The author of the literary thriller talks about the publishing industry and working with Rashida Jones on the series, which premieres Sept. 13
While most employees in the publishing industry spend their days working with books, Zakiya Dalila Harris took things one step further: she decided to write the books instead.
The bestselling author, 30, once worked at a New York City publishing company as an editorial assistant, before becoming an assistant editor. Harris now looks back on the junior level employee experience with perspective.
“It's like we're doing the best work, and this is great, and we're all changing the world for the better,” she tells PEOPLE. “But it's like, who are the people who actually have power?”
This is a central question in her debut novel, The Other Black Girl, which published in 2021, and whose Hulu adaptation premieres Sept. 13. Both the book and series follow Nella (Sinclair Daniels), an editorial assistant, and sole Black employee, at the fictional publishing house Wagner Books. When another Black assistant named Hazel (Ashleigh Murray) joins the company, Nella is initially thrilled, only to realize that her new co-worker isn’t all that she appears to be.
“I love laughter and I love horror and I want them to go together,” Harris, who pulled inspiration for the show from Carrie and Rosemary’s Baby, says. The series also features Eric McCormack, Bellamy Young, Garcelle Beauvais and Brian Baumgartner.
Harris co-wrote the show’s pilot episode, and served as an executive producer, alongside Rashida Jones, who she first met on Zoom in 2020. Writing for television, Harris admits, is “literally a different animal,” but Jones remained supportive along the way.
“She was great, in terms of bringing me into the world and helping me learn how to write for TV,” Harris says. “Because I'd never done that before. It was really, really fun.”
Harris quit her publishing job to focus on writing her novel, which eventually found a home with Atria Books after a reported 14-way bidding war and seven figure deal, and was released at a time when serious conversations about the lack of diversity in publishing were emerging. While providing an outlet for Harris to explore Nella’s frustrations with her job, the book also allowed her to explore her character’s complexities, and “the ways that we can tear each other down in communities of color.”
“It was really fun, in a way that sounds twisted, to really undercut everything Nella expected, and really challenge this expectation of, ‘Black people feel the way that I feel,’” Harris says. “Because that's what [Nella is] also annoyed about with her White co-workers…they expect her to have a certain take.”
Though Harris has stated that Wagner Books is "an exaggerated version" of her previous workplace, and tells PEOPLE that she thinks Nella is “actually more idealistic” than she is and was, the friendships that Harris held throughout her office days were real. When something frustrating would happen at work, the author says she would message her friends and fellow “editorial assistants in trenches” for mutual support.
“We coped so much by just poking fun at just how ridiculous things were,” Harris says, “Things are not life and death in that world, but, still, it felt like it was. And so it was really fun to put that humor in [the show] because it can be a lot.” While Harris states that she can’t say “with total optimism” that The Other Black Girl will create concrete change within the publishing industry, she does hope it will inspire conversation.
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Harris, who is both “excited” and “slightly overwhelmed in the best way” about the series’ release, also teases that the ending of the show is different from the ending of the novel, and lends itself well both “visually and narratively.” The Other Black Girl premieres as Harris works on her next book, which she says also follows Black characters and falls into the horror and suspense genre. She also recently contributed a short story to The Black Girl Survives In This One, an upcoming young adult horror anthology.
The Other Black Girl, in any format, is a story that Harris will always hold close.
“I'm really happy that I got to be a part of it,” she says. “Because it really is my baby.”
The Other Black Girl premieres on Hulu on Sept. 13.
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