After reading the first chapter of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Oprah knew she had found her second Book Club 2.0 pick. On yesterday’s Super Soul Sunday, she sat down for an interview with author Ayana Mathis.
Ayana started by describing her experiences at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Grateful for this opportunity to work with Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson and other up-and-coming writers, she talked openly about the hopes, dreams and frustrations that lie behind those hallowed walls. When she arrived at the workshop, she was working on another book, a fictionalized memoir. At one critique session, Robinson suggested that her characters were “insufficiently complex.” Ayana took the criticism to heart, had her ugly cry and then turned to writing short stories. Her first story was a hybrid of the first and last chapters of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.
Inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, Ayana set her book against the backdrop of the Great Migration. Starting around 1916, over six million African Americans migrated north to escape the poverty and hardships of the south. The main character, Hattie Shepherd, is a strong but flawed woman who fiercely loves her eleven children but cannot demonstrate that love. While each chapter focuses on a different child, Hattie is the glue that holds the book together.
In writing this novel, Ayana wanted her readers to encounter a fully, fleshed out black humanity. To that end, she got into the soul of each character and spent as much time as possible in their minds.
When asked about her childhood, Ayana admitted that there was little money and she and her mother often lived in neighborhoods where they couldn’t afford to pay the rent. In spite of their limited circumstances, Ayana was given an enormous amount of freedom and chose her own life path.
Extremely grateful for the success of her debut novel, Ayana admits to being permanently stunned. She still thinks of the book as a Word document.
Important lessons from Marilynne Robinson…
- Primacy of character.
- Importance of truth telling.
- Make sure you have five reasons for each action your character takes.
- Our humanity means we don’t have to be completely defined by race.
- We find companions and mirrors in literature.
- There is an arc of human history that bends toward social justice.
- Character development is a process cultivated over time. Reward comes from reworking.