Q&A with Jesse Holland M.F.A. ’12
Jesse Holland M.F.A. ’12 loves what he does. Author of two recent histories—Black Men Built the Capitol and The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House—and race and ethnicity correspondent for the Associated Press, Holland is a tireless researcher and reporter who takes a palpable joy in putting words on paper.
Recently, Holland has been charting new territory, delving into fiction with forays into a couple of established franchises—Finn’s Story is a young adult book version of events in Star Wars: A Force Awakens, and when he spoke to Goucher Magazine in December, he was working on an adult novel for Marvel Comics about the iconic Black Panther character. And at Goucher’s annual Jewel Robinson Dinner on February 24, he will receive the Marguerite Barland ’60 Merit Award, named for the college’s first African American graduate and given every year to a Goucher alumnus or alumna who has significantly contributed to the diversity of the college.
Goucher Magazine: What stage in your career were you at when you came to Goucher?
Jesse Holland: I came to Goucher, I believe, in 2010 and I had been in Washington about a decade. I had worked several different jobs for AP at that point, including covering the White House and covering Congress. I was at the Supreme Court for just about six years, I believe, during my entire time at Goucher.
GM: In my experience, there’s an attitude among journalist and reporters that you don’t need to go to school—you just learn this stuff on the job. I don’t know if you’ve encountered that as well.
JH: I will never tell anyone that you cannot improve your craft by learning more about it. I will probably argue that a Ph.D. in journalism is useful only to those who plan to teach journalism. For the day- to-day writer, anything that makes you write is good for you. That’s the reason I don’t mind taking on all of these fiction projects as well as the non-fiction projects. Anything that makes you write makes you better. Just sitting in front of the computer writing something. It doesn’t matter whether it’s poetry, fiction, non-fiction, blogs, whatever. As long as you’re writing, you’re getting better. If there’s any type of schooling you can get that’s going to force you to write and make you better, then I would be all for it.
GM: Do you feel like Goucher did that for you?
JH: Oh, Goucher did. Definitely. My writing completely improved since I’ve been at Goucher. And it’s opened up some opportunities for me that didn’t exist before I came to Goucher. Yes, Goucher made a huge difference in my career.
GM: Say a little bit about the character of Black Panther, because as Marvel’s first black character, he’s sort of unique in a lot of ways.
JH: Right, exactly. That’s one of the cool things about the Black Panther. He is actually Marvel’s first black superhero. He was created as a supporting character for the Fantastic Four back in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He’s one of the original characters from Marvel Comics and of course he’s the first African superhero in the Marvel universe. He actually is the king of a country called Wakanda. His name is T’Challa and in their continuity, he starts out a prince but become king after his father is killed and has to learn the ways of being a king and ruling a country that is actually one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.
GM: Is it weird to make that jump from non-fiction to fiction?
JH: Well I’ve dabbled in fiction just a little. In September, I published my first fiction novel, it just happened to be a young adult fiction novel, where I was contacted by Lucasfilm Books to write an origin story for the character Finn from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That was actually my first time dabbling in fiction at all, at least professionally, but I loved it. I think the book actually turned out well, or at least well enough that Marvel came back to me after it published and said, “Hey do you want to do this again, just for adults?”
GM: How do you go about researching? Do they just drop off a million comics at your house?
JH: Actually, that was one of the things they asked me did I need. I was like, “You know what guys, I already pretty much own them all.” I honestly still read them to this day, even though now I read digital comics more than the actual paper comics. A lot of the things about the Black Panther, I already know, because I read the comic books when they first came out. Here’s the thing, just like a non-fiction project, there’s still research to be done. You’re not allowed to call someone by the wrong name, or to say, for example, vibranium works in this way, when it’s that way. You can’t just make up things out of whole cloth. There is an actual universe with rules that have to be followed.
GM: I imagine that was a challenge with Star Wars as well.
JH: With the Star Wars book as well. The editor warned me—get something wrong, and you’ll be hearing about it from the Star Wars fans for the rest of your life. For that one, I did have to go out and buy a bunch of books because I’d seen the movies, I had read some of the comic books, but there are actual, technical manuals that say this is here on the Millennial Falcon, the big guns swiveled this way…
GM: Right, all that stuff has been worked out behind the scenes.
JH: Exactly, exactly. It’s the same way with writing this Black Panther novel. I’m having to make sure exactly where Wakanda is on the African continent. This is exactly how vibranium works. This is how T’Challa actually met the Fantastic Four. Given that this is an adult novel, some of the things that happened in the comic book continuity, I don’t have to follow verbatim. In fact, one of the things they told me is that we don’t expect you to copy the comics. We want a full adult story. I do have some freedom to make things fit where they need to. You have the basic framework of “This is the Marvel universe, this is how the Marvel universe works, there’s magic in the Marvel universe. There’s super-science in the Marvel universe. There are these exotic metals in the Marvel universe,” and then you go from there.
GM: Is writing fiction a good break from all this weighty stuff that you’ve been doing this year?
JH: It is. It gives me a chance to flex some writing muscles. It gives me a chance to think about things that don’t have to deal with what’s going on in America immediately. Current events do bleed into it. It gives you a chance to—in your mind—make sure the good guys win, which, reality doesn’t actually work that way. At least in fiction, if you can make it work out right, the good guys can win.
GM: Tell me about writing the Star Wars book, because the Finn character is interesting too.
JH: One of the things that was interesting about writing the Finn book is that LucasFilms wouldn’t tell me what happens in the next movie. They said, “We want you to write a book talking a little bit about how Finn got to the point he was at the beginning of The Force Awakens, but we’re not going to tell you his background or his parents or his connections. We’re not going to tell you anything, we just need you to make it up and if you do something that gets in the way of what we’re doing, we’ll let you know.”
GM: Write this book and then we’ll tell you if you’re right.
JH: Exactly, exactly. Honestly, it’s a great writing exercise. To sit down, and I went back and watched the movie like five times to get the emotions, to get the feelings, to get the characters right. Then I got a chance to look at the script from the movie. Then I had to come with, okay, at the beginning of the movie, Finn is ready to leave the First Order. He’s ready to leave them. What would make him get to that point? Then write form there. There was some stuff in there in the book where they just said “Well, you can’t do that.” I would go, “Why can’t I do this.” “Well, we can’t tell you, but you can’t do that.” I would be like “Okay, so I guess I need to find another way to get him to this point.”
It was great fun. The original Star Wars was actually the first movie I ever saw in the movie theater. I remember having Star Wars sheets and curtains and having the comic books and everything as a child. I have a lifelong connection with their franchise. It was such a great honor to be asked to contribute a little bit to it.
GM: It’s a very iconic thing. Well both of them are, Black Panther and Star Wars. And Black Panther is going through a bit of a resurgence right now, with the last Marvel movie.
JH: Exactly. Exactly. Once again, it’s such a great honor to be able to work on these characters that I’ve been reading for my entire life. It’s great to be asked to contribute a little bit to a character that you’ve been reading about your entire existence, and once again, I’m still doing research. There are little things that you just want to make sure you get right. Especially when you’re writing fiction and you don’t really have to worry about this in non-fiction because with non-fiction, you know, it’s reality. You don’t have to worry about thinking to yourself, well how do I make this sound real? You just write it because it is real.
In fiction, you have to make sure that all the details sound realistic. Even when you’re dealing with a magical panther king. You have to make sure all the details are believable. I’m working hard to try make sure that everything sounds right. When you read it, you don’t think to yourself that can’t happen. You can get lost in this world of alchemy, this world of magic and super-strength and super soldiers and just enjoy it for the great story I hope it’s going to be.
GM: You mentioned that you are taking a couple of weeks off, probably also for the holidays, but to write the book. Looking at your AP work this year, it doesn’t look like you’ve taken a lot of time off. You still have a lot of stories on there.
JH: This was a busy year. That I will completely agree with. It was a bit of a busy year but I love what I do, I love everything about all the different roles I take on. It is nice sometimes to just sit down and be able to just throw yourself into your writing and frankly, spend time with your family.
GM: This past year has obviously been quite busy for you and probably the coming years on your beat. Race is going to be one of the big issues of this presidency, it looks like. How he deals with race issues and how he follows up or doesn’t on statements he’s made.
JH: You can actually expect a pretty interesting first term from Donald Trump because it’s one of those situations where no one actually knows what’s going to happen. He prides himself in not following the playbook by not doing things the way they’ve been done before. We don’t actually know what we’re going to see in Trump’s first term and that actually makes it exciting for those of us who cover Washington. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re along for the ride just like everyone else. Just seeing what’s going to happen on a day-to-day basis. I fully expect the next four years to be very interesting. Now, interesting good, or interesting bad I don’t know, but we know that it’ll be interesting.
GM: How did you feel about the reception of your book, The Invisibles? It seems like it was oddly timely in some ways.
JH: It was. It certainly was. The reception for the book was great. I especially want to thank everyone at Goucher. I’ve actually spoken to Goucher several times on the topics of The Invisibles. I’ve gotten a great reception from Goucher students and alumni. Goucher students, faculty, and alumni. I’ve gotten a great reception from the public as well. Like you said, it seemed to be a very timely book and it seemed to touch on topics that frankly it seemed like a lot of Americans had never really thought about—the fact that there were actually slaves living inside the White House.
It seemed that I got great reactions from a lot of people about the topics and the people that were involved in the book. It was a great year. I think the paperback should be coming out in 2017 and I just can’t wait to see when people get their hands on to see what they think.
GM: Now that you’ve done the more serious history, you’ve done Star Wars, you’re working on Black Panther, what else do you want to write? Are you going to go back to history?
JH: I definitely will get back to history. Frankly, non-fiction writing—especially non-fiction history writing—is my passion. That’s what I want to do but I always keep my options open because I have so many different interests in so many different areas that if an opportunity comes up to do something that may even be a little bit out of my wheelhouse, I’ll give it a try.
I will always go back to history, because there are things about this country that Americans don’t know, and I love finding these hidden history facts and these hidden history topics and crafting great stories about them. Not just saying, “Hey did you know this happened?” Saying, “There’s a great story behind this and I want you to know it.” Those are the type of stories I love telling. I will always circle back around to doing my history projects. If something else comes up, if a Superman or a Batman book comes up, I wouldn’t say no to that either.