Ayana Mathis: Oprah Winfrey’s on the phone, and a career is born

With one phone call, debut novelist Ayana Mathis' life was transformed. She discusses her long path to sudden fame

Topics: Books, Ayana Mathis, Oprah Winfrey, Editor's Picks,

Ayana Mathis: Oprah Winfrey's on the phone, and a career is born (Credit: Michael Lionstar)

It sounds like one of the greatest overnight success stories ever.

Earlier this month, Oprah Winfrey selected Ayana Mathis’ debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” as the second selection in the reboot of her book club. Knopf instantly upped her print run to 125,000 books and moved her publication date ahead six weeks. It instantly struck the best-seller list.

Reviews have been sensational. In the New York Times, critic Michiko Kakutani said that Mathis “writes with uncommon narrative authority… conjuring the lives of the Shepherd family with extraordinary psychological precision.” She compared Mathis to Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, before concluding “her elastic voice is thoroughly her own — both lyrical and unsparing, meditative and visceral.”

But this is a triumph many decades in the making. The short version sounds like this: Mathis, 39, had stopped writing poetry and was in the middle of a memoir project she hated when classmate — and 2011 Salon sexiest man — Justin Torres was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. When Mathis went to visit him in Iowa City, the atmosphere reignited her love for literature, and she began reworking the memoir into a piece of fiction for her own application.

That leaves out lots of struggle: the years factchecking at New York magazines, years spent battling writer’s block, a childhood with a loving single mother who battled depression and often moved their small family. Her family splintered; she lost connection with cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles.

“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” is also a novel about family and dislocation. Hattie Shepherd leaves Georgia for Philadelphia just before the Great Depression, and immediately glimpses the better life she was searching for. But her young twins, hopefully named Jubilee and Philadelphia, soon catch a fever and nothing can save them. Hattie will have 11 more children, but never truly recover from this pain. The novel, which spans 1928 through 1980, jump-cuts between each of her children and one grandchild.



While it’s an intimate portrait of one family, it also reflects the great Northern migration by millions of African-Americans who left the South during these years, hoping to escape hate and find more opportunity in the cities of the Midwest and along the East Coast. The Migration produced the likes of James Baldwin, John Coltrane and even Michelle Obama, as Mathis points out, transforming America, but not without cost for people who left family behind. It’s a stone-cold stunner of a novel, slender at 243 pages, but magnificently structured, and a sentence-by-sentence treasure — lyric, direct and true.

We met Thursday at a cafe in Brooklyn to discuss the book’s charmed life, and Mathis’ own circuitous path here.

So how did you get the news that the book had been chosen for Oprah’s book club?

She called. I was on vacation. They had sort of set up this whole strange ruse. Oh, we want to review it in the magazine. So that was really great, and we were all excited. Then they said, “Oh, we just need a quote, like a little thing. Fifteen minutes.” My publicist said, “Well, she’s away. Since it’s just for 15 minutes, can we do it when she gets back?” They were like “No, no, we’re closing the magazine.”

So they set it up. It was 2 in the afternoon on a Thursday in early October. I had been out sight-seeing. I hadn’t been on vacation in a while. So I run in and I’m like “OK!” And it’s two o’ clock and the phone doesn’t ring. I start getting antsy. It’s one of one or two sunny days the whole time we’re there. I could be outside! It’s about 2:12 — and I remember this because I looked at my computer — and the phone rang. I picked up the phone, and this voice says, “Can I speak to Ayana Mathis ?” I’ve never talked to an editor of a magazine before. So I’m like “Yeah!” So then the voice says, “This is Oprah Winfrey.”

I said, “No, it isn’t.” She must get that all the time. She just very calmly said, “No, no, it is. It’s Oprah Winfrey.” And I was just like “Come on!” And then she was like, “Nope. It’s Oprah Winfrey.” But in my head it was like, “How did somebody get this number? Who would play a joke like that? Like all these strange things happening in my head. And then I finally realized it was her, and she was so calm and I recognized her voice, and I stopped being kind of like “C’mon!”

Did you have any idea why she’d be the person calling for this quote? Did the possibility of the book club jump to mind?

No, it was really strange. I didn’t even get that far. I just thought, “Speak in coherent sentences.” That’s really about all I could get to. Speak in full sentences. After talking for about 10 minutes, she said, “I’m calling you with very good news.” And I thought, “Oooh.” But it was such a surreal moment that I couldn’t think what the good news is. In retrospect, it’s obvious; like why else would she call me? But of course it didn’t make any sense. Like Oprah Winfrey wouldn’t just call you to be like “I read your book. I thought it was great. Well, see you later!” But in the moment I was just like, “That is just great, Oprah Winfrey liked my book, and she called me to tell me! That’s fantastic!” Then I don’t actually remember what I said at that point.

This was October. How did you possibly keep this news secret until the middle of December?

She told me I could tell my nearest and dearest. I told my best friend, Justin Torres. And I told my mother and my partner, we were on vacation together. She sort of walked in five minutes into the conversation, and my face was all twisted in this way. Basically she started pointing and mouthing. She didn’t want to say it loud. Just pointing and mouthing hysterically. Then trying to put her ear next to the phone with me. We had a good night. We decided to be really splashy and absurd. We got a bottle of champagne that I couldn’t afford and ate oysters. So that was what we did. Then we sort of stumbled home. It was great.

People are going to say, “She’s hanging out in Paris! Her first novel makes her career! Everything happened so quickly and so easily for her.” But this is a first novel at 39, and the path to this has been long and circuitous. You’ve done some magazine fact-checking, you’d taken various writing classes. But you hadn’t published anything. When did you start writing, and what did you ever hope it might amount to?

Yeah. I was writing when I was a kid, and then all through high school. I wrote poetry for a long time and I thought that I would be a poet. My assumption always was that I would have some type of job that paid the bills and then I would write as a passion. It was never a career aspiration, ever. It began to be a little bit in Iowa (at the Iowa Writers Workshop), but even then I had so long considered it part of my identity, not a career aspiration. So it is, it’s kind of funny. I suppose it would seem that it was very boom, boom, boom. I mean, the book was written in about two years, but I don’t think that it was easy at all, actually, when I think about it. And not in any sort of terrible way, either. I would never want to be like, “I was in the garrets with only cold water! I was starving!” I didn’t go through those types of things, but certainly I would come toward writing and then back away, come to it and back away. I was scared of it in certain kinds of ways. I would approach it and write a lot for six months and then be afraid for a year. I did that a lot throughout my 20 sand early 30s. And I lived in Italy for five years and didn’t write at all.

Writing sounds so central to you, just hearing you talk about it. How did you go five years without–

It was terrible. I was sort taken up by so many different things — learning the culture, speaking the language, how to be and all that. But I think also had happened was I had been writing poetry and at a certain point I just couldn’t write a poem anymore. And I didn’t know how to write anything else, or couldn’t quite conceive of how to write anything else. So when the poems dried up I felt very abandoned in a way. I would sit down and try to write a poem and it would be nothing, or something clunky without meaning or feeling. And that happened a lot, and I didn’t know what else to do , so I just sort of stopped writing.

But when you come back to New York, you take a fiction writing class.

Well, they weren’t fiction writing classes, actually. When I came back I actually took a memoir class, and I can’t remember how or why I thought that was a good idea, but for some reason I did. And it’s interesting too because certainly, with some exceptions, it’s not a genre that I love, you know. But anyway, it was a memoir class and that’s how I started working on this memoir thing. Then I took another class after that, with Jackson Taylor, and that class was really amazing. People were working in different genres. People were doing creative nonfiction, others were doing fiction. It was at a friend’s art studio in Chelsea, West Chelsea. I can never remember her name — Ultra Violet? She was one of the Warhol Factory women.  We would talk about writing and she had this huge Mickey Mouse thing. She was really into Mickey Mouse, so there would be all of these Mickey Mouse things everywhere.

That class includes you and Justin Torres — some agent right now is looking for the entire roll. It would be like Oprah: “Everybody gets a book deal!”

Totally! They were really amazing people in there. So impassioned and committed and Jackson is an amazing teacher. It was one of those “dream of New York” realized kind of things. People with just completely different backgrounds — racially different, economically different, different professions — having these really interesting conversations about writing.

While Mickey Mouse is staring at you.

With these weird Mickey Mouses looking at you. It was very funny and bizarre, but kind of wonderful.

Then your friend Justin applies, and is accepted, at Iowa — and you see a possible path.

I went to visit him and I stayed with him for a little while. People would come over, and everyone was writing and everyone was talking about writing in ways that I hadn’t been talking or thinking about it. And it just seemed that, if such things could be possible, then that is what I should do.

You hadn’t really published anything. What did you use to apply?

I had a terrible memoir. Jackson really liked it, but I’m like “That was a mess!” It was bad. I can’t write like that, and I didn’t know that about myself then. That being too tied to a set of facts does not work for me at all. I get fact and truth all confused and my imagination freezes up. It’s no good. I think probably the worst thing about that memoir was that it was stiff. It didn’t have movement, it was tight. And superficial, also. So anyway, when I was thinking about applying to Iowa I had been thinking about fiction anyway. And then obviously I had to apply with something, so I fictionalized the memoir. Thinking also, not just for Iowa, but thinking, “OK, maybe it will free me. Something new. I’ve never written fiction before. Maybe this is a good idea.” So I fictionalized it. I think it was 32 pages — the shortest you can possibly apply with! I think the minimum is 30, so I was like, “I’ve got these 32 pages!” So that’s what I applied with.

When does Hattie Shepherd arrive? How did you begin conceptualizing this character?

I didn’t know that she would, at all. So, I had the fictionalized memoir and I took it into workshop and it was—

Beaten up.

Yes. Beaten up. So then I had a crisis, which I think happens to a lot of people in their first semester of Iowa, especially after you get a little beaten up. You think, “What am I doing here? I’m not really a writer! Oh my God!” I am making it sound really light, but at the time—

It was a huge crisis of faith.

Huge crisis of faith! I remember I came back for some break or whatever and I was staying at my partner’s and I was in the shower, I just started crying in the shower and then cried for like a day. Twenty-four hours in tears. So then I got myself together, like, “Well, what are you going to do? You’re here. You have to do something. You can’t just spend the next two years weeping. You have to do something with yourself.” So then I thought, “I’ll try to write some stories.” And I do not consider myself a short story writer at all, but anyway, I said to myself that I’d try.

The first story that I wrote was kind of a very strange hybrid of the first and last chapters. A really weird hybrid. And there was sort of Hattie, but her name wasn’t Hattie yet. It was a woman whose children died. And there was a little girl, whose name was not Ella yet, who was sort of in that church situation. It was a sort of prototype. I didn’t realize even that Hattie was a thread. Then I wrote another story and then the one after that was Ella, I believe. It was when I got to Ella that I realized these people were in the same family. And Hattie kept sort of appearing in smaller ways. By the time I got to Ella I realized that Hattie is very large and very important, and so then the rest of the stories, you know, the chapters, were written to be as kind of prisms through which she would be refracted. I couldn’t figure out to approach her head on because she’s very complicated. She’s really complicated and I couldn’t fully understand her in many ways. I don’t think I could have written her in a very linear kind of way.

It’s a bold choice — you introduce Hattie in the first story, full of optimism about what her new life will be like in the north. And almost immediately, she loses her two twin babies. It’s a devastation she’ll never recover from — but there are 11 other kids to follow. And instead of staying with Hattie, you show us the kids — and instead of this being a book about one woman’s pain, it immediately opens into a kaleidoscopic view on the Northern Migration.

The tragedy of Hattie’s story I don’t think could be followed by hitting you over the head with more tragedy. You don’t ever, that first chapter is the only time that you directly see her suffering. And the last chapter is the only time that you hear her directly reflecting on her life. You really run a danger of becoming melodramatic, of kind of doing a “same old downtrodden black woman story” if you just concentrate on Hattie. “And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” It becomes heavy and clunky and unoriginal and just, ugh.

She arrives in Philadelphia from the South with such high hopes of how different things are going to be. There’s that moment when she gets off the train — and she notices that the other black girls don’t move out of the way of the white girls when they walk down the street, and she falls in love with the city. And then so quickly it just turns to such horrible tears—to lose two twins, one after another. Her journey in some ways seems set in that moment. She never really gets over that loss, does she?

No, I don’t think that she ever really does. I think that she still thinks there is some sort of potential in the North that can be realized. It’s not so much that she becomes hopeless, though she does for a period in her life. It seems to be to be what happens to people. You can go through a period in your life in which you are hopeless. But there is an underlying — I would never call it optimism — but there is some sort of underlying belief that there is some potentiality in the north that is better than what they left. I think that was she loses, however, is her ability to be tender. It’s gone. I think that, you know, she’s 17, and she begins to think there is no profit in tenderness.

That’s a word which matters: It’s the last word of the book.

Yes.

Hattie’s a teenage mom who just gets more terrified as these kids get sicker. But the price of coming to the North is she’s cut off from friends and family and any support in these awful moments. She’s alone. And that’s a theme you explore: Hattie has 11 children, but they never really come to rely on each other.

Yes! You would think that they would rely on each other in some way, but they never do.  I think, as an only child, you’re without much extended family at all. So I’ve always been obsessed and fascinated with how large families work, but I think I also am interested in how individuals work within the context of a large family. And also in the ways individuality, in a large family context like that, is both a good and a bad thing. If there’s any way in which Hattie’s disappointment and anger affects them adversely, and it does in various ways, it’s that they don’t ever learn to rely on each other — or anybody. That’s her biggest legacy, that you go it alone. Even though you might be surrounded by people who could assist you in some way.

The kids all sort of pay the price for what happens to to the twins.

Yeah, they really do. I was really interested in the ways in which families are both a great comfort and a support but also are not. The ultimate aloneness of being a person. And also interested, a little bit, in critiquing that. In the case of all of them, but especially with Hattie, her life could be better. Maybe financially it wouldn’t necessarily be, but certainly the comforts of having tea with your neighbor. Some things. But she refuses and is very kind of stuck on the singular particularly of her experience and refuses to think that someone else has been through the same pain. Or someone else might offer a solace, or at least recognize my situation. She just won’t do it.

The one time Hattie runs away, in hopes of a different life with a different man, it lasts about a night.

Exactly.

But there’s a bigger political context beyond this one family. You also wanted to tell a story about the Migration. The title makes reference to the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

It’s interesting. I should say that I don’t tend to write to theme. I write to character. In my own process and sometimes in others you can end up in a kind of manifesto-y situation, which is never the kind of fiction that I love best and not what I wanted to write at all. And so as it emerged, I began to understand, “This is about the Great Migration.” And I think Isabel Wilkerson’s book on this (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) was tremendously helpful in that regard because it sort of articulated experiences in a way that made things really gel for me in this book. And certainly the title is an allusion to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, so it’s a metaphor of nation building and leaving a situation of bondage and coming to a situation of freedom where the freedom is not what folks thought it would be. A metaphor that’s almost direct when you think about the Twelve Tribes of Israel, sort of after the wilderness and Egypt and all that, then there they are and everything was just like, “Along comes the Babylonians!” Everything was just constantly not going well. So I think that same metaphor is present there in many ways.

I think the other thing that happens is, at the end of the novel Hattie’s changes are metaphors for the kind of progress of the migration. At the beginning of the novel, Hattie has had these children die and she sort of loses her ability to express affection and tenderness. She loses her hope in a certain kind of way — though I do think she loves her children enormously and does believe there is something better possible for them.

That’s exactly the passage I wanted to read you. You write, “Here we are 60 years out of Georgia, she thought, a new generation has been born, and there’s still the same wounding and the same pain. I can’t allow it.” So she acts, finally.

Yes, the difference is at the end she intervenes in a way that I don’t think she thought it was possible to intervene with her children. She thought, “This is what I have to do for my children: I have to keep them alive. I have to feed them, and I have to keep them from dying.” And at the end of the novel she says, “I intervened because it’s not just about keeping this kid from dying. Maybe this child can not be wounded. She cannot be pained.” And Hattie believes it enough to intervene. This sort of interjection of hope and redemption for her that was not possible in the beginning and that has everything to do with being so far away — the last story is in 1980 — being so far away from the pains of the South and from all of that.

Two writers come in for special praise and appreciation in your acknowledgements: One who taught you in the classroom, and the other through her novels. What did Marilynne Robinson’s faith and influence mean?

It’s hard for me to be objective about Marilynne because she’s sort of life changing. She really is. You know, her sort of encouragement and endorsement and support has meant everything—also in career kinds of ways, which is certainly not to be overlooked. But just purely as a writer, she always talked about writing in a way that always made an enormous amount of sense to me — but that I had not encountered before. From the beginning, the ways she understood what it means to be good writer or what writing is in general, or what its responsibilities are, was always very clear to me. Also her sense of what character is and the primacy of character and why it’s so important. All of it was deeply illuminating.

Some of the things I had never heard before and some of the things felt almost like they had been swimming around in the back of my head but had been really vague and murky, and then there was a light. She’s enormously important in that way. My first semester at Iowa she taught a seminar on Whitman, Dickens, Thoreau. And by the time it was November you were coming out of seminars at 6:30 p.m. and it was deeply dark and deeply cold in Iowa. And that’s just sad. But you would walk out, because Marilynne had this way of impressing upon you the largeness and importance of your own soul and humanity. And it sounds so cheesy, but we would all kind of walk out feeling illuminated.

And that — that writing is some of your responsibility in writing is to tell the truth about what it means to be a human, to tell the truth about what it means to have a soul—is a kind of miraculous thing. And I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but it is a kind of miraculous thing to be sort of imbued with a reaching and intelligent and broad humanity. You can’t cut corners, you can’t cheat because it is a miraculous thing that we are this way. And I think that is the largest thing that I learned from her. I didn’t say that very succinctly, but that is the biggest thing I learned from her.

The other writer is Toni Morrison.

Talk about the breadth of the soul! In all things. I read “Beloved” 77 times. It is one of the most beautiful books that exists. It is also, on a language level, clearly, but it’s also a great sort of — I mean, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said 16,000 times before, but she changed the game. She changed the conversation about black women. And we sort of all know this, but one of the interesting things that she did that set the stage for people like me, and all of us that are writing, to do the work we want to do is — because those characters, while of course they are deeply informed by race, they are given a massive sort of breadth of humanity that is generalized. Or very specific to them but becomes generalized.

That was something that wasn’t happening to the same extent before she came along and did it. And that changed everything. I couldn’t write a book where 70 percent of it was inside people’s heads had Toni Morrison not done (what she did) — it also relieves the burden of explanation. I don’t have to explain a lot of things. I don’t have to kind of make race a central thing — even though it is central and these are black characters. She did it all. At the same time that she was spending hours and hours and hours inside these characters. She did both. That’s why she’s a genius, you know? So now there is work that I don’t have to do, which is pretty amazing.

And now here’s this novel of yours with the potential to reach as big an audience. Is it exciting? Terrifying? Now it’s up to you.

It really is. I am both incredibly grateful for the platform and deeply intimidated by it. And then think, “I have to write another book!” And I do! At some point I am going to have to find a way to disconnect myself from the noise and any kind of external expectations because otherwise you can’t write. Justin and I have both talked about this, and we’ve said it about both of our books: Neither of us had any sense of, “We’re going to be writers and we’re going to have these careers and we will write for these kinds of audiences.” You don’t write like that.

I think, “Where will I go where it will be quiet again?” But also, it will get quiet again, naturally.

And part of the work is disconnecting your expectations from the thing. I’ve been emailing with Paul Harding (who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Tinkers”) a lot. He’s a beautiful writer and he was faculty when I was there. It’s really funny, he’s always so comforting because he says it doesn’t make any difference. The Pulitzer doesn’t make any difference. It has nothing to do with my second book. It has nothing to do with my third book — outside of the fact that it puts a lot of pressure on it — but really it has nothing to do with it. And that is very true, so one has to figure out how to navigate that. It doesn’t seem very easy. At all. At all.

David Daley is the editor-in-chief of Salon

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