This week on the In Her Shoes podcast, Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples spoke with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (and television showrunner, producer, screenwriter, and actress) Katori Hall. So what’s the view like from where Hall’s standing? “It feels like I’m in ten-foot-tall platforms trying to balance and walk my way through life,” not unlike the dancers on P-Valley, the acclaimed Starz series adaption of her play of a similar name. Add a new baby at home, and anyone might feel precarious. “It’s a lot,” Hall admits — though, with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, that may change. Maybe Hall will even start to feel like her feet are firmly planted in the much more comfortable shoes she actually does wear: Air Force 1’s. Should things not slow down, she won’t complain. “Even though I feel like I’m a little high in the sky in my heels right now, I would say this is the most grounded that I’ve ever felt in a very long time because I feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to balance my abundance.”
Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples and I’m editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this show, I get to talk to people that we love and admire, or some that we just find interesting. We’ll explore how they found their path and what may have gotten in their way and how they brought others along now that they’ve arrived.
Katori Hall has a way of making the most dynamic, interesting characters come to life. And there’s been no better display of that than the world she’s created on the show P-Valley that’s addicting and one of my personal favorite shows to binge. Katori is a master storyteller, from P-Valley’s strip club in the Mississippi Delta to The Mountaintop, which was based on Martin Luther King, and of course Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. We got a chance to talk to her about her career, her writing process, and, of course, what to expect on the next season of the show.
Katori Hall: Hey, Lindsay.
Lindsay: Hi, thank you for doing this.
Katori: Oh my God, thanks for asking.
Lindsay: So I start every show by asking about your literal shoes, since this show is called In Her Shoes and we gotta get our fashion fix in. So tell me about either what shoes you have on right now or your favorite pair of shoes right now.
Katori: Child, I ain’t got no shoes on right now. I am at home.
Lindsay: That’s why I ask both! What are your favorite shoes that you’re like, “This is the energy that I need when I go into a meeting or when I need to feel good.”
Katori: So what’s hilarious about me is that I don’t care how nothing looks. Real talk, I really just go for comfort. So my go-to is Air Force 1’s. I have probably 20 pairs, all different colors. I just put them on. It doesn’t even matter if it’s going with a dress versus jeans. You can dress them up, dress them down, put, like, little chains on them. Especially when I’m, like, ripping and running in life and on set.
Lindsay: If there were shoes designed for the girls on P-Valley, what do you think the shoes would look like?
Katori: Because they’re always in those sky-high heels, I think going in the other direction, like Crocs that have all kinds of embellishments on them. My mama actually just got into designing embellished Crocs and, and ordering all kinds of little trinkets and stuff to put on them. So, yeah, comfort.
Lindsay: More figuratively, what would you say it’s like in your life to be in your shoes right now?
Katori: That’s a really great question. I am balancing so many different responsibilities, hats, ambitions, dreams, desires. And so it feels like I’m in ten-foot-tall platforms trying to balance and walk my way through life. I just had a baby a year ago, and she has really kept me sane and insane in the midst of also trying to run a huge show in the midst of also just parenting the other two kids. You know, it’s a lot. But even though I feel like I’m a little high in the sky in my heels right now, I would say this is the most grounded that I’ve ever felt in a very long time because I feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to balance my abundance. Yeah, and luckily I don’t fall too much.
Lindsay: I love that. I love that. Let’s go back to the beginning for people. Obviously, there are so many amazing projects that you’ve worked on and led. What made you realize that you wanted to make a career out of writing characters and making them come to life?
Katori: It kind of happened because I failed a lot at the other things. I wanted to be an actress for a very long time. And I think just innately I’m a storyteller, so whether it was going to be by my actual voice using my body or my actual fingers, I was going to figure out a way to tell stories. Once I kind of saw that there wasn’t enough for Black women specifically in media, and in film and TV especially, I think that’s when I decided to segue and really sit down on the other side of the table at the desk and pull out that computer and create all the things that I wanted to see and possibly be. I eventually gave up on my acting career, even though every once in a while I’ll pop up on P-Valley. You just gotta be … your eyes gotta be quick enough to see me. But yeah, it gives me such satisfaction to hold space and create and reflect worlds and characters I haven’t seen, family members haven’t seen ever on TV.
Lindsay: And so after you won the Pulitzer, which is so huge, for The Hot Wing King, did you then feel like, Okay, I’ve always known that I wanna do storytelling now, all these opportunities are starting to roll in, or did you feel like you still had to prove yourself in the stories that you wanted to tell?
Katori: Always, you always have to prove yourself. What’s so interesting about that award specifically is that I think anyone, particularly in drama, that’s kind of like our top award. Like, there may be something else, but like, if you get the Pulitzer? Once you get that, it’s really about, can you get another one, can you get another one? Shout out to Lynn Nottage, she’s got two. And it’s like, I’m trying to get out my Lynn Nottage tip, but you know, that may not happen. And one is enough. And so this thing of, were there more opportunities? Not really. And that’s interesting, right? As a successful Black writer who does get the top award in their field, it didn’t necessarily give me more confidence. I’ve always kind of had confidence in my own writing and what I have to say. But I will say it probably made other people more comfortable that they had given me a platform, because I think initially they were scared. They’re like, “Oh my God, we gave her all this money to do this show.” And then it switched to, “Of course we gave her all this money to do this show, she’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer! Get out of my face.” You know? So it’s like the confidence that other people had in me improved, but I wouldn’t necessarily say at this point in time more doors have been opened.
Lindsay: How do you go about the process of writing about real-life people as opposed to fictional characters?
Katori: It’s interesting. I actually have the same approach where, in a weird way, I try to put myself in their shoes. With Tina Turner, I literally was able to fly and sit with her and talk about her shoes, talk about her life, talk about all kinds of things beyond the music. And I think it was so important with her specifically to really be in the room with her because everyone thinks they know her story because of the movie and because she is very and was very transparent about everything that she went through. And so it still is, right? However, it was interesting to be able to listen to her silences and listen to her answers to questions that were hard to answer. And that was how I was able to, I think, do … I wouldn’t necessarily even say a new version of her life, but an articulation of her life that really delved into some things that she was still working through even at her older age as a woman. Like the fact that she’s still trying to make sense of the fact that she had a toxic relationship with her mother. And so research is just so central to my writing process. And she’s a real person. Now, if it’s a fictional person, kind of the same thing where I try to research the world that the person exists in and is trying to conquer. And I literally just sit back and I’m like, If it was me in those shoes, what would I do? What would I say? How would I be? How would I conquer my objectives? And then stories kind of just automatically come out of my mind that way.
Lindsay: Do you feel like there’s a big difference in writing for plays or writing for TV and making that transition when you’re working in between projects?
Katori: Yes, but I must say each one has taught me to be a better writer. Each medium. For example, I was working on P-Valley at the same time I was working on The Hot Wing King. And something that’s very interesting about TV is that you get a lot of notes. You get notes on top of notes from all these executives, executive producers, sometimes the actors wanna weigh in with notes. It’s a lot. But instead of being deflated by the notes, I was like, What are they trying to say? What is not working in what I put on the page that I can shift so that I can get my intention across better? So I learned how to become a better rewriter of my own material. And I learned that writing is actually rewriting. The first draft just ain’t gonna cut it nine times out of ten, really ten times out of ten. I had been given a note to basically tear up the first draft of my first season. I had written four scripts, and they were like, “You need to start over because something is not working.” So I trashed those scripts and started over. And so when I approached Hot Wing King, I was so not precious about anything because I knew that I could do another draft and I could probably do it better. And so yes, they’re two completely different mediums, different formats, different styles, different approaches to how characters are laid out. But at the end of the day, the core is a story that has a clear intention. And what do you have to do in order to make your intention as clear as possible? I don’t think I would have even won the Pulitzer had I not been working on P-Valley because P-Valley taught me how to be a better writer because it taught me how to have a better process.
To hear more from Hall, including her thoughts on the strikes (“Pay me what you owe me”), her experience pitching a show about a Black strip club in the South (“There were some people who were like, ‘Girl, you cannot even come through the door’”), and her ambitions to direct (“Give me Creed 4”), click to listen above, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.