LaToya Watkins, PERISH

LaToya Watkins, PERISH

“I had trouble finding places for light in the book. It took me a really long time to get there.” Zibby is joined by writer LaToya Watkins to discuss her debut novel, Perish, a timely intergenerational epic. LaToya shares how she got her start as both a reader and a writer, where she drew her inspiration for the story, and why this project took so long to write and revise. The two also connect over being moms to twins and talk about the process LaToya went through pitching and publishing this book during the pandemic.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, LaToya. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Perish: A Novel.

LaToya Watkins: Thank you. Thank you for having me here. I really appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s wonderful. Can you please tell listeners what your book is about?

LaToya: In simple terms, the book is about family with problems that they are trying to push through because as difficult as it seems, they really do love each other. They are trying to learn how to do that in healthy ways.

Zibby: You got to go deeper than that. The letter you wrote in the beginning, by the way, with your love of the books that you read growing up, I just wrote a memoir called Bookends, and I literally was saying all the same things. This is what I did. I read all of these books. Obviously, our experiences were different, but we gravitate to all the same stuff, all the same books on the shelves and things that were available. Talk about your reading and how that became this book eventually.

LaToya: That’s awesome. For the first decade of my life, we didn’t have — I grew up in a neighborhood in West Texas, where the book is set, where there were no libraries or bookstores, but my mom was a reader. As you know from the letter, she was also a factory worker. We didn’t have a home library or anything like that. She would have these mass market paperbacks. Sometimes they would be from the library, or she would buy them. They weren’t for me. I didn’t think that they were for me at all, not Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins or Stephen King, but I would read them. I would read them after I knew that she was done. I didn’t know that she knew that I was reading these books. All of her favorite books became my favorite books. The first book that I found there that I could really relate to was The Prince of Tides. Not relate to, but I saw this messy family with all these problems. It wasn’t just some beach read. It was The Prince of Tides. There was so much emotion there, The Prince of Tides. There was so much emotion there.

Then later on, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I saw that there. I read that through my mother. She actually ended up finding me reading that one. That’s when I found out that she knew I was reading the books. We started kind of reading them together. She would bring them to me when she was done reading them. That’s how I became a reader. I also had siblings, but none of them were sneaking the books, stealing the books, or reading. I guess I was the only reader in the bunch. There were a lot of things that we would do around books. If there was something in a book, a meal that I never heard of, Mom would try to recreate it so that I could have what was in the book to give me some sort of culture. After we moved away from West Texas, we had libraries in our neighborhoods. We had book fairs at school, so our reading-together relationship kind of changed. I did come into it in a very sneaky way that I thought was wrong for a really long time until she showed me it wasn’t.

Zibby: I would love for my kids to steal my books. I’m like, please, read this catalog. Just do it. Something. You never know. Maybe one day.

LaToya: I don’t know how it was, but the very sad stories were what stuck out to me, but they were. I’m not sure if it was because of the way the characters were drawn in those stories or that I like to be moved by tears. Those were the ones that when I first decided to write something, I was like, I’m going to write something that makes me cry. I want to make myself cry. That’s how I came to write a book like — come up with characters like Helen Jean and Jan — a book like Perish. When I was writing it, it made me cry.

Zibby: That is also the effect on the reader, so there you go. I thought it was so funny because I feel like particularly back in the eighties or the nineties, whenever these books originally came out, they always had family trees. There were all these epic family stories. Then I opened to yours. I was like, oh, yeah, here it is. I see where this is coming from. I also loved Pat Conroy. I remember reading Beach Music and just getting so into it. They were long and dense. Many of the books then, I feel like, more so now, but maybe that’s just my misguided perception, were these sprawling family sagas with generations. Yet they felt so contemporary because they ended up right where you were. That’s my trip down memory lane here. Oh, my goodness. You start the book talking about Helen Jean and going back in time into the 1950s and going through something that is very topical now with all of the talk about abortion and the rules and craziness that’s going on. I shouldn’t put my own opinions. Abortion is in the news these days. It’s a topic in your first chapter. Why don’t you talk about that?

LaToya: First of all, I didn’t know that it was going to be in the news in the way that it is. It has always been something very visible in Texas. When I was in high school, I had a job in the day care of a fitness facility. There was this little business center wrapped around the day care. It was by the Southern Methodist University, in that area, this very elite area. There was a Planned Parenthood in that business center. When I would go to work, there would be protestors out there all the time. I went three times a week. It was very jarring to see these people with these signs, these visuals, these photos almost attacking the people who were walking into the clinic for whatever reason. When I was doing research, that was one of the things that I looked for when I went back to West Texas because I know that there’s a conservative population there. I didn’t see a whole lot of it. One of the things that I also paid attention to as I was looking at the populations of people, like Black and white, and when I did stop by some of those clinics, I didn’t see a lot of Black people.

It brought into the question, where they were. I know they were having babies or getting pregnant. Why weren’t they at the clinics? When I started asking those questions, a lot of the responses rolled back to the 1950s, the 1960, even the 1970s. They talked about the back-alley abortions. I asked a lot of questions about what those looked like. There were so many types and tools that people used. The one that stood out to me the most, that seemed the most dangerous but also seemed like the go-to because it was easier to get to was the turpentine abortion. I even asked about that particular procedure. I went to my mother and asked about that procedure. She was like, “Yeah, I know people who did that. I know people who used hangers. I know people who used wrenches.” We got into a conversation about the dangers of that and how common it was and how common it is in the Black community even after Roe v. Wade.

Zibby: Wow. I’m hoping it doesn’t make a huge comeback. The health implications of these methods in the way you describe them and even the time it works and the time it doesn’t work, going through that — you’re such a good writer. You’re in these scenes. You want to hold your stomach, almost. You’re immediately in it. The style is so propulsive. It’s quite a launching-off point for the story.

LaToya: Thank you.

Zibby: Then of course, you go back. Now we’re in 2018. We’re back with Lydia. Tell me about this storyline.

LaToya: Lydia, she’s a significant character because I wanted to explore what someone looked like when they were taken out of this environment that’s almost like a trap. It’s almost inescapable. She ends up being away but is still very much connected. There’s a lot of unknown and shame. There are a lot of things that are squirreling around her that keep her from moving forward, these expectations. With her, I wanted to explore why it’s so important or if it is important at all to go back to where you’re from or your past or your people and resolve or understand in some way and what that means for independence or personal growth. I think she’s the character that is most connected to the hope that I felt when reading or writing the book.

Zibby: I love it. Tell me how you even got into writing.

LaToya: Writing has always been something that I was drawn to as a way to — I didn’t come from a family or a community where if you were having problems, if you were grieving, if anything they was going on, they would say, let’s go take you to a therapist. You just pushed it down and moved forward. I would write. I think I wrote my first poem when I was seven. I would write these things. My mother would read them and tell me that they were beautiful. Even then, I understood she was my mom. Everything that I did had to be beautiful in some type of way if it was good. I just did that until adulthood, I believe. I started writing stories. My college education wasn’t traditional. I already had a family. I already had children when I tried to squeeze that in. It doesn’t make sense at all. I was always late. Everyone thought I was a slacker, but I had three children. When I was an undergrad, I took one creative writing workshop. This is how important mentors and instructors are to students. I wrote a poem. I wrote three poems in that course. At the end of the course, the professor told me that I had no future in writing, that I should give up.

Zibby: What? Oh, no.

LaToya: I did. We had gone through craft elements and a lot of different things. I don’t think my work worked for that person. I stepped away from it for a while even as a way to process what I was going through. Then I had a cousin who told me I should write something, and I did. I was like, you know what? This isn’t bad. I read it myself. It was the first time that I read my own work and I thought it wasn’t bad. By then, I had graduated from undergrad and actually applied to law school. I was going to try and do that even though I just didn’t know what to do next. When I wrote that and read it, I said, you know what? I think I’m going to apply for grad school. I couldn’t apply to an MFA. We didn’t have one in DFW. I couldn’t because I couldn’t leave my children. I did apply at the same school that I had gotten my undergrad at. When I went in, I started asking students, who’s the worst — not the worst, but the best critical reader who taught creative writing. They told me. They told me to beware. They told me this person was a monster. That’s the class I enrolled in because I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to know whether or not I had what it took to actually write professionally. If I didn’t, I was going to try a different track. When I went into that class, I knew that that person was going to tell me that I wasn’t a writer. In the end after I submitted my workshop story for that class — it was a novella. That man was brutal. I had seen people leave there crying, mad, cursing his name. I knew it was going to be bad. I was just going to grin and bear it. He did, he tore it apart. When he finished, he told me how wonderful it was and how much potential it had and that I should revise it. It was actually a version of this story, this novel that we looked at. That’s how I began to study craft and understand what it is to be a writer and try to do that.

Zibby: Wait, so what happened after that? You worked on the story together. Then what?

LaToya: We created the story together. Then I put it away and wrote a lot of other stories. While I was in that program, I made sure — I went all the way through and got a PhD. I was there for about seven years. Every semester, I took creative writing workshops because I wanted to practice that as much as I possibly could. I wrote a lot of stories that I loved. My dissertation was an academic essay that centered a story collection. My committee, when I was defending my dissertation, was like, “We love this collection, but this last story in it should be a novel.” It was Perish. It was the hardest story in that collection to write. I do think it was the one story that needed more or that wanted more, so it was the one that I chose to expand on.

Zibby: Wow, what a story. How long did you work on it from becoming a story into a full novel?

LaToya: It was probably, in total, about three and a half years. That’s because I was, again, a parent. Kids, you’re on their schedule. As much as we try to create a schedule and try to situate them within it, they’re the ones creating the schedule. We just have to fit in where we fit. Then I was teaching. I wasn’t able to write as much as I wanted to. I learned early on that I had to sometimes get away, residencies, self-made residencies, anything to separate myself from mama/home mode because that’s a thing. You’re concerned. You are only using half of your senses when you are in that mode. I would have to totally separate myself from the children in order to really get into character and not take on these personalities, the personalities of my characters, and become those people for my children. It took a while.

Zibby: That’s really not bad. Three and a half years is not bad for someone who’s sitting at their desk all day every day trying to do it with nothing else going on. Those stories, I hear all the time too. How old are your kids now, by the way?

LaToya: My kids are twenty — twenty-two, I’m sorry. I have a set of twins, so I’m always trying — twenty-two and twenty-four. It took longer to revise the novel than it did to make it a novel. I think in the beginning, there were twenty-two narrators.

Zibby: Wow.

LaToya: There were a lot of narrators. I’d been reading Ernest Gaines and William Faulkner, Maryse Condé. It was very ambitious, so it took a lot longer to revise the novel than it did to make the story a novel.

Zibby: I have twins, too, also.

LaToya: Really? How old are they?

Zibby: They’re fifteen.

LaToya: Oh, my goodness. That was the biggest prank that has ever been played on me, twins. I wasn’t expecting that.

Zibby: Are yours boy/girl?

LaToya: They’re girls.

Zibby: Identical or fraternal?

LaToya: Identical.

Zibby: Identical, oh, my gosh.

LaToya: Are yours boy/girl?

Zibby: Boy/girl, fraternal. They could not be more different. I love the look of respect that crosses people’s faces when they have one kid. They’re like, but wait, you had two at the same time?

LaToya: I was just like, wait, two at the same time? That’s incredible.

Zibby: I do like to multitask. Then I had two more, so I have four kids. I’m also off in different directions, but it keeps it interesting.

LaToya: It does, especially if you want to keep them busy and active. They’re interesting. It was fun, the multitasking motherhood, being a writer, being a student, being a teacher all at the same time. For four years of that, I was also homeschooling.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, stop.

LaToya: It was pretty busy times.

Zibby: I don’t even know how you got through that.

LaToya: I can’t even explain it now that I’m older. It’s just like, I don’t know what that was about.

Zibby: You just do it.

LaToya: I don’t think you need sleep.

Zibby: Did you have a good support system, though?

LaToya: I did. My family, we always lived in the same neighborhoods. When we were homeschooling, I would have a house of seven kids on one day because I taught certain subjects. My sisters would all take their day. Even my parents took a day. We worked together to do it.

Zibby: That’s good. Let’s go back to the timeline of the book. I’m hanging on every word here of this story. You revise it. You cut out some of the narrators. Then tell me about selling it.

LaToya: I think that was the hardest thing, and not just the selling it. No, the selling it wasn’t as hard as the revising. It took me a really long time to get it to a place where there was some light, some hope in the book. It was a mixture of things that became, during my research — and I was a mother — my deepest fears for my own children, for myself, nightmares. I had trouble finding places for light in the book. It took me a really long time to get there. I’d say it took me three and a half years to turn this into a novel. It took another four to revise it. Then I was also working on other things while I was doing it, and unagented for some of that. Finding an agent wasn’t as hard for me as — I didn’t have the horror stories that some people have because I did a lot of residencies and conferences that were juried applications. A lot of times, some of those things included sitting down with agents, agents reading your books or your work. I went that route. Finding an agent wasn’t the hard part. Getting the book ready again was the hardest part. What happened was, during the pandemic, I got a residency to Camargo Foundation in France. In February of 2020, I went to France. I was going to read the manuscript one last time, send it to my agent. Our plan was for her to send it out that April or something like that, March or April. When I was in France, that’s when everything shut down. We finished, and my agent was like, “Well, I don’t know. Things are kind of strange. Let’s see what things — what they look like.” Then she came back in, it was June after I was home, and she said, “Let’s go ahead and try to give it a go.”

We sent it out. It was incredibly scary because it was crickets. No one knew what was going on, what publishing was going to look like, what the world was going to look like when we came out of this, if we came out of this. We didn’t hear anything back. She was touching base with editors. We just didn’t hear anything back. I’m googling, reading all these horror stories about people who wrote these books that just died, that didn’t do anything. I was like, that’s what this book is. It’s not going to sell. We took it back out later that year. We got responses. I think people were kind of getting their footing and understanding publishing in whatever way they were to understand it. Another thing had happened. The George Floyd murder had happened. You had all of these people in all of these different areas looking at the treatment of Black folks. Publishing was one of the areas where they were doing that. There were the formations of all of these new imprints. My imprint didn’t exist before then, so that’s why they didn’t respond to the first . It was amazing to get on the phone with them and talk to them about the book. When I had that first meeting when you’re meeting editors, the passion that the editor felt for the stories, both of my books, was just incredible. I knew that they were the ones that I would go with. That was the home for Perish. It was a pretty incredible experience because I didn’t think it would happen after the first time we sent it out. I’m glad it did.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. LaToya, I’m so excited for you. I’m sorry that this time is up. I had so many questions. I want to hear more about all of it. I’m just so excited for you and your book. I can’t wait for everything to come. I’m so excited you went with Tiny Reparations. I feel like they have the best books, seriously.

LaToya: I love them.

Zibby: They’re really great, really awesome. Congratulations on everything. I’m going to follow along. I’m so excited for you. Way to go. Really inspiring story.

LaToya: Thank you. Thank you so much for reading Perish and being inspired by it and for having me here.

Zibby: My pleasure. Bye-bye.

LaToya: Bye.

Zibby: Thanks.

LaToya Watkins, PERISH

PERISH by LaToya Watkins

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