IN 2009, four years after the release of her second novel, The Untelling, Tayari Jones found herself without a publisher. Her sales numbers were hardly strong—in fact, she says, she had become “radioactive.” “I was so depressed,” Jones, 47, says. At the time, she had begun work on a new novel, which would eventually become the best-selling Silver Sparrow. “The only reason I kept working on Sparrow was because I tell my students that you write a book for you and not your publisher. I couldn’t face them every day if I were to give up on that project.” She finally completed the manuscript with the help of a grant from the United States Artists Foundation; later, at a reading in Florida at the Key West Literary Seminar, an admirer came up to Jones to express outrage that she still didn’t have a publisher. The admirer introduced Jones to an executive at Algonquin Books, which would go on to publish Silver Sparrow and Jones’s latest book, An American Marriage. After inquiring about her novel, the executive asked, “But how do you know Judy?” Jones’s admirer had been none other than literary icon Judy Blume.
The dogged determination and stick-to-itiveness that has defined much of Jones’s career is also typical of her characters. In An American Marriage, which Oprah Winfrey just selected as her next book club pick, Jones writes about Roy and Celestial, a bright young African-American couple whose lives are turned upside down when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. The ways in which this tragedy shapes their relationship, moving them in surprising directions, is only the start of what’s in store for readers of this rich, complex novel. WSJ. spoke with Jones over the phone in anticipation of the book’s release on February 6.
WSJ: I want to begin first with Atlanta. The city is such a presence in your novel; it almost functions like another character. What was Atlanta like when you were growing up there, and how have you seen it change?
Tayari Jones: I often say that Atlanta is my natural habitat—I’m most myself when I’m home. It wasn’t until I left Atlanta, and started writing about it, that I realized how little the rest of the country knows about the city, or even the urban South. I live in Brooklyn, and whenever I tell people I’m from Georgia they act like I came up on the Underground Railroad. Our understanding of the South is so much a narrative of the past.
WSJ: When did you first decide to become a writer? Was there a moment when you said, “I can do this” or “I want to do this”?
TJ: Well, I had to get to the point where I was willing to do my M.F.A. [In 1998] I went to my first AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference—at the time I was in a Ph.D. program [at the University of Georgia]—where I met this writer named Jewell Parker Rhodes. She ran the M.F.A. program at Arizona State University. She had seen the one little story I published in my life, and she said, “Come to Arizona. You need to study writing. I’ll be your mentor.” So I moved to Arizona to work with her on my book that I had just started (I sent her the first 25 pages I had of [my first novel] Leaving Atlanta). The whole thing went down in only two weeks.
WSJ: This is a good opportunity to segue into your practice as a writer. What does a productive day look like for you? What does your revision process look like?
TJ: I get up early and write. Drink a lot of coffee. I discover the story as I write. Revision depends on how much of a mess the book is. An American Marriage, my new book, required four top-to-bottom rewrites. I’m hoping that’s not a new part of my process!
WSJ: One element that provides for many moments of tension in An American Marriage is this contrast in the upbringings of Celestial and Roy, a recently married African-American couple. Their experiences as black people overlap, but they also diverge in many striking ways because of the class issue. Did this dynamic surprise you as you explored how their differences might bubble up in the novel?
TJ: When I was growing up in Atlanta it was a hyper-segregated town. I grew up in an all-black Atlanta. The distinction between people wasn’t race, it was class. We tend to think about people operating only in one zone at a time. You’re talking about race or you’re talking about gender or you’re talking about class. But I understood intersectionality before I knew there was a word called intersectionality. Even when you consider something like the Atlanta Child Murders, the subject of my first book, everyone remembers it as the murder of black children, which it was, but it was also about the murder of poor and working-class black children.
WSJ: It’s fascinating because you don’t really see that quality of intersectionality explored very often in contemporary fiction, at least not in my reading experience. It’s really interesting territory.
TJ: And you know black people have a lot of class mobility and class integration. There are studies that say most people never know anyone outside of their class, but, hello—for a black person that’s called family. We have a lot more fluidity in terms of class. That’s why Celestial says, “What white people call middle-middle class, black people call upper-middle class.” I just find it interesting. That’s a real conflict in my life, so when I got ready to write a book, I didn’t have to think about it.
WSJ: You’re quoted as saying that An American Marriage should not be read as a protest novel, but rather as “issue adjacent,” but it does directly confront this issue of wrongful incarceration, so I wonder in what ways do you distinguish it from a protest novel?
TJ: You know James Baldwin and Richard Wright fell out over this question. Even Ralph Ellison jumped into the fray. Wright was hurt because Baldwin wrote this piece [“Everybody’s Protest Novel”] about Native Son in which he said the novel was so interested in its issue that it forgot the nuances of personal experience. I was always taught as a writer that you should write about people and their problems, not about problems and their people. So, while I was outraged about what I learned about wrongful incarceration, I was not inspired by it.
WSJ: What kinds of materials were you engaging with in terms of research for this book?
TJ: I read The New Jim Crow a hundred times like everybody else. But this novel is not the musical [version of that book]. I didn’t novelize The New Jim Crow. The thing I found most engaging was a little-known book of oral histories of people who have survived wrongful incarceration called Surviving Justice. Most of the men interviewed were not hung up on the “wrongful” part of incarceration. They were more interested in the conditions of incarceration and how no one should be subject to this. I was impressed with that. It made me interested in writing this to try and concentrate more on this question of empathy. This novel hinges on that question. Even when he feels everything has been taken away from him, Roy comes to understand that your humanity lies in your ability to empathize with other people and that can never be taken away from you. You are never so much a victim that you do not have a responsibility to think about others.
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