Assistant Fiction Director Patrick Vogelpohl penned this profile of Ayana Mathis.
Before Ayana Mathis earned praise for her debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, she was a standout student at the 2011 Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.
“She was clearly a gifted and exciting writer who came to us as she was finishing up her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop,” said Andrea Bewick, the conference’s managing director.
Fiction director Lakin Khan even remembers Mathis’s manuscript for admission. “I was reading a complete piece, not an attempt. She has such confidence on the page. I mean, I forgot I was reading an application and was just reading the story.”
Three years later, after her debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie was selected for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2013, Ms. Mathis now teaches at the Writer’s Foundry, an MFA program at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She has also taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
This summer, Ms. Mathis will return to the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference as a faculty member in the fiction track. She recently answered some questions about her time in St. Helena as a teacher and a student.
What do you want your conference students to achieve by the end of your time together?
I hope they’ll have a better sense of where they are with whatever particular story they’ve turned in. Obviously, only so much can be done in a week, but students can certainly gain a real sense of where they are with a project, and how to move forward with it.
What are a couple ways for your students to prepare for your workshop?
There isn’t any particular preparation, I don’t think. They should turn in work that they feel is coherent enough for us to talk about meaningfully. It should also be work that they have some real questions about, or are feeling frustrated about in terms of craft issues or how to proceed. Other than that, they should bring open hearts and minds and a spirit of honest critique!
What are some lessons that you learned as a student at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference?
Adam Haslett was there as guest faculty the year I was a student, and he gave a truly phenomenal craft talk about truth telling in fiction, about not using narrative to be dishonest in terms of describing the human experience. It drew on his personal experience as well as an essay by Stanley Cavell called “The Avoidance of Love.” Just an incredible talk.
What are some traits that your best students at both Iowa and the Writer’s Foundry share?
Curiosity about the world and a desire to explore that curiosity on the page. The best writers don’t have answers, they have questions.
Watch our Public Readings & Lectures page and mark your calendars to join us to hear Ayana during conference week, July 27 – August 1.