Huge turnout for Ayana Mathis and her new novel (39875)
Huge turnout for Ayana Mathis and her new novel (39874)

By a quarter to 7 p.m. last Thursday, nearly all the 120 chairs at Barnes & Noble’s Upper West Side store’s author’s pavilion were filled. Patrons got there early, anticipating the appearance of author Ayana Mathis, who arrived shortly after the appointed time and began reading from her smashing new book, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Before reading from a chapter titled “Floyd,” one of Hattie’s children, Mathis, acknowledged two colleagues in the audience who had already purchased 16 books for her to autograph.

“Now the piano man played in earnest and the drummer pixied the cymbals with the drum brush,” she read from a concert scene featuring Floyd on trumpet. “The crowd leaned forward. Floyd’s horn flashed in the light. He blew ‘Round Midnight.’ A man in the front row called out, ‘Goddamn!’ Floyd made the horn stutter; then played it smooth. It keened and it wailed. It asked the people what their troubles were, and blew them back to them.”

Before she concluded reading this chapter, we learned of Floyd’s relationship with another man, as well as his encounter with a woman who expressed her interest in being with him. Floyd was clearly a popular entertainer, a superb artist.

And so is Mathis.

After teasing her audience–many of them in possession of the book and able to follow along as she read–Mathis took a seat next to author Chris Adrian, whose task was to cull from her meaning and interpretation of a novel to which Oprah Winfrey has given her stamp of approval, making it an instant best-seller. One of the first questions posed by Adrian was about the element of reconciliation, and whether her characters, particularly Hattie, were expressive of this feeling.

“I don’t know if they are reconciled,” she answered. “Hattie is a deeply stoic woman… She’s always somewhere else. I think it’s more a matter of resignation on their part than anything else.”

Despite the misery and suffering that suffuses this tale that describes the migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, especially Philadelphia, Mathis’ hometown, she insisted, “They have moments of profound insight and beauty. They are elevated out of their difficulties.”

Much of that elevation is the result of her fine writing skills, her way of creating fully developed characters whose words and actions are consistent with their overall makeup.

“Words are important to me,” she told Adrian. And the language choices, as she called it, were derived from her many years writing poetry.

For five years, the 39-year-old author stopped writing altogether but resumed in earnest after a friend convinced her that she had talent. It was a talent her mother also believed in and encouraged.

During the question-and-answer session, she was asked the inevitable about her creative process.

“I read aloud as I write,” she explained, which helps her hear what her characters are saying and whether it sounds realistic and in keeping with who they are. Moreover, she added that she grew up with “an old-fashioned sensibility” when it came to getting things right and fact-checking–something she did previously, before devoting herself exclusively to becoming an author.

There was more talk about the Biblical Job, a conversation that Adrian had begun with her, and the notions of hope, redemption and religion. However, Mathis seemed more interested in having the readers make these discoveries themselves. And given the turnout for this signing, there are sure to be thousands with something to say about her novel and her budding career.