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When a books editor at O Magazine expressed interest in reviewing her debut novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie (Knopf), author Ayana Mathis was thrilled. “They said they needed a quote from me right away and I couldn’t figure out why, but I thought ‘sure’ and sent it off. I was expecting a fifteen minute phone conversation with the books editor.” Little did she know that Oprah herself would be the one making the call. “I picked up the phone and she said, ‘This is Oprah.’ And I said, ‘No it isn’t.’”
Oprah had personally selected Ayana Mathis’ powerful debut novel as her second pick for the newly launched Oprah Book Club 2.0. Since then, the book has taken off. According to Oprah, the day the selection was announced, so many people tried to buy The Twelve Tribes of Hattie on Amazon that the page crashed. Ayana Mathis has since been profiled twice in The New York Times, and has spent the last two weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.
This attention is well-deserved. Mathis’ debut novel, which spans 60 years and details the trials and tribulations of Hattie Sheperd and her 11 children and one grandchild, is masterfully written. Capturing a range of settings and time periods, from a Southern jazz club in the 1940s to a beach in Vietnam in the 1960s, each member of the family is rendered with subtly and honesty—and while they aren’t always sympathetic, they are always authentic and alive.
Mathis sat down with Lambda Literary to talk about the way this novel took shape, how the legacy of Toni Morrison and other early African American writers informed her writing, and the many unexpected forms that love can take.
This book spans almost 60 years. What kinds of research did you do for it?
I think I really fact-checked more than I researched. There’s a chapter called “Ruthie” in which Hattie runs off and she’s in a car for a long portion of the chapter. Since it takes place in the fifties, I checked to see whether they would be wearing seatbelts or not. Or if I needed to know if a certain jazz musician did indeed record a certain song at a certain time. But I didn’t do much research other than that.
Edward P. Jones came to a workshop at Iowa [The Iowa Writers’ Workshop] when I was there and people constantly asked him about his research process because The Known World is just so thoroughly wrought. He said, “I really don’t do much research. The thing is, if you write well enough and you say to people you are in 1853 in Virginia, people will believe you until you have someone answering their cell phone.” And I think that’s really true. I think doing too much research would have felt like I was writing a set of facts and I don’t do well with that.
You grew up in Philadelphia where the majority of the book takes place. How much did you pull from your own childhood for this book?
Not a lot. Both my grandparents came from Virginia, so they were both Great Migration people and they had a lot of children. Certainly Hattie is loosely inspired by my own grandmother. I grew up with my mother telling me little snippets of stories about extended family members that would become points of fascination and they would grow into these kinds of myths. If there was a genesis of this book that was partially it, but it is very much a work of fiction.
Hattie is such a fascinating and complicated character. Did she come to you first or did other characters appear to you first?
The children came to me before Hattie did. Hattie appeared in the first three stories I wrote but in a much more minor role. I thought I was writing a book solely about the children, but she just kept appearing and became a growing fascination. By about the third story it became clear that she was going to be the beating heart of this novel.
The first chapter seems so crucial to setting the tone for the book and making Hattie a sympathetic character even when she does things later that are very unsympathetic. Did you always know that would be the first chapter?
I think the first story that I wrote, which doesn’t end up in its original form in the book, was kind of a strange hybrid of what is now the first chapter and the last chapter of the book. It was not anything like the first and last chapter of the book now, except that there was a little girl that was sick and there was an older woman who had foster children. Those two distinct bits became the first and last chapter. But the first chapter as it is now didn’t come to be until I was more than halfway done with the book. It’s awfully hard to write a first chapter first, for me. The first chapter is kind of dictated by what the book needs and it’s hard to know what the book needs until it’s almost done.
Your book has such a strong and purposeful structure so it’s interesting to see how you came to it.
Well, I didn’t even realize I was writing a book until probably the third story in, and I didn’t necessarily know—even though the first three stories are very similar in sensibility—that I was writing about members of the same family. And then it was like oh these are all children of the same mother and it’s that woman from my first chapter whose children died.
You were talking on NPR about your interest in the Great Migration time period. How did you get so passionate about that subject?
It’s hard to pinpoint. Certainly I knew what the Great Migration was and I had studied it and read about it and I’d taken all sort of African-American literature classes in undergrad. So again, when I was writing and was at maybe the third or fourth story and I was looking at these characters, I realized this was a first generation family and that these were migration people. But I didn’t know that in the beginning. I didn’t set out to write a Great Migration story. Also, for me, writing from an agenda or theme or a platform doesn’t work. I have to write from character so the characters really dictated when they were and what they were doing. And I think, of course, the things we write about rise up from our life experiences and our pools of knowledge and—whatever we read—they become relevant in strange and useful ways.
There is the main migration that Hattie and her mother and sister take from Georgia to Philadelphia, but there are a lot of mini migrations to and from the South. Floyd and Six go back, and Pearl goes back to live there. But Hattie never does. What do you think the South represents for Hattie?
Something that was very present for me when I was writing the novel was notions of class and colorism. I think that Hattie thinks of the South as a horrible oppressive, terrifying place. She hates the South. Unlike August, her husband, who has great nostalgia for the South. But I think she also had a notion that she would come to the North and be able to recreate the same middle class situation she had in the South without, however, all those horrors and terrors which made her class situation in the South so precarious. I think she looks at [the South] as a step backwards, a step into oppression, and a kind of negation of what her purposes were in trying to establish her family in the North.
Do you think that August would have ever returned to the South if Hattie had wanted to?
I wonder. My tendency is to think that August’s nostalgia is purely that. He doesn’t want to return to the South, but there are so many things in the North that he finds to be cold and disappointing and lonely making. I think his vision of the South is a place that is warmer and kinder in certain ways. But Hattie is an absolute kind of figure. It’s either this or that. She doesn’t bend and she doesn’t waiver. I think one of her faults is that she doesn’t always see gray areas and isn’t able to see where some compromises might actually be quite helpful. August, despite the fact that he’s kind of a cad and fails a lot, is able to see the nuances of things that Hattie refuses to see or can’t see. He’s also able to give affection and tenderness in his way, and Hattie’s not able to do that.
Do you have a favorite child?
Probably Bell and Floyd.
Was Floyd one of the first chapters that you wrote?
No, he was about in the middle, but that story was very trying. I love that chapter and I love Floyd as a person, but that was one of the harder stories in the book to write. I kept getting it wrong. I wasn’t sure where to place him in Hattie’s affections and once I understood that he was very special to her, I wasn’t sure how that could be represented and told. And then I also kept getting his [experience in the South] wrong. There was an older version of the chapter where his [male lover], Lafayette, has a very violent run in at the bar. The run in as it is now is violent enough, but there was one where he really got beaten up. I actually showed it to my friend Justin [author Justin Torres] and was like, “There’s something wrong.” (laughs) And he helped me a lot with it. Because Floyd is the only gay child in this family there’s a temptation to reinvent the wheel and do this long coming out story that includes all the coming out details we’ve all heard before. I was trying to make too much happen in that chapter. There was no reason for me to create a whole coming out narrative and that’s sort of what it was.
What I liked so much about the treatment of Floyd’s sexuality and the treatment of race and class in the book in general was how subtle it was. In some ways, the daily, quiet humiliations that happened were so much more devastating than violent confrontations.
Yes, I think the problem with the Floyd chapter when I started it was that it was heavy-handed. “Oh he’s gay and it’s the South and nobody likes that!” It was not subtle at all. And I think amazingly, turning to race, we have this incredible legacy of black writers who have described to us in various ways the rigors and terrors and humiliations of the Jim Crow South and of pre-Civil Rights America and thanks to their work, I don’t have to get on that platform with a sign in the same way that they did. Thanks to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, I can make the choice to say, I’m going to be really subtle about this and if someone misses it they miss it. I don’t think they will, but all of the incredible writers that came before me had to do some very heavy lifting that I don’t have to do.
Did you think about audience when you were writing this book?
No, I think that would have really messed me up. It’s a worry I have about the next book I write because this book has gotten such a huge amount of attention. But I hope not.
Bell and Floyd are your favorite. I don’t know if you can say you don’t like any of the children since they’re essentially your children now too, but do you have any least favorites?
Alice was a bit of a challenge because she is so deeply wedded to her vision of what she thinks the world should be like, and what it means to be a well-off person. I think I had a slight antipathy towards her because she’s so dismissive of everyone. She was harder to write, but one of my big goals for the book was that everyone, whether they were likeable or not, was still fully human. In earlier iterations of the chapter, Alice was a little less likeable. It became apparent that she was being treated unfairly, by me (laughs). And honestly, that chapter was the hardest of all the chapters to write, even harder than Floyd.
It is also the only chapter where two siblings share a chapter, and her relationship with her brother Billups is really complicated. It’s supposedly based on a shared secret which bonded them, but then that same shared secret starts to rip them apart. I still read it and think I’m not sure I did it its justice.
Do you think Hattie gets to a point by the end of the book where she is able to soften and show love?
I think so. I think the important thing about Hattie is that she loves those children and she always did. I mean, her first children died when she herself was still a child and so, very quickly, her sense of what it meant to love babies was to simply keep them alive in the most literal sense. She was so traumatized by the death of her children and the disappointment of the North that I don’t think it makes her unable to love, but it does destroy her capacity for tenderness.
By the end of the book she sees a possibility for love being something different, partly because she’s an older woman and has reflected on who she’s been and who her children think she is, so there’s a personal evolution. At the same time, here’s where the arch of the Great Migration comes in. By the end, when we get to 1980 and Hattie sees Sala about to head down a path that in her mind will result in the same kind of wounding that everyone has been through all these years, she intervenes. And the reason that she intervenes, partially, is because we are so many years out of the South and there is a possibility in her mind of a life that isn’t basically subsistence, that there really is a possibility for hope and redemption. I think that is the larger metaphor of the Great Migration in general, that there is a possibility for Black humanity that did not exist in 1925 and certainly not in 1925 in Georgia.
Hattie is an impressive arguer. I feel like I could learn a lot from her verbal skills. Did those long, brutal arguments she had with her husband, August, come naturally to you?
I don’t know where they came from. I thought to myself, “Am I really mad? Do I want to get into really verbally violent fights and say terrible things to people?” Both of those bigger fights she had with August really just came as they did. I think as much as there are things about Hattie that remain mysterious to me, there are also things about Hattie that are very, very clear. Among Hattie’s many flaws, she’s also very invested in class and color, and the way those things are expressed in diction. At that time, everyone knew that light-skinned was better than brown-skinned and that if you spoke really clearly without a Southern drawl, you were higher up on the food chain.
None of these people have any money, Hattie’s family and the people in her neighborhood are not part of the black professional class that existed at that time, so hierarchies are created by what neighborhood you live in, how light or dark you are, whether you speak with a southern accent or whether you don’t. Hattie and August are very aware of this—so when things get rough, that’s when Hattie goes for the jugular. Like, where can I most hurt you and what can I say to you, to which you can’t have a real reply?
Why do you think Pearl, Hattie’s sister, decided to go back to the South?
I’m not sure, but I think we’d all be in a lot of trouble if every black person had left the South (laughs). The South would be in a great deal of difficulty. And thankfully, there was an educated black middle class that stayed in the South and did a lot of work towards making it a lot better. Pearl is one of those people, though she is objectionable in other ways. And she’s needed and I wanted someone to be one of those people. Also, I didn’t want the book to seem like some kind of mass condemnation of the South.
Floyd’s chapter is a favorite of mine, partially because he gets to be an amazing trumpet player. Do you think writing gives you the chance to sort of inhabit someone else’s life? Or, maybe you are actually an amazing trumpet player?
I am! (laughs) No, I’m not. I think writing gives you a chance to indulge your fantasies. Not that I would be a trumpet player, but I think I would be a singer. I’m 39 now and somewhere around 32 I started making this joke that I had reached the end of my super hero years. When you’re in your 20s, especially your early 20s, there’s just this vast possibility of anythingness. You feel like, well, will I become an astrophysicist? I might! And then you turn 32 and you’re like, yeah, that’s not going to happen. I will change and grow my whole life, but the sense of this ever-receding horizon in which absolutely anything in the world could possibly happen goes away. And writing lets you inhabit some of those people that you won’t actually ever be.
So if you could be any kind of singer, what kind of singer would you be?
Oh, I don’t know. I would either be ‘Cabaret’ style Liza Minelli or else Leela James or Mary J. Blige.
Maybe a combination of the two: by day Liza Minelli, by night Mary J. Blige?
Yeah (laughs). Yes, that’s it.
Are you the type of person who sits down and works on a project all day, every day? Did you take breaks?
I procrastinate a lot. I’ll have an eight hour writing day but probably end up writing for only about three and a half or four hours. I’d be writing and then I’d be like, lunch! Let’s see what’s on the internet. Shoes! I came to realize that that was somehow part of my process to waste a whole lot of time. When I write now I know that intellectually, but still, when I sit down to work I’m like, “You are not doing anything! You have been staring at the ceiling and thinking about doughnuts for an hour!”
What are you working on next?
I have an idea for a second novel, but it’s very tentative and it keeps morphing on me. It’s a very different process than The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Someone told me, and I think this is a very astute comment, that it feels like you’ve been writing your first novel your whole life so it comes out with a kind of force, but the second novel I’m finding is a very different process. I’m actually setting out with the intention to write a book and with the first novel I didn’t even know I was writing a novel until I was some ways into it.
Do you write short stories as well?
No I don’t. I do read a lot of short stories and it is a form that I have a tremendous amount of admiration for but my strength is not compression, which is what great short stories do. They compress enormous amounts into a small space and in the moment they are deeply powerful and resonant. My strength is expansion. Thank God this book is a novel because otherwise it would have been like a bunch of unsuccessful short stories. If there is any power in this book it’s the cumulative effect of all these characters’ individual stories over an arc of time.