Wilkinsburg resident Deesha Philyaw’s book, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The book focuses on Black women, their passions, and the Black church. It is being adapted for television by HBO Max.
This interview is published in partnership with the Pittsburgh Community Newspaper Network (PCNN). It was originally printed in The Wilkinsburg Sun, A Free Community Newsletter Bringing You Good News About Wilkinsburg.
Photo courtesy of the author
Last we looked, your The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is ranked in the top 20 fiction short stories on Amazon. That is quite a distinguished niche. What does this recognition, along with the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award, mean to you?
Deesha Philyaw: It feels wonderful to have my fiction out in the world, to know that readers are connecting with it, and to have it be lauded in the company of so many writers (past awardees) whose work I admire tremendously. And especially in this year of pandemic and uprising and reckoning, the reception and recognition have been a much-needed balm and a source of joy.
Wilkinsburg has been known as the “City of Churches.” Did you find any inspiration from Wilkinsburg churches or their ladies for the pages of your book?
DP: The stories in the collection are all rooted in my nostalgia and memories of growing up in the South, in Jacksonville, Florida, specifically. But when I moved to Wilkinsburg in 2017, I was struck by how many churches I would pass, just walking a few blocks in my neighborhood.
Do you think of yourself as a “church lady?”
DP: Not actively, no. But I do joke that I have a little old church lady inside me. I spent the first 35 years of my life in churches, and my interest in how Black women reconcile their inner lives with the church’s teachings was the foundation for my characters and their stories.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a published author of a novel. Did you always know that someday you would write a book?
DP: I started writing about 20 years ago, and I aspired first to write a novel. After some early attempts, I did write a few short stories, but mostly over the years I’ve been writing personal essays and nonfiction articles for digital and print publications and magazines. In 2013, I co-authored a book on co-parenting with my ex-husband. So it’s really been one big, long detour, and the Church Ladies mark my return, finally, to fiction. My agent for the co-parenting book suggested that I build a few of my short stories into a collection with a focus on Black women, sex, and the Black church. I had been writing some variation on these characters for 20 years, but it wasn’t until she made that suggestion that I saw the theme emerge.
Your stories explore themes of identity, family relationships, intimacy, authenticity, and more. What message are you most proud to be able to convey to your ever-widening audience?
DP: That they aren’t alone in unlearning, or wanting to unlearn, those spoken and unspoken rules that put us at odds with our deepest longings. That it is possible to get free.
What was the most painful part of the writing process for you?
DP: A word limit! I have so many stories and story ideas. It was tough narrowing down which ones to include. What was the most fun? Imagining worlds, writing characters who are funnier and braver than I, writing characters who find love.
What do your daughters think of your book and their mom’s accomplishments?
DP: They’ve told me that they are proud of me. And I think one of them has read the book. Not sure about the other.
What can you tell us about The Secret Lives of Church Ladies being adapted for HBO?
DP: It’s such a dream to be able to revisit my characters and go beyond the stories that are in the pages of my book. We don’t have a timeline yet, but Tessa Thompson and HBO Max have a wonderful vision for all of the possibilities, and I’m excited to be their creative partner in bringing these characters to the small screen.
As a celebrated resident of our community, we’d be interested in what strengths you see in Wilkinsburg.
DP: I love being neighbors with entrepreneurs and small businesses that include makers and artists. I feel right at home!