I Knew Her When
Interviewer: Ms. Thomas, thanks for being with us tonight.
Deesha Philyaw Thomas: Oh, my pleasure.
Int: Your daughter Peyton’s novel, The Blackest Rose, has spent six consecutive months on The New York Times bestseller list. You must be proud.
DPT: Oh, absolutely! But I’m not at all surprised. Peyton has been writing since she was one year old. I’m not talking about the accidental scribbles most babies make at that age. Peyton wrote with purpose, switching the pencil from her left hand to her right, wielding it with greater dexterity than the average five-year-old has, her tiny brow furrowed with the writer’s constant struggle — to transfer ideas from her brain to the page without losing the clarity or nuance of deeper meaning in the process. Heady stuff for a toddler, so I anticipated great things from her as an adult. But don’t misunderstand. Even though I am a writer — in fact, I’m completing my novel as we speak — I didn’t get all Mommy Dearest about her writing. Really, I didn’t . . .
Int: O-kay . . . Peyton has cited as her literary influences Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, James Baldwin, John Edgar Wideman —
DPT: Did she mention her older sister, Taylor? Taylor was truly Peyton’s first literary influence. The two girls would lie down on their bellies with the hardwood floor for a desk, surrounded by pencils, pens, pads, and scraps of paper — including discarded draft pages of my novel-in-progress. Again, Peyton was only one year old at this point, mind you, copying what she saw six-year-old Taylor doing. She’d pause, bite on her bottom lip in concentration, slide ever closer to her sister. Without saying a word, and perhaps in the most primal way, they encouraged each other.
The first time Taylor saw Peyton with a sharpened pencil, however, she did not recognize genius-in-the-making. Instead, she panicked, shifted into protective “Big Sister” mode, and tried to take the pencil from Peyton. Taylor must have interrupted a crucial moment in the narrative flow of Peyton’s story, perhaps a plot twist or a previously elusive understanding of the main character’s motivation. Whatever the case, Peyton retaliated against this intrusion by stabbing Taylor in the hand with her pencil. It could have been worse; Hemingway drank.
Int: Speaking of Hemingway, Peyton has made history at age 25, becoming the youngest person ever to win the PEN/Hemingway Award for best debut novel . . .
DPT: And she deserves it! The Blackest Rose is the kind of debut that makes me, as an as-yet-unpublished novelist, day-glo green with envy. The kind of debut that makes me think, Well, sure, your prose is poignant yet unsentimental, political yet poetic, your characters clever and witty — but I bet you are no fun at parties, and you probably live with a lot of cats. And I would say that even if she weren’t my daughter.
But I read the book first as a reader, and I was simply . . . changed by it. Mauvette, the protagonist, has more courage in her little finger than most women twice her age possess over a lifetime, yours truly included.
Then I read it as writer, and you know what? Not a cliché in sight. And Peyton mastered that without any help from me, because if I had a dime for every cliché I edited out of the fifth draft of my novel . . .
Int: Let’s talk about the character of Mauvette. She is described as feeling “disconnected from her people, rootless, seeking nourishment and sustenance, living waters for her soul.” Since your daughter herself is adopted, how autobiographical is The Blackest Rose?
DPT: The book is a work of fiction. But, of course, writers cannot help but draw on their own experiences in order to breathe life into their characters. Now, has Peyton ever felt disconnected from her “real” roots? She can, and has, spoken for herself on that subject. I have always given Peyton space to feel what she feels about being adopted. As the main character in my as-yet-untitled novel is told by her mother, “God made mothers sturdy. Strong enough to weather the storm of their children’s burgeoning adulthood, but still soft enough to shelter them in the midst of it.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing. The actual text is far more lyrical than that.
Int: In The Blackest Rose, Mauvette’s mother, Ruby, is portrayed as a loving but self-absorbed failed socialite who dresses too young for her age and drinks mojitos at three in the afternoon. When the story opens, she has just announced her decision to give up her lifelong dream of becoming a famous fashion designer. Is Ruby purely a work of fiction, or —
DPT: Purely. [Pause.] Life at Old Navy doesn’t end at 35, you know. And in Cuba, they drink mojitos all day long. Americans are so provincial.
Int: Your daughter seems to be a bit press-shy, almost reclusive . . .
DPT: I don’t know why. She was quite the exhibitionist as a toddler, whipping off her diaper whenever the mood struck. But you’re right; she even dreads when I do these interviews. She’s afraid I will say something to embarrass her. Can you believe that?
Ultimately, though, I believe not becoming a media darling will serve Peyton well. The book, the work, the writing, that’s what matters, not movie rights and book club seals of approval. Though, I must admit, many years ago, I coveted having my book, when it was finished, chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.
Int: Oprah . . . ?
DPT: Oh, my goodness! Are you even old enough to remember The Oprah Winfrey Show? Rich black woman from Chicago . . . cultural icon . . . always on a diet? Never mind.
Int: So, in a sense, Peyton’s accomplishment is really your dream come true.
DPT: No. I just want her to be fulfilled and have a sense of purpose in whatever she does. The awards and accolades are just gravy. And Peyton’s success is her own.
Int: Is there anything else you would like to add?
DPT: Did I mention that I’m writing a novel?