Road to Publication with author Katie McCabe

11 Oct
Road to Publication with author Katie McCabe

Author Katie McCabe joins us today to share her journey to publication that led to a major movie deal. She discusses her latest book and shares advice for new authors.

Katie McCabe is a National Magazine Award winner whose Washingtonian article on black surgical legend Vivien Thomas formed the basis for the HBO film Something the Lord Made, one of the highest rated original movies in HBO history and the winner of the 2004 Emmy and 2005 Peabody Awards.

McCabe’s 2009 book Justice Older than the Law, co-authored with pioneering lawyer Dovey Roundtree, won the Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Book Prize.

For her work in science and medical journalism, McCabe has been honored with awards for investigative reporting (William Allen White Award, 1991) and public service (National Magazine Award finalist, 1986).

» Book Spotlight: Justice Older than the Law: The Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree by Katie McCabe and Dovey Johnson Roundtree.   Chapter One, “Walking Unafraid,” about Dovey Roundtree’s courageous Grandma Rachel, the woman Dovey calls “the greatest warrior I ever knew.”  Listen to a live reading from Katie here:

BPM: How did you get your start in writing/publishing?
KM: As a former high school English teacher who had always wanted to write, I launched my writing career in 1985 by pitching an article to Washingtonian magazine on the subject I knew best: education. While teaching and tutoring at the Holton Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, I wrote an article on speculation for Washingtonian on selective college admissions and the SAT prep courses that were new on the horizon. I studied the style and tone of Washingtonian magazine and pitched the piece very carefully to that magazine’s particular audience: upscale, educated, sophisticated, well read, and eager to give their children every possible advantage. I was fortunate to sell that very first piece, whereupon I began writing regularly for the magazine, branching out from education and private school topics to lengthy narrative pieces on medicine, medical research, and medical history.
The article that moved my career to another level was an August 1989 Washingtonian article on black cardiac surgery legend Vivien Thomas, “Like Something the Lord Made,” which won the 1990 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing and was optioned for a television movie. The 2004 HBO film that was based on my article, also named “Something the Lord Made,” starred Mos Def and Alan Rickman, and it won the Emmy for Best Made for TV Movie and the 2005 Peabody.
It was named the best movie of the year by the American Film Institute, which called it “a revelation…a bittersweet story that is an important tool for America as it continues to search for a public vocabulary to discuss issues of race.” The HBO film enabled me to secure representation by a premiere New York literary agent and led to a host of other opportunities, including speaking engagements.
KM: In the 14-year period during which the Vivien Thomas piece was in development as a movie, I continued to write for Washingtonian, and I was approached by Reader’s Digest to write for them on contract. While the Digest experience was not artistically satisfying for me as a writer who places great value on style, writing on contract for the Digest provided income while I worked on other projects and embarked on a book, and it helped me hone my narrative skills.
In the 11 years I wrote for the Digest (1989 to 2000), I did lengthy “Book Section” pieces which required not only extensive research but also a mastery of narrative structure and character development within the strict confines imposed by the Digest form. I found that those storytelling skills stood me in good stead when I embarked on my first book, Justice Older than the Law: the Life of Dovey Johnson Roundtree, in February 1995, in collaboration with the book’s subject, pioneering civil rights lawyer, veteran and minister Dovey Roundtree. Nearly 15 years in the making, the book was published in July 2009 by the University Press of Mississippi and won the 2009 Association of Black Women Historians’ Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize for the best publication on an African American woman.
BPM: Did you have any formal journalism training?
KM: I had a journalism minor at the University of Maryland, but essentially I learned the narrative craft by studying fiction and non-fiction, by teaching writing, and then by writing myself in many different markets.
BPM: Katie, what can readers expect when they open a book created by you?
KM: I believe my power as a writer derives from my lifelong love affair with words and literature, my sense of the compelling stories hidden beneath the surface of outward events, and my fascination with unsung heroes. These passions came from my late parents, John and Kathleen Burns. They exemplified for me the kind of nobility and courage I endeavor to portray over and over again in my non-fiction as I seek out heroes and heroines whose lives have profoundly altered our world but whom history has forgotten or marginalized. My goal is to portray these history-makers with the vividness of fiction, and to bring them alive for future generations.
BPM: What are you most proud of as a writer in today’s market?
KM: I have endeavored to pass on to the next generation of readers the stories of men and women who have prevailed over almost insuperable odds to achieve greatness in medicine, in the law, in athletics, and in public service. I believe that my legacy as a writer is that I have brought to life some truly extraordinary examples of the triumph of the human spirit. These examples speak to people of all races and backgrounds about what is possible when one draws strength from mentors and taps into one’s own well of courage, faith and tenacity.
In today’s market, which is dominated by books and movies that glorify violence, brutality and sexuality run rampant, I choose to tell stories that celebrate the eternal values, and I think that sets me apart from the mainstream.
BPM: What advice would you give someone just starting out as a writer?
KM: I would tell young writers two things: first, to choose stories that they consider deeply important, to bring to bear every particle of talent they have to those stories and market them with all the energy they can summon; and second, to operate on the assumption, at least at the beginning, that it will not be possible to make a living by writing. It is possible to succeed in today’s brutal publishing market, but the reality is that one needs a reliable income from a steady job in order to “support the writing habit.”
BPM: What social issues do you address in Justice Older than the Law? How is this book affecting the public?
KM: I have never been a “political writer” in that I have never set out to address any social issues. I am a storyteller, and my goal is to pass along stories that matter, that illuminate lives that exemplify nobility, courage, tenacity, faith and goodness. All truly great stories change the world, and they do so precisely because they come in “under the radar” of our critical sense and move our hearts and minds.
When I set out to write Dovey Roundtree’s story, I did so because I was enthralled with her life experience and with her personal charisma. Having said that, I do believe that Justice Older than the Law speaks importantly to some of the most critical issues of our time.

Contemporary America urgently needs this book. As we contemplate at fifty years’ distance the meaning of Brown v. Board in the light of recent Supreme Court rulings, as we struggle with issues of race at every turn, there is a sense that we’ve lost our bearings.

KM: What is justice? What sort of a society are we aiming toward? How can we capture the values we seem to have lost? How do we arrest what Dovey calls “the demon of violence” that is destroying our cities? To be able to tap into the world view of a 96-year-old living legend who brought her fight into the streets, the jailhouses, the churches, and ultimately, into the hearts of the individuals to whom she ministered, is an extraordinary opportunity, I believe, for people of all races.

Special Note: First Lady Michelle Obama saluted Dovey Johnson Roundtree on the occasion of the book’s Washington, DC launch.

“She [Dovey Johnson Roundtree] has clearly demonstrated that even in the face of enormous challenges, an unblinking belief in equality and justice will spur real change. I am inspired by Ms. Roundtree, and I hope that her story continues to motivate all Americans to fight for our shared values. It is on the shoulders of people like Dovey Johnson Roundtree that we stand today, and it is with her commitment to our core ideals that we will continue moving toward a better tomorrow.”   —  First Lady Michelle Obama, July 2009

BPM: What’s new? Tell us about your latest awards and media mentions.
KM: Dovey and I are proud that the book won the 2009 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Award from the Association of Black Women Historians, which praised Justice Older than the Law for the way it “aided in connecting with the person and the pathos of Dovey” by its use of the novel format. The judges stated, “Your work enhances our understanding of the importance of storytelling as biography.”
We are also deeply gratified by the fact that law firms in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Hartford and Charlotte have embraced the book and made it a part of their diversity programming. This represents a whole new wave of Dovey’s activism, which neither she nor I anticipated when we set about to tell her story together 15 years ago.
KM: Dovey and I are also thrilled that 30 or more law firms in Washington, DC featured the book at a “Law Night” on Thursday, July 8 for the rising ninth graders at Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter school located in Anacostia, where Dovey ministered for 35 years at Allen Chapel AME Church. The Law Night, held at Dovey’s alma mater, Howard University Law School, brought together the Thurgood Marshall Academy students with attorneys and summer associates from the law firms for a program I presented on Dovey and the book.
One of the great crusades of Dovey’s later years in Washington was to find a way to quell the tide of violence among young people, to do what she called “heal the brokenness” in society and especially the black family. This book is part of her healing effort. She believes that her story will point young people to the essential truths that will sustain them amid the chaos of contemporary culture and set them on the path of goodness. At age 96, she is prevented by gravely ill health from participating in these and other book promotion events, but she continues to celebrate with me the ripple effects of the book on which we worked together for so many years.
BPM: How may readers view the photos of Dovey, contact you for more information and to find out more about the book?
KM: Visit us at ,  the web site address for the book, and there is a link there to email Katie McCabe (at )
Justice Older than the Law by Katie McCabe
Purchase your copy today!
It is the story of pioneering Army veteran, attorney and minister Dovey Johnson Roundtree, co-authored by Katie McCabe. This is a love song to the black family and a celebration of the eternal values that make it possible to transcend our pain and limitations. Dovey Roundtree is an icon, and her story is an inspiration to all families.
Hardcover: 288 pages;  ISBN-10: 160473132X

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