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September 2, 2014

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Helena Andrews: A Life Now In Paperback

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Helena Andrews could easily divide her life thus far into two separate eras: LBWPA (Life Before 'The Washington Post' Article), and LAWPA (Life After The Washington Post Article).

The 30-year-old Washington, D.C.-based author was just about finished with her memoir 'Bitch Is The New Black' when the 'Post' published 'Successful, Black, and Lonely' in December 2009.
Although loosely tied to Andrews' book, the article focused mainly on trouble she faced as a young, black professional woman on the Washington dating scene. The article starts: "Helena Andrews is 29, single, living in D.C., and might be the star of a black 'Sex and the City' -- stylish, beautiful and a writer desperately in search of love in the city."

The story went viral, causing a stir in the black blogosphere and netting 464 responses until the 'Post' closed off the comment section. The popular black relationship blog Very Smart Brothas wrote this about the article: "I don't know exactly why Ms. Andrews herself is single...but, I've known enough of her doppelgangers to have a pretty good idea of a few things she might be able to do (or stop doing) to improve her fortune."

Today, Andrews recalls the initial attention as somewhat troubling.

"There was a lot of explaining I had to do," she said from her home in D.C. where she's working on the film adaptation of 'Bitch Is The New Black,' which is now in paperback. Shonda Rhimes, creator of 'Grey's Anatomy,' 'Private Practice,' and the new upcoming series, 'Scandal,' is producing the film for Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The book features 16 short stories that include her take on her life as the daughter of a lesbian mother, the emotional weight of losing a best friend who committed suicide and Maureen Dowd setting her up on a date with President Obama's "body man" Reggie Love.

Rhimes' involvement in Andrews' story is a testament to the book's refreshing take on the young-successful-black-woman-who-just-so-happens-to-still-be-single narrative. 'BITNB' at first glance was something out of the Terry McMillan pantheon, a kind of 'Waiting To Exhale' redux. But when asked about her influences, Andrews doesn't mention McMillan's name. Rather, Andrews' influences, she says, are memoirists like Sloan Crosley and David Sedaris, two authors who have written about their lives in full and nuanced ways.


"There was a lot of misconception about what the book was about," Andrews explains. "People thought it was going to be all about dating and relationships, which it is, partially, but it's a memoir about my entire life."

The 'Post' article didn't seem to help matters either, Andrews says. "[The article] played an angle which was exactly why I wanted to write a book in the first place, because I was sick of that angle being played when it comes to black women."

Andrews says she's had to explain over and over that 'BITNB' is deeper than a 'Sex and the City'-style romantic comedy, and that it should resonate for women of all races. "Some people were expecting the typical book you find in the African-American literature section at Barnes and Noble," she adds. "When they didn't get [that type of book], they were disappointed."

While Andrews knows her core audience is black women - "I'm a black woman, I tell the story of this black woman" - she and her publisher Harper Collins made concerted efforts to "cast the net as widely as we could," which meant doing things like publishing the book's first excerpt about Helena being raised by her lesbian mother in 'Out' magazine.

The effort to make these stories more appealing to a diverse audience now continues with its paperback release. "A white author doesn't sit and say, 'Will black people read this book?'" Andrews says. "They don't have to think about that because their books are all over the place."

Andrews notes that her efforts have paid off and the readership response to her book has been culturally diverse. She claims: "I've met white women who were shocked they didn't need a secret password to get my references. And then there are some women who don't even think about that, and who email me or tweet me to tell me they think it's great."

While the paperback version hits shelves just in time for beach readers, Andrews is focused on a couple of upcoming projects tied to the book. In addition to the BITNB screenplay, she plans to further promote the book this fall during a college tour geared toward young women.

The other project is dating. Andrews admits the exposure from the book has played a significant role in meeting people. "When I meet new people, they feel like they know my whole life, which technically, they do," she says. "That could be good and that can be bad, but it's been good."

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