One of the many things I love about working with David Montague is that we have these conversations that are full of things we want to manifest on his mother’s behalf. Some of those things have come true, and other things, well, we’re still waiting on them to come true.
That is not to say they won’t. It’s just to say they haven’t yet.
This morning, David was in Pine Bluff Arkansas, where Pullen and Linden Streets were officially renamed Jordan-Montague Way. Why this is significant: this is the site of the original Merrill High School, where Raye graduated in 1952. If you’ve read the book, you know how and why Raye sang this school’s praises even late in her life (If you haven’t read the book yet, please do, so you can understand why this school was so special). So it’s touching that this street now bears her last name, as well as the last name of Massie D. Jordan, who was the principal from Raye’s last year there until 1980.
A special, heartfelt shoutout to Rosie Pettigrew, a 1967 Merrill graduate who not only organized the school’s reunion last night, but convinced the City of Pine Bluff to rename the street in time for it. Here she is with David last night.
Thank you, Rosie, for making sure people in Pine Bluff never forget about Arkansas’s own Hidden Figure.
On Monday, David and I had a command performance with the lovely folks at Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP. The first talk was for the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion practice, while this was for their fifty summer associates and anyone else in the firm who wanted to show up. We ultimately had 178 people on this Zoom call, and we are so grateful for the firm’s support! This time we spoke a little bit more to how Raye’s story can serve as an example to young professionals who are making their way in a complex and layered world, and we hope that these young men and women were able to take something away from this talk that will serve them well going forward.
David Montague and I had an early morning conversation with the Conway Rotary Club, which contacted David after he was featured in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last month. We’ve done a number of these Rotary events since the book’s release, all of them different and interesting in their own right. But today there was a woman in the group who actually recalled visiting the World War 2-era Japanese mini-sub that sparked seven-year-old Raye Montague’s imagination. As we wrote in the book, the sub was captured by the U.S. after the Pearl Harbor attack, and then taken across the country to raise money for war bonds. When the sub came through Little Rock, wee Raye Montague visited it, was transfixed by its dials and doo-dads, and inspired to become an engineer. But the woman in this morning’s group didn’t have the same fond memory. When she saw it, she was scared.
When I think about it, and about how an excited Raye once described the sub as looking like a little whale, I can see how another little girl could step down inside of the thing and feel gobbled up, kind of like how the mean old whale Monstro swallowed up Pinocchio once upon a time. It was interesting to hear this woman’s recollection and perspective, and to continue our ongoing conversation about the things that inspire and motivate us to pursue our dreams. Sometimes it’s a submarine. Sometimes it’s not. But the stories about that thing that sets you on a certain path are really interesting to me, and it’s always fun to hear people talk about that thing that made them become whatever it is they decided to become and changed their lives forever.
I tend to make a lot of lists. Grocery lists. To-do lists. Books-I’d-Like-To-Read lists. Books-I’d-Like-To-Write Lists. And so on and so forth. These lists keep me from forgetting important things, but they also keep me focused.
Before Overnight Code came out in January, I made a list of things that I hoped would happen for this book. Then David and I went about our business talking to groups, giving media interviews, chatting with book clubs and doing Zoom events with bookstores. We’ve had some wonderful support along the way, everyone from booksellers, to his university, to reporters, and friends who have enlisted us to speak to their book club, their enormous law firm, the political science department at their HBCU, etc. We’re grateful for everything that has been happening for this book and take none of it, and no reader, for granted.
If you’ve read this far, thank you a million times from the bottom of my heart for supporting David, me, and Overnight Code. It has been a tremendous privilege and honor to share this story with you. It has also been a great amount of fun for us both.
There was one thing I really wanted and I wrote it down on my list. I wanted Raye Montague’s story to return to Good Morning America. It’s where Raye first got big national attention in February 2017, when she talked about her life as the U.S. Navy’s Hidden Figure. It’s what got a certain special literary agent’s attention, which, in turn, led to Overnight Code. It’s responsible for launching the Paige and David literary show that has been running hard since January 12, 2021. A lot of things started there, on that show, and I had this twitchy little feeling that things needed to come full circle. I began pitching the book to them, looking for different angles each time. After a couple of tries, I heard nothing. I wasn’t surprised because it is a large, national show with a lot of busy people. But last week, I pitched it again, and a producer got back to us. At that point, things started moving really fast and feeling really unreal. They interviewed us. We sent them photographs and five copies of the book that didn’t arrive, and one copy of the book that did. Even though all of these signs seemed to point to them committing to the story, the nervous part of me knew that something could happen and the segment about Overnight Code could get bumped. So I didn’t want to tell anyone about it.
Because what if…
This past Monday, fifteen minutes before the end of the show, they aired this segment. It was exciting enough to see Robin Roberts hold up a copy of our book…
…but when I saw it on the Jumbotron outside GMA’s Times Square studio, I almost had a heart-attack. I just couldn’t believe it, and still can’t. But I am tremendously grateful to Robin Roberts, her producer Danielle Genet, and the rest of the GMA crew for helping us share this story with the nation. Somewhere, up above, Raye Montague is looking down on all of this, smiling. She’s not only getting her due, but lifting others up in the process.
The Raye Montague Challenge
Sunday, March 28 was Raye Montague Day in Little Rock, and David read Julia Finley Mosca’s The Girl With a Mind for Math to children via a Zoom event with Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing. Pyramid has become one of my favorite independent bookstores, and its owner, Garbo Hearne, has been a tremendous supporter of Overnight Code. On Sunday, Ms. Hearne issued a challenge to Central Arkansas: by next year’s Raye Montague Day, she wants to see a copy of The Girl With a Mind for Math and Overnight Code in every school and community organization library in the state. The Little Rock Water Reclamation Authority has already kicked off the challenge by purchasing and donating 100 books, and we are grateful to them for getting things going. Ms. Hearne wants Raye Montague to be a household name in Arkansas, and we thank her for that. Here’s hoping people are up for the challenge, not just there, but all over the nation, too.
Last week, David Montague and I finished a run-through for a big virtual book talk we would be giving at University of Arkansas at Little Rock Downtown. The talk incorporated some archival items David and his family gave to the Center for History and Culture that are now on display. At the end of the run-through, UALR Downtown director Ross Owyoung asked us if we wanted to see the exhibit, and David and I both said yes, of course. So Ross grabbed his laptop (where I was connected via Zoom) and walked into the gallery with David.
At the time, the room’s walls were covered by a curtain, and as moving as it was to see Raye’s life in exhibit form, I wondered what the curtain concealed. So I asked Ross about it, and he asked me if I knew who Joe Jones was. I did not. Ross pulled back the curtain to show us the incredibly thought-provoking, 44-foot by 9-foot mural Jones painted called “Struggle in the South.” Completed in 1935, the mural is one of Jones notable protest works about the Jim Crow era, as it depicts black coal miners, sharecroppers and a lynching.
“I’m not interested in painting pretty pictures to match pink and blue walls,” Jones said in 1933. “I want to paint things that knock holes in walls.”
Without question, the mural — which has been lovingly restored by UALR — packs a punch. As David looked at it, and thought about it for a minute, he turned to Ross and said the mural shouldn’t be covered at all. After all, his mother’s life was part of the struggle Jones depicted, and so the two elements should be in conversation with each other, so to speak.
If you’re in Little Rock, I hope you can stop by UALR Downtown between now and March 31 to see what I’m talking about. Even if you miss the exhibit about David’s mom, this mural will remain in place, and is definitely worth your time.
You know how I love to support independent bookstores, especially those owned and operated by women. Yesterday, Ms. Garbo Hearne of Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing hosted me and David for a HUGE virtual book talk at her Little Rock-based store. The event was also hosted by the Pine Bluff and Little Rock chapters of the Links, Inc. and the Beta Pi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, two organizations that were dear to Raye Montague throughout her life. David and I have truly enjoyed connecting with audiences about his mother, but the event yesterday felt a little extra special because many of the women in the audience knew Raye in some fashion, and mentioned that the segment we read from the book sounded so much like something she’d say, and/or seemed like a very Raye thing to do. I can’t speak for David, but I can say that feedback like this, from people who were so close to his mother, means the world, because it helps me see how on target we were as we depicted her life in words. I want those who didn’t know her to feel like they did as they read this book, and I want those who knew her (as these women did) to feel her in the room with them all over again.
Ms. Hearne is on the talent committee for the Six Bridges Book Festival and announced yesterday that David and I would be speaking this fall at the event, which will be a mix of Zoom and in-person talks. What blew me away is that she challenged all the women on the call to become ambassadors for Overnight Code, telling everyone they know about the book between now and the start of the festival so that Raye Montague will be hidden no more, especially in her home state. David and I are so grateful to Ms. Hearne, the Links, Inc., and Alpha Kappa Alpha for their support of his mother’s story and continue to be humbled by the support and feedback we are getting from people who have read the book. Please let us know what you think about Overnight Code on Amazon, Goodreads, or even by email. David and I love hearing from you!
Speaking of David, he was the subject of a great and massive feature by Sean Clancy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. We’re grateful to Sean for taking the time and care to write such a great piece, and for illustrating that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, so to speak. As I’ve gotten to know David over the past couple of years, I’m often impressed by the things he has done in his own life, and would be willing to bet he’ll be talking about it in his own book before too long.
I’m just saying…
To conclude: I’ve been thinking about mentors lately, because Raye had some tremendous ones in her life. Who were your mentors and why? Would you care to share some stories about how they helped you become who you are today? I’d love to write about mentors for a coming post, so I hope to hear from you soon!
OVERNIGHT CODE has been out in the world for a little more than a month now. David Montague and I have been busy giving talks to civic groups, bookstores, media and pretty much anyone else who will have us. The book has been optioned for a possible TV/film project, and David will soon be telling a Smithsonian Channel film crew what it was like to grow up as Raye Montague’s son.
We are incredibly grateful for the interest in the book, and hope to continue connecting with potential readers in the coming months.
One Little Rock-area Rotary Group said this about one of our talks: “After last night, we were so in shock about how well they spoke and talked to us about the book. We felt like we made two new friends at the end of the program. It was that good.”
I wrote in the book about how David and I have a shared love of snacks. We also like making new friends, too. If you’re unable to make a book talk, why not have us meet with you and your book club via Zoom? If you reach out to us through our websites, we’d be happy to discuss putting together a great evening for you and your group. So far, people have been profoundly inspired by Raye Montague’s life story. Inspiring others was her life’s work, after all, and we hope to keep spreading her words and wisdom.
And if you’ve read the book already, we’d love to hear what you think about it. Please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads with your thoughts about it, and spread the word about this story with your friends. Yes, it is a book about a trailblazing engineer, but more than that it is a story of a survivor who fought tooth and nail against the obstacles placed in her way to achieve a lifelong dream.
After all, who among us hasn’t tried to overcome an obstacle at some point in our lives? Writing about Raye was fascinating for me, in part because of the things like engineering that made her tick, but also because of the unbelievable drive it took to take her from the point A of the Jim Crow South to the point B of a person who revolutionized the way the U.S. Navy designed and built its ships. In her words:
You don’t have to be an engineer to get something out of insights like these. And they’re all over this book! So if you pick up a copy, please consider sharing your favorite Raye Montague quote online, and tag it with #OvernightCode #TheQuotableRayeMontague so David and I can see what’s resonating with you. I’ll share some of your favorites in a coming post!
On Loving Your Local Indie Bookseller
I realize that it is often fastest and easiest to buy your books and other things from Amazon. I have nothing against anyone who does that. However, I am a huge fan of independent bookstores, and a big believer, especially in this pandemic year, in supporting small businesses like these any chance we get. Why I love indies: well-curated selections, personalized service, great author programs for kids and adults, and tremendous support of authors, period. For example, The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore hired an accordion player for my July 14, 2017 talk there about THE GENERAL’S NIECE, and I’ve obviously never forgotten about it.
In a year like we’ve had, these community gems have supplied us with the books and puzzles and such that have made these weird times tolerable. That’s why I will always tell book groups that if you can, please buy from a local independent, and if you don’t have that at your disposal, please buy from bookshop.org, or indiebound.com. What people do next is up to them, but I will gently and consistently push supporting indies until my last breath.
Which reminds me: Read It Again, which hosted David and me for a virtual book talk on February 13, had to close their doors temporarily due to a broken water heater that flooded their store. If you can, please consider donating to the GoFundMe campaign on their website, which will help them with repairs and moving into a temporary space. Or, you can order books and gift cards from their website, which will help them too.
Do you have a favorite independent bookstore in your hometown? If so, what is it, and what do you like so much about them? Please let me know in comments. I’d love to be featuring your favorites here from time to time.
On Liking Your Co-Author
Dean Karayanis of The History Author Show had us on to talk about Overnight Code for Black History Month. During one part of the show, David and I were laughing about our quest to narrow down the number of pictures we used in the book. It was a bit of a struggle, because there are so many good pictures of his mother at work and at home. I said on the show that we got to picking on each other a little bit, and Dean said he often wondered whether co-authors genuinely like each other, or whether they suffer through each other’s quirks just to get the word out about the book. Now I can’t speak for David, obviously, but I can speak for myself. My joy about working with David Montague and giving these talks with him is 110 percent real, and unfortunately for him, he will never get rid of me.
By the way, Dean really knocked our socks off with all the work he put into this video. It’s an excellent tribute to David’s mom, and we hope you’ll take some time to watch it:
We’ve been chatting up a storm lately, and we’ll be closing out February with a book club full of people that David grew up with in Maryland. I suspect that I may just want to pop some popcorn, kick back, and listen to some of the stories that I’m sure will be told. I already know that David and his best friend once got into a wild fight with squirt bottles of ketchup and mustard. Who knows what else I might learn this week?
At the beginning of March, we are giving Zoom talks to the Bryant (Ark.) Rotary at 1:45 p.m. EST on March 4, the El Dorado (Ark.) Rotary at 1 p.m. EST on March 9, and to the University of Arkansas, Little Rock at 1:30 p.m. EST on March 11. I will post the UALR information as soon as it is available. On that day, we will be talking about Raye’s life using artifacts from her archival collection at the Center for History and Culture. More talks are coming, but these are the ones we have on the books right now.
What I’m Reading
I just finished Cicely Tyson’s memoir JUST AS I AM, and highly recommend it. It’s the beautiful and profound story of the critically acclaimed actress’s life, activism and love for jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
Now, I’m reading Janet Skeslien Charles’ novel, THE PARIS LIBRARY, because I’ve been having these recurring dreams about being in Paris, people-watching, or sitting in a park reading. Review likely to come, but for now, let’s just say I’m enjoying the escape.
What I’m Excited About
I’m thinking about what I might want to do next, book-wise. As I sort it out, I’ve been doing some freelancing and I’m really, really excited about this profile I just wrote about a total freaking icon of Swinging Sixties London. When I can share more, I will. But for now, just know that I’m about to take you on a really fun ride and I can’t wait!
Please reach out to let me know what’s on your mind, what you’re reading, whether you have any questions. I’d love to hear from you!
I spent a week in Little Rock, Arkansas last July, working with David Montague on the book we’re doing about his mother Raye. Raye was a Hidden Figure of the U.S. Navy, known for being the first person to design a ship with a computer. But she was also a well-known, and beloved speaker to all manner of groups about engineering, doing well in school, and her truly remarkable life.
David and I spent part of that week holed up in his office at the University of Arkansas Little Rock talking and going through some of his mother’s papers, photos, and personal effects. As we shuffled through folders and photo albums, multiple copies of the following quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fluttered to the floor:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where –,” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“—so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”
Some people walk and walk and walk in life, only to go in circles and ultimately nowhere at all. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t had enough guidance and support. Sometimes it’s because they’ve simply quit because the effort felt too daunting. Raye Montague, from a very early age, had an idea of the direction she wanted to walk – engineering – and didn’t stop walking until she reached her destination. Along the way she faced her share of trials and tribulations, but she never viewed them as a roadblock. She saw them as challenges that she needed to overcome so that she could keep going, achieving, and ultimately bringing others along with her on her journey. Yes, she was an engineer in the male-dominated Navy, and it was inspiring that she was able to achieve all that she did during her career. But for me, engineering is not the entire story.
What fascinated me even more than the artform Raye learned to master on the job was her unbelievable resilience in the face of all manner of obstacles and odds that weren’t necessarily in her favor. She lived a life aware of these factors, but undaunted by them as she pressed ahead and onward.
Raye’s life is a fabulous case study about what it takes to overcome challenges, bounce back from failures and heartbreaks, and press forward…somewhere…even in hard times. David and I are looking forward to introducing his mother to you in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, I’ll be sharing some stories and studies here from time to time about resilience — what it is, why we need it, how we develop it, and more. The World Health Organization has made resilience a top priority in 2020, and researchers are finding that it’s an increasingly important factor in our health and wellness. This is some writing I originally trotted out on Substack, but I found it difficult to keep it going at that spot, primarily because it was one more place to log into and maintain. Still, I wanted to keep looking at the idea from time to time, so I decided it would be best to do it here.
Let me know if you have any questions or stories you’d like to see on the matter. In the meantime, I’ll keep poking around and share anything interesting I find.
When I was in the midst of moving back to Atlanta, my agent contacted me about a story that really needed to be told. It was about an African-American woman named Raye Montague, who engineered her way out of the Jim Crow South to become the first person to draft a Naval warship design by computer. The idea was that I’d complete a proposal (quickly), and if it sold, help her get her memories down (again quickly; she was 83) so we could get what promises to be a marvelous and truly inspirational book about a Hidden Figure out to market. Over the course of the summer and into fall, I’ve gotten to know and truly love Raye and her son David, as I started working with them to create what was originally intended to be her memoir.
About a month ago, Raye fell ill and went into hospice. She died October 10, and after months of talking to her and getting to know her, my heart absolutely broke. Her son’s heart broke. So many people whose lives she touched…their hearts broke. Raye was brilliant, strong, inspirational and so goddamn funny. She was a great storyteller, which was a delight for someone like me. Now, her son David and I will be working together to co-author her biography, which is tentatively titled KICK LIKE THE DEVIL. It’ll be published by Chicago Review Press, just like my first book was, and I think I can safely that I and David – my friend David – are chomping at the bit to share the life of this amazing woman with you. Stay tuned…and thank you.