The Wind at Her Back, a Writer’s Buzz Gets Louder

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Ayana Mathis
The interview ended a bit later than expected, so Ayana Mathis’s nails were going to have to make it to Chicago without a manicure. And she still had to scurry to clean her one-bedroom apartment and fill it with fresh flowers for a photo shoot. But at least a car was scheduled to whisk this first-time novelist to La Guardia Airport.

Less than a week ago Ms. Mathis was just another promising writer whose debut novel about a troubled family, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” was generating buzz in book circles. Then came Oprah Winfrey’s public anointment of the novel as a book club selection last Wednesday. Things changed: scores of “friend” requests on Ms. Mathis’s Facebook page, one especially surreal day in which she forgot to eat, and the Chicago taping of a segment for Ms. Winfrey’s OWN network, scheduled to run in February.

Knopf rushed copies of the novel into bookstores ahead of a planned January arrival, and an announced first printing of 50,000 copies swelled to 125,000. Ms. Mathis — poised, animated yet also quite private — was pushed onto a big stage to talk about herself and her writing.
“I’m permanently stunned right now,” she said the other day over coffee in a noisy bistro in Brooklyn, where she lives with her partner, Nikki Terry, a painter. “It’s terrifying and deeply fortunate to get this much attention for a first novel. It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectation.”
Especially for a writer who, at 39, had never published a lick of fiction before.