Photo: Rob Howard
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Ayana: Hello?

Oprah: Hi. Ayana?

Ayana: Yes, hi.

Oprah: Hi, it's Oprah Winfrey.

Ayana: Huh?

Oprah: It's Oprah Winfrey. I'm calling you because I have some news and I wanted to be the one to share it with you. I love your book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, so much that I'm choosing it as my new book club selection.

Ayana: Really? This is really Oprah Winfrey? No, it's not. Is this a joke?

Oprah: No, it's not a joke. [Laughing.] It really is not.

Ayana: I can't believe my book actually got into your hands. And that you like it.

Oprah: I more than like it. I think you were born to write. And now that I have you on the phone, you have to tell me how this remarkable book came to be.

Ayana: Well, I've been writing since I was a little girl, but in my wildest dreams I never imagined I could earn a living that way. In fact, I spent more than a decade doing everything from waitressing to working with the homeless to working as a fact checker at a magazine before getting accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Oprah: That's a very prestigious program. Did it all just click when you got there?

Ayana: Not at all. I was working on another book—a fictionalized memoir—which was stilted, and wrong, and ridiculous. I brought it into the workshop, and everyone discussed it, but at the end, Marilynne Robinson, who was my first workshop instructor, said, "It is true that the characters are not sufficiently in the situations in which you've placed them."

Oprah: Uh-oh. That doesn't sound good.

Ayana: It wasn't. Of course, I was completely devastated, but I thought, "Okay, I'll just write some short stories in a different way," never realizing that those stories would become the beginnings of this novel.

Next: What it was like for Ayana to publish her book

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