Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Deesha Philyaw

Image is the book cover for THE SECRET LIVES OF CHURCH LADIES by Deesha Philyaw; title card for the new interview with Courtney Harler.


Deesha Philyaw, acclaimed author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, is graciously serving as our guest judge for the CRAFT 2024 Short Fiction Prize. In this interview conducted over email, Editor in Chief Courtney Harler asks Deesha to share her approaches to writing voice, humor, sex scenes, and setting. Deesha’s answers will delight, enrich, surprise, and inspire our readers. Be sure to read to the very end for some great advice!  —CRAFT


Courtney Harler: Thank you for taking the time to correspond with me about your work, Deesha. Every “church lady” in your collection has a distinct voice, a defined point of view. How do you listen for, suss out, play with, settle upon, express with, voice in your fiction?

Deesha Philyaw: Sometimes a story starts out for me as an idea or a situation, but most often it starts out as a thought or line of dialogue. And that thought or line becomes the blueprint on which I build the rest of the story. I not only follow the substance of the thought or dialogue, I also figure out who is thinking or speaking, how they are saying it, what their voice or internal monologue sounds like, and what the context is for all of it. In Church Ladies, the voices were often reminiscent of my mother’s or my grandmother’s or their friends’ voices, or mine and my friends’ voices as young people in the 70s and 80s. I also tend to read dialogue and interior monologues aloud as I’m drafting them. Hearing myself speaking as the character helps me better understand the character—their voice, their perspectives, their motivations, their fears and desires, and so on. If what I hear sounds clunky, or awkward, or doesn’t otherwise ring true, I keep tweaking and poking at it until it sounds true and compelling to my ear. Even if it feels uncomfortable to my ear, that discomfort can reveal so much about the character and the story as a whole. I’m drawn particularly to those places of discomfort, dis-ease, and disruption.


CH: I find writing humor quite difficult myself—in fact, I’m only truly funny when I don’t intend to be funny, or so I’m told, haha. How do you harness humor as a function of voice, and what do you see as the core utility, the necessary purpose, of humor in your writing?

DP: Actually, I don’t think I harness it at all. There are writers I know who teach humor writing, but I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do that. I do think humor emerges frequently and naturally in my work because my social and cultural experience—like that of so many Black women in this country, for centuries—is one in which laughter and irreverence coexist alongside trauma and tragedy. My mother spent the last six weeks of her life in hospice and during that time, we laughed more than we weeped.


CH: Sex is hard to write too. Society may expect women to be squeamish about writing sex, but Church Ladies is so sexual, so sensual: dreamlike in its descriptions but oh so very real. When you’re writing a short story, when do you know, so to speak, that sex is the answer?

DP: Sex is always the answer, ha! Seriously, if you have characters you’re trying to understand or a story you’re trying to build out or figure out, write a sex scene. This scene may not even end up in your final draft, but it will teach you something about your characters, your story, and/or yourself. And by “sex scene,” I mean to be expansive. It can be a traditional sex scene or scene with sexual tension but no actual sex. Or a scene with sex but you can’t use or reference any of the usual suspects, like body parts or words like kiss or moan. Or a scene where characters talk about sex, but don’t indulge, which is not to be confused with phone sex. Though you can glean a lot from a scene like that too.

I’ve heard from women that the reason they hesitate to write about sex is because they fear they won’t be taken seriously as writers. In fact, one woman told me that an acclaimed woman writer told her that she could write about everything except sex, because doing so would ruin her credibility as a writer.

I like what Garth Greenwell says about writing sex: “Surely it is absurd to claim that a central activity of human life, a territory of feeling and drama, is off-limits to art. Sex is a uniquely useful tool for a writer, a powerful means not just of revealing character or exploring relationships, but of asking the largest questions about human beings. […] Sex is a kind of crucible of humanness, and so the question isn’t so much why one would write about sex, as why one would write about anything else.”


CH: Your settings are stunning—especially when juxtaposed. Here I’m thinking of the two homes in “Peach Cobbler,” and the northern/southern weather comparisons in “Snowfall.” Setting really comes alive through character in these stories, and I would argue, vice versa: it’s when these women are stuck somewhere they do not want to be that we truly see them. I’ll never forget that last line of “Peach Cobbler”—“Because in the meantime, I had nowhere to go.” Can you discuss using setting as a formal constraint for your characters, and how do you know when it’s time to set them free?

DP: I do like to box my characters in and/or displace them, to see how/if they can free themselves. One kind of displacement is interior: Is the character at home in her own body? Can the character ever go back home, if the old adage is true? Where is home, anyway? In my forthcoming novel, my main character is a woman who grew up on the proverbial wrong side of the tracks in a Southern town. She marries a preacher from the other side of the tracks and becomes the First Lady of a megachurch. Her background—the shame she feels around it, how she navigates that shame, how that shame influences her relationships and the way she moves in the world—all of this is central to the novel.


CH: Here at CRAFT, we are so excited for your debut novel, The True Confessions of First Lady Freeman, to publish in 2025. We know you have some other projects in the works too, including a television adaptation of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. What has it been like to work in new modes, and in that vein, what important lessons might you be able to share with our readers?

DP: I’m having a ball writing for television and writing my novel, as well as new short stories and essays. Writing for television has helped me to be more concise in other modes, and to meander unproductively less. (Some meandering is gold.) I’m learning—present tense—more and more about what makes a story, and what makes a compelling story.

Lessons…maybe more like reminders? Embrace revision. Writing is rewriting. Writing is work. It’s a job. It’s an art. And like any artistic career, it takes time—years, decades—to build. There is no point at which you will “arrive.” You should always be curious, always be learning, always seeking to grow as an artist. Never stop.


DEESHA PHILYAW is the author of the debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies focuses on Black women, sex, and the Black church, and is being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson executive producing. Deesha is also a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Baldwin for the Arts Fellow. Her debut novel, The True Confessions of First Lady Freeman, is forthcoming from Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2025. Find her on Twitter @DeeshaPhilyaw.

COURTNEY HARLER (she/her) is a queer writer, editor, and educator based in Las Vegas, Nevada. She holds an MFA from University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe (2017) and an MA from Eastern Washington University (2013). Courtney is currently editor in chief of CRAFT and editorial director for Discover New Art, and has read and/or written for UNT Press’s Katherine Anne Porter Prize, The Masters Review, Funicular Magazine, Reflex Fiction, and Chicago Literati in recent years. She also hosted the literary podcast PWN’s Debut Review, and still instructs and edits for Project Write Now. For her creative work, Courtney has been honored by fellowships and/or grants from Key West Literary Seminar, Writing By Writers, Community of Writers, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and Nevada Arts Council. Courtney’s work has been published in multiple genres in literary magazines around the world. Find her on Instagram @CourtneyHarler.