The Interview with Deesha Philyaw
Hello to new subscribers and welcome to Sitting in Silence, a newsletter for writers, readers, and thinkers. The Interview is an ongoing feature for the newsletter. I love talking to writers about inspiration, craft, and life. They never disappoint. So, from time to time, you’ll find these intimate and enlightening conversations right here. This issue’s conversation is with the great Deesha Philyaw.
Deesha burst on the scene with her critically-acclaimed The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. She’s also a friend. We first came to know each other due to our selection as Grisham Writers-in-Residence. I was the 2020-2021 recipient. She’s the 2022-2023 winner. Curiously, we didn’t meet in-person until AWP 2022 while we were producing this interview. You’ll find what I already know about Deesha. She’s thoughtful, practical, and immensely talented.
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Maurice: What are your earliest memories of reading or writing stories?
Deesha: My earliest memory...I remember reading The Monster at the End of this Book starring lovable, furry old Grover! But I talked to my mom about this once, and she said, "You don't remember the pigeon book? We read that one a million times!" She was quite disappointed that I have no recollection of reading the pigeon book. As for writing stories, my memory is fuzzy. Creative writing wasn't encouraged in the schools I attended, but I remember acting out these school-centered narratives at home in which I was a teacher with a classroom of students. I kept meticulous attendance, as well as records of who did and didn't do their homework. I assigned them group projects. I called their parents if they weren't doing their work. One Christmas, I got a tape recorder, and I recorded myself reading picture books, including the beep when it was time for my imaginary students to turn the page as they read along with the recording. This was life in the late 1970s for a bookish Virgo only child, lol.
The first creative thing I remember writing was a poem, in 6th grade. It was called, "The Lazy Crew," and I performed it in front of the whole school for a competition. I dressed up and everything, wielding a foil-covered cardboard sword that I made to amplify the poem's narrative. And I'm proud to report that I won, beating out classmates who recited other people's poems like Poe's "Annabel Lee" and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade."
Maurice: You were a very hands-on student and teacher! I love imagining you on that stage with that sword.
You published one of the hottest books in recent memory, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which won so many major prizes I'm not sure have them all: The Story Prize, the PEN/Faulkner, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. AND it was a finalist for the National Book Award. Before we talk more about the book, tell us about the journey to the book. When did you start writing "seriously?" And how did you learn how to write? When did you know you were a writer?
Deesha: I started writing as an escape from long days at home with a toddler as a stay-at-home mom, around 2000 or so. I got serious about writing over the next several years, but in 2005 when I got divorced and needed to make a living, I made the decision to write professionally. And I should put "write" in quotation marks, because in addition to freelance writing, I did many writing-adjacent things to make a living: editing, copywriting, column writing, reviews, coaching and teaching writing, and so on. Over time, my fiction writing got pushed to the side because most of my time was devoted to doing work that paid, and also to raising my kids. But I never stopped writing fiction. I tried my hands at writing novels early on and never quite hit the mark, and I also wrote short stories, but very rarely. Along the way, I read countless craft books on writing, in addition to reading fiction and non-fiction for pleasure. I took writing workshops and classes, online and in-person, and I attended writing conferences. I've always been a part of a writing group or had some sort of critique partner situation. I went to Hurston Wright's summer program in 2007, and that experience was transformative. In 2015, I became a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and again, the experience was life-changing, not only because of the wonderful faculty I got to study with, but also because of the friends I made and learned from--and continue to learn from.
I don't recall when I knew I was a writer. In 2001, I met a writer and editor named Tony Norman who would eventually become my mentor and friend. I emailed him out of the blue and told him I wanted to be a writer, and I asked for advice on how to make it happen. He wrote back and told me that I already was a writer. So there was that validation. But it's hard for me to pinpoint an internal knowing because my process of becoming a writer is so tangled up with so many other big life events: marriages, divorces, and the deaths of my mother, my father, and my grandmother, all in 2005. Plus raising my kids. So much of that time is a blur. So much of it feels like I was just going nonstop, and that includes writing. I was always looking for opportunities to get published, to learn and improve as a writer. I was writing so many things, including a nonfiction book on co-parenting, co-authored with my ex-husband. I was doing everything but what I really wanted to do, which was finish a novel I'd started in 2007. I would work on the novel in fits and starts. I wrote the beginning and some of the middle. I wrote the end. But I couldn't pull it all together. And I would go years at a time not working on it all. But in 2015 or so, I started writing the stories that later, at the suggestion of my agent, would become part of the Church Ladies collection. She said, "While you're on hiatus from the novel, maybe you can build a collection with these church lady stories you've been writing." She called them that. I hadn't really seen that thread running through the early stories. But when she gave me that suggestion, I got intentional about writing stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, with the goal of shaping them into a collection.
Maurice: Your response has me thinking about resilience and persistence in the face of life's challenges, but also how sometimes we can't plan what happens next. You were working on a novel but shifted over to the story collection. What do you mean when you say that you got intentional? What did you do to the story drafts you already had? And how did you decide which additional stories to write and which not to write?
Deesha: The early stories, before I knew I wanted to build a collection, were something I worked on whenever I had a spark of an idea. I'd jot down notes and keep them for months or even years before I tried fashioning them into a story. Or I might see a call for submissions from a literary journal or an anthology, and that would be the spark that got me working on a story. So over time, I had a couple of these stories, and my agent (who had repped my co-parenting book) had heard me read them at events. And as I mentioned, she called them "church lady stories" and suggested that I build a collection. Her specific guidance was, "Once you get three of these stories published, we can shop it to publishers as a partial manuscript." So I went back to my notes and thought about how this raw material could be fleshed out into additional story drafts about Black women, sex, and the Black church; that's where I became intentional, around that theme and around actively working to get three stories published.
With the drafts, I did what I still do before sending work out into the world: I sent them to early readers, including my agent, and then I revised, revised, revised, based on feedback. Revision is my favorite part of writing. In terms of publication, I published "Eula," "Snowfall," and "Not Daniel." Those stories, plus three others, made up the partial manuscript that my agent shopped to publishers. Once I got my contract from West Virginia University Press, they asked me to keep adding stories until I got to 35,000 words, to complete the manuscript. But first, I dropped one of the original six stories because I didn't think it fit the collection's theme as well as the other stories, and I also didn't think it was as strong as the other stories, but I didn't care enough about it to further revise. So I pulled it from the collection.
Then I had about two dozen other story possibilities ranging from nothing but a title or single sentence to twenty draft pages, and everything in between. Left to my own devices, I would've obsessed over trying to pick the "best" or "perfect" stories, and I never would've finished the damn book! So I outsourced the decision. I picked a dozen story possibilities that I was most excited about and I made a list of them, each with a one-sentence summary/synopsis. And I sent that list to some trusted friends/readers and asked them to tell me their top 5. Which stories would they most like to read? After I heard back from everyone, a cohesive Top 5 emerged, and before I could talk myself out of it and continue obsessing, I just said, "That's it. This is the list. I'm going to write my way through it until I get to 35,000 words." And that ended up being four additional stories added to the original partial manuscript (minus the story I pulled).
I wanted a slate of stories that would hold my interest (as a reader and a writer) and that would in some way be subversive, of expectations, of conventions. So for example, "Instructions for Married Christian Husbands" is a story that plays with form and that deals with infidelity in an unexpected way. Originally, I had drafted 15-20 pages of a traditional narrative that didn't subvert anything and didn't interest me. I looked at those pages and realized I didn't know where the story was going, I wasn't saying anything fresh or provocative. So I culled two paragraphs that I really liked, and then built the story anew with the instructional manual format and a narrator with a perspective I found appealing.
Maurice: I'm impressed by how organized the development of the collection was. Every writer can use your clarity. It seems like you kept asking yourself, "what's next?" Then you developed tools to get to the next step. Are you a Virgo? Did we discuss this? Because I'm a Virgo. LOL Also, the stories are quite subversive, which is why they hit the way they do along with your mastery of character. I'm wondering about sources. When you have an idea, how do you develop the characters? Do you draw upon people you know? Yourself? Ghosts? Specifically, how do you bring forth your lead characters?
Deesha: "What's next?" "What if...?" Those are questions I love. And yes, I'm a Virgo. Shocking, I know lol. And I think this did come up in our conversation with Dawnie Walton, that you and I are kindred!
Voices are often people I know. So, writing the older Black women characters in my collection, I heard my grandmothers' voices in my head, as well as the voices of her friends and so many Sunday School teachers and other church ladies I grew up with. Lots of ghosts.
I try to avoid fictionalizing real people in such a way that, if they read it, they think, "Hey, that's my life!" Which is different from saying they find a character relatable or familiar or that they see themselves in the character. But I do sometimes borrow a kernel of something from a real person or a composite of people I know. The way they grieve, their irreverent sense of humor, a question they brought to mind in the course of my interactions with them, something they did that surprised or hurt me, anything about them that stays with me becomes fodder. Like, from my mother and grandmother, I got the question: "What's it like to be a caretaker for a parent who wasn't who they needed you to be when you were a child?" Both my mother and my grandmother had that experience, and I never asked them what that was like. I got a glimpse, but I was away at college and then living on my own at that point, so I didn't see much. So that's where imagination takes over and that question led to my story "When Eddie Levert Comes."
There are kernels of my mom and me throughout the collection. "Dear Sister" was inspired by a real-life situation where my half-sisters and I called up our fifth half-sister after our father died. That wasn't the best way to handle that situation. That call should've been a letter, hence my epistolary story. The story was also an opportunity to imagine and explore relationships among the sisters and between each of them and their father; that was me filling in the gaps from my life. I wish my sisters and I had grown up together like my characters did, even if it was sometimes messy and we had beef like they do lol.
Sometimes, the character is born from a line of dialogue that comes to me. "Who said that?" is another good question that leads to interesting places. Who is this person? What's the context for what they said? Who are the other people involved? What do these people want? What's keeping them from getting it?
Wherever I start, I then write to discover the rest, to understand who the character(s) is(are) and what their situation is. I don't outline stories, though I am outlining a novel right now. With stories, I just write free form to get to know the characters and to tell myself the story first. As a result, so much of revising for me is getting rid of unnecessary backstory or moving it around so that it doesn't stop the action cold. That's still one of my biggest writing challenges, what to do with backstory, which ultimately, I think, is a question of trust. I have to trust myself as the storyteller to deliver a clear and compelling narrative, and I have to trust the reader to find their way through that narrative, without me stopping the action to hold their hand and explain things.
Recently, I wrote a story in which the character was born out of my interest in a form, specifically, the obituary, and the work that form does as a narrative about relationships. What's said, what's left unsaid. What's true, what's half-true, what's a bold-faced lie. In particular, I like the Black culture convention of the "special friend" getting a mention in the obituary. So I imagined an older Black Southern woman (our best truth-tellers) who takes charge of the narrative of her obituary. Who gets to tell the story is another way to subvert and play with narrative. This character, Mayretta, calls her former friend "a goddamn lie" right off the break in the beginning of the obituary, so she really showed me who she was out the gate!
Maurice: There are so many ways to find character and story, aren't there? On the one hand there are the people we know (elders, siblings, etc.), but there's so much about even their lives we have to speculate on. I want to ask you more about learning. I feel like more than any writer I know, you're always seeking an understanding about the craft of writing. Before we even knew each other, I remember you showed up for one of my online teaching sessions. I saw your name in the chat, and I thought, "what is Deesha Philyaw going to learn from me?!" What makes you show up for writing workshops, lessons, and so forth? What is this thirst for knowledge?
Deesha: I've always been curious, always had my nose in a book, always been in love with stories. So when I started writing, I would read craft books and seek out writing workshops, classes, and conferences, so I could learn as much as I could about writing. I never grappled with the "MFA or no MFA" question, not because I didn't think I could learn in an MFA program, but rather because I was already happy with what/how I was learning. In the early days, I was a columnist at Literary Mama for four years, a non-paying gig, but what I learned from my editors and fellow columnists there was priceless. In addition to each columnist being assigned two editors, within the columnist cohort we would give each other feedback as well. I grew so much as a writer during my time there, not only from being edited but from reading and critiquing other folks' work. You know that Bible scripture about not noticing the plank in your own eye, but seeing very clearly the splinter in your neighbor's eye? I could see ways to strengthen someone else's essay, and in the process, I'd learn something that would subsequently benefit me in my own writing. And the Literary Mama crew was so collegial and supportive. That was my first gig where I was edited. Since then, 99.99% of my editing experiences have been fantastic learning opportunities.
I'm also inspired to learn by reading other writers' work, and, as you mentioned, learning directly from them. I'm in awe of writers like you and Dolen Perkins-Valdez whose workshop's I've taken. You're making magic on the page, so I know I can learn from you. Or maybe there's something specific that a writer has mastered that I might want to try my hand at. So when Rion Amilcar Scott offers a satire workshop, I jump at the chance and then afterwards, write my first satirical story. When Tommy Dean offers a 100-word story writing workshop, I'm there, and then I write a few 100-word stories. And when S.A. Crosby teaches a workshop (his very first!) on the role of violence in fiction, I'm there, and I take always some important questions to consider in a story I write months later in which my main character commits some really shocking acts of violence. As I'm working on that story, I started thinking maybe it was shaping up to be a satirical horror story. And boom...Midnight & Indigo offers a horror writing workshop for Black women, and I'm in there. I'd never written horror before.
I think we cheat ourselves as writers if we start thinking, "I've arrived," and that we don't still have much to learn as writers. Learning is an outgrowth of curiosity, and my curiosity isn't waning with age or experience.
Maurice: I admire your understanding that there's always more to learn. I'm learning by hearing your thoughts now. Can you talk about the writer's place in society? There's so much widely-consumed media such as popular music, movies and streaming TV shows (some of which are based on literature), TikTok, etc. What is the place of your literary work in a culture that also greatly rewards the conventional, the brief, the disposable?
Deesha: Whew! I think we have to interrogate what we consider the rewards of our literary labors to be. And we each have to answer that question for ourselves. Why do we write and what do we want to gain? My work and every writer's work exists within the cultural context of "the conventional, the brief, the disposable" (love this!), and sometimes I'm inspired and informed by these other forms of media. But I think the rewards are different. I don't expect my writing to be rewarded in the same ways that these other media and art forms are rewarded. I don't burden myself with that. I think about what James Baldwin said about writers being here to disturb the peace. And Toni Cade Bambara said, “As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people, my job is to make revolution irresistible.” So I'm interested in writing that disrupts and subverts, and encourages others to do the same. But I don't want to be prescriptive in saying that that's what all writers must or should do. I would say that the writer's place in society is to tell the truth, even, and perhaps especially, when it's uncomfortable or requires sacrifice on the part of the writer and the broader culture.
Also as a writer, I want to be rewarded monetarily. I rebuke the romantic mythology of the starving artist.
Maurice: Yes. I think the starving artist's pose is a bad look. We live in a world that requires cash to survive and thrive. Speaking of thriving, I was not shocked to hear from attendees of one of your AWP panels that you're also a writer of incredibly affecting non-fiction. Apparently, you had people crying off of 500 words you wrote. How do you decide what's a fiction piece versus a nonfiction piece? And when do you know how long to make the work?
Deesha: Ohhh, that reading was very special. We were hosted by Brevity magazine. I love Brevity, and I'm honored to have read alongside Natalie Lima, Ira Sukrungruang, and Ander Monson. It was a nice change of pace to read nonfiction.
I don't really make neat "fiction-nonfiction" decisions. Writing fiction brings me the most joy, and I've spent the last 20 years fighting the demands of life/adulthood/bills to find time to do it. My fiction urge and my nonfiction urge come from different places. Fiction is usually me following some curiosity or voice or messy situation or other fascination and then seeing what I can do with it through imagination, play, and experimentation. Some kernels of real-life (mine or someone else's) might pop up in the fiction as well, drawn from memory. Toni Morrison said, "The act of imagination is bound up with memory."
Nonfiction, for me, is usually driven by a wound or sadness or some shame or a call for submission or an invitation to contribute lol. I write down my wounds, my sadness, my shame and my tender moments, often telling myself I can never put that out into the world. But then I do, eventually. It's gotten easier over time. I've written more honestly and vulnerably during these pandemic years than I ever have, even more than in the early-mid-2000s when I had a parenting column at Literary Mama for four years. That column was heavily curated; I was only telling about 40% of what was going on in my life at the time, and not even the most interesting 40%! But then in 2015, I wrote a really long, really honest personal essay about my relationship with my mother; it felt damn-near sacrilegious. And in 2017, I wrote a really short, really honest personal essay about my father. Since then, most of my personal essays have been about my father or my romantic/dating life.
Regarding length, I love the challenge of flash, fiction and nonfiction, and I've been honing my flash skills during the pandemic. But typically in terms of length, I usually let the editorial process or the call or invitation dictate it. That said, I also believe in letting a story be however long it needs to be. I was invited to contribute a story to an anthology recently, and once I got going, I blew past the maximum word count. But my gut told me that trying to cut it down would be a mistake; sometimes you have to stop being precious about it and cut, but I knew this wasn't one of those times. I was working well in advance of the deadline, so I decided that if the editors couldn't accommodate the longer piece, I still had time to write something else for that anthology. As it turned out, they loved the piece and were fine with it being longer.
Maurice: I guess that's why they call what we do an art rather than a science. We spend so much time following our guts. I feel like so many writers are writing from instinct. We find writing at some point and never stop. But so many writers struggle with the act. Do you have any advice for writers who are struggling to meet their goals? Is it better to quit, if you can do something else, as the saying goes?
Deesha: Sometimes the struggle is because they're not actually our goals, but rather someone else's goals for us. Or we set the goals, but they are rooted in the wrong soil, like fear or insecurity. Or entitlement. And we can't grow.
Sometimes we expect too much of writing. It can be healing, but that's a lot of pressure to put on an essay or a book or ourselves, by extension. And that pressure to succeed can paralyze us to the point that we can't finish anything. Or can't even get started. Writing is messy before it gets better. And if we're writing inside the pressure cooker of unreasonable expectations, we don't have the patience necessary to start out messy, then go through rounds of revision, and then get rejected, but keep going.
Sometimes we struggle because we expect writing success to validate us. We imagine that if we can just meet this writing goal, then it will solve all our problems or fill a void inside us, but that's generally not the case. Of course, success matters, but it's not a cure-all. For example, if we suffer from unaddressed, crippling insecurity, we'll carry that with us as our star rises, and it manifests as competitiveness and mean-spiritedness toward other writers, instead of collegiality. And if we're busy side-eyeing other people's wins, we risk getting distracted from our own goals. What did our teachers used to say? Keep your eyes on your own paper lol.
Sometimes we struggle because our goals don't match the investment we're able or willing to make in our growth as writers. We talk a lot about making time to write, and in the past I've taught a workshop about this and about the writing mindset. We recognize that we need to devote time and energy to writing, but then we try to pile that goal onto our already full schedule, and then wonder why we aren't writing. Most of us, in order to make time to write, have to cut something out of our schedule in order to make room for writing. That means saying "no" to other things that make claims on our time. And sometimes these are good, worthwhile things that we have to say "no" to, so that we can say "yes" to writing. We have to decide what we're willing to sacrifice in order to make room in our lives for writing. And not just time to write, but time to learn and develop the craft. Time for revision. Time for being in community with other writers, getting and giving feedback. Time to read and think and meander. Time to rest and recharge our bodies.
And that doesn't have to be a lot of time all at once. It can be a little bit of time over a long period of time. But writing, good writing, takes time. So it could be when people say they aren't meeting their goals it's because they aren't investing enough time and/or they are expecting to be an overnight sensation. It's hard. Many of us work for years, decades, with little or no validation, no guarantees of success, and lots of rejection. And most people have no idea what writing demands, so they start off with unrealistic goals.
My advice: Look at what's at the core of your struggle. And don't call it "writer's block" or "imposter syndrome." Look at the why of those things. What's really going on? Why do you feel like an imposter? Who told you that you're not the real deal? And what can you do to keep them from living rent free in your head? What grace do you need to show yourself to set and meet reasonable goals? What boundaries do you need to set to guard your time and peace of mind?
Who is in your ear being unhelpful about what you're trying to do? This person could be a ghost. Or it could be your 5th grade teacher who undermined your confidence. Or your in-laws who keep asking if writing is going to make you any real money. Or your partner who wants to know what you did all day, expecting you to show a return on investment in your MFA, stat. Or maybe you're the naysayer. There's a lot of noise, internal and external, that we have to drown out sometimes just to get things done.
We can all do something else, but do we want to? Quitting is such a personal decision. I wonder if people quit sometimes because they expect too much too soon from their writing. Or maybe they quit because they decided or realized that they couldn't prioritize their writing goals. Quitting isn't necessarily failure. Sometimes quitting is the wisest and the most humane thing we can do for ourselves. And quitting isn't necessarily forever. Daniel José Older already told us that "you must write every day" is a myth.
Maurice: It's so true that outside pressures can send us into a spiral. And I totally agree with you and Daniel that quitting isn't what society tells us it is. You've always struck me as someone who really has their act together. From your personal style to the literature you write. What values outside of writing guide your decision-making process in life?
Deesha: Ha! That's that Virgo smoke and mirrors: Nothing to see here; I've got my act together. Meanwhile, I'm actually quietly chaotic. Not frantic and miserable, like I was in my 20s, 30s, and early 40s, but more like simmering. I do a great job of saying "no" and maintaining healthy boundaries and protecting my peace. But often, my mind is going in a hundred different directions, I want to write all the things all at once, I'm chronically restless, I get lonely, and it's a daily practice to be gentle with myself.
I treat time like the precious resource it is, so I'm very mindful about not wasting time and not letting others waste my time, personally or professionally. And it's not always about wasting time. Sometimes it's simply choosing to use my time the way I want to, including for rest and leisure, and not the way someone else wants me to. I recently read a tweet that said, "Don't confuse my free time with my availability." Whew! Tell it! Women, Black women in particular, are conditioned to pour our time and energy into everyone but ourselves, so it's perceived as radical, or selfish, when we don't. And I'm good with that. Being ok with people being disappointed in me or upset with me or not liking me has been so freeing.
Aside from protecting my time and my peace, my other core values have to do with paying it forward and empowering others. I'm so grateful for the folks who have empowered and supported me, so I make decisions about how to use my resources, including my time, through the lens of trying to give back.
And finally, I value adventure, play, exploration, and following where my curiosity leads, on and off the page. I'm guided by an interest in that which is stirring and surprising. I get bored easily. Jamaica Kincaid said it best. She was talking about writing, but I think this applies to how I want to live in general. She said, One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it. To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great."
Maurice: It sounds like you've earned quite a bit of wisdom. I'm thankful that you've talked frankly here about your journey, the chaos, the victories. And you speak of it all with such a positive attitude. I literally just saw a meme that had a pair of flowers with text that said, to paraphrase, "Maybe it all works out." What brings you joy? What would you like the next leg of your journey to provide?
Deesha: Four careers, two kids, two deceased parents, two divorces, and one pandemic later...Hard-won wisdom lol. And I really appreciate your questions and you giving me the opportunity to reflect here.
Things that bring me joy: my daughters' laughter and their smart sense of humor, Black abundance (hat tip, Kiese Laymon), learning something new and interesting, good sex, cooking for people, warm weather, long walks, the ocean, and crab legs.
In the next leg of my journey, I'd like to see more of the world, I'd like a partner who is a good fit for me, and I'd like to write more books, and write and produce TV shows.