Debut novelist Ayana Mathis earned her golden ticket to literary stardom earlier this year, when Oprah Winfrey stamped her book with her seal of approval.
“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” begins with 15-year-old Hattie Shepherd tragically losing her firstborn twins. Hattie will give birth to nine more children; her 12 tribes are her children and one grandchild, the stories of which Mathis weaves throughout.
Mathis grew up in Philadelphia, where the novel begins, and cites an interest in her mother’s generation, those African-American children of the Great Migration who moved from the South, as inspiration for her story.
Mathis, reached by phone in Iowa City where she is serving as guest faculty at the University of Iowa’s esteemed Writers’ Workshop, talked about the genesis of her tribe of characters and the importance of staying true to one’s vision.
State Journal: How does it feel to leave Oprah Winfrey speechless?
Ayana Mathis: It’s unprocessable. It’s large and unexpected and strange. I don’t think she was speechless.
SJ: It says on her book club website that she read the first chapter and she was speechless, and she finished the book and was silent for a few moments.
AM: It’s one of those things that maybe in five years I’ll understand how I feel about it. It’s so huge and unexpected.
SJ: When you sent this book out into the world you weren’t expecting this kind of response?
AM: Obviously not. I had hoped that it would get a few decent reviews and sell some copies, but certainly not the magnitude of attention that it’s received.
SJ: The book is called “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” is that a reference to the 12 tribes of Israel?
AM: It is.
SJ: Where did the seed for that idea come from?
AM: The book sort of came about by accident. I was working on another project that I had to abandon because it wasn’t going particularly well. I thought I would write a few short stories. I was a student at the time, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, actually.
I started writing what I thought were just some short stories, but they ended up being about these people who were in Philadelphia in the mid-20th century. I didn’t even necessarily realize that they were all in one family, but that became apparent fairly quickly. It took me a minute to even understand that these people were in a family, but Hattie, the title character, appeared in sort of a minor form in one of the stories.
A good friend of mine said, ‘These stories are related, I think you might be writing a book.’ I said, ‘You’re so ridiculous, I’m not writing a book at all.’ As it turned out, I was.
Many of the characters in the book are of my mother’s generation, sort of first generation, born-in-the-North people. In many ways, I’ve been very fascinated by that generation, both their historical and social position and the strange quirks of their very particular niche, their neighborhood. All of these things were of deep interest to me, of deeper interest than I had realized that they were.
The book was sort of stumbled into. I don’t think that I understood that I was so deeply interested in this generation and these people until I started writing it, until I gave myself free rein to write some stories to see what happens. This is what happened, so I think I had been thinking very deeply about these people. I had been, even beyond a thought level, mesmerized or transfixed or emotionally engaged with this material in ways I hadn’t understood until I started writing it.
SJ: The first chapter is truly heartbreaking. Do you think that could potentially alienate readers?
AM: I very briefly thought, “Ooh, that’s a hard one,” but it’s really necessary. Hattie is wonderful and very deeply loveable, but she’s not the most conventional protagonist in that she’s difficult. It was very important for readers to see the reason that she becomes the sometimes hard woman that she can be. I don’t think they would have understood that, nor would I have understood it, had that tragedy not occurred so early in the book.
SJ: Is there one character that you identify the most with? Do you feel closest to Hattie?
AM: No, Hattie is an unknowable grandmother and mother, even to me. My two favorite chapters are Floyd and Bell, neither of them because I see myself in them, but they seem like people I could know, and would like very much. People who could be my friends.
SJ: Who are your writing influences?
AM: There are very many. Toni Morrison, enormously. William Faulkner, enormously. In other kinds of ways, Eudora Welty. With the exception of Toni Morrison, I tend to be attracted to Southern writers. They tend to do dialogue better than anyone, again with the exception of Toni Morrison. I’m also interested in the questions that they grapple with. I also read a lot of poetry. That is enormously influential, from Rilke, to Lucille Clifton, to Rita Dove, to Mark Doty, to C.K. Williams. I read a lot of poetry. I find it to be not just inspirational, but instructional as well.
SJ: You graduated from the writing workshop in 2011. You went from a recent graduate who was unpublished to a guest teacher in two years.
AM: Yeah, it’s very strange. It’s miraculous and odd.
SJ: What kind of advice do you have for aspiring authors?
AM: This is a hard question because there’s so much. I feel so funny saying these things, because it’s like, “That’s easy for you to say.” I think it’s incredibly important for people to write without thinking of an audience, beyond the usual ways. Of course you think about your audience in that you read a sentence or paragraph and ask if it’s clear, is it emotionally moving, etc. The notion of writing toward trends, or some stylistic ideal, or subject matter that you think might be appealing to the larger world, or what reviewers might like — that seems to be a sure way to damn yourself, to create work that doesn’t have meaning and isn’t powerful. I think people have to honestly write toward their deepest interests and their deepest depressions, and leave considerations of how it might be received entirely out of it. I think considering those things too much has a terrible effect on the work.
SJ: So, no expectations?
AM: It’s unrealistic to say no expectations, especially if you’re in an MFA program. What I’m saying is to write without tailoring something to what you think the critics or the public might want or might respond to. There’s no way of gauging that. Your best work is going to come out of writing toward what is most beautiful, most significant, most moving to you.