of, there’s often a conversation about a more combative approach to argumentation and academia versus a conversation?

Marcia Chatelain 18:51
Yeah, I mean, I think this is what I mean, this is what sometimes, you know, people say, Well, how do we make our work, you know, move outside of, you know, this space? And how do we do this man? It’s like, well, I don’t know, everything doesn’t have to be like, like, no one is taking a glove and someone across the face with it, a challenge, like maybe this is just an opportunity for us to take a step back and think together. And I you know, and I think maybe there was a time in my life, I would have been a little reluctant to frame it that way, because there’s this real gendered component about seeing yourself as a teacher and, you know, wanting to kindly and gently enter into arguments, but we just think that, yes, every book needs to have an argument. But I think that there has to be like, I don’t know, some kind of guidance as to like, where are we going with this? Or why exactly is this happening? That I think is about a sensitivity to the reader and the readers capacity to take in information and make them feel more confident as they build across? I mean, I do really think about how you know, when my students start a course on the first day, whether it’s a writing, whether it’s their knowledge of history, whether they’re There’s their ability to, you know, articulate an idea, it starts off. And then like towards the end, there’s a confidence that they have because of what they’ve acquired. And I think that we need to do that with readers. And I think this is really hard for academics, when you transition from academic writing to trade writing, is you always like, you always feel like you’re over explaining, or you’re insulting people with the need to set up but people need that, right. In my book franchise, I write about, you know, the citizens. And as I’m writing, I’m like, everyone knows what this is. But I said, Okay, let’s say no one knows what this is. And I’m not in a degrading way. But like, How can I describe it? And they describe it like choreography, right? Like, there’s a way that we can bring more language into what we say is the background fact that I think is also important that showing your reader that like, you care about their interests, you care about their point of view. And so yes, arguments, you have to have an argument, I’m the queen of writing things, zero argument that lots of facts. But I think when we move from argument to, and I think argument and intervention sometimes have that same kind of like, I’m just gonna like punch through this wall, but rather say like, how am I going to beckon you to, like greater understanding or empathy through the series of information, I think, is where I want to see my writing go.

Kate Carpenter 21:18
As someone with a journalism background, how do you see the relationship between journalism and writing history?

Unknown Speaker 21:25
Well, I can write fast, I think, in terms of trying to keep the reader engaged, after we’ve done a lot, you know, so the ways that journalists will break it up with direct quote, or, you know, try to transition I tried to write in that style sometimes, you know, my journalism education was so good, because it also taught me how to take feedback, and not take it personally. Because I don’t know what the years were like when you weren’t Missouri School of Journalism is downright mean, when I was a student, you know, like, this is a terrible article. This, this makes no sense. Why did we print this? They don’t do I don’t think they do second guesses anymore? No, I don’t think so. So listeners, at the program we went to, when you were in the journalism program, you basically wrote for one of the town’s newspapers, which was part of the extension of the journalism school. And every morning, the editor of the paper would write a memo called second guesses, which was this email that went to the entire journalism school applauding the very good journalism, and then panning everything that wasn’t good. And then it was the day of Reply All you could then like reply to it, which is, I think I did that once, which was really ill advised, but you get you. But I think it’s like for writers, you don’t get to explain why something’s not there. And that was, I think, part of maybe it gave me a little anxiety. I’m writing about something right now. And I see myself going in a direction for no reason. This information that I’m trying to find out, has no bearing on anything in this book. But boy, do I want to make sure that I do my due diligence. And I looked, and I think is maybe from those years of journalism school where an editor is upset with you that you didn’t get a quote from XY and Z. And it’s like, well, I had four hours to write the story. The person didn’t call me back, and this was before cell phones. So you said to have to give them a house number, and someone has to pick up the number and transfer you. So like, you can only imagine the things that you miss. And so I think it’s made me you know, to diligent because when I decide that I’m researching something, I go all the way in.

Kate Carpenter 23:34
To see how all that research comes together. I asked Marcia to talk with me about a short passage from franchised. Here’s Marcia Chatelain. reading an excerpt from Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America.

Unknown Speaker 23:46
McDonald’s store manager Roland Jones heard the news out of Memphis as he prepared to leave his suburban Washington DC franchise and head into the district. The West Tennessee native moved to Memphis when he was 10 years old, and he considered the city of blues his hometown. He sat behind the wheel of his car and wondered what direction he was going to take. He knew he had to check on his bosses other restaurants, including the New York Avenue location, that had always been a little tough because of the neighborhood. As one of the few black people with a supervisory role with McDonald’s. Johnson never imagined a career at a fast food chain. He didn’t grow up eating in restaurants, and had never been to McDonald’s drive in until he became an employee. In Memphis, he learned early to stay on his side of town. The few times he tested the city’s color line. He was harassed by police. He was careful in Memphis, and on April 4 1968, he knew he had to remain vigilant in Washington DC. For the time being he decided to stay put and ignore the part of him that told him to turn around and head back south. Jones called the area franchise owners to see what he could do to keep watch over the McDonald’s restaurant in the eye of the storm, as local and federal forces tried to compel order on streets across the country.

Kate Carpenter 24:55
I really love this passage, particularly because all of a sudden, all of this big sort of national and historic context you’ve been exploring really zooms in and focuses on this figure of Roland Jones. How did you find Jones and his story?

Marcia Chatelain 25:11
So Roland Jones is an early person in my research, he self published a book, I believe called standing tall, which was his story of helping diversify McDonald’s. He never became a franchise owner, I believe. But he had been the kind of inside guy with McDonald’s corporate. And, you know, he had some ventures in the south. And he was kind of an executive leadership management guy. And he self published this biography that I read very early in my research, and I remember I went to a seminar at an unnamed school named Johns Hopkins. And, you know, someone was like, you know, I see your sources self published one article in a self published biography, and I said, Look, this is a corporate history of a serious Corporation, a lot of people are writing about McDonald’s independently. And so we have what we have, and we grow from there. And so I found him and I interviewed him. And he is elderly. And he’s kind of on the cusp of some memory loss. But he remembers this time, very click clearly. And I talked to him about what it was like in DC, and what his life was like in Memphis. And for many of the African American men of a certain age, they interviewed for the book, they always talk about how they didn’t go to restaurants they grew up with during Jim Crow. And it was often something very poignant and very painful for them to talk about, which I always noted. There’s only so much they’re going to tell me about that time. But this book was a little hard to sell to publishers, because a lot of people really liked the proposal and thought it was interesting. But in the rejections that I received, sometimes I got the feedback that there was no main character, and that without a main character, how do you sell a book? So you know, could you just follow one franchise owner through several years? Could you do this? Could you do that? And I guess I could have but that was beside the point. In many ways. I think the main character of this book is capitalism, more so than McDonald’s. And I wanted to show its movement, from one community to another. And I, there was no way that I felt like one of these people in the early days of McDonald’s could capture all of the complexity in a way that I thought could also benefit the reader in terms of expanding their knowledge.

Kate Carpenter 27:41
How did you have the confidence to stick to that your feeling about what the book should be in the face of those rejections?

Marcia Chatelain 27:47
Well, I really didn’t I just the sense that I knew the book I wanted to write, you know, it’s a it’s an interesting system, because my editor Katie Adams, at Norton, she had she was following my career. And she had reached out and said, Hey, are you working on something? And I think she probably thought I was working on, you know, some more black girlhood stuff. And I said, well, that’s kind of weird book about McDonald’s. And she was really positive about it. And essentially, what happened is when the book went up for auction, I got three interviews with presses. But no one was really the only one I think, because of their background in history, willing to say, okay, you can write a book like this without a main character, I really do. I think that had I not gotten a contract from a trade press, I would have gone to, you know, an Academic Press and pitch there, because they understand that you can write a book of history that doesn’t have to start January 1 1860. And, and you know, December 31 1860s, you can do this type of writing. And I think it’s important. Main Character writing is important. But it’s not the only way to talk about history. For a broad audience.

Kate Carpenter 28:56
I have a lot of questions about interviewing. One is that I’m curious if you if you look at interviewing as a historian as different than interviewing as a journalist.

Marcia Chatelain 29:05
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s good question. I think, interviewing as a historian, you rightfully bring more stuff into the conversation? I think journalists sometimes when I’m interviewed by journalists, I’m like, you’re kind of putting your thumb on the scale here. They’re trying to lead you into a certain type of soundbite, which makes me uncomfortable. I think that when I was the few times I was doing journalistic interviews, I try not to put my thumb on the scale too much to try to get people to say something or be a position. But I think, you know, with the history interview, I see it more as a conversation. I think that you you know, you say so. It during this time in Memphis, you know, could you go to any restaurant? What was it like when you went downtown? I think you’re getting at the heart of something else that’s connected to a larger set of of histories.

Kate Carpenter 29:55
Another part that I love about this passage is that as a reader, I really feel like I’m there in the car. Are with Roland Jones as he’s sort of in this pivotal moment. How do you interview in a way to then be able to recreate that on the page?

Marcia Chatelain 30:09
Well, I always record my interviews, folks, please record your interviews. In the digital age, there’s no excuse not to, you know, I think about the story that the person is.

Unknown Speaker 30:18
Person’s telling him also, you know, I just interviewed people who were telling me stories, and some had written down their stories, too. So it was kind of nice to be able to do that. But that’s very Missouri School of Journalism, late 90s, peeling the onion, long form, recreation, recreation, I think that method should be used sparingly, because I think too much of it. And you start to, I think it puts the writer in the position to take too many new committee creative licenses. But you know, I look up the weather that day, you know, if you tell me something happened on a date, I’m gonna look at the newspaper or what was on the headlines, and try to get as certain as I can. What, what the setup is, I like to look at pictures, I look up addresses, I try to look at what the block looked at look like on that year. So I’m getting it correct. I think when I write about Cleveland, I looked at all these historic pictures of Cleveland to get the names of the businesses, right, I really don’t want to like, I don’t, I don’t want to leave any room for the kinds of errors that are about being sloppy, because you just want to be creative. We’ve talked a lot about the training that journalism school gives you are there any specifically influential pieces of writing advice you’ve gotten? One of them was from Martha Jones, who’s at Hopkins now, she said, what we are writers. That’s what we do. That’s what we should be spending our time doing. And I had some of the classic problems. And I still do have the academic who has a writing task. And then we’ll find 1000 More things that are more interesting and fun to do. And she says, This is what we do give her voice. This is what we focus on. And hearing that pep talk from Martha taught me to really dig in and finish my first book. Another piece of advice I got from Lulu Taylor at UC Berkeley is after I finished my first book, she said, you know, scholars are sometimes in a hurry to write their second book. And I was like, yeah, that’s totes me. And she’s like, experiment with form. She said, spend time writing essays, spend time on journal articles, like do other types of writing, because it improves your writing. And I think the thing that helped me writing the most was working on a podcast, I was on a mini arc. It wasn’t a full season, but a mini arc of the Undisclosed podcast, and Undisclosed lives in that true crime wrongful conviction world. And it was created to rebut some of the errors in Serial, which is very relevant today, because Adnan Syed’s conviction was vacated in the in the case that was in Serial from 2014. But anyway, I’m in a very strange twist of events. I was a Serial superfan, and then I was an Undisclosed superfan. And through Twitter, I got invited to give commentary on an Undisclosed case. And then I was invited to join this mini season they did about the Baltimore Police Department and the killing of Freddie Gray. And it was me and two investigative journalists and like deep investigative journalists, you know, the kinds of people who do public records request, I think they’re, they’re always like in some type of lawsuit with the city of Baltimore over information. But all of this is to say, so they were doing the deep dive case stuff. And I was in charge of the narrative stuff. And we did 16 episodes each, at least one hour, if not longer. And then we each did a roundup show once a week, we rotated. But all of this is to say when you write for a scripted podcast, and all you have is your voice, as the tool to talk to an audience that appreciate history, but it’s not tuning in for history, that understand some of the dimensions of race and injustice you want to talk about, but not necessarily have come to this product for those conversations. I think writing for that podcast just changed my whole life as a writer, and I’m so grateful that I got to do undisclosed. I think that, you know, some academics would think the brow was very low on a true crime podcast. But that’s where people are going for information. And for the people who listened to me for those 16 weeks. This is where they could go for history. And what we were able to do with the case because it isn’t, it isn’t an unsolved mystery. We all know what happened to Freddie Gray. We know that Baltimore police officers were responsible, but what listeners probably didn’t know was about the history of slavery in Maryland, or the history of civil rights in Maryland or, you know, the history of police transport vehicles and the number of people who had died in those vehicles. You know, I don’t even know how I actually had the time and energy to do this. It was probably something I did when I was younger and not aware of my own kind of limits. What in 2017 working on that podcast was so good for me as a writer.

Kate Carpenter 35:14
Speaking of public reaching projects, did I also see that you are recently an adviser on an American Girl doll?

Unknown Speaker 35:22
Mm hmm.

Kate Carpenter 35:23
Can you tell me about that?

Marcia Chatelain 35:24
Yes, it’s funny. So I’m a little too old for the American Girl like advent, I remember I babysat for a girl in my apartment building who had the catalog. I was like, this is really expensive. It was beautiful. I remembered like the Samantha doll and the original. And so Samantha, Molly, Kiersten. And there was one more I can’t think of, but anyway, I remember the catalogs how beautiful these dolls were. But you know, American Girl had been interesting. And I’d written a piece for the AHA, or, yeah, for the AHA magazine about, you know, I reviewed some of their books. And I was like, you know, this kind of a self help weirdness. With history. It’s a lot of can do attitudes in the face of adversity. I don’t know how I feel about this. But I think American Girl reached out to me, because I knew I was familiar with the product, even though there was little snark and asked me to consult on this doll they were doing for the Harlem Renaissance. And Britt Bennett, the novelist was going to write the story. And she had gone on Twitter saying that she wanted to write for American Girl. And they took it. And the team was amazing. I mean, it’s like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Spencer Crew, and Keisha Blain, and Shannon King, I mean, just top top historians. And it was really fun. I like doing that kind of thing. Because historical accuracy is for everyone, not just for grownups. And so being able to give comments for the text and to say, you know, this doesn’t, this feels like anachronistic, or, you know, it was really important for us, I think, as a team to try to help the developers of the product, understand what class would have meant for her family during this time. And it was just really fun. And I think the story is actually very compelling. And I think that, you know, these are the things that I think, if you’re given the opportunity to do outside work as a historian, this is the type of work I like to embrace. It involves really opening up who your teaching audience is, and it’s fun, they sent me one of the dolls, it’s gorgeous. My son’s a little older, he can play with it. It’s just, it’s, it’s beautiful.

Kate Carpenter 37:36
Can I ask you if you’d be willing to talk a little bit more about what you’re working on now?

Unknown Speaker 37:40
What am I doing? So I’m writing, I It’s so funny. When I was in college, my best friend, who’s still one of the greatest friends, a person could ever have. She used to talk about wanting to be on the student tour team. And like, she was like, you know, I really need to get my resume up and my GPA I can get on tour team. And I don’t think it had occurred to her that it was also like a work study job, she could have just like, applied and gotten it. And it was it was always this joke. It’s like I really worked hard to get on tour team. But I could have just done this thing. I have made an unhealthy idol out of the group biography, like the biographies are so brilliant. And you have to be such a skilled historian to pull it off. And like, Will I ever be good enough to write a group biography. And so I had read a few years ago, Kenneth Mack’s book called Representing the Race, and it’s about civil rights lawyers before they were famous. It’s really, really good. It’s like this group biography of Constance Baker Motley, Ken Miller, Thurgood Marshall, you name it, but it’s about before they were famous. So it’s like Thurgood Marshall doing probably public drunkenness cases, because that’s what that’s the work he had to do in Baltimore. So anyway, so I read this book, and I was like, Oh, my gosh, someday, I’ll be good to have to write a group. And so the time has come, I feel confident enough. So I’m writing a group biography of all the women who are on the stage at the March on Washington. And each chapter will be about the life that led them to that day and the life that they led after it. And the argument, the intervention is that when we think of the March on Washington, politically, it required the men who were leading to line up around very clear principles of movement, you know, wages, jobs, labor, all these things. But no one talked to or engaged the women but if they did, they would see this really expansive and diverse entry point into the question of civil rights, and the various directions the movement would take. So I’m writing each chapter as these as a kind of political biography. But what happens which has been super fun, another writing thing that I recommend, if you’re writing a good biography, I’ve started a Google map of wherever everyone lived, educated where they were born. And so I want to see how these women strangely intersect with each other subconsciously, in some some cut subconsciously. So yesterday I was working on a chapter on Marian Anderson, the great opera contralto. And she sings “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” at the March on Washington, which was in a 1927 publication on the negro spiritual, it’s the first time it appears on print. The guy who edited it went to Western University of Kansas, the historically black college in Kansas. That was around from the 1890s, the 1940s. And I happened to also be where Eva Jessye, who ran the choir for the March on Washington, also went to school. So like, in thinking about all of these places where these people like meet and how they intersect, has really helped me conceptualize how I want to write their stories.

Kate Carpenter 41:02
That sounds so good. Can’t wait to read it.

Marcia Chatelain 41:02

Kate Carpenter 41:02
Amazing. I have one last question to ask you. It is kind of an embarrassing question to ask you. But I am dying to know nonetheless. What is it like to win a Pulitzer?

Marcia Chatelain 41:10
Thank you. I love telling the story because it involves my son. Okay, so what it’s like to win the Pulitzer Prize when you’re me. First of all, you have no clue what’s happening. happen during, and I tell people this, and I think they’re think I’m being self effacing. But I’m actually being very honest. When things happen during COVID. They happen don’t happen all at the same time. So, picture, it’s 2021. It’s June, I think it was like June 13, or something. My husband and I had been on a waitlist to adopt a child for several years. COVID kind of disrupted that we signed up with the new adoption agency, we were told we would have a baby, maybe in a year, we get a call one day, a baby has been born. He’s yours, to adopt in a day. So we became parents, like in a 1980s sitcom, went to target that morning, but a crib and stuff. And then that day someone gave us a baby to take care of. So you know, so 2021 was just kind of a whirlwind. So it’s June 2021. Michael is 10 weeks, maybe I go to the doctor’s appointment, I come back home, the babysitter has left. And I have a bagel. And I’m so hungry. I just I had not like learned how to feed myself and feed this child at the same time. So I have a bagel on the counter. And I’m about to reach for it and he starts crying. So he gets priority. And then I think my day is going to be eating this bagel feeding this child putting him down. And then Hulu had premiered a documentary about one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. I love Real Housewives. That’s something I’m actually have an article coming out about housewives in the collective volume. It’s my greatest joy anyway. And I was gonna bake a cake and I was going to clean my closet, I had such a set idea what the day was going to look like. So I sit down I’ve the baby in one arm. And I had mastered at that point looking at your phone will feed the TV. So I So Michael has his bottle. And I look at my phone and I’m tagged on Twitter, with an announcement that I’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize in history. So I think it’s a bot. I think it’s like a joke. And of course, any opportunity to blame like Donald Trump or something. I’m blaming Trump for it. I’m like, Oh, this from spots, and it’s gonna tell me to vote for him now. And it’s I’m like getting a little upset because I’m like, this is such a weird joke. So I see it. And then and then i It’s like being retweeted by like, credible sources. And so what happens, you know, it’s real. So I go, it says that it’s streaming on YouTube. So I go on to YouTube, Michael has eaten at this point. And I watched the announcement. But what was funny about it, the announcement had been postponed because they were hoping they could do it in person again, and it just didn’t happen. So no one knew it was that day, like no one at my press was watching by publisher wasn’t watching. So he had gone to lunch and put down his phone. He picked it up and he had 100 messages because all history and then a book, the less pain book lesson, Tammy Paine’s book about Malcolm X had one and biography. So at this point, it looks like it really happened. Right? contrived, mildly paranoid and accusing Trump of everything. So I look at this baby. And I’m like, Michael, what’s going on? Like, Michael has no answers. I don’t know what to do. So I just go up to his nursery, and I’m just holding on to him and I’m looking at my phone. And then the phone calls come in the text messages. It’s was it and my husband’s a psychologist. I don’t really call him at work. So I texted him in between his sessions and I just won the Pulitzer Prize, because what’s going to sleep deprivation is finally gotten to her as a baby, okay, like, we just did, and his friends were calling him. I mean, it was so exciting and it was so weird, and it was so like, but no one was home and no one’s around and people were vaccinated but not fully and so that night we had like a bottle Oh, champagne. And then, you know, Michael stayed up all night. But I think, you know, I mean, what an incredible opportunity and what an incredible thing to happen. And, you know, the only thing I can say is that I don’t know if this award is so much about my particular contribution as it is about what has had to change in the field in order for a book like mine to be legible for a Pulitzer Prize. And that means the work of African American historians, the work of women in the academy, Heather Thompson, who had won a few years earlier, you know, sent me an email, and she’s like, I think you’re like the 10th woman to win this. That’s amazing, because two women one this year, and so I just feel like a totally bowled over, and totally grateful and what this can mean for our profession, and what this can mean for younger women, you know, who are in graduate school now, it just makes me so much more excited than winning the prize. And I love the fact that, you know, when I would come back to campus, occasionally people say, Oh, my God, congratulations. And I thought they were talking about my son. I was like, Oh, my God, isn’t he the cutest? And I would show pictures in there. Like, I have no idea.

Unknown Speaker 46:09
That was cool, but like, can you look stunning this child is. And so you know, even in my own life, as I really struggled with the decision to become a parent and struggled with, you know, work life balance, and what was going to be the priority and all this, the fact that my son was 2021 is like, even more delightful. And the fact that, you know, back to our earlier conversation about legacy, you know, he’s gonna say, Oh, my mom won the Pulitzer Prize when I was a baby, you know, but my favorite thing about her was our dance parties in the morning. Hopefully he’ll say that, you know, it’s just, it’s a different perspective, that I’m just grateful I’ve had the opportunity to have.

Kate Carpenter 46:46
Dr. Marcia Chatelain. Thank you so much for joining me on Drafting the Past. It has been fantastic to talk about writing with you.

Marcia Chatelain 46:52
It’s been a real pleasure.

Kate Carpenter 46:53
Thank you. Thanks again to Dr. Marcia Chatelain for joining me on this episode of Drafting the Past. And thanks to you for listening. You can find links to everything we talked about in this episode at And while you’re there, don’t forget to leave me a voicemail about the best writing advice you know, until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.

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