The creator and executive producer of the hit shows Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal talks about the blend of creativity and business in her growing television empire.
How did you get started writing?
I was 4 and dictating stories into a tape recorder, and my mom typed them up.
You began your career writing screenplays. When did you switch to TV?
I adopted a baby [at 32] and was suddenly a single mom staying at home, watching a lot of TV. I realized that all of the really good character development, especially for women, was on TV.
What was the development process like for getting your first show [Grey’s] on the air?
I was working with ABC Studios on a pilot about female war correspondents. [But] the next year the studio wanted me to develop something else. I very astutely said, “What does [Disney CEO] Bob Iger want?” He wanted to have another medical show, so I wrote Grey’s.
How do you balance Disney (DIS) executives’ requests with your own desires?
That first year I was doing Grey’s, I didn’t know it was possible to fire the creator of a show off their own show, so I didn’t behave like somebody who was afraid of being fired. If somebody gave me notes that I didn’t like, I said, “I don’t like it and here’s why,” [instead of] just feeling like I had to take it.
How do you keep your shows fresh?
At the end of every season, [the writers and I] should all be standing around scratching our heads going, “Well, now we don’t have any story to tell next season because we told it all.” On a show like Scandal, we took that to an even bigger place: At the end of every episode, we should all scratch our heads and go, “What are we going to film next week because we’ve told all the story we’ve been saving up.” That’s our goal. You’re forced to innovate. There’s no resting on laurels.
You have such optimistic energy. Where does that come from?
My father used to say to me, “The only limit to your success is your own imagination.” I actually believed that — like, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I might not be an Olympic figure skater. I’m sure there are barriers. I have just chosen not to acknowledge them.
Many of your characters are strong women. What’s your advice for fans who identify with them?
There’s nothing wrong with being driven. And there’s nothing wrong with putting yourself first to reach your goals. The other stuff still happens.
Here are Shonda’s responses to readers’ #FortuneQs, including what traits she shares with Scandal lead character Olivia Pope and what she looks for in her fellow writers:
From Princess @ScriptPP
@FortuneMagazine @shondarhimes What do you look for in fellow writers when creating your series? #fortuneqs
A writers room is a very intimate place. You’re spending hours and hours together, and you end up sharing funny stories, saying bawdy things and talking about really personal details of your life. So obviously, I’m always looking for writers that I want to spend that kind of time with. Writers that you want to be locked in a room with for hours on end are a commodity. Also, I like to work with writers who have a specific voice to their writing, who bring something special and different to the writers room. I’m not looking for writers who sound like me, I’m looking for writers who challenge me.
From Marie Garcia, M.Ed @MsMarieGarc
@FortuneMagazine @shondarhimes is one of THE BEST storytellers #FortuneQs Any interest in joining the ranks of JKRowl, JAusten SK? #novelist
One day, when I have some time, I will definitely write a novel or two.
From Sarah Katz @sarahdka
@FortuneMagazine @shondarhimes How many specialty-knowledge consultants (lawyers, doctors, etc.) do you use per series/episode? #FortuneQs
That depends on the episode. We always have a doctor on staff at Grey’s Anatomy, and we always have real crisis manager Judy Smith on staff at Scandal. But we also have a researcher for each show. And sometimes an episode requires the researcher to reach out to a lawyer or a surgical specialist or a language expert.
From The CSO @theC
@FortuneMagazine @shondarhimes – I’d love to ask Shonda which traits of her own are seen in Olivia Pope? Both are strong women! #FortuneQs
There is definitely a lot of me in Olivia. But I’m not telling you any specifics!
From Charleigh Bravo @CharleighBra
@FortuneMagazine @shondarhimes #FortuneQs Do people respond negatively to the show’s portrayal of an #affair?
Yes, they do. And I love that. To me, the point is to have people buzzing, open up the dialogue of what is right and what is wrong. WE don’t judge the affair in our portrayal of it, but the audience definitely should.
Captain Shady Boots @_JoahBe
@shondarhimes is there away way you will give Mellie a love interest too see how Fitz reacts to the table being turned?
Fitz is Mellie’s love interest.
From young fat @tayexug
@fortunemagazine #FortuneQs @shondarhimes why do you love to stress us out all the time?
I believe that good television should be challenging and frustrating and maddening and thrilling. If you just want to see people who look like you and think like you and do what you would do in any given situation, you’d have to stop looking at TV and start looking in a mirror. But would that be as much fun?
A shorter version of this story appeared in the October 28, 2013 issue of Fortune.