5 Minutes With:

Ayana Mathis

Ayana for site

Our featured author is Ayana Mathis, whose debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie has been picked by Oprah Winfrey as one of her book club 2.0 picks, and is already a New York Times bestseller. In this exclusive interview, Ayana talks to Windmill about her literary inspirations, guilty pleasures and her favourite bookshop.

Why do you write?

Perhaps that answer ought to have something to do with my work’s eventual audience, and certainly that comes into play once a project is finished. But in reality writing is extraordinarily private and internal — it gives me a clarity of mind that I don’t have otherwise, and an outlet for my strange imaginings and odd anxieties and obsessions. And there is also something about how difficult it is, about how striving to do something to which I am not adequate gives me purpose and direction.

What’s your inspiration for writing?

Language, in large part. When I am stuck or weary, I’ll pull out a favorite novel or collection of poetry, and the sheer beauty of the language compels me back to my notebook. And of course, there are the mysteries – these things about our humanity that elude description, that are outside of language — that writers are so often trying to articulate. Of course, if I could be a singer I wouldn’t ever write a word. Music is capable of so much, it succeeds where language fails.

What were you doing before you became a writer?

Fact-checking and freelance writing for magazines for nearly a decade. And I spent my early and mid-twenties waiting tables.

Who are your literary idols?

Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Angela Carter.

And non-literary idols?

I know I ought to say Barack Obama or Martin Luther King or Shirley Chisholm. But I’m going to be really honest and say… Joan Rivers (also Louis CK and Dave Chapelle. What can I say, great comedians are often the most brilliant social commentators around). I know, I know, Joan’s turned into a big joke, but if you can get beyond all the plastic surgery, you’ll find that she is a wise woman and very funny and deeply intelligent and a tad crazy. These are incredible qualities in a human being. (Just watch Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work).

Favourite book?

That’s impossible to answer accurately. For now I will say Beloved, Toni Morrison and The Sound and The Fury, William Faulkner, but that isn’t exhaustive!

Favourite film?

Usually the one I last saw, I’m awfully (overly?) susceptible to movie magic.

Favourite band/album/song (pick any, or all three)?

I’m not even going to try to be succinct. At the very least I’d need categories. Favorite jazz singer (Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington). Jazz musician (Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane). Hip-hop group (A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy). Individual artist (Lil’ Kim, Jay Electronica). Alternative band (Bon Iver), vocalist… You get the idea. I could do this for days.

Where are you right now?

On my couch in my apartment in Brooklyn. A neighbor somewhere in my apartment building is playing Christmas carols and ‘O Holy Night’ is coming in faintly through the open window in my living room.

Your guiltiest pleasure?

Really bad sheet cake with thick terrible icing. Also cupcakes of the same oversweet and gooey variety.

What do you do to relax?

Cook. Preferably something elaborate that involves special trips to the grocery for obscure ingredients following by hours of simmering. I make lots of ragus and things like that, and boeuf bourguignon at least once each winter.

Approximately how many books do you own?

Yikes! I’ve never counted. They do seem to be closing in on me a bit, maybe 600?

Where were you born?

Philadelphia.

Tell us about a book you own that you’ve never read.

Oh dear, there are quite a few of them accusing me from my bookcase. Lately Jorge Luis Borges’ The Aleph has been mocking me with particular vehemence. I like to think I don’t read it because it’s hostile toward me, but really I’m just not that smart.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs!!!!

Any bad habits?

The occasional cigarette.

Hunter S. Thompson used to type out The Great Gatsby to know what it felt like to write it. What would be your choice?

I’m not nearly so capable of dramatically imagining as Hunter, I think I’d just get bored. But I might try with one of Angela Carter’s stories — just because I can’t fathom a writer or a mind more different than my own.

How many places have you lived?

Quite a few. Maybe 30?

If you could be anywhere now, where would it be and who with?

Naples with my partner and my best friend.

What are your writing habits?

When I am in the middle of a project I write most days of the week, usually from the early afternoon until 7pm or 8pm (when I begin to get hungry for dinner, that’s it. My brain turns off in preparation for vittles and cocktails). At the moment I am finding my way into the next book, which involves a lot of casting about in the dark. I haven’t any momentum so it’s much more sporadic.

What are you reading now?

Madeline Miller’s wonderful Song of Achilles and Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless.

What and where is your favourite bookshop?

Greenlight Books — it’s in Fort Greene, a neighborhood very near mine in Brooklyn.

Who is largely undiscovered and should be read?

Jean Toomer. He was a Harlem Renaissance writer who wrote, among other things, a book called Cane that defies categorization. Lots of people haven’t heard of him but that book is a marvel.

Where is your favourite place to read?

On a train.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is out now, published by Windmill.

More 5 minutes with articles

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Meet Windmill Books

Windmill is the online home of literary publishers Windmill Books, William Heinemann and Hutchinson. We offer readers exclusive interviews, extracts, videos and articles every day. Sign up to our newsletter for even more.