Interview

The Story That Knocked in Her Chest: An Interview with Author Toya Wolfe

Toya Wolfe was a creative writing student at Columbia College Chicago where I taught for decades. As happens in these writing programs, certain students have a glow about them, and their words, their stories, are the things that particularly make them shine. No surprise, then, when Wolfe’s debut novel was picked up by HarperCollins and scheduled for release in the summer of 2022.

Nancy Johnson, the author of The Kindest Lie, said this about Wolfe’s debut: Last Summer on State Street is a love letter to girlhood, the tenuous bonds of friendship, and the places we call home. As a daughter of Chicago’s South Side, this novel took me inside a community I just passed by, but didn’t truly see. Wolfe dazzles in this intimate portrait of race, grief, and the times in our lives that shape who we become.”

I was lucky to get a chance to chat with Wolfe about the book, family, and the stories that knock in our chests.

 

Patricia Ann McNair: In your heartbreaking and heart-touching debut novel, Last Summer on State Street, you use an often-overlooked backdrop of the Robert Taylor Homes, a high-rise housing project built in Chicago in the last century. You lived in these buildings for a time as a child, but besides your own experience, can you talk about what drew you to this setting?

 

Toya Wolfe: Every time I sat down to write, like a recurring dream, I was back in these buildings. It was like all of my stories were happening in my childhood neighborhood. I lived there from my birth until I went off to college at eighteen. My mother moved into that very same building when she was young, like six years old. We talked a lot about place during my writing program, and I think somewhere deep down, I knew that no one else would write about the Robert Taylor Homes with the kind of conflict of emotion that I have.

 

PAM: In your acknowledgments, you mention that this work began as a short story written in the Columbia College Chicago workshops of Eric May (one of Solstice’s board members) and the renowned essayist, Megan Stielstra. When you first wrote the story, did you know it would grow into a novel?

 

TW: No, I didn’t know that this material wanted to be a novel. After writing three short stories with these characters, all set in different areas of my old neighborhood, I realized I had a longer story to tell. I then pulled back, and set out to tell a story set in one summer, with both gentrification and an exploration of Black girlhood front of mind.

 

PAM: The four young girls we follow in the novel, Fe Fe, Precious, Stacia, and Tonya, all live in a particular building in the Robert Taylor Homes. Around them, the homes have already begun to be demolished, as the city of Chicago clears the area for other purposes. The girls know their building is slated for demolition, too. As this comes closer, the urgency of each of their stories is heightened. Can you talk about that?

 

TW: The inevitable demise of the place that these characters call home—in my mind—would create a sense of urgency in everyone’s storyline because I think when we are stressed, we aren’t our most sensible, eloquent, kindest selves. I wanted to explore what that would look like in an entire community.

 

PAM: One of the novel’s strengths is its moving effortlessly from the everyday innocence of these girls to the swirl of violence and destruction around them. Tonya and Stacia are directly affected by this violence, while Precious and Fe Fe are spared some of the worst of it. Some of the pain Tonya and Stacia face is propelled by their mothers, while Fe Fe and Precious have more stable homes. What can you tell us about the role of family (biological or chosen) on these girls and the story?

TW: I think family can build you up to be better equipped to deal with what happens outside of your home and of course, it can do just the opposite. I think the ability of a parent to keep their child safe doesn’t always have a direct correlation to their efforts, unfortunately. Meechie, Fe Fe’s brother, has a mother who loves and cares for him, but she couldn’t save him from the violence that he endured from both the police and gangs.

PAM: I was particularly struck by Stacia’s journal entries that come late in the book. Her uncensored insights gave her character a complexity we might not have understood otherwise. How did you come up with this device? And are you a journal keeper yourself?

 

TW: Those journal entries were the only way we could access Stacia’s emotions. She never intended to share those pages with anyone, so we got uncensored, honest, private thoughts from her. I used to use a journal in this way until my brother and cousins found my journal and read it! Later, when I began to write fiction, I used journals to write about writing, to begin stories.

 

PAM: I hope you don’t mind talking a little about yourself. I know that you took time between your first creative writing classes as an undergraduate and your return to Columbia College Chicago for the MFA in Creative Writing to go to seminary. Why did you decide to return to graduate school?

 

TW: I wrote sermons for a while, so you could argue that I never stopped writing, but this novel—which during my seminary and pastoral days was just a pile of pages in a drawer—kept knocking inside my chest. It just seems like the timing was right to leave ministry, move closer to my family, and give this book my full attention—for once!

 

PAM: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you this: What’s next?

 

TW: I’m working on a TV adaptation of Last Summer on State Street and my next novel!

 

PAM: Toya, that is so exciting! I can’t wait to see what you make of each of these endeavors. And thank you for taking the time to talk.

 

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