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Shonda Rhimes: 2016 National Book Festival

Shonda Rhimes: 2016 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Michael: Ladies and gentlemen,
please welcome the 14th Librarian of Congress, Doctor
Carla Hayden [applause].>>Carla Hayden: Thank you, Michael. I don’t know about you, but I am
having a great time [applause, cheering]. Welcome to the Library of
Congress National Book Festival, our premiere public event. And this is my first book
festival, officiating [applause]. And, as you can see, I am
pretty thrilled to be here. Now today is our, and it’s an honor
for me to be able to say “our”, 16th annual celebration
of books and reading. And, as you can see from
the beautiful art behind me and throughout the
convention center, the theme of this year’s
festival is Journeys, because books really do take us on journeys we might not,
otherwise, ever go on. They make us think about
the world we live in, and also the one that preceded us. They are our portals
into the future. As Thomas Jefferson once said,
“I cannot live without books”. I have been a librarian my entire
career and I could not agree more. And I would take a bet that
there are a lot of people in this room who would agree too. [ Applause ] I would like to invite a person who
has made this festival possible. I am pleased to bring to the
stage Mister David Rubenstein who will be interviewing our
exciting guest and author. I would dare to say
that no one cares more about books and literacy than David. And we cannot thank him
enough for his support of the National Book
Festival every year. [ Applause ] And, thanks to his generosity, I am
able to announce today that the date of next year’s National
Book Festival will be on Saturday, September 2nd. So mark your calendars [applause]. David is a wonderful and
experienced interviewer, and I know you are looking forward to his conversation
for his special guest. I am too because I get
to sit down and listen.>>David Rubenstein:
Okay, thank you. So, [applause] country is very
fortunate to have a Librarian of Congress from my
hometown of Baltimore and, [applause] for several
hundred years, we managed never to have a female Librarian
of Congress. That’s now been corrected. [ Applause, Cheering ] And for several hundred years, we
never had a person of color serve as Librarian of Congress. That’s now been corrected
[applause, cheering]. So, Carla, everybody is
looking forward to your tenure and congratulations on this
position and thank you very much for taking this position [applause]. So we have a special treat today. Somebody who is, I would say, the
most dominant person in television. What she has done is something
that nobody had done really before. Now in a profession that is
typically dominated by white males, she has been the dominant figure. And that is in television
production and creation and writing. And she has written more
top television shows and produced more top
television shows than anybody currently,
anybody in history. Shonda Rhimes is a person who grew
up in Chicago, went to Dartmouth, went to University of
Southern California, and then began writing
screenplays for movies. And then, ultimately, came up with
a little bit of an idea called “Grey’s Anatomy” [applause,
cheering]. And that was in 2005
and the rest is history. So, she’s an extraordinary
person in other respects as well. Not only is she a dominant
figure in television now, but she’s an incredible
mother to her 3 children, she’s also a great philanthropist. She just came from the African
American History and Culture Museum where she donated 10
million dollars. [ Applause ] And I have the pleasure
of having her serve on the Kennedy Center Board of Trustees appointed
by President Obama. So it’s my pleasure to
welcome Shonda Rhimes. [ Applause, Cheering ] Okay, thank you. All right, great, thanks so much. All right, which side? Either side? Okay, okay, fine. So.>>Shonda Rhimes: Hi, everybody.>>David Rubenstein: Thank
you very much for coming. And let’s start by asking
you an obvious question. This is a profession, the one that
you’re in that has been dominated, as I said at the beginning,
by white men. So, has it been harder to do
what you’ve done being a woman or being a person of color?>>Shonda Rhimes: That’s an
interesting question, actually. I don’t know that I
know the answer to that because I haven’t been
anything but a woman and a person of color [applause].>>David Rubenstein:
Okay, all right.>>Shonda Rhimes: And, to me,
neither one of those things is hard because they’ve always been there. That’s just who I am. I don’t consider them barriers or
burdens, I consider them assets.>>David Rubenstein:
Okay [applause]. So right now, you have
on television right now, 4 series, is that correct? Four right now?>>Shonda Rhimes: This season,
4 of my series will air, yes.>>David Rubenstein: So, let’s
see, it would be “Grey’s Anatomy”.>>Shonda Rhimes: “Grey’s
Anatomy”, “How To Get Away With Murder”, [applause] –>>David Rubenstein: — Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: Those are
on, those are on this fall. In the spring, well in January,
because of maternity leave, we’re going to do “Scandal”
[applause, cheering].>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: And “The
Catch” will come on again. So, yeah.>>David Rubenstein: All right. So you’re doing that,
you have 3 children, you have lots of other
responsibilities. You have philanthropic
responsibilities. Have you ever thought
of cutting back and just taking life
a little easier?>>Shonda Rhimes: I
think about it a lot. But I really love my job
and I love what I do. And it’s working right now. Everything is working. If it wasn’t working,
I wouldn’t be doing it. If it didn’t feel right, and
I wasn’t enjoying my life, I would find some way
to cut it back. I’ve also, just this year, figured
out how to delegate even more. I hired a lot more staff
to do a bunch of things that I thought had to be my job. And it turns out that there
are actual full time jobs for other people [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: All right. So, let’s talk about
your background a moment. So, you grew up in Chicago area.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein:
And your parents, your mother was a university
administrator, your father was a college professor.>>Shonda Rhimes: Flip that.>>David Rubenstein: Flip,
the other way around.>>Shonda Rhimes: My mother’s
a university professor and my father was an administrator.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. And you have a fair
number of siblings?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m
the youngest of 6.>>David Rubenstein:
Youngest of 6, okay. So it was a very happy family.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: So, very
often, people go into great success in Hollywood, or in show business,
they have tortured backgrounds.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: Which they
love to talk about and talk to their psychiatrist
about them and so forth. So, but you had a loving family,
2 parents who were very nurturing and well educated and provided
a good income for the family. So, where did you get your
motivation [laughter]?>>Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know,
I mean, I don’t think the idea that you must be damaged in order
to be creative in Hollywood is true.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: I also just don’t
serve [applause], I don’t know, I don’t jump on the train that
being damaged is cool or hot or interesting or, I
don’t know creative — serves a creative purpose. I’m an optimistic person. I’m happy.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: I like what I do.>>David Rubenstein: All right, so
you grew up in the Chicago area. It’s a big urban kind of area. And then you — .>>Shonda Rhimes: — I
grew up in the suburbs.>>David Rubenstein: Suburb.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: But you chose
to go to college at Dartmouth, which is an excellent school, but
it’s a little isolated compared to Chicago, you might say.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: So how did
you happen to pick Dartmouth as the place you wanted
to go to college?>>Shonda Rhimes: I have very
overprotective parents and, when it was time to pick
colleges, I said I wanted to go to school in New York. I said I wanted to go
to school in Paris. I said I wanted to go to
school in San Francisco, L.A. And my parents said, “You’re
not going to school in a big city, like that’s not happening”. And they were right, like, I was
a very naïve 16 year old girl who would have been dead
in a week [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: I just didn’t
know anything about the world. And, when I went to look at colleges
that weren’t in big cities, Hanover, New Hampshire was beautiful. And it was small, and
everybody was very welcoming. And, despite its reputation
for being very conservative, it actually turned out to be
a fairly liberal cool place.>>David Rubenstein: All
right, so when you were there, you were involved in the campus
theater and you were also involved in the student newspaper?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah,
I wrote a little bit for the student newspaper. Mostly I wrote, I was in
the theater department.>>David Rubenstein: And did you
realize then, when you looked at all the other people, that
you were a slightly better writer than other people [laughter]? No? You can be honest.>>Shonda Rhimes: I’ve known I was
writer since I was 3 years old. And I’ve known I was good
at it since I was, I mean, I could hold people with a story
since I was a very small child. That was not a thing that felt new
or surprising or like a discovery. I truly — .>>David Rubenstein: — Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: It was like
sitting down at a piano and learning that you always knew how to play. That’s one thing that I’ve
always been lucky about.>>David Rubenstein: So people
who are good writers often go into writing professionally. You went into one after
college, the advertising world.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: So you
were writing scripts, I guess, for ads or something like that?>>Shonda Rhimes: Mostly
I was a receptionist.>>David Rubenstein:
Receptionist, okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: [Laughter]
I mean it was the lowest, the lowest job on the totem pole.>>David Rubenstein: All right, you
were thinking about being a writer.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. So, what propelled you
to get out of being that, and going to the University
of Southern California to go into a fine arts school?>>Shonda Rhimes: I really
wanted to be a writer. My parents did not want me to
waste all of the money they’d spent on an ivy league education. And so they really wanted
me to go to graduate school. And, you know, law school, medical
school, get a PhD in something. And I read an article on “The New
York Times” that said it was harder to get into USC Film School than it
was to get into Harvard Law School. And so I thought, well they
can’t say it’s a bad thing because it’s harder to get
into than Harvard Law School. So I applied and I
got in and I went.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. And — .>>Shonda Rhimes: — That was
about as much thought as I gave it.>>David Rubenstein:
And you didn’t miss, you didn’t miss not going
to law school, right?>>Shonda Rhimes: No, I
did not miss it at all.>>David Rubenstein: So, when you
were there, you got your degree and then, after you got your degree, you started doing screenplays
for motion pictures.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes. I wrote, you know, you starve for
a while, you work as an assistant for a while, and then I got a job. I sold a spec script and
I got a job and I wrote, “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” which was the movie starring Halle
Berry which is on HBO [applause].>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: And then,
you starve for a while longer. And I did a lot of movie
rewriting and stuff like that. And then I wrote, “Crossroads”
starring Britney Spears [applause, cheering].>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein:
And what was that like to work with Britney Spears?>>Shonda Rhimes: You know
what, it was probably one of the most fun experiences I’ve
ever had in my life because it was, literally, somebody turned
to me one day and said, “Do you want to write a
movie with Britney Spears?” And, like, 2 days later, I was on
a plane sitting backstage at one of her concerts talking
to her about a movie. And she was, she was 17. Like, it was, she was the biggest
pop star in the world at the time. It was fascinating.>>David Rubenstein:
So, did anybody say, “Have you ever written
a screenplay before?” Or they didn’t ask you if
you’ve ever done it before?>>Shonda Rhimes: Well,
no, I mean I had. I mean I’d been writing movies, but
it was mostly just the experience of writing something
completely different in a completely different world.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. So, how did the idea for
going to television arise when you started “Grey’s Anatomy”?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’d
become a mother. And the thing that nobody tells
you when you become a mother is that you’re no longer allowed
to leave the house [laughter]. Really. So, literally, I went
from this life where I was going out all the time, and hanging
out with my friends to, you know, it’s illegal to leave your baby
at home by themselves [laughter]. So I was home with my kid and I started watching
a ton of television. And it was right at the time, like
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was on and “24” was on and there
were all these shows that were on that you could watch thousands
of episodes at a time, it felt like. So I watched an entire
season of “24” in 24 hours. And I watched, you know, an
entire season of “Buffy”. And it occurred to me that that’s where all the character
development was happening because, after “Crossroads” —
and, plus, its heart, I mean it really did a lot for me. I was writing a lot
of teen girl movies which were fun and served a purpose. But movies weren’t allowing for
a lot of character development. You know, you got to have a makeover
sequence and there’d be montage and then they wanted
the movie to stop. I wanted to figure out how those
girls grew up, or what happened to them later, or what the
darker parts were, always. And those things always got cut out. And, in writing television, I
realized you could tell a story and it could go on forever.>>David Rubenstein: Okay, so you
started to write “Grey’s Anatomy”, but how did you wind up being
the producer of it as well, because usually writers are writers
and not producers, necessarily.>>Shonda Rhimes: In television, that’s the other good
thing about film versus TV. In film, the writer has
absolutely no power I like to say. The director fires the writer. In television, the
writer fires the director. In television, the writer
is the producer always.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: There’s
never a world in which the writer
is not the producer. If you create your television show, you are generally a producer
of your television show. And if your agent and lawyer are
smart, you’re the executive producer of your television show [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Right. So, when “Grey’s Anatomy”
first went on, when did you realize it
was going to be a big hit?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m going to
be honest, and this is going to sound crazy, but
probably about season 5.>>David Rubenstein: Season 5.>>Shonda Rhimes: [Laughter]
I’m not kidding. Because I was in the
bubble of working so hard, it took a really long
time for it to sink in that it was different
from other shows. Or that the zeitgeist was different. We were all sort of working inside
the bubble of what the show was. It felt different around
season 3 but, until then, none of us were paying attention.>>David Rubenstein: So do you have
doctors calling you all the time saying, “Well, I have
a good idea for you or this was inaccurate or this?”>>Shonda Rhimes: We have a team of
surgeons who consult with our shows. We have doctors who
write on our staff. We have surgical nurses who
help us create our surgeries. So we have all these L.A.
doctors sort of around us, and doctors from all over the world. We also have people who, you
know, we talk to from like the NAH or the CDC who are, like,
willing to help give us research. So we try really hard to
be accurate because we — there’s a study that says, like,
75 percent of the medical knowledge that people get, they get from
television programs [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Wow.>>Shonda Rhimes: And
that’s a terrifying thing. Like, it feels very much
like a giant responsibility.>>David Rubenstein:
Well, when you meet, when you have all these doctors,
do you ever say to them, “Well, I have a headache or I have
this, what would you recommend?”>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes, yes.>>David Rubenstein: So — .>>Shonda Rhimes: — Our doctor
writers on staff, I feel like, are tired of treating
me and my children.>>David Rubenstein: So having 1
hit on TV is a pretty big deal, but then what propelled
you to have a second show and where’d that idea come from?>>Shonda Rhimes: The second
show came from fear, really. I created “Private Practice”
because I was afraid that “Grey’s Anatomy” was
going to get cancelled and then I wouldn’t
have a job [laughter]. And really, like, the first
thing that happens to you when you become successful
is you become terrified that that success is
going to go away. Like it felt like this
is too good to be true. This felt like way too easy,
like something’s wrong. They’re fooling me somehow. I was like I have to make another
show so that I have a backup. That’s really what I felt like. And so “Private Practice”
came out of that. The network wanted a spinoff, I
was like I will give them one. This’ll be my job security. And so in season 3
of “Grey’s Anatomy”, very foolishly, I planned a spinoff. And I say foolishly because
I had no idea what 2 shows at a time was going to be like.>>David Rubenstein:
What was it like? Then you’re doing 2
different jobs and?>>Shonda Rhimes: Doing
2 shows at the same time, when I had just learned how to do
1, because I had never worked in TV when I started “Grey’s”,
was like being run over with a car twice
a day every day. I mean it was brutal. And the only thing that saved
me that first season was, and this is terrible because
everybody lost their jobs, was the writers went on strike. So there was a giant writers’ strike
and all work stopped in Hollywood. And if all work had not stopped
in Hollywood, I’m telling you, I would be working at the Library of Congress right now happily
shelving books somewhere.>>David Rubenstein: So when I was
growing up, there was a show — you’re too young to remember this
— called “The Dick Van Dyke Show”.>>Shonda Rhimes: Oh, yeah.>>David Rubenstein: All right. And that was basically about
scriptwriters for a television show. And they just sat around and kind
of came up with ideas and so forth. And how does it actually work? Do you sit around with a couple
people, come up with ideas, or 1 person goes home and
writes it, or how does it work?>>Shonda Rhimes: I think
it depends on the show. I treat “Grey’s” very differently
than I treat “Scandal” just because of the kind of show it is. “Grey’s”, you know we sit in
a room, we talk about ideas. I am, at this point,
I am the storyteller of that show more than
anything else. I can walk in the room
and I sit down and I say, “Here’s what happens next. Here’s what the episode’s about. Here’s where all the
characters are.” And I have writers who’ve been
on that show for so long that, then, they write the episodes.>>David Rubenstein: In other
words, you come up with the ideas and then they kind
of fill in the — .>>Shonda Rhimes: — I have
to say what happens next or else nobody knows
what happens next. But they can write the
show and then I give tweaks and rewrites and it’s small. But we’re in season 13.>>David Rubenstein: But suppose
you don’t like a particular actor or actress, can you just
write them out pretty easily, [laughter] does that happen or?>>Shonda Rhimes: I suppose, but
that’s not really what happens.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: I
mean, it’s interesting. You fall in love with
your characters. And I have learned really, really — I learned really early on to not
hire people that I did not want to spend a lot of time with. It’s a very interesting thing and
this is rare and weird to have a — I’ve never had a show that’s been
on the air less than 6 seasons. That means that I’ve been working
with — anybody I work with, I work with for at least 6
seasons, that’s a family. I mean that’s going to
work with somebody day in, day out intimately for
a really long time. You better like them. You know, and I think it’s
interesting that, you know, people think like, oh, you
didn’t like this person. I was like, how could I not like
them, I’ve been with them forever. So you have to like them.>>David Rubenstein: But how do
you deal with the business aspects? Let’s suppose you like somebody, but
that person has an agent who says, “Well, you really need
to like even more or”.>>Shonda Rhimes: You know,
there’s, I think there’s a lot of reasons why people exit,
you know, or want to be done or negotiations fail, you know
like all of those things happen. Then, you have to get creative. You know, every year, I
would ask Sandra Oh, like, is this your year,
is this your year? Just because she’s such
a phenomenal actress and you can feel somebody
getting a little bit restless. And I kept thinking, every year, I can’t believe I have
Sandra Oh on this show. Like one day, she’s going
to say she’s going to quit. Like one day. And, finally, in season
10, she said, “I think this is my final season”. So you have to figure it out, to
figure out what you’re going to do and how to exit somebody in a way that feels right for
their character.>>David Rubenstein: Now, let’s
talk about a book you’ve written. This is the National Book Festival.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: So, you wrote
a book called, “The Year of Yes”.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: And where
did that title come from?>>Shonda Rhimes: My sister,
who is in here somewhere, I don’t know where she is.>>David Rubenstein: Right here.>>Shonda Rhimes: There she is.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: I have this oldest
sister named Dolores who’s not old, but she’s my oldest sister
[laughter] who is amazing, but very bossy [laughter]. And one day, I think it
was Thanksgiving day, I was listing for her
all of these reasons, all of these invitations I had, all
these fancy invitations I had to go to like all of these amazing places. You know, I’d been invited
here, I’d been invited there. This party, this event,
this speaking engagement. And my sister’s sort of
listening and, finally, she said, “Are you going to say ‘yes’
to any of these things?” And I said, “No, obviously”. And she [laughter] and she listened
to me give all my reasons why. I have work, I have
kids, I had things. And she said, “You know, you
never say ‘yes’ to anything”. And I was really offended. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized she
was absolutely right. I never said yes to
any invitation I got. I never said yes to anything that made me feel uncomfortable
or nervous. I was a fairly shy person. The idea of doing something like this would have given
me, like, a panic attack. I mean there’s so many people
in this room right now.>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: And so I thought,
I’m going to give myself 1 year where I say yes to all
the things that scare me, not crazy things, but
the things that — .>>David Rubenstein: — Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: Other people
do that I think are terrifying.>>David Rubenstein: The year
you’re writing about is 2014.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein:
And, in that year, you’re asked to give
the commencement address at Dartmouth — .>>Shonda Rhimes: — Yeah.>>David Rubenstein:
Your alma mater. So, normally, you would have said.>>Shonda Rhimes: No.>>David Rubenstein: But
this year, [laughter].>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein:
That year, you said yes. And how terrifying was it
to prepare that speech?>>Shonda Rhimes: It
was so terrifying that I didn’t prepare the
speech, I think, until about 7 or 8 days before I had to
go and give the speech. And I chopped it up and rewrote
it on the plane on the way there. Like I avoided it deeply,
because I was just frightened to death about the concept of it.>>David Rubenstein:
So it worked out okay?>>Shonda Rhimes: It did, mainly
because I realized that the only way to do it was to just get up there
and not try to give a speech, to just tell the truth, to
tell them whatever it was that I would have wanted to hear
when I was graduating from college.>>David Rubenstein: Well,
talk about writing the book. If you’re overseeing 4 TV
shows and you have 3 children and you have other responsibilities,
how do you have time to actually write the book? When did you do that?>>Shonda Rhimes: I
didn’t have a lot of time. I wrote a lot at 5:00
in the morning. I would — I got up early
at 5 am and I’d write from 5 to 7 before the kids got up. I tried to do that a lot. That was actually really productive. But I mostly did though
was, I think, 3 weeks before the book was due,
I went away and I wrote like mad, which was the best thing for me to
just sit down and get everything out and fix and hone and make — .>>David Rubenstein: — Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: All the
notes that I’d written perfect. And do all the real work.>>David Rubenstein: Now,
sometimes, famous people, like you, have people who are
collaborators on books because, you know, they don’t have time. But if you’re a writer, you
can’t have a collaborator because that’s what you do. So you had to write
this book, right?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, it
wouldn’t have even occurred to me.>>David Rubenstein: Right, okay. So it took you how long
to actually write it?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m a fast writer. I don’t like to say because
I don’t want my publisher to know how long it takes me
to write a book [laughter] because then they’ll expect
the books to be faster.>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: And, when you
write, some people write long hand, some people use a computer,
how do you do it?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, I write
on my laptop with my headphones on and that’s all I need.>>David Rubenstein: All right. And so then you edit it over
and over and over again? Or how do you do that?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m like a first, second draft person
and then I’m done.>>David Rubenstein: Okay. So, when the book came out, you had to do book tours,
I guess, or did do some?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: So, was
that terrifying to do that or you didn’t mind doing that?>>Shonda Rhimes: That was also,
it was a really new experience and it was a little bit of a shock to the system, just
being that public. It was also just the realization that I had written this
very, very personal thing. And the only way I had written it
was thinking nobody was ever going to read it. And then, suddenly, it was in print. And I was going to go
meet a bunch of people who had read all these
personal things about me. That was terrifying. But it actually turned
out to be wonderful because I kept meeting people who
would tell me stories about things that they had read in the book, and how it had encouraged
them to do something. And, suddenly, it didn’t
feel as terrifying anymore.>>David Rubenstein: So I’ve
read the book, of course, and I think I highly recommend it. It’s a very pleasurable read. The problem with it is that
it’s hard to put it down. And so you need a couple hours or
so but, you know, allocate the time. It’s a very good book. One of the things in there
that was very personal that you obviously wrote
about, you said, at one point, you lost 100 plus pounds.>>Shonda Rhimes: I did.>>David Rubenstein: A hundred and
twenty seven or something like that?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, that
year I did, yeah [applause].>>David Rubenstein: So, what’s
the secret to losing 127 pounds, for those of us who want
to lose some weight?>>Shonda Rhimes: This is, I
think, this is the worst, like, I think everybody hates this, but
the secret to it was, literally, realizing that it sucked. And that I was never going to enjoy
it and that there was never going to be a time that I didn’t
want to eat the fried chicken. And that I was always
going to be hungry and that there’s nothing
fun about it. I think I always expected like there
was going to be some magical moment when I was going to
really love running and that salads were
going to taste amazing. And I was going to prefer
being a vegan or something. That’s never going to happen to me. Like I’m always going to
want the fried chicken, I’m always going to
want to lay down. I’m always going to
want to eat the brownie. And, as long as I can accept that,
then I can go, oh, it’s not supposed to be easy or fun, I don’t quit. Because you know it’s
supposed to be work. And, if you want it, then you do it. And if you don’t, then you don’t. So, it got that simple [applause].>>David Rubenstein: All right. So, okay, so you describe
in the book that you decided to be a single parent
and you have 3 children. And so, being a single parent
with 3 children is not easy.>>Shonda Rhimes: No.>>David Rubenstein: And you
have your career and so forth. So you describe in the book
something very poignant where you say one time
you’re going out to an event. You have your gown on and one of
your children says, “Want to play?”>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: What
did that mean, want to play?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, I have this
— she’s older now, but Emmy was, I think, 2 and I — we used to
call her the southern waitress because she called
everybody “Honey”. Like Honey, I need some
milk in my sippy cup. Honey, I need my diaper
changed [laughter]. And one day she said, I was leaving
and she said, “Mama, want to play?” And I was going to say, “No”, and
I realized that A, I was supposed to be saying yes to
everything, and B, she was not calling
everybody “Honey” anymore. And I had missed the moment when she’d stopped
calling everybody “Honey”. And I had been so busy going out the
door that, you know, running to work and running to this
to running to that, that like I was missing her life. And it sort of stopped me cold. And so I made a pact with myself
that, as much as possible, and I’m not perfect at it by
any stretch of the imagination, that whenever my kid
said, “Want to play?”, I would drop what I
was doing and play. And it sounds really beautiful
and really like I’m Mother Teresa, [laughter] but kids only
want to play with you for about 15 minutes before
they lose interest in you.>>David Rubenstein:
Right [laughter].>>Shonda Rhimes: So you get to
feel amazing, and they all know that you will give
them your attention. But you don’t have to, it’s not
like you’re killing your whole life. And you’re thinking to yourself,
yeah, like you can do that, but I have to go to work. It works.>>David Rubenstein: So, in your
book, you also describe a time when you have this very busy job, and one of your children’s
teacher says, “The children should bring
in homemade cookies”. Can you explain the difficulty of making cookies while you
have all these other things?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, yeah. And this is, you know, the
mommy wars are something that I think really have to go away
because there shouldn’t be any. But it was, I will
never forget [applause]. There really shouldn’t, there’s no
reason why people should be at war. But I really clearly remember the
moment of sitting in that meeting and listening to the very lovely
mother standing at the front of the room who said, “Now, all the bake sales are going
to happen every Friday. And, when it’s your turn, the desserts must be home
baked with your child.” And I, I just remember like an
expletive coming out of my mouth that was very loud
and very inappropriate for those kinds of meetings. And being furious at it, not just
for me, but for like anybody else who A, does not bake anything and
B, does not have time to bake stuff. Like, you know, if you’re going
to work, and you don’t cook and you don’t — the idea
that like I’m now a bad person because I’m not going
to bake brownies with my kid was really upsetting because that was the
implied message. Now, for her, that might have been
fine and maybe she’d never thought of it but, for me, that suddenly
made me feel like a terrible person. And, you know, screw her for
making me feel that way [laughter]. But also like the conversation
around it then goes like the mothers who stay at home versus
the mothers who work and it shouldn’t be
that conversation. So I just kind of felt like my
brownies are always going to be in like some cheap plastic
bag because I bought them at the supermarket and they’re going
to come in like the paper package and they’re going to have like the
price tag on them because that’s where my brownies come from. And yours will be beautifully
home baked and they’ll have like little bows on them and I will
be jealous and want to eat them so I will not judge you for them. But I’m not going to make them.>>David Rubenstein: So [applause]
now that you’re very well known, obviously, in around the
country and so forth. When you get to be famous, do
you have people from high school who call you up and say, “I knew
you were going to be famous and, by the way, can you
contribute to this and can you hire me
or can you do this?” Do you get a lot of that?>>Shonda Rhimes: A lot of
people find you again, yeah.>>David Rubenstein: And
your Dartmouth classmates, they always say they knew you
were going to be successful?>>Shonda Rhimes: The beauty of
having been a very introverted nerd who wore Coke bottle thick
glasses and spent 90 percent of her time reading and most of
her time with her sisters is, most of the people who contact me
couldn’t possibly have ever known me at all [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Okay, okay. So, well some people do know
you have a number of siblings so is it awkward being, you
know, a very, very famous person with siblings who are
presumably talented but not quite as famous, or is that not awkward?>>Shonda Rhimes: It’s not
awkward for me [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: And I don’t
think it’s awkward for them because they’re not impressed by me
in any way shape or form [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: I
mean I think that’s kind of both incredibly frustrating for
me because I’m like I’m somebody. And they think, no you’re
not interesting at all. But it’s also wonderful
to be surrounded by people who are not interested
in any of that stuff.>>David Rubenstein:
So, like your parents.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah,
my parents don’t care. They love me, but they don’t care.>>David Rubenstein: But they
don’t say, “Well, you know, can you do something for us?” Or they don’t do any —
they don’t ask for anything?>>Shonda Rhimes: No.>>David Rubenstein: No.>>Shonda Rhimes: God, my parents, my parents are exactly
the same people that they have been
our entire lives.>>David Rubenstein:
Do they call and say, “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that”? And you still listen to them or?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah. My parents are in charge.>>David Rubenstein: So, now that you have this well
established career. All right, so how do you do
what everybody wants to do in professional careers
top what you’re doing? How can you do more
than you’re doing? What’s the next vista you could
possibly accomplish or achieve?>>Shonda Rhimes: You
know, it’s interesting when you become very
proficient at the thing that you have been
working so hard at. You know, my producing partner,
Betsy Beers and I talk a lot about the fact that, now, when
problems pop up with our shows and we’re producing things or I’m writing something,
there’s no struggle. There’s no angst of like,
what are we going to do? We know what to do now. When you become very proficient and
you start looking for other ways to excite yourself, the best
way to do it is to think, not just what will excite me because
you’ve stopped looking inward. You’ve stopped looking at like
what’s going to work for me. I start looking at like
how can I take what I know and make stuff happen
for other people? So part of it is making it possible
for other writers to have shows, how to bring up the
next generation of women of color showrunners
[applause, cheering] or women showrunners,
in general [applause]. That’s been really important. Really helping to raise
that generation because the guys aren’t doing it. But also what else can I do that’s
interesting and exciting and going to give something to the world because there’s not much else
I need to give to myself. How much stuff do you need?>>David Rubenstein: So, Oprah
Winfrey has her own network, have you ever thought of
having your own network? I guess it’s called ABC, but.>>Shonda Rhimes: No. I do not want my own network. Oprah has that covered.>>David Rubenstein: So, and you
wouldn’t go into screenwriting again for movies because television’s
better for what you like?>>Shonda Rhimes: No, I mean, now
I probably would be both producing and writing whatever I
did for screenwriting. So, maybe. But there’s nothing I
want to do right now.>>David Rubenstein: So, you live
in Los Angeles and, obviously, a lot of people in Los Angeles
who are in the show business world who often make a lot of money. They have found it difficult
to not spoil their children. In fact, wealthy people
everywhere have that dilemma. So, how do you deal with, you know,
you’ve obviously made some money, how do you deal with not
spoiling your children. How do you deal with that?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m
working really hard at it. And it’s a, it’s a struggle. I think it’s a struggle
no matter what because your child either thinks — like my daughter thinks
that she is being abused at this point, you know. She’s like, what do
you mean I can’t have. And I’m like, when I was your
age, I got 3 dollars for allowance and I earned it this way. And their friends don’t have to
do anything to earn any money. And their friends don’t
have to do anything to understand the value of money. And, to me, it’s really important
that they understand that. It’s really important that
they don’t grow up thinking that money is just available. Because if you don’t
know how to work for it and you don’t appreciate the
value of it, who are you? Like what [applause]
what do you have?>>David Rubenstein: So your
children are now of the age where they are less dependent on
you, so that when they go out, do you check out on
them everywhere they go?>>Shonda Rhimes: One of them is. I have a 14 year old, a 4
year old and a 3 year old so.>>David Rubenstein: But you
wouldn’t let the 14 year old go to a party with a boy
or something like that?>>Shonda Rhimes: No, she
doesn’t get to go anywhere.>>David Rubenstein: Not
going to happen [laughter]. And, as you think of ideas for
scripts, I once mentioned to you that maybe you could do a
script about the importance of private equity people.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yes.>>David Rubenstein: And do a
script about private equity.>>Shonda Rhimes: I have been
pitched about private equity.>>David Rubenstein: You haven’t
— that’s not appealing, I guess, you don’t see any [laughter]?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m
still thinking about it.>>David Rubenstein: Okay,
all right [laughter]. So, today, you’re a more public
person than you used to be. As you point out in your
book, you were pretty shy.>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: But now, you’re
willing to go on television shows. And how terrifying is that, and does
it take away from your being able to write and oversee the
scripts and the shows?>>Shonda Rhimes: Part of accepting
the popularity of the shows and part of accepting the reach that
the shows have internationally with young women, with women of
color, was accepting the idea that I am a brand which
was creepy to me, at first. But then, when you start
to realize that the sight of you makes it possible
for somebody else to think that they can do something, it makes
it feel less terrifying for you to stand up and say,
“This is what I do”.>>David Rubenstein: So your
shows, as you mentioned, are popular outside the
United States as well>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: Is
international as big a market as U.S. for television
shows, or almost as big?>>Shonda Rhimes: I think our
shows are in, I want to say, 56 territories, 172 languages or
172 language and 56 territories, I can’t remember which
one, but it’s huge.>>David Rubenstein: You go
overseas to promote them, or you just don’t do that then?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m about to
actually go overseas next month. But, yeah, you do go
overseas to promote them. And we send a lot of
the actors overseas. They’re very, like, Italy
stops on Mondays, I think, for “Grey’s Anatomy”,
like, literally, just stops on Mondays [laughter]. And it’s exciting to hear that
the continent of Africa loves “Scandal” [applause, cheering].>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: You know, like
it’s really cool to discover where the shows are popular and why.>>David Rubenstein: Talk about a
show, when you — when a show is on, let’s say it’s a half
hour or an hour show, how long does it actually
take to shoot that show? Do you do the — take a week
or does it take 2 weeks or?>>Shonda Rhimes: Nine days.>>David Rubenstein: Nine days.>>Shonda Rhimes: Nine days.>>David Rubenstein: And the actors
are given the script in advance, and they memorize it, more or less. And so you do 1 or 2 takes, or more?>>Shonda Rhimes: Yeah, I mean I
think they probably shoot 6 pages a day.>>David Rubenstein:
And do they — ?>>Shonda Rhimes: —
Five to 6 pages a day.>>David Rubenstein: And if
an actor says, “You know, I know you’re a great writer, but I
think this would be a better line”, what do you say to the actor? Do they ever come?>>Shonda Rhimes: Nobody
says that [laughter]. And I don’t mean that in some — .>>David Rubenstein: — They don’t
ever come up with better lines?>>Shonda Rhimes: That sort
of the emotional contract that we have is that, here is the
script and then I’m so excited to see however you decide
to bring it back to me, like I can’t wait to see the film. But I don’t tell anybody how to act and nobody tells us what
the writing should be. Because I feel like
that’s, like it’s text and then your acting is,
it is, you know, sacred. So however you do it.>>David Rubenstein: And
filming, you never film in front of an audience, right?>>Shonda Rhimes: No. Although we did make 1
comedy pilot last year and that was actually really
fun and we might do that again.>>David Rubenstein: So, when you
have as much success as you have, you obviously make some money. Do you actually get involved in
the business aspects of television as well, or do you mostly
focus on the creative aspects?>>Shonda Rhimes: No,
I really learned early on that there was a
reason and a need to understand the business side. You really have to
be a business person. And part of the thing I’m most
proud of, being a somebody who was fairly shy, was that I sat
down and learned the business parts, the leadership parts, the
parts that weren’t easy for me. Because I can sit and
write all day in a corner and let somebody else take
care of all that other stuff, but I worked really hard
to be a businesswoman and understand that stuff.>>David Rubenstein:
You know, sometimes, writers say that they get ideas in their dreams, or
something like that. Where do your ideas come from? You just, from when you
read, just inspiration, how, you obviously didn’t like
the private equity idea, but where do you get
your ideas from?>>Shonda Rhimes: We probably,
if we talked long enough, I could probably come up
with a private equity, if you want to do that.>>David Rubenstein:
Okay, all right, well.>>Shonda Rhimes: But it’s not
that they come from my dreams and it’s not that I can
say exactly where they come from because they come from
everywhere or anywhere. And, if I knew exactly where they
came from or how to explain it, then I probably would bottle it
and start giving seminars on it and never write again or something
and make a billion dollars. I don’t know where they come from.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: You just
know when they’re good.>>David Rubenstein: So, I mentioned
earlier that you’re in town in part because of the African
American History and Culture Museum is
opening and you are one of the largest donors to it. So why did you [applause],
so why did you decide to make that very large gift. And how important was
it to be there today?>>Shonda Rhimes: It was really
important to be here today. You know, David gave a speech the
other night at the Kennedy Center and you used the phrase, which I
thought was really lovely, called — and you called it cultural
patriotism. Donating to a museum
is cultural patriotism. And part of the reason why I was so
moved to donate and really wanted to be a part of it was, the idea
of providing the American people with a chance to understand
that piece of history and to be part of that. To be part of that legacy
felt important to me. And meant — I mean it’s, you know,
it’s not a small thing for me. I’m not like Bill Gates
or something. But to be able to do that and
to say to my children and say, “We helped give this to the
American people” felt important. And it felt like they could
then have that pride of, I mean, from where my grandparents came
to to where my children are going to be is unimaginable
when you really think about where we are
in American history. Like that leap is unimaginable. And that felt like it should
be for a lot of people, for a lot of children,
made possible.>>David Rubenstein: So when
you explain [applause] so like in talking to your children, if you
say, “I just gave 10 million dollars to this museum” and
they would say, “Well, why can’t I have a
little money for this or that” they understand the
difference, right [laughter]?>>Shonda Rhimes: She actually did
say, “And I can’t have nicer shoes”, then we had a long conversation. I, literally, I said, “Now we’re
going to sit down because you asked for nicer shoes, now you get to
have a 3 hour conversation with me about African American history”. Yeah.>>David Rubenstein: So, you’re
very young to be this senior in, prominent in the television world. So, what would you like to
do over the next 10 years? Would it be to have more
shows or to create a network or what do you think you would like
to do 10, be 10 years from today, where would you like to be?>>Shonda Rhimes: I think about
this a lot and I don’t know that I, I’m ready to say the
answer because, then, my bosses at ABC might
have a heart attack. But I do — while I do want to
continue to write television, and I love it, and I do really — I mean writing the book was a
really wonderful experience for me. I loved that so much that I
really want to do that more. Part of what I want to do is
simply expand what we are able to make available to what I
call the citizens of ShondaLand, the kind of people and women
and the audience of people who like to watch our shows. Who are drawn to the kind
of stories we like to tell. I don’t think it necessarily has
to be just Thursday night in TV. I think there can be other
things that are available, that we make available to them.>>David Rubenstein: So, how do
you deal with the issues of fame? Let’s suppose you want
to go to a restaurant in Hollywood or Los Angeles. Do people come up to you for
autographs or selfies all the time? How do you deal with not
being bothered all the time because you’re pretty famous?>>Shonda Rhimes: In L.A., it’s fine because there’s always somebody
50,000 times more famous than me in Los Angeles, I mean. It’s when you go someplace else,
which I think is interesting. It’s when you’re in D.C. or when
you’re in Chicago or when you’re in I don’t know where else. That’s the place where you most
meet people who are not used to seeing people who they
might know who they are. In L.A., nobody cares about anybody. Most of the time, I am
just excited to hear that somebody’s watching the shows. And which one and why. Because everybody always has 1
show that they’re addicted to and they don’t watch the
other ones and they want to tell me why they don’t
watch the other ones and why they watch
that particular one.>>David Rubenstein: Okay.>>Shonda Rhimes: And, if
it’s a guy, he always says, “I watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ with my
daughter and that’s how we bonded and now she’s at college
and now my heart is broken.” Every time. And it’s beautiful.>>David Rubenstein: Right.>>Shonda Rhimes: But it’s
wonderful to hear all of the stories about what people like
and why they like it.>>David Rubenstein: And while
you’ve met with the President and the First Lady, did
they watch your shows? Did they mention that when you were
at the White House the other day?>>Shonda Rhimes: [Laughter].>>David Rubenstein: They don’t want
to tell what their TV habits are?>>Shonda Rhimes: I’m not
going to say [laughter].>>David Rubenstein: Okay. So, today, as you look
at this audience, you obviously can see
people are very enamored with what you’ve written and is
the greatest pleasure making other people happy, is it telling
a story, is it, you know, just showing what you can
do with your intellect, what is the greatest pleasure you
now get from what you’re doing?>>Shonda Rhimes: I think
it’s telling a story and discovering the connection. It’s the idea that you write
a story and somebody comes up and says, “I felt that too”. And not just that it
connects them to me, the idea that like I’m not alone
in my weird thought that I had. But that it means that
these 2 people over there, they’re not alone either. Like the 2 of them aren’t alone. And those 2 people aren’t alone. The idea that the stuff that
I write means that the things that make us think that we’re
all, I don’t know, quirky or alone or individual, things we’re not
supposed to be able to think, are thought by so many
of us and, therefore, that makes us a community.>>David Rubenstein: So
you’re obviously a role model for many people, but let’s suppose
you’re a young college student who wants to be a writer,
what advice would you give to that college student,
male, female, white, nonwhite, about how to be a writer and
work your way up the totem pole?>>Shonda Rhimes: The advice
I always give is that, if you’re not writing every
single day, you are not allowed to call yourself a writer. So a writer writes. So it’s really hard for
me, whenever I meet anybody and they say, “I’m a writer too”. And then I say, “What
have you written?” And they don’t — they
haven’t written anything. You have to be writing every day. It’s a muscle that
you have to exercise and that’s how it gets
better and better and better. And you have to practice it
to be able to access the place where the creativity comes faster. So, to me, my best piece of
advice is write every day, whether it’s good, whether it’s
bad, whether you have a good day of writing or a terrible day of
writing, write something every day.>>David Rubenstein: So if you
could meet any great writer ever, who would you like
to have met or meet? If you could have dinner with
anybody, would it be Shakespeare or Milton or any writer
that you actually admire?>>Shonda Rhimes: I got to have
dinner with Toni Morrison already and that was pretty much it
for me [applause, cheering].>>David Rubenstein: So this is
National Book Festival and a lot of people here want to be writers,
but a lot of people are readers. So, did you do a lot of
reading when you were younger? And do you do a lot of reading? What kind of books
do you like to read?>>Shonda Rhimes: I
did a ton of reading and I probably, I read
almost anything. I mean, in the sense
that I just love stories. I read every — I mean I’ve
read every Stephen King novel ever written. I’ve read every Shakespeare
play ever written. I used to love John Irving, I loved
Alice Walker when I was young. The best thing I think my parents
did for me was my mother used to march down to the library
and yell at the librarian because the librarian would try
to tell me that I was too young to take out some of these books. And my parents had a rule that, if I wanted to read the
book, I could read it. It didn’t matter what it was. So I’d be like an 8 year old
kid coming up to her with “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”
going, “Mommy, what’s a whore?” And my mother would be like,
there’s the dictionary [laughter]. But what was great about it was
I felt free to read anything. And it made me hungrier and hungrier
and hungrier for more books. I didn’t feel like there were things
that were off limits or things that were above my, like,
reading level or things that were beneath my reading level. And so I would go to the
library and, like, clear a shelf, throw it in a bag and
take it home and read it. And it was fantastic.>>David Rubenstein: So, as you look
back on your career, the thing — was there a role model that you
actually had, was there somebody that actually helped
you along the way. Or was it just the matter of
writing and just keep writing. Was there one person that
really helped you get to where you are now or not really?>>Shonda Rhimes: I always think
there’s a lot of somebodys. You know, I think everybody
always wants to hear, like, there was like 1 mentor, 1
role model, there were so — there are many interesting
teachers, interesting people, interesting examples
of what could be done. Mostly I think I was really
fortunate to be raised by amazing parents who truly both
cleared a path, like I always say like they were my personal
gladiators. They did not allow
anybody to allow me to believe I couldn’t achieve
anything no matter what.>>David Rubenstein: And do they
ever call you and say, “Well, this show wasn’t as good
as the previous one?” Or “You should do” do
they ever give you any of those constructive criticisms?>>Shonda Rhimes: I don’t know
if they call them criticisms. My parents are honest about what
they like and what they don’t like. I don’t think they’d ever say
any of the shows aren’t good. But my mother will say like, “I
like this one better than this one” but she would never say that she
doesn’t think something is good. They’re like my biggest
cheerleaders, but they’re also like they’re your parents,
you know what I mean? Like they’re very, they’re
responsible for like all of my qualities that make me feel
competitive and the qualities that make me feel proud of
myself and my confidence, they truly believe in me.>>David Rubenstein: So you
obviously must believe, somewhat, in the American dream because
you’ve come from, you know, modest circumstances and you’ve
risen up to this great success. So how do you look at America as a
country where people can do things and how do you deal with
the challenges we still have and you look at all the
problems and so forth?>>Shonda Rhimes: I think that there
is definitely an American dream and I think the American dream is
supposed to belong to all of us. I don’t know that it currently
always belongs to all of us and that there are many things
that can be done to make that more possible for everybody. And I think the biggest
problem is that a lot of people don’t believe the
American dream belongs to everyone. They think it belongs
to some people. And that there’s just stuff
that can be done to make that more true for everyone.>>David Rubenstein: So, when you
ultimately retire, 50 years from now or something like that,
what would you like to look back and
see as your legacy? What would you like to say,
this is what I did with my life and have people say about you?>>Shonda Rhimes: Ask me in
50 years, I have no idea.>>David Rubenstein:
Fifty years, okay. All right, well I would say
you’ve done a terrific job of creating a lot of shows
that people really enjoy. I highly recommend your book of
anybody that wants a very good read. And I want to thank you for giving a
lot of people a lot of entertainment and a lot of things to think about and being a great role model
for a lot of Americans. Thank you very much.>>Shonda Rhimes: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. [ Applause ]>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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