By Amy Reardon
When I first heard the title of Deesha Philyaw’s fiction debut, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, I had to read it. It was the power and elusiveness in that combination of words. Women + Secrets + God? Count me in.
Turns out I wasn’t alone. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies debuted in September 2020 and promptly won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, The Story Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Today, Philyaw is at work co-writing and executive producing its TV series adaption for HBO Max.
When Church Ladies arrived, the reading was sweeter than I could have imagined. Philyaw’s brilliance and subversion begins with that promising title, then just keeps growing—yearning, playing, and changing shape until the last page. A collection of nine short stories that center the lives, loves, and longings of Black women, the book asks why following the ways of the church leads to so much dissatisfaction.
Each next story experiments with form in a different way. For example, “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” reads like an instruction manual, opening with, “THE BASICS / You, the infantilized husbands of accomplished godly women, are especially low-hanging fruit . . . Perhaps this is your first time. And you didn’t imagine it would be with someone like me—dark with short, kinky hair. Someone so different from your wife.”
It’s about “being at home in our bodies,” Philyaw tells me when I ask why reading this book feels like eating dessert in my soul. “That means different things to different people. Bodies are centers of pleasure, and that absolutely is not what we’re taught by the church, except if you’re in a heterosexual marriage,” she explains. “And everybody else, you’re just shit out of luck, I guess. So the stories instead have characters who are not married, who are not heterosexual, enjoying bodies as centers of pleasure.”
There was so much I wanted to know about how this book came to be. Philyaw had just finished teaching a class when we spoke via phone. We talked about “hermit crab” essays, the intended reader, and writing to please yourself.
TCR: The first story, “Eula,” is genius. Why did you put it first in the collection?
DP: Some of it was for sentimental reasons. There were three stories in the collection that were published before the book came out, and “Eula” was the first of those three. But beyond that, I think “Eula,” you know, it’s a shocker. It’s very provocative, one of the most sexually explicit stories in the collection, so it’s an attention grabber. Also, it covers all of the things that are to come in the book. It dabbles in some theology, it dabbles in queerness, it dabbles in longing and secrecy. So I think it works well as an introductory story, and it kind of serves as a warning to the reader. Like: This is what we’re doing; this is where we’re going. I’m letting you know right up front and hope you’ll keep rocking with this.
TCR: The book hit me with so many ideas I’m thinking about, like the questions of who gets to have desires and needs and be seen. Is this something that you’re getting a lot?
DP: I’m hearing a lot that people feel seen and heard. People—Black women in particular—but certainly also, thankfully, people who aren’t Black women have connected with the book. Mostly, I think it’s around getting free. Free of something, whether it’s restrictive teachings of the church or some of the mother-daughter issues that show up in the stories, but certainly around bodies. The story that people connect with most around the issue of bodies is “How to Make Love to a Physicist.” The character talks about not feeling at home in her body, about how she feels like, when she would have sex, that she wasn’t there, so this idea of not being present. In the story, part of her healing process involves touching her body and feeding her body well.
TCR: There’s such an intimacy and sureness in your writing voice and narrative hand. It seems to know exactly where it’s going. Can you talk about that clarity?
DP: Well, I don’t know where I’m going when I start writing [laughs]. I was talking with a class today at a university and sharing that I don’t outline because I usually don’t know what the story is going to be; I don’t know the fullness of it. Usually, I am writing to discover, and then it’s in the process of revision that I can polish it up and fine-tune it. But certainly over time I feel like I get to that polish-point faster than I used to. I think it’s just a matter of time and practice. I also write a lot. My stories often are rooted in memory, either remembering what someone said that really grabs hold of me or remembering how I felt and then building outwards from there. With dialogue, I am talking and playing both characters, seeing what feels organic, and listening to the sound of my own voice speaking as the characters to hear what rings true and what doesn’t. Another factor is that, even though there’s no one character in these stories that’s all me, there are parts of me throughout. I drew on my own longing and my own need to get free, and that shows up in the characters.
TCR: Also, it seems to me, wisdom and experience?
DP: Hard-won wisdom. Yeah. My mother died when I was thirty-four, and she was only fifty-two, and I know that she didn’t do the things she wanted to do. I’m not sure that my mother even thought in terms of: What do I want to do? I was her life, unfortunately, so she didn’t get to be free in the way that I want to be free, in the way that the characters that I write want to be. She didn’t have that. Her death just reminded me that none of us have time to waste playing small, or being afraid, or coy, or afraid of what people might say if we—fill in the blank—or if we write about this particular thing. I think it’s the freelancer in me too, which is, when I do have time to write, I’m writing. I can’t be sitting there waiting for the muse or trying to get over imposter syndrome. I learned a long time ago I don’t have that time. I just don’t. People will call it “the fuck-less forties” or “the fuck-less fifties,” but you really do stop worrying about the things you were in your 20s and 30s. It really is a lovely thing, which frees up a lot of room for creativity, and boldness, and experimentation because you’re not afraid of what might happen because bad things have already happened.
DP: And you saw that you just picked yourself up and kept going, and you accept it. [You] come to accept that you’re not for everybody, and your writing isn’t going to be for everybody, and that’s okay. You’re not trying to write to please [anybody] other than yourself, and so that’s incredibly, incredibly freeing.
TCR: Oh, my God. I need to hang that over my desk.
DP: Yeah. We can’t get to the end of our lives and be like, God, I wish I had written that nasty, filthy sex scene, but I was worried what my kids were going to say. Just write the sex scene. Write the filth. [laughs]
TCR: The structure of this book is very exciting. Can you talk about your writing obsessions?
DP: I always have stories percolating or marinating in my head. I type notes into my phone, and then there are other times when I will open the voice recorder app and talk a story into my phone so I don’t lose it, because I won’t remember, and I don’t want to lose those moments. I’m very curious, and I like to approach writing with the spirit of play, so I’ll get these ideas and kind of play “what if” in different scenarios. I’m always jotting those things down to come back to later, and a lot of the stories that ended up in Church Ladies were things that I jotted down years ago, not sure where I was going, then returned to them. I’ve been playing with form a lot, including epistolary form. I am totally obsessed right now, and I discovered, with hermit crab essays, you don’t have to stick to essays with hermit crabs. You can use them for fiction too.
TCR: What is a hermit crab?
DP: A hermit crab is a writing form made from something that’s ordinary. So hermit crab essays could take the form of a pop quiz, or a college syllabus, or an obituary, or an invoice, ordinary things to talk about and protect tender topics, usually nonfiction. But I love the idea of employing those in fiction as well. “Instructions for Married Christian Husbands” is an instruction manual, fictional, but it’s a story that takes that form. In the collection, there’s also “Dear Sister,” which is an epistolary story, and I loved playing with that. I plan to do more of that in my next collection.
TCR: I was thinking about how your book is in conversation with The Bluest Eye, which is about a Black girl seeking softness in a world that doesn’t seem to have any for her. Are there authors that gave you permission to write the stories you write?
DP: Toni Morrison definitely gave me permission and inspiration to write about dissatisfied, disruptive women, and Sula is my favorite novel of hers, in part for that reason. Going back even further, many decades, even before I read Toni Morrison, when I was in elementary school, I read a book called Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether. She showed me that Black girls could be at the center of their own stories. There could be whole books written about us and our communities and our longings and our frustrations, and that we could tell these stories in our own voices, and that we could tell some of our secrets. That we could tell some of those tender parts as well. Those are the kinds of stories that I love to read and that I wanted to write.
TCR: The story “Dear Sister” is one of my favorites. It captures the intimacy of sisters and women. There’s this line that feels universal: “It’s all about who you are and what you’ve been through and what, if anything, it means to you to share a father.” Why was it important to write this story?
DP: The kernel thread of that story is that I also have four half-sisters, and the four of us connected with a fifth sister after our father died. We reached out to her when the four of us were together right before his funeral. We called her, which is not a thing we should have done. It was way too much. It should have been a letter, and so writing the story was an opportunity to do it right. It was also an opportunity to explore the bonds of sisterhood because even though the four of us knew each other growing up, we didn’t have the kinds of close relationships that the characters in the story have. I got to imagine them, give them the places where they love each other and have these great memories and then the places where they get on each other’s nerves. They got to be messy and frustrated with each other and to have each other’s backs at the same time. I didn’t have those things with my sisters. It was important, too, to show that the person who connected them all—he had his failings. Usually, we look at men like that and their children and just think everybody’s doomed and it’s all terrible, but here are these women who, despite who their father was and what he failed to do—they’re okay. They’re messy, they’ve got their shit, but they’re okay. Or they’re trying to be okay. They aren’t doomed, and they aren’t tragic the way we often think girls like that, girls like us, will be. I wanted to explore that as well.
TCR: That makes me think of a comment I got from another student in workshop once, along the lines of, “There are a lot of bad men in this story.” And I was aghast because the story wasn’t about men. It was about a woman and the men were just being human. Do you know what I mean?
DP: Yes. I think sometimes men, in particular, maybe all of us, but definitely men, don’t know what to do with stories where men and their needs and wants aren’t centered. I wonder if that’s what he was picking up on but could not articulate. I had someone say to me, “Oh, men aren’t so great in this book,” and I said, “Which men?” I said, “Uncle Bert is great. Eric in ‘How to Make Love to a Physicist’ is great.” So there are men who do terrible things, there are men who do great things, and they’re all just men who are human like the rest of us. None of us are all good or all bad.
DP: But I think when people have problems with the men, I think it’s sometimes they’re, one, not used to men not being centered, and two, not used to women being centered. Not just in relation to men and dealing with men but women dealing with themselves and with each other. We’re always reading to find ourselves, and I think men who read stories like mine, and stories like yours, they have to reorient themselves so that they can actually see what’s there and not just what they feel. Not that their feelings aren’t valid but to interrogate those feelings. Like, Why do I feel like men aren’t represented well here? Because they aren’t in charge? Or because they aren’t a hero? I would hope that men would sit with the question rather than jump to these assumptions and sort of summarize or characterize the work in ways that aren’t accurate. None of us are owed a good review. We’re not owed that someone loves our story, but they should be fair and accurate in their assessment of it.
TCR: You wrote an essay about revision in Split Lip Magazine that is really sticking with me. You wrote:
“Her grief remains, but you edit out her anger and move her vulnerability forward, for all the times anger masked your hurt. You make him aware, you make him see her, for all the times you were unseen. You write his love as present action.”
Can you talk a little bit about the revision process for you?
DP: I am someone who loves revision. Drafting is harder. As I shared in that essay, I was asked to write a story about good love. Drafting that essay was even harder because I didn’t know if I could write about the kind of love I’ve never had. It was really hard getting started, and then when I finally wrote it, the original draft was just so flat. I had to dig into the story and see myself in it, and in the sense that it’s nonfiction, it’s totally what happened with me. So instead of me looking at the character and going, Gosh, I’ve never had what you’ve had, I realized that I could give her some of me, which is: she’s dealing with grief, I’m dealing with grief; she reacts in an angry way. Instead of just letting that ride, I was like, All the times that I was angry it’s because it was easier to be angry than to be vulnerable. So I was doing, for the character, what I wish that I could have been able to do for myself. This is what I’ve learned and what I wish had happened in my relationship. And then I went on to edit the partner the way I needed him to have been in those moments. The revision part, I love that. That’s our best self, whether it’s our real self, or our character, or our story self. That’s what revision gets us, and so I love that part.
TCR: In his book Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses writes about the “intended reader,” meaning all the cultural expectations implied in the language of the story, which really explains the delight I felt reading The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Can you talk about writing for an intended reader?
DP: I hadn’t read that book when I was working on Church Ladies. I’ve only read it in the last year or so, but I love this idea of that intended reader, especially for me writing as a Black woman and writing Black women characters and thinking of Black women as my primary audience. What that means is that my cultural expectation is that the reader will either understand what I’m saying, or if they don’t share my culture, they can figure it out, either from context clues or they’ll Google it or whatever we do whenever any of us read something that we’re not familiar with. I just took that as a given. That’s not something I worried about. Now, what I did have to think about was whether the editorial process would challenge that. And I love the way that you phrase the question because if somebody expected that of me, I wouldn’t have done it because it does take the joy out. It diminishes, I think, the joy and that delight in what I was writing and who I was writing about, if I have to pause and explain something. But I absolutely did delight in feeling like I was immersed in my culture and that the people who were familiar would feel they were a part of it, and that it was still possible, though, for other people to access it. Because even in that specificity, there’s still a lot that’s universal.
TCR: How important is it that editors share the vision of writers?
DP: I think the question about your editor is similar to the question about the people you’re workshopping with as well. I think about this quote from Janice Lee that I use to guide myself and set the tone when I’m leading a workshop. She said workshop shouldn’t necessarily tell you what to do with the piece, but it should improve your relationship to your writing. I think a good editor does that as well. Obviously, they’re also doing other things; they’re cleaning it up and making it have as much clarity as possible, but they’re not trying to change your voice. They’re not trying to get you to translate culture. It is of the utmost importance that editors share the vision because if they don’t, it’s like you’re editing two different books. But I also think it’s important in workshop that people think about—where did the piece come from? Where is this writer in relation to this piece? Not necessarily whether it’s personal for them but let’s say if they’re trying to write more honestly and be more of a storyteller. I just keep coming back to what is the story you’re trying to tell, thinking of it not in terms of what do I want, or what do I think, or my particular take but how is this person connecting with their own writing? It comes up, especially with women. You’re working with someone, and they have all of these apologies. We can talk the nuts and bolts of the story, but I’m like, Okay, how can I support this person so they can stop apologizing for this? Or let’s say they’re writing a sex scene or whatever and there’s clearly some discomfort or shame or fear around that. Yes, we’re going to work on the story elements, but how can I help you be comfortable with the decision you’ve made to write about this because clearly, it’s important to you.
TCR: I love Kiese Laymon’s book Heavy. I’ve seen you do interviews with him, and I notice there’s this great community you’ve built around you and your work, and I wanted to ask about what that means to you?
DP: I was raised to see myself as part of a community and to care about other people and care for other people, and that’s how I’ve always tried to be in the world. But then, with Kiese in particular, he has opened doors for himself, and he’s bringing so many of us along with him. I was fortunate enough to be someone that he has reached out to and supported in more ways than I can name. Watching him, it’s second nature to feel like I want to be Kiese for someone else. In addition to Kiese, Robert Jones, Jr, who wrote The Prophets—and now he’s a finalist for the National Book Award—messaged me out of the blue one day, and it was just instant. He felt like family right away, and we’ve been connected ever since. We’re cheering each other on. We’re giving each other advice. We’re giving each other pep talks, and our network keeps expanding. We keep folding other people in. Other people fold us into different spaces, and we’re just sharing with each other all the time.
TCR: Because I got so much pleasure from reading the book, let’s finish with pleasure. There is a lot of peach cobbler in your book. Is there a metaphor there?
DP: You see, this is what I mean by writing is discovery. I didn’t think of it as a metaphor in the beginning, but over time, it developed as one. I started with peach cobbler because it’s the Blackest dessert I could think of. But in addition, it’s very sweet. It has multiple textures. Eating it feels decadent. There’s this sensuality to the experience of eating it. It’s very pleasurable. So that all worked out in the course of the story. One of the things that taught me was if we just show up to the page each time and write as honestly as we can with good intentions, that magic will happen. That’s just part of writing, that je ne sais quoi that you stumble upon something as you’re wandering around in the woods. There’s somewhat of a path; you may or may not stay on it, but you discover that if you hadn’t wandered that way, you would never have seen it. And now you have this gem that you can do something with. If I wandered around in the forest for three hours before I found this gem and ended up with only a paragraph, that was not time wasted. You needed to do that wandering to make that discovery.
A note from TCR: Now you’re craving peach cobbler, aren’t you? Philyaw recommends Virginia Puryear’s recipe, and you can find it here.
A UC Riverside-Palm Desert MFA alum, Amy Reardon is former fiction editor of The Coachella Review. Her work has appeared or will appear in The Believer, Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Glamour, and The Rumpus. Follow her @ReardonAmy.