Know you have a unique story to tell, you just have to identify it (whether fiction or non-fiction)- When my former student became Miss America 2018, I just knew I had to get this “beauty pageants book” done because who else has a mom who was Miss America and a student who became Miss America?!
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Hilary Levey Friedman.
Friedman is the author of Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America. She is a sociologist at Brown University and a leading researcher in pageantry, merging her mother’s past experiences as Miss America 1970 with her interests as a glitz- and glamour-loving sometime pageant judge, and a mentor to Miss America 2018. Friedman also serves as the president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I have never competed in a beauty pageant, but my mother was Miss America 1970. Growing up I thought that she was the beauty and I was the (feminist) brains, and never the twain should meet. As I’ve gotten older and gone off to college and graduate school, I have learned that isn’t true at all, and my latest book Here She Is: The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America, really is about how the two have never been fully separate.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
When I was a senior in college I was named a finalist for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. The last stage was a 30-minute in-person interview in Annapolis, MD. I was all set to fly the night before out of Boston, but a snowstorm shut down the airport. I quickly called to see if Amtrak was still running — I was in luck and hopped in a taxi to get me to the train station. I took the train all night to get there and forced myself to sleep with my hair IN CURLERS on the train (not surprisingly, growing up the daughter of a Miss America, big hair is a way I feel put together and ready to tackle a difficult situation). I was the final interview of the day, and when I found out a few days later that I had been successful, after screaming for about five minutes, I had to laugh that the all-night train ride in curlers was worth it and a reminder to myself I will always try to find a solution to any situation.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
It’s not new advice, but no is not the end. It’s just a no from one person. Rejection is never fun (and SO many opportunities for writers to get rejected- from agents to editors to reviewers to readers), but it’s part of the gig. I remember when the woman who became my agent found me from the slush pile and called my proposal a “Mary Poppins” proposal, “practically perfect in every way.” Honestly, I cried happy tears- an email like that makes all the hard work worth it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, it’s not funny per se, but when your digital recorder (or phone) runs out of batteries/charge during an interview, you learn pretty quickly to always have spare batteries and charging cords!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Honestly, at the moment, the goal is to get through this global pandemic and make sure my children (aged 6 and 8) stay engaged (intellectually) and socially adjusted. COVID-19 has definitely thrown a wrench in other book ideas I had (like a how-to book for parents related to afterschool activities, which were the subject of my first book Playing to Win, but that landscape has CLEARLY changed). So, stay tuned!
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Well, I suppose that is subjective! But I’m proud of the work I did collecting so many historical program books, because that is something no one has done before (annual program books from the 1970s for pageants like Miss America, Miss USA, and for many years for state Miss America pageants and others), and it shows I am interested in showing data and not simply stereotypes (spoiler alert: turns out that most winners are NOT blonde).
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Like most things in life, beauty pageants are not all good and not all bad, and their story reveals women’s history.
Based on your experience, what are the 5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Know you have a unique story to tell, you just have to identify it (whether fiction or non-fiction)- When my former student became Miss America 2018 I just knew I had to get this “beauty pageants book” done because who else has a mom who was Miss America and a student who became Miss America?!
2. Know that everyone else has a story- It makes you a better human, researcher, and writer.
3. Be ok with being alone- At times that may mean loneliness and at times that may be solitude, but you have to accept that this is part of writing life at some stage.
4. Don’t be afraid to unplug- To get this book done at the very end, I checked into a hotel room for three nights so I would not be as distracted by family obligations. It worked!
5. Read, read, read- Anything and everything…
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Definitely perseverance. It took a lot of years to make this book happen and convince myself it was worth it. Deadlines help you get your derriere in a seat and write/edit/generally get it done.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
For pleasure, I read a lot of thrillers and historical fiction series — I admire the pacing and writing with suspense — and also YA novel — for painting characters and emotions so strongly.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, the big systemic change I believe our society needs is universal childcare. Every family who needs care should have access to quality and affordable (or subsidized or free!) childcare. This benefits all of society — but especially women and children.
A smaller-scale imitative I would immediately do after winning the lottery is making sure that every child who leaves the hospital after being born goes home with 2–3 books, so all kids will have at least one book in their home as they grow up. We send them home with a nail file, but books and knowledge are pretty essential as well.
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