Toya Wolfe on Her 15-Year Odyssey to Become an Acclaimed Novelist

Toya Wolfe‘s journey to produce her critically acclaimed novel began when she lived on 81st and Cottage Grove on the South Side around 2005. 

She juggled life, multiple jobs and a manuscript she would tinker with on the side.  

It would take years — 15 to be exact — which included a sojourn to Southern California to become a pastor and a reluctant return back to Chicago to complete a graduate creative writing program, and more years of writing, burnishing and workshopping a manuscript that would eventually catch the attention of an agent and land her a publishing deal for a work that would become one of the more celebrated debuts by a Black woman writer, especially one from Chicago.

Her novel, “Last Summer on State Street,” has won five awards and earned praise from The New York Times Book Review, Publisher’s Weekly and NBA superstar Steph Curry, among others. There is even talk of developing her work about four girls coming of age in the Robert Taylor Homes into a TV show. 

In Part 2 of The Chicago Defender’s Q&A with Wolfe, she spoke about that messy, glorious journey toward publication and a critical decision about her faith journey that ultimately changed her life.

Hers is the story of a toil toward a hard-earned dream that was infinitely worth it, one that is still being written.

Read Part 1 of Toya Wolfe’s interview here.

Chicago Defender: I knew you were in California for a minute. But you were on a ministerial mission. As somebody who’s come back to the faith in the last ten years and really has seen it blossom in my life, take me through your journey after Columbia.

Toya Wolfe: So after Columbia undergrad, I was actually running an after-school program at Donoghue for the University of Chicago and living on 81st and Cottage Grove. And when I tell you, the Lord takes care of you. There was this sort of ignorance because I was living in this apartment building. It’s a block and some change away from where it all goes down on 79th and Cottage Grove, right?

I felt like if I didn’t change my life, something terrible was going to happen.

I was working at Donoghue and just writing. At that time, there was no real path. I was so far away from publishing this manuscript. It was a manuscript. I know now it was not very good. It took me 15 years to actually sell this book.

I just revised it for 13 years. Then I got an agent, and she wanted me to work on it. So, we worked on it for another two years together. But in that 15-year time frame, I was working and living my life. [The manuscript] was a thing I was tinkering with on the side. 

But then, around that same time, I had this really interesting encounter with God. I felt like if I didn’t change my life, something terrible was going to happen. And it was like, “You should go back to church. It’s time for you to really take your relationship with God seriously.”

I’ve just been working with teenagers and young people in the city for most of my adult life, and that’s when I started to take my relationship with God seriously. 

I was like, “If I went to seminary and got the credentials, I could actually work with young people in a setting that would help me help them develop their spiritual lives.” So I went to seminary. But then, at seminary, it became super clear that God was calling me to be a pastor, which was shocking. 

I was not interested in pastoral ministry, but I followed it. And then, I was hired by a church in Southern California. 

So I moved to Riverside. I loved California. The pacing is so slow, so chill, so green. And Southern California has a string of beaches; it was a really good fit. But then my mom’s siblings were getting sick and passing away. And I was flying back and forth. So then I just realized, “You have got to go home. I was out there [in California] for three years, but I had no intention of coming back to the Midwest. 


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Toya Wolves (@toyawolves)


Chicago Defender: Was that 2011 to 2013?

Toya Wolfe: Maybe a little bit before that. Maybe like 2010-ish. But in the summer of 2013, I came back and learned that Hadiya Pendleton had been murdered. The last time I saw her, she was eight years old because she went to Donoghue. 

I had a hard time returning here because as much as people talked about Chicago and all the crime and everything, it’s personal. When also, the people being killed — you read these names in the paper — and you know them. Or they’re your cousins or people you know, their family members. 

I just was not interested in coming back to Chicago because even from my upbringing in Robert Taylor Homes, in my mind, this is a place where people get murdered. It’s not in this way that the news gets reported like this is the only thing that happens here.

For me, that trauma was still there. I’m in this place [in California], and I’m at peace and don’t want to go back there. But you know, my family was in mourning, and it was like, “You’ve got to go.”

But what the wonderful thing that came out of it was like, I always wanted to get an MFA from Columbia, but I didn’t want to be in Chicago. I’m like, you know what, “If I go home, I’m getting an MFA.”

So, I started the process of applying to schools. And knowing that I got an undergrad there and knowing the teachers who were there, I would love to go on this journey with them. Because at the time I had a manuscript, I knew it needed some work, but it was like I’d be going into grad school with this manuscript.

In undergrad, I met Junot Diaz, and he told me, “Don’t go get an MFA until you have something to work on. And don’t pay for it,” which is bold. 

But I was like, “I’ve got a manuscript to work on. And if they give me a full ride, I’ll go. So I came back, and that’s how I ended up at Columbia and started doing some intense polishing of this book. But it still wouldn’t get sold until 2021. So we’ve been on a long journey. 

Chicago Defender: Was that 2014 through 2015?

Toya Wolfe: From 2013 to 2015, I was doing the MFA there. I was in grad school. You’re with these teachers, and they’re really pushing you. Your classmates are just as talented. And so we were really refining that thing. And then I was having little workshops on the side with folks, too. 

The spiritual journey running parallel to me becoming a writer; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when I started taking my relationship with God seriously, this book started forming in a way. 

Because it took me so long to do this, and because I know what it’s like to get rejections, it’s not about anybody else. It’s about me and the work until I bring it out into open air.  

It’s only been the last few years before we sold it that I figured out how to have a conversation about God in the book in a very natural way. What does it look like to have a character who loves God and spends time with God, and it’s not forced on them? 

When you read about religion in books or see it on TV, it’s always somebody’s trauma. How the church has hurt them, and how they’re trying to get away from God. But what about the folks who have a relationship with God, and it’s enriching their life and bringing them joy? So I was interested in a character, or characters who were on a quest with God, and it was good.

Chicago Defender: There was something you said about this parallel journey, right? And it got me thinking because 15 years of revising something is a long time. It just illustrates your perseverance and stick-to-itiveness. I’m interested in that “aha!” moment. What did that look like for you? When you’re like, “You know what, I’m here. I have a final draft. I’m ready to go. I know. This is good.” What year was that? Describe that whole experience if you can.

Toya Wolfe: I think it’s helpful for you not to try to nail down what’s your final draft because you’re going to be lying to yourself.

Chicago Defender: Okay, gotcha.

Toya Wolfe: I think what happens is you start to feel it get good. And then you just have to follow it. It’s this strange journey of watching something get better and better and then having affirmation along the way. It could be you winning a short story award, or you’re sitting in a workshop with some of the smartest people in your class, and they are just blown away, and you see it in their eyes.

It’s these tiny moments that push you to keep going, and it’s the long game.

It’s fascinating because, in my brain, I’m going to crank out a draft of my next book, probably in half a year. That’s my goal. 

Because you know what, here are the things that you’re wrestling with in those 15 years: I’m working three and four jobs so I can pay my rent. I am trying to grow up as a human. I’m dealing with losing family members. I’m dating crazy dudes. Life is happening while you’re tinkering with this little thing on the side that’s having tiny victories. 

And now, writing is my full-time job. I literally can focus on my next book in a gorgeous apartment. I don’t have to talk to anybody if I don’t want to. I can literally leave for four months and go hole up in a cabin somewhere and just focus on this book, right? It’s the dream. 

And I think it doesn’t take you 15 years when you’re trying to, like, make sure you can pay your rent. Or when you’re trying to figure out what being 20-something is all about.

Chicago Defender: Yeah. 

Or when you’re trying to form your identity as a writer or when you’re trying to learn how to write. So, when I look back on the journey, it’s glorious because it was so messy and it was so defining.

This book has won five awards. It’s my first novel. You are fortunate if you get any recognition for your work. I’m not talking about awards that come with money. I just mean any recognition whatsoever.

Someone asked me, “You know, you’ve won these awards. And you have all these interviews and stuff like that. Do you feel the pressure?” 

Because it took me so long to do this, and because I know what it’s like to get rejections, it’s not about anybody else. It’s about me and the work until I bring it out into open air.  

If anything, the awards have been affirmation that I am talented. If I go deep inside and focus, I can produce something that might change people. I could join the ranks of these amazing writers who start conversations. So yeah, it’s like a dream come true. But it’s not even over.

And what is God going to have me do with this voice? I have no idea, and it’s also not my business. It’s like, just keep going. 

Toni Morrison wrote until she left this world.

Chicago Defender: She did. 

Toya Wolfe: We’re in a field where you really can keep going until there’s no more breath in your body. And I just feel incredibly honored to be in the ranks.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In honor of August being Black Business Month, the Chicago Defender is running a series of profiles on our city’s dynamic Black entrepreneurs.

About Post Author


From the Web

Skip to content