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The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

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A New York Times Notable Book
An NPR Best Book of the Year
A Buzzfeed Best Book of the Year

In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd, swept up by the tides of the Great Migration, flees Georgia and heads north. Full of hope, she settles in Philadelphia to build a better life. Instead she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment, and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins are lost to an illness that a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children, whom she raises with grit, mettle, and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them to meet a world that will not be kind. Their lives, captured here in twelve luminous threads, tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage—and a nation’s tumultuous journey.

Exclusive: Amazon Asks Ayana Mathis

Oprah and Ayana MathisOprah with Ayana Mathis, author of Book Club 2.0’s December 2012 selection, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.

Q. Describe Oprah’s Book Club 2.0® in one sentence (or, better yet, in 10 words).

A. An impassioned and powerful declaration: Books matter.

Q. What’s on your bedside table or Kindle?

A. I’m often reading three or four things at a time, so I invent odd categories to keep them straight. The bedside table is home to read before-bed-but-not-on-the-subway books (heavy hardcovers like Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies), mysteries/thrillers (like Robert Wilson’s A Small Death in Lisbon) and things I ought to read but are slooow going (I am now on my fifth month with Augustine’s The City of God).

Q. Top three to five favorite books of all time?

A.Very hard to answer! Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Known World by Edward P. Jones; Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson; The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner; Cane by Jean Toomer.

Q. Important book you never read?

A. Ulysses. And also Portrait of a Lady, which shames me.

Q. Book that changed your life (or book that made you want to become a writer)?

A. I wrote throughout my childhood and thought I wanted to be a poet, but that was more a fantasy than a goal. I was 15 when someone gave me Sonia Sanchez’s, I’ve Been a Woman—that book was a revolution in my life. I realized that I actually could be a poet, that there were black women who were writing–right then, in that moment.

Q. Memorable author moment?

A. This one? I’m so new to being an author (distinctly different from the solitary enterprise of being a writer) that every moment is unforgettable and stunning.

Q. What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?

A. Anything Wonder Woman can do! Roping bad guys with a lasso of truth, deflecting bullets with my bracelets! Of course, I’d trade all of that for mindreading.

Q. What are you currently stressed about or psyched about?

A. I’m psyched about writing some essays on the nature of faith and belief. Writing essays is a very different process from writing fiction. I’m having a hard time with them, which is incredibly exhilarating and incredibly stressful.

Q. What’s your most treasured possession?

A. My grandfather’s diaries. He kept them secretly for over fifty years and gave them to me a few years before he died.

Q. Pen envy–book you wish you’d written?

A. Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah or Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City.

Q. Who’s your current author crush?

A. Eudora Welty. There’s never a wasted word in her short stories; so much power and meaning packed into a few short pages.

Q. What’s your favorite method of procrastination? Temptation? Vice?

A. That’s an embarrassingly long list: clothes shopping online, returning clothes I’ve bought online, cooking elaborate time-consuming dinners, farmer’s markets, Netflix Instant (grrr, it’s ruining my life).

Q. What do you collect?

A. Ways to procrastinate.

Q. Best piece of fan mail you ever got?

A. Oh dear. I’ve never gotten any. I’m feeling a little inadequate now.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. Trying to find a way into my second novel, the idea is there but the rest isn’t. Right now it’s a bit like stumbling around in a dark room.

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