Ayana Mathis’ debut garners plenty of buzz

Felicia R. Lee / New York Times News Service /

Published Dec 16, 2012 at 04:00AM

NEW YORK — The interview ended a bit later than expected, so Ayana Mathis’ nails were going to have to make it to Chicago without a manicure. And she still had to scurry to clean her one-bedroom apartment and fill it with fresh flowers for a photo shoot. But at least a car was scheduled to whisk this first-time novelist to La Guardia Airport.

Less than a week ago Mathis was just another promising writer whose debut novel about a troubled family, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” was generating buzz in book circles. Then came Oprah Winfrey’s public anointment of the novel as a book club selection Wednesday. Things changed: scores of “friend” requests on Mathis’ Facebook page, one especially surreal day in which she forgot to eat, and the Chicago taping of a segment for Winfrey’s OWN network, scheduled to run in February.

Knopf rushed copies of the novel into bookstores ahead of a planned January arrival, and an announced first printing of 50,000 copies swelled to 125,000. Mathis — poised, animated yet also quite private — was pushed onto a big stage to talk about herself and her writing.

“I’m permanently stunned right now,” she said the other day over coffee in a noisy bistro in Brooklyn, where she lives with her partner, Nikki Terry, a painter. “It’s terrifying and deeply fortunate to get this much attention for a first novel. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation.”

Especially for a writer who, at 39, had never published a lick of fiction before.

Mathis grew up with a struggling single mother and supported herself over the years as a fact checker for magazines. She began writing fiction only a short time before getting into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop three years ago.

There Marilynne Robinson, the award-winning novelist and essayist, became her teacher, thesis adviser and mentor, putting her in touch with an agent who quickly sold her book to Knopf.

“In cases like hers it’s almost like encouraging a colleague rather than teaching a student,” Robinson said in an interview. She recalled how Mathis would quietly show up at her home to read her books on theology, one of her interests. “She’s kind of a force of nature, in a thoughtful and elegant way. I think she’ll make a wonderful public presence. She just has this strong sense of life. All the intelligence in the world doesn’t turn into much unless you have that.”

“The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” was written in Iowa in just under two years, after Mathis abandoned a fictionalized memoir that never jelled. The 243-page novel tells the story of Hattie and August Shepherd; their 11 children and one granddaughter make up the 12 tribes. They are part of the Great Migration that brought waves of African-Americans from the terror of the South to the promise of Northern cities.

Each chapter has a date (from 1925 to 1980) and focuses on one or more members of the Shepherd family. It begins with the firstborn twins, Jubilee and Philadelphia, so named because of their mother’s journey from Georgia to Philadelphia. But the babies die, Hattie’s soul withers, and she turns bitter and unloving.

That lack of love, as well as other travails, causes suffering to ripple through the generations. One daughter, Cassie, has a mental illness. Six, a child preacher, is scarred emotionally and physically. Floyd is a musician forced to hide his homosexuality.

“Mathis has a gift for imbuing her characters’ stories with an epic dimension that recalls Toni Morrison’s writing, and her sense of time and place and family will remind some of Louise Erdrich, but her elastic voice is thoroughly her own,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in her review in The New York Times, one of several early raves for the book.

Mathis was an only child whose parents separated when she was around 2. She grew up mostly in a working-class section of the Germantown neighborhood in Philadelphia. Her mother struggled with depression and they moved around a lot, she said. He mother was also extraordinarily loving and stressed her daughter’s potential, Mathis said.

“I grew up very much with my mother, and not my extended family, but I grew up with snippets of stories about my family and they became of mythic proportions,” Mathis said of the novel’s genesis in stories about her mother’s dead sibling or an uncle haunted by the Vietnam War. (Still, most of the book is totally imagined, she said.)

“Twelve Tribes” started out as three separate stories about three of the characters in the novel, but her best friend, Justin Torres, also a novelist, helped her realize that she had the makings of a novel. She decided to create a tribe of 12, an allusion to the biblical Jacob’s 12 sons.

“This people who came out of the South did build a new nation in the North and changed our country, politically, culturally, in all ways,” she explained.

Still, Mathis said she was not interested in simply documenting the phenomenon of the Great Migration nor focusing only on the scars and horrors of racism. She wanted to get at the emotional complexities of her characters.

“I set out to write a novel about an in-between generation — from the Great Migration to civil rights — and people suffering from a kind of mother-want and grappling with their own demons and psychology,” she said. “I also set out to write a novel about family, but being alone.”

Still, it took Mathis a long time to find her voice and her way. She attended New York University, Temple University and the New School without earning an undergraduate degree. “I sort of wandered off,” she said. She took writing courses and mostly wrote poetry, never considering herself a fiction writer. An avid traveler, she even ended up living in Italy for four years, learning the language and acquiring some cooking skills.

A year or so after her return to New York she found her way to a private creative writing class taught by Jackson Taylor, a novelist. She was still bouncing around at fact-checking jobs. “She came to the class with the skills of the magazine — deadline, fluidity, structure,” Taylor said. “But then she blossomed in a forum where she could explore and explode her poetic gifts.”

She also met Torres in that class. When he took off for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it prompted her to apply.

“I had this idea that to be a good writer you wrote these pretty sentences,” Mathis said. “The biggest thing I learned at Iowa was that being a good writer has everything to do with telling a truth about what it means to be a human being.”