Ayana Mathis’s elegant, sure-footed debut, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, traces a woman’s life through the eyes of her many children.

How did you begin writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. My mother kept this little notebook of sort of tragic stories I wrote about a little girl named Blue who lived in a tree house—I think I was sort of sad [laughs]. I guess I was about nine when I wrote those. I wrote poetry for years, and in my mid-twenties, the poetry well just kind of dried up. Then for a few years I didn’t know what to write or how to write anything else, so I just didn’t write at all. After living for five years in Italy, I thought I would write a memoir, and I just kept altering and then decided it wasn’t right. A friend of mine went to the Iowa Writers Workshop and he encouraged me to apply. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just fictionalize the memoir.” The necessity of sticking to the facts was stymying! That’s not the project that became this book, though.

How did you make the transition from that book to this book?

My bad memoir was, well, bad, so I took it into my first workshop at Iowa and it was sort of panned. I felt really terrible and tragic and went home and cried. The instructor was Marilynne Robinson. She was very fair; she wasn’t mean, but she was like, “No.” The characters I had created were not sufficient to the dramatic situation. So I began to write stories. The first was Franklin, then Ella, then a third; I realized these people were all in a family.

Did you draw inspiration from your own family?

My family is of the generation described in Hattie—my grandmother came from Virginia to Philadelphia early in the 20th century, and most of my aunts and uncles were born in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. When I was young, there was a rift and my mother and I didn’t have a lot to do with my extended family through my teen years. They became sort of mythic beings. Writing Hattie was my way of imagining myself into a family I don’t have much contact with and imagining that generation. I thought a lot about the Great Migration and how it would be to be the first generation born in the north. That’s where I came from, and it’s been important for me to understand it. But I also think it’s an important American story.

Was the book’s structure always built upon each of Hattie’s children?

Ordering the chapters was a real struggle. They’re not in the order in which they were written at all. After I had 70% of them written, I realized [Hattie’s twins] Philadelphia and Jubilee had to be first because Hattie is so difficult. For a reader to understand her and have access to her, you’d have to see her early in life—before her life happened to her.