On a winter evening, writer Toya Wolfe is at Soho House, sipping a glass of club soda and laughing heartily as she relaxes on a red velvet chair. She breaks out an upper-crust British accent to match the tony atmosphere. Perhaps it’s no surprise that she’s a former pastor; Wolfe, 42, possesses the requisite charisma to enthrall a congregation. 

She has plenty of cause for joy these days. Wolfe’s debut novel, Last Summer on State Street, was published last June to critical praise. Set in 1999, the story follows a 12-year-old girl and her friends coming of age in the Robert Taylor Homes, where Wolfe grew up, during the final summer before the Bronzeville public housing complex was demolished. The New York Times called the novel “a remarkable achievement,” and NBA star Stephen Curry picked it for his online book club, Underrated. 

Wolfe, who now lives on the North Shore, has adapted the novel into a TV script that’s being circulated in Hollywood and has also started her second book — all while remotely teaching in the graduate writing program at Bennington College.

It’s just the latest chapter of an interesting career arc. Although Wolfe has loved writing since childhood, she attended seminary in Michigan in 2009 and ministered at a Seventh-day Adventist church in Southern California from 2011 to 2013. She moved back to Chicago to be near family after several relatives died. Leaving California hurt, but Wolfe promised herself she would pursue an MFA upon her return. She’d had the idea — and some pages — for Last Summer since 2005, so she entered the graduate creative writing program at Columbia College with a mission: finish the book. 

“Even when it sounds crazy or you feel like it’s a demotion, I really think you have to follow what you think God’s telling you to do,” she says. “You just gotta go.”