Friday, May 7, 2010

Malaak Compton-Rock and Her New Book

By Susan Poulos

If It Takes a Village, Build One! by Malaak Compton-Rock

In the course of my work with Touch A Life Foundation, I got to know Malaak Compton-Rock, noted philanthropist and wife of comedian Chris Rock. She just released her first book, If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways That You Can Too (Broadway Books, New York, 2010).

In January, Malaak traveled with me and the Touch A Life staff to Ghana, West Africa, to see modern-day slavery on the waters of Lake Volta, where children are trafficked into the fishing industry to work 16-hour days for a master. We returned in March with representatives from her organization, Journey For Change, where we were able to introduce teenagers from New York to former child slaves in Touch A Life's programs. We also were part of negotiating the release of two children who are now in the care of Touch A Life in Kete Krachi, Ghana.

Malaak has devoted her career to helping others, and in her new book, she gives a blueprint to those who ask "I want to help others, but how?" We had a chance to talk this week about her new book, and she gave great practical advice on publishing in the non-fiction world. Here is our conversation!

SP: Tell us a little about what brought you to the point of writing If It Takes a Village, Build One, and your background in service work.

MCR: I have been in the non-profit field now for about 15 years. Because people have seen me speak publicly about certain issues, NGOs, and my belief that we can all serve, I receive lots and lots of emails, phone calls, and letters from people asking me how they can make a difference. It has been a powerful blessing to my life to hear from people nationwide and to be a part of such an important discussion.

SP: What prompted you to write If It Takes a Village?

MCR: While I was a co-judge on “Oprah’s Big Give” a few years ago, people started to stop me in the street to tell me they wanted to give back but did not know how. It was during this time that I knew the book was relevant and that it would have an audience if I took a leap of faith and wrote it.

SP: What are your thoughts on social responsibility that you want to pass on to your generation, and to the next one?

MCR: The title of my book is based on the prolific African proverb “It Takes a Village.” I would love the next generation to live by this simple but necessary ideal – to reclaim it and do a better job than we are doing now. We are all a part of the same collective village, and we have to take care of each other. I truly believe that I have a responsibility to my own children, to your children, and to the world’s children. We cannot be bound by geographic lines when it comes to caring for our fellow human beings and feeling a responsibility toward each other.

SP: For our writers out there, tell us a little about your process for securing an agent and publisher.

MCR: Well, I was very lucky and I profoundly realize it. Unlike most first-time authors, I was able to approach my existing agent who handles TV opportunities for me and ask for an introduction to the literary division. This happens to be a large agency with a phenomenal clientele of talented and successful authors. After meeting with an agent about my idea, I was asked to write a book proposal, which I did. Once they agreed to represent me, my new agent advised me to revise it until it really spoke to what I wanted to eventually write about. Next, my agent called a multitude of publishing houses with the idea. I ended up meeting face to face with three of them. It is actually quite intimidating -- at least to me! With each house, there were three to four people present in the meeting. I had to verbally express my idea, tell them who I was writing it for, how I would write it, how I would organize it, and eventually how I thought I could promote it. We ended up going with Broadway, a division of Random House because they were the ones who truly understood my voice and what I wanted to convey. I must add that because I have lots of friends and colleagues who are talented aspiring authors, I do know that my process is not the norm in terms of securing the agent. I am thankful and blessed.

SP: Your service work has brought you the opportunity to travel the world creating service projects. What has been the most fulfilling aspect of this?

MCR: Without a doubt, the most fulfilling aspect has been the opportunity to meet and learn from the mothers of the world, the caretakers of this earth. I have been filled up beyond belief by the female nurturers whom I have met from New Orleans, LA; to Brooklyn, NY; to Johannesburg, South Africa; to Kete Krachi, Ghana; to Nairobi, Kenya; to Newark, NJ; and even in my hometown of Alpine, NJ. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Women lift up half the sky” and I have been able to meet and learn from many of them.

SP: How did your celebrity status effect your decisions to write a book about service work?

MCR: Being married to a major celebrity is a mixed blessing in terms of my service work. It is a blessing because it has helped in terms of garnering much-needed attention to my programs and the programs of others. This, of course, helps with fundraising and awareness about critical issues. On the other hand, sometimes people cannot imagine that I am a “grass-roots, in-the-field” kind of girl. They cannot imagine that I do so much more than writing a check and that being in the field and connecting with those I serve is what fills me up. Hence, I actually hesitated at first when I thought about writing the book because I did not want people to think that this was a book from some privileged person who does not actually do the work.

SP: Did you struggle with the editing and partnerships that came with writing a non-fiction book? How did you deal with those obstacles?

MCR: I really struggled with editing. It was so important for me to include information about all of the issues that negatively affect women and children worldwide. I wanted people to understand that my work is driven by the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. So I wanted to bring attention to all of the ideals that children are denied each day, like the right to an education, the right to proper nutrition, the right to play, the right to not work, the right to not be enslaved, the right to love and protection, the right to proper housing, and so forth. I then wanted the readers to know how they could help if they connected to a particular issue. Unfortunately, my editor felt that I could not include everything that I wanted and this was really difficult for me. Additionally, I wanted to include information on even more NGOs that I did, but it was not possible. I dealt with this by fighting for the things that were most important to me and relenting on those that were not. I also came to realize that several of my editor’s decisions did make sense and were for the best. However, it is so important that you stand your ground for those things that are truly authentic to who you are and how your want the book to be perceived by the readers.

SP: Was writing the book a bigger challenge than you at first envisioned? What advice do you have to other would-be authors about taking on a non-fiction project?

MCR: Yes, it was. For me the most difficult thing was budgeting my time to ensure that I completed the book on schedule. I did not. Once I missed my first deadline, I had to really structure my day around writing and not deviate from the schedule that I set for myself. I also had a deadline that was right after Christmas. As a mom of small kids, I wish I would have known that I did not want to be locked in a room around Thanksgiving and Christmas, instead of being fully engaged with my kids. I still regret the time I spent away from them each day leading up to these major holidays, which we cherish as a family and go all out to celebrate. I also struggled with the balance of writing about my life in service and the nitty gritty “how-to” part of the book, which teaches the reader how they too can give back.

SP: Tell us about the role you have taken in promoting the book yourself (social media, etc). How important do you think social media is in promoting a new release?

MCR: Well…let me just say that the authors who told me that you would have to be fully engaged in promoting your own book did not lie! Unless you are super, super famous or an established best-selling author, you have to get out there and be your own advocate. I think, across the board, publishers do not allocate a lot of time or resources to press and promotions. If you did not know better, you would take it personally, but this was told to me so many times, thankfully I did not. You also have to be fully engaged with the PR person assigned to you at the publisher and hope that this person has a passion for your product. So to answer your question, I had a lot to do with the press that I received. I really reached back to the past publicist in me and went for it! I called on all of my old contacts and also took advantage of every opportunity, no matter how big or small. As an avid reader, I know that long-term success is based on word-of-mouth. And so if one person is talking about the book and spreading the word, I am grateful and happy. For me social media was and continues to be a key element. I am still taking advantage of opportunities presented to me, like this one, and seeking others. One thing we did early on, and it was my publisher’s idea, was to film videos on key points and ideals in the book. I think that they came out great and they were able to share them with their online retailers and I was able to post them to You Tube, twitter and Facebook. My twitter followers and Facebook friends have been great as well. They helped me to get the word out by retweeting and posting information on the book to their profiles. Truth be told though, I still have more to do and more to learn! Social media grows at such a rate that I sometimes feel that I can’t keep up! Next for me is to target all of the “mommy blogs”!

SP: What's next for you? Are you planning a follow-up book?

Well, I am looking forward to just focusing on my family. The process of writing, editing and promoting a book is really time consuming. And though I have enjoyed many aspects of it, I want to be home and fully engaged. In terms of service work, we are in the planning stages of Journey for Change 2, where we will take another 30 at-risk youth from Brooklyn and 30 college-aged mentors to Johannesburg, South Africa, for two weeks of volunteer work on August 18. This is followed by a year of service, advocacy and education activities in the U.S. Now, if I were to write another book, it would be something to do with mothers and how we really “lift up the sky,” as the Chinese proverb says. I do not know what it is yet as I do not have it shaped in my mind. However, I do know that we can never talk enough about a mother’s worth.


  1. A great interview! Thank you for introducing me to this book and a worthy cause.

  2. Truly a deeply moving interview, Susan. Must get this book.


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