For the first time since the 1980s, Deesha Philyaw visited the UNF to read sections of her book in her hometown. The Secret Life of the Ladies of the Church was released in 2020 as Philyaw’s first work of fiction. The collection of short stories is currently being adapted into a show for HBO co-written by Philyaw and produced by Tessa Thompson.
In an exclusive interview with Spinnaker, Philyaw shared her inspirations, creative process, and tips for students.
As an author who grew up in Jacksonville, how has Jacksonville shaped and inspired your writing, especially when it comes to conveying the ideas of the house?
âJacksonville, although not named, is part of my collection. A lot of the stories are really driven by nostalgia and memoryâ¦ I still identify primarily as a Southern Black because culturally that’s still who I am, and it shows up in the stories, âexplained Philyaw.
For Philyaw, Jacksonville will always be home. Philyaw has lived in Pittsburgh for a longer time, but still feels attached to Jacksonville through nostalgia, childhood memories and ideas of home. During the reading, Philyaw first read a section of her âEulaâ story due to a shared cultural reference to Publix.
Which collection story did you prefer to write?
Philyaw’s favorite story to write was “How to Make Love to a Physicist” because she could convey feelings of comfort through food and sensory imagery. Scientific research excited Philyaw as she stepped out of her comfort zone and strove to explore a different area of ââknowledge.
“I also contacted my physicist friend and asked him … about how he reconciled his understandings as a scientist and then being brought up in Catholicism, and part of our conversation became the conversation between the characters. . ”
In “How to make love to a physicist”, what inspired the juxtaposed ideas of religion and science as a means of expressing deeper philosophical ideas?
“A lot of us were brought up thinking that there is this juxtaposition, and that science and religion are not compatible, that they are somehow mutually exclusive, and I have always been curious about it. of this question, âshe replied.
Philyaw’s goal was not to concretely define beliefs, but to raise more questions than it answers to encourage the reader to think deeply. She believes it is helpful to challenge beliefs and assumptions.
Philyaw explained, âI wanted to explore this idea that people are not always what they seem or what we think they are, or they are more than sometimes what we think they are. People hear âchurch ladiesâ in the title and they’ve got a certain image in mind, and then I think they come out of the book and say âOhâ. That’s not what I thought at all.
The characters in your stories appear real and have distinct voices. What was your writing process like when building these characters?
“In the collection, what often happened was a lot of memoriesâ¦ I was lucky to be with these really interesting and funny womenâ¦ there was so much power in their words, in the way they talked about and in the stories they told. “
Philyaw combined the different voices she heard throughout her childhood to create new characters. She focused on the voices of black women from her childhood wondering what they sounded like outside of her gaze. Philyaw believes that anyone can resonate with the characters as they convey shared human emotions of love and betrayal while also sharing an emotional connection with home.
Philyaw was inspired by her grandmother: âMy grandmother was a storyteller, and she would tell family stories or really cheesy jokes, and she would tell the same ones over and over again. The beauty of it is that I could memorize them and know the sound of his voice. ”
Finally, do you have any advice for college students on pursuing their passions?
âYour story is ongoing, and what interests you right now is not what will necessarily interest youâ¦ ten years from now or even five years from now. It’s good to change your mind. It’s good not to know. It’s good to try things out and see if they fit, âsaid Philyaw.
At Yale, Philyaw majored in economics before dramatically changing her career path when she started writing at age 30. The Secret Life of the Ladies of the Church was not released until Philyaw was 49. In college, she thought economics was practical, but it wasn’t her passion. Philyaw recalled her first job out of college as a management consultant, where she quickly realized that this career path was not for her. She realized that passions can change and take time to be understood.
âEverything seems urgent right now, but if we’re lucky we’ll have a long life, and we can explore and get to know ourselves and what we want to do in the world in this lifetime,â he said. concluded Philyaw.
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