RAISING MOTHERS: What inspired you to tell this story?
HELENA ANDREWS: “The Mamas” was born out of hilarity, frustration, and new mom exhaustion. When I had my first daughter in 2017 then joined the prison gang otherwise known as my neighborhood mom group, I could not get over how ridiculous and white everything was. Baby yoga? Music class for seven-week-olds? WTF and also sign me up. Since writing is the only way I know how to process things, including my personal struggle with this all consuming new identity, I began writing notes to myself about the entire experience of being an extra Black mom in gentrified spaces. I knew other women were having the same double-take moments but I’d never read anything about it, so I wrote it.
RAISING MOTHERS: What did you edit out of this book?
HELENA ANDREWS: Honestly? Not much. I’ve written four books now, including two of my own memoirs, and my literary motto is “leave it all on the page.” But because “The Mamas” features other main “characters” besides myself, most of whom are women on the verge with babies and aging parents and work and who knows what else, I was more careful about how I painted them. Usually I never let anyone read my work (aside from my editor) before it goes to print. But with this book I wanted everyone to feel seen and not exposed. So I let a select group of mom friends take a peek at some chapters and my mother read her chapter. There were no notes! Memoir should be about exposing your own foolishness for the greater good.
RAISING MOTHERS: How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
HELENA ANDREWS: I plot all my books from start to finish before I dive in for real. My creative dial is permanently set on journalist, so I structure my work like an inverted pyramid – lede, nut graphs, and a kicker. I need to be writing towards something. A story, a book, a script is done once I get my reader over the finish line. Oftentimes writing with that kind of structure always in mind gets a bad reputation as inflexible and less creative. Not true. The journey can still take you places you never imagined. The chapter on my mother, “Your Mom’s Vagina” turned into a rumination on my own daughterhood which I wasn’t expecting until I dove in.
If I’m blocked in some way, which happens often, then instead of writing I talk into a voice recorder and then transcribe those words onto the page to “trick” myself into using my fingers.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was your agenting process like?
HELENA ANDREWS: I’ve had the same agent, Howard Yoon of the Ross Yoon Agency, since I was a baby writer. Howard and I met through a journalist pal of mine who is also a client, Ryan Grim. I’d told Ryan the story of how I was kidnapped by my grandmother as a child because she thought my mother was going to sell me into child slavery in Europe (long story). His immediate reaction was “You need to write a book.” Howard and I then worked on the proposal that turned into “Bitch is the New Black” (2010) for more than a year and we’ve been together ever since. Howard has always understood my voice.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
HELENA ANDREWS: If we’re talking tools to help you write. When I start a new project I spend an insane amount of money on other books. Reading and writing are the same. If we’re talking spending checks? I went on a fabulous European vacation to Paris, Barcelona and Marrakech. Experience and writing are also the same. One begets the other.
RAISING MOTHERS: How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
HELENA ANDREWS: Because I’m a working journalist I spend my days either writing or thinking about writing. I don’t do anything else really. But typically I can’t write for more than three hours straight without taking a long break and even within that time block I get incredibly antsy. I do a lot of getting up and walking around the newsroom or downstairs to the kitchen, especially after I’ve written a line or paragraph I am proud of. It could take me an hour to write three good sentences and then I do a victory lap.
RAISING MOTHERS: What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
HELENA ANDREWS: Write, write, write. There isn’t a hack. Writers write. They write good but mostly they write badly for a long while until something good bubbles up. If I’m blocked in some way, which happens often, then instead of writing I talk into a voice recorder and then transcribe those words onto the page to “trick” myself into using my fingers.
Creatives tend to gravitate toward one another, especially (hopefully) Black women writing. Every woman on this list has been quick to give me counsel or a kick in the butt when needed.
RAISING MOTHERS: What does literary success look like to you?
HELENA ANDREWS: Literary success is finishing the damn thing! Heck, having the courage to even speak your ideas out loud. Publishing is its own hero’s journey that has less to do with how good your work is and more to do with how a corporate machine plans to bottle up and market that blood, sweat and tears. Don’t seek validation there. But having four books (three of my own and one collaboration) on shelves and in people’s hands is success to me. The NYT bestsellers list has a lot of writers in a chokehold. I haven’t hit that summit yet but for the little Helena who gave her elementary school friends a hand written copy of her first “book,” I’m living the dream.
RAISING MOTHERS: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
HELENA ANDREWS: I hope I don’t embarrass myself with this list and end up getting Mariah Carey’d. Some incredible women I consider my author friends are Rebecca Walker, Tia Williams, Aliya King, Deesha Philyaw, Denene Millner, Bassey Ikpi, Luvvie Ajayi, Demetria Lucas and the list goes on. Creatives tend to gravitate toward one another, especially (hopefully) Black women writing. Every woman on this list has been quick to give me counsel or a kick in the butt when needed. Reading their incredibly varied work from romance to humor to memoir to short fiction is consistently inspiring and nothing is more important to the consistent writer’s life. You can’t wait on inspiration but bursts of excitement are necessary to keep doing this work.
RAISING MOTHERS: Who are you writing for?
HELENA ANDREWS: I write for me first. And the mes I see in other people. Whether that is the secretly introverted extrovert, the fatherless child, the radical Black mother, the only one, and the women ready to burn it all down. I want folks to see their own stories given the dignity and star treatment it deserves in all my books.
Helena Andrews-Dyer (she/her/hers) is an award-winning culture reporter for The Washington Post. She’s written about actress Sheryl Lee Ralph finally getting her flowers, how DJ D-Nice saved all of our lives, and the significance of Brett and Tiffany’s Black love story on Netflix’s ‘Love is Blind.”
In 2020, Helena was awarded two National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence Awards for her longform feature “This Isn’t Another Horror Story About Black Motherhood.”
Her latest book, “The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class and Race From Moms Not Like Me,” was published by Crown in August 2022. With sharp wit and refreshing honesty, The Mamas explores the contradictions and community of motherhood—white and Black and everything—against the backdrop of the rapidly changing world.
Helena’s other works include “Reclaiming Her Time: The Power of Maxine Waters” co-written with R. Eric Thomas and the memoir-in-essays “Bitch is the New Black.” “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes optioned “Bitch is the New Black” as a feature film for Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Before joining The Post Helena was a contributing editor at xoJane, a digital women’s magazine founded by Jane Pratt. Helena’s work has appeared in Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, Glamour, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Post Magazine, Essence, and OUT among other national publications. Helena has appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” NPR’s “Morning Edition,” CNN, MSNBC, XM Radio, NY1 among other outlets.
She lives in Washington with a husband whose laugh can be heard for miles and two equally carefree daughters.