Author Interviews
3:18 am
Tue December 11, 2012

Oprah's Second Pick: A First-Time Novelist

Originally published on Tue December 11, 2012 10:55 am

Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey announced an updated version of her popular book club, this time called Book Club 2.0. Her first pick, Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, experienced best-seller list success thanks to what some people are calling the "Oprah bump." And last week Winfrey announced her second pick, a novel called The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, a first-time author.

Mathis was on vacation in Paris when she picked up the phone — and Winfrey was on the other end of the line. "I think I said, 'no it isn't,' " Mathis says. "And then I think I asked her if it was a joke."

Winfrey says she knew she wanted to choose this book after reading the first chapter. "They say you can't tell a book by a cover," she says, "but I just saw the title, Twelve Tribes of Hattie. My grandmother's name was Hattie Mae Lee ... and so I picked it up because of the title, and opened to the first page. I saw Philadelphia and Jubilee. You know that's some black people," she laughs. "So, I thought, let me get in here, see if I know these people, and in five pages, I did."

The book follows Hattie, who leaves Georgia at age 15 and starts a new life — and a family — in Philadelphia. Winfrey says there's a line on the fifth page that really drew her into the story, about people in Philadelphia rising " 'in the crackling cold, to stoke the furnaces in their basements. They were united in these hardships.' That line reminded me of growing up in my community in Kosciusko, Miss., where everybody is united in the same kind of circumstance, the same kind of poverty, the same kind of being in the world, and it felt immediately familiar."

Hattie's journey is part of the Great Migration — the mass movement of several million African-Americans out of the rural South over the course of the 20th century. Mathis says that even if her readers aren't familiar with that movement, they will "certainly figure out that these people had come from somewhere else, escaping from something to something else — being Philadelphia — that is unknown, and that a generation was established there. I hope very much that people will sort of recognize that, and inasmuch as it's possible, I intend to talk everyone to death about it."

Mathis' description of Hattie stepping off the train in Philadelphia, "her skirt still hemmed with Georgia mud," rang true for Winfrey. "That, to me, represented the hope that my mother had, my cousins had, my aunts had, all when they moved to Chicago," she says. "And they came in our uncles' cars, they doubled up in the back seat, and they came with their lunch boxes filled with, you know, deviled eggs and ham sandwiches, getting off those trains and buses, you know, with this hope in their hearts." Hope and fear — and Winfrey says reading The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, you can feel what it was like to get off that northbound train.

There was disappointment in store for some of the migrants — though they didn't know that when they stepped off those trains. "They didn't know you were going to end up in the tenements of Chicago, in the South Side," Winfrey says. "They were coming to milk and honey, and I know this!"

Winfrey says she remembers being a little girl on a Mississippi dirt road, "my uncles coming back in this green Oldsmobile ... so when the people come back, and they're wearing their, you know, hats, and they're dressed to the nines, you think life is like that all the time, everybody's going to have a big flashy green Oldsmobile ... because people come back, want you to think they're doing better than they really were."

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie deals with the outcome of that migration and the disappointments that followed it. "But at the same time, when we get to the end of the novel, we get to a place of redemption," Mathis says. "Hattie says, there's a point in that last chapter where she says, you know, 60 years out of Georgia and still the same wounding and the same pain, but she intervenes, however, just as her granddaughter is about to make a step that's a symbol for that same kind of pain and same kind of wounding ... and I think that's enormous also in terms of Hattie's evolution."

Hattie is already beginning to experience the "Oprah bump," and Winfrey says she's excited that the novel will now reach a wider audience. "When you read that first chapter, about Philadelphia and Jubilee, there is no mother of any color, in any country, in any part of the world who doesn't know what that pain feels like, and it makes us more alike than we are different, which is, I think, what great literature, great art does. It elevates our humanity and connects us at the same time."

"Obviously, it's a story about black folks," she adds, "but if you are living in a world where you want to know what other people's lives are like, and what they experience, it's a way of seeing that, and showing that, in a manner that I haven't encountered in quite some time in novel."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Earlier this year, Oprah Winfrey revived her popular book club - this time calling it Book Club 2.0. Her first pick, "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed, became a bestseller, thanks to what's known as the Oprah bump. Well, now Oprah has added another book to her list. It's a debut novel called "The 12 Tribes of Hattie." NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with the first-time author, Ayana Mathis, and also with Oprah Winfrey.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Ayana Mathis was in Paris when she got a phone call. The woman on the other end said she was Oprah Winfrey.

AYANA MATHIS: I think I said no, it isn't.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yes, exactly.

MATHIS: And then I...

WINFREY: That is what she said.

MATHIS: ...what, what? And then I think I asked her if it was a joke. Did I ask you if it was a joke?

WINFREY: Yes, you did. You said, no, it isn't. Then I said, well, I have your book. I just - but it's always fun to do that.

NEARY: This is Mathis's first novel, and Winfrey picked it out of a pile of books she was considering for her book club. She read one chapter and knew this was it.

WINFREY: They say you can't tell a book by a cover, but I just saw the title, "Twelve Tribes of Hattie." My grandmother's name was Hattie Mae Lee.

MATHIS: I didn't know that.

WINFREY: Yeah, yes, it is.

MATHIS: A Southern name.

WINFREY: Good Southern name, and so I know that's a Southern name. So, I picked it up because of the title, and opened to the first page. I saw Philadelphia and Jubilee. You know that's some black people.

(LAUGHTER)

WINFREY: You know anybody named Philadelphia and Jubilee and Hattie, that's some black people. So, I thought, let me get in here, see if I know these people, and in five pages, I did.

NEARY: These people are the children and grandchildren of Hattie Shepherd, one of millions of blacks who moved from south to north during the Great Migration, which began in the early 20th century. Hattie settled in Philadelphia, got married and gave birth to twins, who are deathly ill with pneumonia when the book begins.

WINFREY: There is, on page 5, a line that Ayana writes that all over Philadelphia the people rose in the crackling cold to stoke the furnaces in their basements. They were united in these hardships. That line reminded me of growing up in my community in Kosciusko, Mississippi, where everybody is united in the same kind of circumstance, the same kind of poverty, the same kind of, you know, being in the world, and it felt immediately familiar, I would have to say.

NEARY: And this story begins with the Great Migration, because Hattie moves to Philadelphia from Georgia. Maybe there are some Americans out there that don't know too much about that, and do you think they're going to learn more by reading this book?

MATHIS: I certainly hope so. I mean I think it's - someone sort of described it as being set against the backdrop of. So I think that even if someone can't put a name to exactly what's happening, they will certainly figure out that these people had come from somewhere else, escaping from something to something else - being Philadelphia - that is unknown, and that a generation was established there. I hope very much that people will sort of recognize that, and inasmuch as it's possible, I intend to sort of talk everyone to death about it, so...

WINFREY: And also, Lynn, may I say that, you know, on page 10 where she writes: Hattie clambered from the train, her skirt still hemmed with Georgia mud, the dream of Philadelphia round as a marble in her mouth and the fear of it, a needle in her chest - that, to me, represented the hope that my mother had, my cousins had, my aunts had, all when they moved to Chicago. Getting off those trains and buses, you know, with this hope in their hearts. And you know, perhaps needles too. It had to be so much fear.

MATHIS: It had to be.

WINFREY: And this book relates in such an intimate way that you can feel what it likes to get off that train and stand there and look out at that big city when you just came up from Georgia with the Georgia mud still in your hem.

NEARY: And there was great hope but there was also great disappointment.

WINFREY: Whoa, yes.

MATHIS: Certainly.

WINFREY: But they didn't know that at the time. They were coming for a better life. They didn't know you were going to end up in the tenements of Chicago on the South Side. They didn't know that. They thought they were coming to milk and honey. You know why? And I know this, Lynn - because I remember as a little girl in Mississippi, barefoot standing there on the dirt road, my uncles coming back in this green Oldsmobile.

MATHIS: Oh, the people that come back.

WINFREY: The people that come back. So, when the people come back, and they're wearing their, you know, hats and they're dressed to the nines, you think life is like that all the time, that everybody's going to have a big flashy green Oldsmobile. And then you get up there and you realize it's not, that that was a little show. 'Cause people come back, want you to think they're doing better than they really were.

NEARY: And, Ayana, you take this story forward. You take this story 50 years. I mean, you follow this family and the children of this family and see where the Great Migration ultimately took them. I mean, what do you learn about being black in America through the story of this fictional family?

MATHIS: Well, it's interesting, it sort of speaks to a point that you made when you said in addition to the hope there was a lot of disappointment. And I think certainly there was. I think certainly there was a lot of hardship and a lot of disappointment. But at the same time, when we get to the end of the novel, we get to a place of redemption. Hattie says, there's a point in that last chapter where she says 60 years out of Georgia and still the same wounding and the same pain. She intervenes, however, just as her granddaughter is about to make a step that's a symbol for that same kind of pain and same kind of wounding. Hattie finds it possible to intervene and she attempts to save that child from that kind of pain. And I think that's enormous also in terms of Hattie's evolution.

NEARY: What were you ambitions for this book when you first wrote it? I mean now you're going to have, I would think, a much wider audience than you might have had otherwise.

MATHIS: Just a wee bit.

WINFREY: Already, already. Come on, Lynn. Come on, Lynn. Listen, I get so excited. You know, I think we announced it last week and after the first 24 hours it was climbing to the bestseller list. And for me, that means more people, more eyes on it. It's so exciting. I heard that it crashed the Amazon website. So, that's always exciting, a crash.

(LAUGHTER)

MATHIS: Indeed.

NEARY: You said, Oprah, that this is a book that so many blacks can identify with. What does it say to a larger audience? You have people who follow your book club from all kinds of backgrounds.

WINFREY: I think it allows us to see that we are all more alike than different. When you read that first chapter, about Philadelphia and Jubilee, there is no mother of any color, in any country, in any part of the world who doesn't know what that pain feels like, and it makes us more alike than we are different, which is, I think, what great literature, great art does. It elevates our humanity and connects us at the same time. So obviously, it's a story about black folks, but if you are living in a world where you want to know what other people's lives are like, and what they experience, it's a way of seeing that, and showing that in a manner that I haven't encountered in quite some time in novel.

NEARY: Well, let the conversation begin.

WINFREY: Let the conversation begin. We've already started here on MORNING EDITION.

NEARY: That's right. And it was great talking to you both.

MATHIS: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: And good luck with the book.

MATHIS: Thank you.

NEARY: I think you're off to a pretty good start, Ayana.

MATHIS: Not so bad, not so bad.

NEARY: Oprah Winfrey and Ayana Mathis, author of the new book "The 12 Tribes of Hattie." Tomorrow, a closer look at the latest version of Oprah's book club. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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