An EXCLUSIVE AUTHORLINK interview with Nathalia Holt
The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women Who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History
(Little Brown and Company)
AUTHORLINK: Ms Holt, it is so wonderful to talk to you about The Queens of Animation, which we loved! Thank you for your time today. From Snow White to Frozen, the animated films of Walt Disney Studios are part of the world’s collective consciousness. Thanks to your book, we now know that hundreds of talented, yet unrecognised women were partly responsible for their creation in the 1930s and ’40s and that some of the most beloved Disney characters were shaped by their paintbrush and determination. Women played a pivotal role in creating the 1940 animated film Fantasia for instance, and ‘The Snow Queen’ was in development for decades, until eventually becoming Frozen.
How did you find out about this part of history that has slipped under the radar? What made you want to investigate further the untold stories of the women who worked at Walt Disney Studios?
“I became obsessed with learning everything I could about these women…”
HOLT: While researching my last book, Rise of the Rocket Girls, I was interviewing a woman who, before she came to work for NASA, had worked for the Walt Disney Studios. I loved hearing about what the studios were like in the 1940s, but I was struck by how many female artists were in her stories. I decided to pick up a few biographies that have been written about Walt Disney to learn more. What I found was the women whose names I had so recently learned were completely left out of these histories. While I have no background in animation, I became obsessed with learning everything I could about these women and properly honouring their contributions to classic cinema.
AUTHORLINK: How did The Queens of Animation evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
“A challenge in writing any book is determining what to include and what to leave out.”
HOLT: A challenge in writing any book is determining what to include and what to leave out. It’s always painful to cut scenes and characters. In this case, I had stories from so many women, that out of sheer necessity I had to remove some of them. Perhaps the most painful for me was leaving out much of the biographical detail I collected for Thelma Witmer, an artist who worked for the studio for decades and who had some amazing stories. I also hated removing the stories I had collected for Lady and The Tramp, an interesting history exists for that film!
AUTHORLINK: Perhaps you can publish an addendum novella? 😊 There are several intimate and revealing stories in The Queens of Animation, about what it was like to be a woman working for Walt Disney in 1937. Often it was horrendous. We understand researching your book was not easy because of the lack of acknowledgement of the female employees at the studio. For instance, most of their names were left off of the credits, and even when newspapers mentioned the work of the women, most of which worked in Disney’s Ink and Paint department, (the only creative department open to women at the time), their names would be omitted. Further, we understand the main subjects of your book have passed away, and so you had to collate your material from interviews with family and friends? Is that correct? Can you tell us a bit about this?
HOLT: I wouldn’t have been able to write this book without the cooperation of friends and family. It was the collection of letters, diaries, and sketches that allowed me to get so much of the detail required to write their narratives. For example, in the first scene of Chapter 1, I describe a story meeting where Bianca Majolie flees after having her work ripped up by Walt Disney. There are many sources that confirmed what happened in this meeting, including interviews with artists who attended, the story meeting transcript, and the work of prior Disney historians. However, how does a writer convey how Bianca felt? To do so I was fortunate enough to obtain letters she’d written to another artist where she describes the meeting and her emotions in detail. All together these different types of documents allowed me to write a very moving, while completely historically accurate, scene.
AUTHORLINK: In The Queens of Animation, you chronicle how the chauvinistic culture began to change and lead up to 2013, when the co-directors of the film, Frozen, organized what they called a “sister summit” in which female staff from all departments came together to talk about their lives as women and sisters. Here, men were allowed to attend, but not to speak. How gratifying was that to discover after the research you had done?
“I loved learning about the artists who worked on Frozen…”
HOLT: I loved learning about the artists who worked on Frozen and the environment they created for their female employees. The “sister summit” is the culmination of all that the female pioneers at Disney worked towards, and such a powerful signal of how the industry itself is still changing.
AUTHORLINK: After working as an HIV researcher for a decade – you hold a PhD in molecular biology – you made the switch from research to writing, and your work has covered a range of subjects and featured in reputable magazines and newspapers. Your first book was Cured: The People Who Defeated HIV (2015), which had ties to your work at the University of Southern California. What made you decide to start writing a non-fiction book? Had you written any books before? Did you do a creative writing course along the way?
HOLT: While I had always dreamed of one day writing a book, the idea seemed completely impractical to me before I published my first book, Cured in 2014. I had no connections in publishing, knew not a single author, and most of my colleagues at my research institute at Harvard thought I was crazy to attempt it. I also had no training in creative writing, and was a new mom in a challenging, time consuming career. What I did have was a story I desperately wanted to tell. I feel so fortunate to have been given the chance to write that first book, which taught me so much, and even more privileged to keep writing nonfiction books about subject that I’m passionate about.
AUTHORLINK: Bravo. About the above question, how difficult was it finding an agent to represent you after having a Science background? Is it the same agent that you have today? Was it difficult making that transfer into another field? Do you miss science?
HOLT: I love my agent, Laurie Abkemeier. She is a fervent advocate for her authors. I was fortunate to have a choice in agents when I first queried in 2011, and I can’t imagine working in publishing without her. I always think of my time in the laboratory fondly, but I certainly have no regrets about where I’ve ended up today.
AUTHORLINK: In the 1940s and 50s, when the newly minted Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to “calculate velocities and plot trajectories”, an “elite group of young women who, with only pencil, paper, and mathematical prowess, were hired”. They transformed rocket design and helped bring about the first American satellites and made the exploration of the solar system possible. Even the words, “One small step” was made possible because of the deep space network that the women built. This is the subject of your last book the Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars (2016), a popular subject in recent years and followed by the publishing of Liza Mundy’s Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II (2017) and Margot Lee Shetterley’s, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race (2016) (along with its recent film adaptation).
These books commemorate the women who helped launch the first American satellites, lunar missions and planetary explorations and were regarded as “human computers”, yet incredibly, they also participated in beauty contests at work! What would you say are the main differences between these books and yours and did you enjoy the movie?
“I’m so proud to be in the company of these books and the wonderful movie, Hidden Figures.”
HOLT: I’m so proud to be in the company of these books and the wonderful movie, Hidden Figures. Revealing new perspectives in history and properly honouring the contributions of those of who have come before us is so important.
AUTHORLINK: Yes. You once said, “In 1984, 37 per cent of all bachelor’s degrees in computer science were awarded to women, and today that number has dropped to 18 per cent. And even for women that are working in science today, it’s about half of all women that leave midcareer. So I think these stories are important for inspiring and being role models that are so much needed for women today. (NPR, 5 April 2016)” How much has changed in 2020 from the time you said this? Or has it not?
HOLT: Sadly, the numbers have not significantly improved. Despite the fact the 57% of working professionals in the United States are female, only 26% of the computing workforce are women. Asian women make up 7% of the workforce, Black women make up 3%, and Hispanic women comprise 2%.
AUTHORLINK: Those are remarkable numbers. We are often made aware of the important role women have played in innovations in science and technology, and efforts like the non-profit organization Girls Who Code are aimed at addressing the gender gap in these fields, however, we note that the number of women in animation today is worse than in computer science. Is that still the case? Is this one of the reasons you are attracted to writing about this category of non-fiction and ‘the forgotten women in history’?
HOLT: Women are an underutilized resource in animation. While the majority of animation students are women, they still comprise a small percentage of directors, writers, and animators in the industry. I hope that by writing the history of women at Disney, and exposing much of what these pioneers endured, women today will find inspiration in their example.
AUTHORLINK: We’re sure they will. What do you think about constructive criticism? Do you take it on the chin or is it hard to take, which would be completely understandable? Or do you just pay attention to what your editors have to say and your first readers?
HOLT: Being able to handle rejection and criticism is an important skill for any author. Over the years, I’ve learned to take what is useful from the experience without letting it hinder my ability to create.
AUTHORLINK: Perfect. Tell us a bit about your writing process in short answers.
HOLT: (in bold)
- How many words to do you aim to write a day? This varies depending on subject/project/state of my research.
- How long does it take you to research a book and how long does it take to write the first draft? Average of 6 years for me!
- How many times do you redraft it? Too many times to count
- Do you proofread/edit all your books, or do you get someone to do that for you? I proofread/edit all my books and then work with my editors at the publishing house.
- Who are your first readers? Some very patient friends!
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now? Are you able to tell us a bit about it? We can’t wait to read it, whatever it is!
HOLT: I’m currently writing my fourth nonfiction book, WISE GALS: THE SPIES WHO BUILT THE CIA AND CHANGED THE FUTURE OF ESPIONAGE. I’m having so much fun writing this cold war spy thriller featuring four women who risked their lives to protect their country.
AUTHORLINK: That’s sounds so brilliant! What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
“Keep going! You don’t need connections in publishing or paid consultants, just the passion to tell your story.”
HOLT: Keep going! You don’t need connections in publishing or paid consultants, just the passion to tell your story.
AUTHORLINK: Ms Holt, thank you so much for your time today. We wish you all the very best for your continued success and look forward to your next book!
HOLT: Thank you!
About the Author: Nathalia Holt, Ph.D. is the New York Times bestselling author of The Queens of Animation: The Untold Story of the Women who Transformed the World of Disney and Made Cinematic History (Little, Brown, 2019), Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars (Little, Brown, 2016) and Cured: The People who Defeated HIV (Penguin Random House 2014).
Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Slate, Popular Science, and Time. She is a former fellow at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard University.
She lives with her husband and their two daughters in Pacific Grove, CA.