Having penned four novels, New York Times bestselling author Tayari Jones is a maven of fiction. An American Marriage, her most recent release chronicling a couple divided by incarceration, will reportedly be adapted into a movie by Oprah Winfrey. Ahead of Jones’ appearance at the Boston Book Festival on Oct. 13, the Georgia native chatted about inspiration and knowing the ending.
How did the idea for An American Marriage come about? I started writing An American Marriage when I had a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship in 2011-12. This is my fourth novel, and for my earlier books, I had leaned more heavily on autobiography. But I thought that in this stage of my life, it was time to look more outward and try to use my words to address issues larger than myself. So, I wrote a proposal to Harvard to do some work on the issues of mass incarceration. I learned a lot, but I’m not a sociologist or ethnographer. I’m a storyteller at heart. I’m a novelist. I felt like I was aware of a situation, but I didn’t have a story. … I had been working, but I hadn’t been writing, and for me, working and writing were always the same thing, so this was a new experience. … I went back home to Georgia to spend some time with my mother and think things over. While I was there, I overheard a couple in the mall. I heard the woman say: “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,” and he shot back, “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” And I know that’s when I have a novel, when I have a conflict when both characters are right and both characters are wrong. That’s when I decided to write An American Marriage about a young couple separated by the husband’s wrongful incarceration.
When did you first know you wanted to become a writer? I first knew that I enjoyed writing when I was just a little girl. I loved to read and I loved to write. I did this all through my adolescence, but I didn’t know that I could be a writer. … It seemed almost like when someone said they want to be a movie star. … I also think that there’s a gendered aspect. I think that when young girls or teenagers enjoy reading and writing, people think of it as a character issue rather than an intellectual thing, that it means you’re a nice girl. If I’m in the library, it’s the opposite of being out with boys. But no one ever says, “What are you writing? What are you thinking about? What are you reading, young lady?” So, I didn’t understand myself as preparing for my eventual career. It wasn’t until I was a student at Spelman College that I met a writer and she was my teacher, and she asked me, “What are you thinking?” I got ready to tell her, and she said: “No, write it down.” And she became my first audience.
Do you usually know where a novel is going before you start writing? I don’t like to know where it’s going. … I would hate to spoil a project for myself by knowing the end. I like to ask myself a hard question and then chase down the answer.
What’s your typical day as a writer? There is no typical day. I can walk you through one or two different types of days. There is a summer day, where I’m not teaching and the project is exciting to me. When that happens, I make myself stay in bed until 5 am, because I feel like anything earlier than 5 am is a little deranged. At 5 am you’re an early riser, at 4:30 you have a problem. At 5 am I hop up, make some coffee, roll some paper into my typewriter and have at it for two or three hours. After those two or three hours, I’m kind of out of steam and I kind of live my life like a normal person. There are the days when I’m teaching, and I get up early and don’t have a lot of time. Maybe I’ll only put in 30 minutes or maybe I’ll only read over what I put in before. I’ve learned to stop beating myself up that I don’t live a life of leisure when I can devote all day to my writing. I feel like if I can put my mind on the book at some point during the day, or at least three or four times a week, that’s enough to nurture it and let it grow. I feel that it’s important that I talk about the fact that I’m busy and I can’t write every day, because there are a lot of people with really important stories to tell, but they don’t think they can write because they have jobs or children or they’re doing other things. I think they all have these really important stories that we’re missing because people think that writing is only for people with a lot of leisure time. So if we disqualify the busy people, what’s going to be left to show of the way we live our lives?
A lot of your writing seems to center on women living in the South, are there any Southern women writers who have influenced your writing? Of course I am a huge fan of Alice Walker, being that we’re both from that state of Georgia and we both attended Spelman College. I met her for the first time about a month ago and I was just so honored to be in her presence. Who can resist Flannery O’Connor? She’s such a wicked writer. I feel like she’s always looking at you out of the corner of her eye. I love her work. No one can capture speech patterns like Zora Neale Hurston. I have lately been returning to a novel called The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, another Georgia writer. She was a self-taught writer and wrote only one book. … Every time I revisit that book I look at the ways that Southern women in the literary tradition of writing, are young girls who make a way, and I think that is really the hallmark of Southern literature. I have to give a brief moment of love for a contemporary writer Jesmyn Ward.
Do you ever consider the reader when you are writing? A little bit. Mostly, I consider the reader in the second draft. I do try to make sure everything is clear, that’s important to me. I’m not a writer who likes to confuse my reader. I like to write accessible, propulsive prose and I suppose I think of the reader at that stage. But for An American Marriage, I found that I had to put the readers aside. An American Marriage is a novel that defies expectations and readers sometimes get frustrated when the story doesn’t do what they thought it was going to do. I had to just let that go and let the story go where it wanted to go instead of worrying about conforming to convention.
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