The Bookish Life of Shonda Rhimes

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

You may know Shonda Rhimes from her book, Year of Yes, or you may know her from television. Indeed, whether you realize it or not, you’ve almost certainly interacted in some way with her remarkable and prolific output over the last 20 years, most of it made via her production company Shondaland, with producing partner Betsy Beers. Not only did Shonda create, produce, and showrun Grey’s Anatomy, one of the most ubiquitous and successful hospital dramas (which happens to share its name with the book Gray’s Anatomy, but is not otherwise related), she also created, produced, and showran Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, the Grey’s spinoff Private Practice, and a little Netflix series called Bridgerton.

Let’s take a look at the bookish life of Shonda Rhimes. Born in Chicago on January 13, 1970, Shonda is the youngest of six children. A lifelong storyteller, she studied English and film at Dartmouth College, writing fiction as well as for the college newspaper, and directing and acting in theater with the Black Underground Theater Association. After briefly working in advertising, Shonda moved to Los Angeles and attended USC where she studied screenwriting and graduated with an MFA at the top of her class, earning the Gary Rosenberg Writing Fellowship.

Her earliest job in Hollywood was as the research director for the 1995 documentary Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream, following Aaron’s attempt to beat Babe Ruth’s record for home runs; while the movie is not based on a book, it is safe to assume the research was. She directed a short film in 1998, sold a feature script, and was hired to write the 1999 biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, based on the biography Dorothy Dandridge by Earl Mills. After debuting on HBO, the film earned several awards for Halle Berry, who starred as Dandridge. 

In 2002, Shonda adopted her first daughter. She was hired to write 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Wedding, an original sequel to the 2001 movie based on The Princess Diaries books by Meg Cabot. The following year, Grey’s Anatomy was picked up as a mid-season replacement on ABC. The spin-off series, Private Practice, debuted two years after that in 2007, with a shortened first season due to the WGA writers strike for, among other things, streaming residuals. She adopted a second daughter in 2012, and her third daughter was born in 2013 via gestational surrogacy. Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person was published in 2016, chronicling the year she spent saying yes to opportunities instead of letting fear and being busy keep her from them.

In 2017, Shonda joined the board at Planned Parenthood; co-founded Time’s Up to support victims of sexual harassment, following the Me Too movement; produced Still Star-Crossed, based on the book Still Star-Crossed by Melinda Taub; and entered into an exclusive overall deal with Netflix, developing multiple original series for the streaming giant. The following year she had this to say about allegations that TV writers being lured to streaming:

Say it with me, my fellow creatives: I am the candy.

But the Netflix deal is truly where we are seeing Shonda lean into bookish stories. Bridgerton debuted in 2020, based on the novels by Julia Quinn: the first season is based on the first novel, The Duke and I, and the second season on the second novel, The Viscount Who Loved Me. The series takes the white historical romance novels and reimagines them as a diverse world in which the Queen of England is a Black woman, as are several important families in the close-knit upper-class society. Season 2, in which eldest brother and titular viscount Anthony romances sisters Kate and Edwina Sharma (rewritten for the series to be from India), had record-setting viewership; a third and fourth season are under contract.

Between seasons of Bridgerton, Shonda produced the miniseries Inventing Anna, based on the New York Magazine article about fake heiress Anna Delvey, “How Anna Delvey Tricked New York” by Jessica Pressler. Coming up next is an anthology series titled Notes on Love, which will showcase stories about marriage from various creators including TV producer Norman Lear, songwriter Diane Warren, and writers Lindy West (Shrill, The Witches are Coming) and Jenny Han (The Summer I Turned Pretty, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), as well as comedian and Only Murders in the Building star Steve Martin, author of many books and plays including the memoir Born Standing Up and the novella Shopgirl.

In July 2021, Shonda’s Netflix deal was extended for five years, so we should have plenty of shows to look forward to, many of them hopefully bookish.

Want to take a peek at the bookish life of other well-known people? Dive into the bookish life of Catherine O’Hara, the bookish life of Michelle Yeoh, and the bookish life of Lee Pace.