11 Questions: The Secret Life of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

It’s been a struggle for me to read deeply during the pandemic– it’s like my reading brain has been hibernating– but I read The Secret Life of Church Ladies all in one sitting, completely absorbed. It has the best story about sisters. The best story about Pi Day. Best vengeance story. Best baking story. Like a person in a cliché, I laughed and I cried. Deesha Philyaw has written a book about (and for) women in the pews and women who have decided never to return to church again. Deeply rooted in specific experiences of Southern Black women, it explores romantic love, family love, loneliness, and shaken faith.

It was a joy to kick off KtB’s new series of interviews with authors by asking Deesha about her extraordinary, National Book Award finalist, Pen/Faulkner longlisted book!

Describe your book in three adjectives!

Classy, bougie, ratchet. Just kidding … Juicy, surprising, memorable.

What is one of your favorite sentences from the book?

“My mother made a peach cobbler so good, it made God himself cheat on his wife.”

Name a book or writer that inspired or guided you as you wrote.

Toni Morrison.

What is something you discovered in the process of writing this book?

That I can write quickly.

What was challenging about the process?

I felt a little self-conscious, worried that the longer stories in the collection were too long. And I wasn’t sure how to cut them down. So I left them as they were, and it turned out fine.

What was sustaining about it? Feel free to mention writing snacks.

I had fun writing. I figured if it wasn’t fun or interesting to me, it wouldn’t be fun or interesting to the reader. Writing snacks included a snack mix from the bar at my local Ace Hotel, featuring duck fat cracklins.

What’s a song that would be on the book’s soundtrack?

My book actually has four playlists. Here’s one of them: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2020/09/deesha_philyaws.html

Who are some of the people you wrote this book for?

Black women.

What are some of the communities that shaped it?

The community of Black women, in and out of churches, who I grew up around in Florida in the 70s and 80s. Women of my mother and grandmother’s generations, and girls and women of my generation, Gen X.

What kinds of work do you want your book to do in the world? What are your hopes for its afterlife?

I want Black women to see themselves in my book, their freer selves. I want my book to spark healing conversations among people who need to get free of anything that separates them from their honest, truest selves. I want it to foster healing conversations between mothers and daughters. I hope that girls and women in the future can turn to this book and find in it a blueprint for freedom and healing.

What are you doing next? (Does not have to be a writing project!)

Working on my next book, which will likely be a novel.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction, a finalist for The Story Prize (2020/2021), and longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church. Deesha is also the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her work has been listed as Notable in the Best American Essays series, and her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, dead housekeeping, Apogee Journal, Catapult, Harvard Review, ESPN’s The Undefeated, The Baltimore Review, TueNight, Ebony and Bitch magazines, and various anthologies. Deesha is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a past Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People.

Briallen Hopper is editor of KtB, and author of Hard to Love: Essays And Confessions (Bloomsbury, 2019). She teaches writing at Queens College, City University of New York, and holds a PhD in English from Princeton. Learn more at her website, www.briallenhopper.com, or follow her on Twitter @briallenhopper.