An Interview with Edward P. Jones
Sherry Ellis | December 2004
Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones's first novel, The Known World, is based on the little known fact that there were black people who owned slaves in the Antebellum South. It demonstrates the extent to which a narrator can be omniscient about the past, present, and future; the extent to which a novel's stage can be shared by a multitude of characters; and the extent to which a fictional place can seem real. It features nonlinear construction; like Ravel's Bolero it weaves back and forth and comes to a hypnotic and bold end.
It is the story of the life and death of Henry Townsend, and the community in which he was born and raised—Manchester, Virginia. Henry's father, Augustus, purchases his own freedom, his wife's freedom, and finally, after many years of hard work, Henry's freedom as well. As Henry matures, he learns the ways of slave ownership from his former owner and mentor, William Robbins, and purchases his first slave from Robbins, with the hopes of being a benevolent slave owner. After his untimely death, the thoughts and lives of the many characters of this novel are revealed, as are their complicated relationships.
In addition to winning both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for this work, The Known World was a New York Times Editors' Choice for 2003, a notable book pick of the American Library Association, a selection of the Today Show Book Club, and a top ten pick in the September/October 2003 Book Sense 76 poll. In May, 2004, The Known World was released by Amistad Books in paperback.
Jones made his literary debut in 1992 with Lost in the City, a collection of short stories about Afro-Americans who reside in Washington, D.C. The stories in this collection take place between the 1950s and 1970s. Lost in the City was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Mr. Jones's second short story collection, All Aunt Haggar's Children, will be published by Amistad in September, 2005. "A Rich Man" and "All of Aunt Haggar's Children," two of the stories that will be included in this collection, have appeared in the New Yorker (August 2003 and December 2003 issues, respectively), and a third story, "Adam Robinson Acquires Some Grandparents and a Little Sister," will also appear in the New Yorker later this year.
In 1981, Jones earned an MFA in writing at the University of Virginia, where he studied with James Alan McPherson and Peter Taylor. Earlier in his writing career, his stories were published in Callaloo, the Paris Review, and Ploughshares. Jones has taught creative writing at Princeton University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. In 1986 he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1994 he was the winner of a Lannan Literary Award. From 1983 until 2002, Jones worked as a proofreader and columnist for the trade journal Tax Notes. Jones stated that during this time period, what he wanted more than anything was a steady paycheck.
Edward P. Jones was raised in Washington, D.C. by his mother, his parents having separated when he was a young child. His mother worked as a hotel maid and a kitchen worker, and could not read or write; he signed her name on his report cards. His father was born in Jamaica and came to the United States when he was seven years old; Jones remembers little about him. During his childhood, Jones's family moved frequently, and in an eighteen year time period, his family lived in eighteen apartments that were all located within a nineteen by fifteen block area in Washington, D.C.
Jones was initially introduced to reading through comic books or "funny books," as they were called in Washington, D.C. By age fourteen he had started reading novels and short stories; he appreciated the ability to escape to other times and places. While in high school, Jones developed a friendship with a Jesuit priest who urged him to apply for a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross. It was as a sophomore at this college that he started writing fiction.
Jones, 53, does not write every day. He prefers to use public transportation, and does not to use a cell phone or e-mail. He recently moved back to Washington, D.C. from Arlington, Virginia.
Sherry Ellis: You have said that for approximately ten years prior to the physical writing of The Known World, you thought about the characters and the plot, but that you did very little writing and limited research. Can you describe your process?
Edward P. Jones: I'm not really sure that I can. I didn't have an enormous amount of details, and many things were very general. For example, Barnum Kinsey—when he reveals to Skiffington what happened to Augustus—I knew the framework but not in great detail. I knew what he would be doing and when it would be; I knew the gist of it. I simply worked out the specifics when I got to that point in the actual writing.
When I wrote my first book I kept notes; I might have been reading a magazine when a thought would come to me, and I would use the magazine inserts to write notes. The only things I had when I sat down to write The Known World were six pages of the first chapter and six of the final chapter. In the very beginning of the process, 1992, I had read some of the history and I had some written notes on small yellow papers. But in 2001, when it came time to do the writing, I didn't want to do all the reading, so I just went ahead and began to write. How I kept it in my head I don't know.
Ellis: John Vernon, in his New York Times book review of The Known World wrote "Jones has an ear for speech now buried in the past, though its echoes remain. His own narrative style is doggedly declarative, slow, persistent, imperturbable and patient..." Do you agree with this description, and do you consider yourself a particularly patient writer?
Jones: No, I never think of myself in any sort of adjectives. The only thing I can say about what I do is that I don't like to use a lot of emotions or what I call 'neon-lighting' because almost all the time whatever I'm writing about has enough emotion in it, and all I have to do is tell the story. I gave a reading last night at a library in Arlington (Virginia) and someone mentioned this, that all of these horrible things are told as if I was avoiding emotion. That's what I wanted to do, just state the facts. People can look at you and say things about you that you never think about your own self, because you are in your own skin. So you don't go around saying that I'm this, I'm that, I'm the other, because you are it.
Ellis: In The Known World, religion and thoughts about God are integral parts of the characters' lives. There's a passage in which Moses, a slave, wonders about God's presence: "It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn't fiddling with him and that, indeed, a black man two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Moses thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white. But God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own. Was God even up there tending to business anymore?" Can you speak about the relationship between slavery and religion in the context of your novel?
Jones: That's one of those questions people talk about when they write papers. And I'm not a religious man at all. When Moses wondered if God was even up there tending to business, that's probably something I would think; I know he's not up there. But I knew that almost all the people in The Known World were religious, that it was part of the times, and I had to inject that at every possible point that I could.
As far as religion and slavery are concerned, the only thing I can say is that the Bible and religion were both used to justify slavery. But I didn't go back and write these issues; I have to leave these weightier thoughts to someone else. They weren't on my mind.
Ellis: In The Known World, when characters die, they have a dramatic separation from the earth in which they rise about it or see their former surroundings; they visit the people whom they have loved. Is this meant as a manifestation of religious belief or as metaphor?
Jones: At the time of death, a lot of them go into houses. What happens to them is a comment on what their lives had been. When Henry dies for example, the last thing he thinks is that he's walking into a house that he's rented; that he was told had a thousand rooms, but only seems to have three. His head touches all the ceilings. His life has been confined in a certain way. When Mildred dies, she goes into the house and finds her son sleeping, because he's dead. His wife is lying beside him, but she's awake and alive. In Mildred's own bed, her husband is sleeping and she gets in beside him. She has a rather peaceful death because she's a very good person. Skiffington runs into the house, and he ignores all the rooms where the people in his life have been. In a certain sense he was trying to live for the Bible. The Bible is falling over and he tries to put it upright.
The characters don't all rise up; many of them just go into houses. Augustus rises up because he has to get to his wife who is in his house. I wanted to comment on how they lived their lives.
Ellis: Robbins is a wealthy slave owner who tells Henry that he should "take hold of it all." He says, "...God is in his heaven and he don't care most of the time. The trick of life is to know when God does care and do all you can behind his back." How did you develop your characters, so many of whom have such rich complexities?
Jones: I knew the people because I lived with them for so long, and when it came time for me to put it all down, I just did it. I went through my mind and wrote down all the things that were in my head. The complexity comes because you're trying to make an interesting story that people will remember when it is all over. And that's it. They're very complex because you want to tell a good story.
Ellis: The reader of The Known World often learns about futures and fates of characters at the same time. Inherent is the reader's knowledge that we are nearing the eve of the Civil War. Time moves back and forth. What impact do you believe the use of foreshadowing and the movement of time and future have on this novel?
Jones: I had a sense of what happened to people, twenty-five or fifty years later, and I wanted to share some of that. In some ways I think of myself as a God of that world. For example, in the Bible, they talk about someone living for hundreds of years; you meet people and you know what their beginning is and you know what their end is. I was writing that kind of story. Again, everything is going towards trying to tell a good story.
Ellis: Jonathan Yardley in his review in the Washington Post states that The Known World is similar to a Victorian novel. I'm wondering if this was your objective, and if so, why you chose this model?
Jones: I wouldn't call it that, but there were things I read in 19th-century novels that I liked, such as chapter headings. I like the fact that they have an enormous number of characters. But I wasn't trying to follow any Victorian model at all.
Ellis: You use census figures and statistics as a means of emphasizing the era, instead of more traditional literary means such as clothing and technology of the times. Do you think your background in the world of mathematic sciences influenced your decision?
Jones: What happened was that once I knew I wasn't going to be using a real county as the setting, I created my own, and I had to go about making it real to the reader. Also, I think, part of it was that I wasn't only writing the history of the people, but also the history of the county, in an effort to make the reader feel this was a real place.
There were a number of things that I could do as a writer. One of them was talking about the census. I had to make up all the figures of course, because the place isn't real. I didn't go to any book to find out how many people were in Virginia; I just guessed. I made up numbers for Manchester County, which I called the largest of the counties.
Ellis: As you were writing The Known World, did you concern yourself with the potential reactions readers might have?
Jones: No. The only reader that I cared about, that I wanted to make happy, was me. I didn't think that someone's going to read this book and be shocked. The only thing I cared about was that I didn't want to have a lot of stupid black people; I didn't want to have a sitcom situation. I didn't want to have characters, even though they were slaves, be entirely powerless. No, I didn't have anybody else in mind but myself.
Ellis: How did you choose names for the characters, and were there any particular challenges or ironies in your choices?
Jones: Yes, I think choosing names is very hard. A lot of times I just sat there. For Lost in the City, I didn't think of the names as I was writing. I just put question marks there, and when it was all done, I went to the D.C. phone book and looked at a first name from one page and a last name from another. But that took a lot of time, and I didn't want to face that procedure again.
So when I was writing The Known World, I decided to sit in front of the computer and pick names on the spot. Skiffington, I remember I chose that name before I wrote any pages because I wanted a name that sounded English. The only name I consciously wrote down was Celeste. In the back of the dictionary there was a list of names and what they mean. I wanted Celeste as the name for that character as she's probably the most angelic person in the book.
Ellis: According to Ralph Ellison, "The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike." After writing The Known World, were you better able to understand the phenomena of black men owning black slaves in the Antebellum South?
Jones: No, I didn't give that any thought. I learned about blacks owning slaves when I was in college. And then years and years later I decided to write about it. My only thought was about writing characters, and it just so happens that some of those characters were black people who owned slaves.
So I didn't have any issues in it, and I didn't think about it when it was all over. And I don't think I knew their motivation any better. Part of that is because when I know people I only know them in the book. Had I done research, it might have been a different story. Maybe I would have focused on something that explained them, but I didn't do research. All the people were made up; I didn't have to think about them and come to terms with who they are.
Ellis: In the short story "The Sunday Following Mother's Day," there's no explanation offered about the man who murdered his wife, who years later, when he is released from jail, wants renewed contact with his children. To what extent is resolution a part of your stories?
Jones: Well, I think in some of them there is resolution. In "The Sunday Following Mother's Day," I think the resolution is that he can never be close to his daughter because of what he did, and the daughter cannot have her father in any way. In "The First Day," for example, this little girl comes to fully realize what it means to be illiterate and that her mother wants her life to be far different. The last line is something like "hearing all the voices of children all over the world, but hearing her mother's voice above all of that." It's just a simple statement that while she grew up and moved into the world, and learned more and more, that she would never forget what her mother was and what her mother taught her. So, there might be some stories in which there is no resolution, but there's a tad even so, and in the others I think there is strong resolution.
Ellis: In your older stories you frequently write from a female perspective. How do you get into the mind-set of a woman?
Jones: I don't think about it. The character is there. She does certain things. She has a certain life. I just sit down and start writing. I remember that when I was starting out writing, I remembered to say "this woman is wearing a dress" and similar things, but I don't even think about it now. I just go right into it. I don't go into any mind-altering state at all. The woman is there, she has to do and say these things, and I just go and do the job.
Ellis: In "All Aunt Haggar's Children," the protagonist, a black man thrust into the role of detective, gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a white woman in the early 1950s. He recalls, "my mother had always told my brother and me that if she ever caught us kissing a white woman she would cut off our lips." Are there challenges you face juxtaposing the internal beliefs and attitudes of your characters next to their external actions?
Jones: I don't see any sort of challenge. There were a thousand things he could have been thinking when this happened. The one thing that would make sense and define both himself and his mother was this statement, because this was the first time he had ever kissed a white woman. Again, I just did what I had to do. He's doing this to try to save her life, but his thoughts are almost always on his mother. He has women issues. He has mother issues too. So that thought was more appropriate than almost anything else I could come up with.
Ellis: Here's another question about "All Aunt Haggar's Children." When the protagonist's family gathers for Sunday dinners, a different flavor of Kool-Aid is served each week depending on the family member who's making the choice, who's turn it is. Are there images and associations that you were hoping to elicit by your choice of Kool-Aid as this family's beverage, and this family's pattern at this particular time?
Jones: No. You're just trying to tell a story and make the readers see these characters. If I had just said they had soda for dinner it wouldn't have been as interesting; saying all that he says about Kool-Aid, and how he doesn't like this flavor, and that he's worried when the twins come along that his chance to choose the Kool-Aid will change from every third week to every fifth or sixth week. The reader can see this and understand who this person is. That's all I'm trying to do.
Ellis: How do you come up with the ideas for your stories?
Jones: I'm not sure. I think you just live your life and all of sudden something just pops into your head. And because my mind works a certain way as a storyteller, I immediately begin to think of the story possibilities; I create a world around this thought that came into my head.
Ellis: More specifically, do you have any recall as to the genesis of "A Rich Man," the story of a man who has been unfaithful to his wife for many years and the life he leads after her death?
Jones: I had a friend who lived in a senior citizens' building, and she told me about this couple that lived in a one-bedroom apartment. One of them stayed in the living room and the other one in the bedroom. She didn't know anything more about them than that. And that's where I got that idea from.
I started to think of these new stories and I wanted to have characters from Lost in the City come again as characters in All Aunt Haggar's Children. And so each story in Lost in the City will have a corresponding one in All Aunt Haggar's Children. In the story "A New Man" in Lost in the City, it's Elaine Cunningham and then she reappears in "A Rich Man"; this is years later. So that's why she's there, to make the connection.
Ellis: Do you have a particular place you write or any rituals attached to your writing?
Jones: No, I just get up. I don't care much for coffee, but it wakes me up, so I have a cup and turn on the computer. My computer was on the kitchen table in my other apartment, and now it's on a table my friend gave me, but it's not big enough for all the things I use, such as the printer; so I have to get a bigger table. I turn on the computer and start writing, and before I get to the chair I think about how I'm going to start, what the first lines will be, and I jump from there.
Ellis: Do you believe there are benefits from taking time off from writing?
Jones: No, actually I don't believe you can ever really take time off from writing. You're not always busy writing, but you sure are thinking about it. You could be sitting in a movie theater watching a movie and you're thinking how can I get a character out of the room? What statement can I use?
Ellis: How do you select your titles?
Jones: Sometimes it's very difficult. And for every story I try to have a title that fits the entire story. But yes, they are hard. I suppose I tell students if all fails to give it the name of the main character.
Ellis: Is there a particular point you stop writing at the end of a day?
Jones: I revise and revise until it looks perfect at that moment. And the good rule is to stop before the well runs dry, so that you will have something to go back to, to start the following day.
Ellis: Jorge Luis Borges said, "I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." As a writer what is your idea of paradise?
Jones: It's getting up and writing in the morning, ten or fifteen wonderful pages, and then reading part of the afternoon, and then watching videos at night.
Ellis: I've read that you liked comic books as a child, or "funny books" as they were called in D.C. When you started reading regular books, did you love reading them immediately, and were there any writers who were particularly inspirational to you?
Jones: I was reading just about everybody. They all have been inspiring in one way or another. But I was rather unhappy when I went away to college, when people only knew about Washington D.C. in terms of government, but they didn't know about it as a community. I picked up a copy of James Joyce's The Dubliners and of course I was taken not only by the quality of the work but also that Joyce managed to bring to life so much of Dublin. I was inspired by him, and I did the same thing for Washington.
Ellis: Do you believe your life experiences, in particular your early life experiences, have informed your writing?
Jones: When I write, aside from the people talking within quotation marks, I think I try to have the voice that my mother would use. I can't describe it. It's a southern voice and there really are cliches that were used once upon a time. People really don't use these phrases anymore: "Every goodbye ain't gone" and "Every shut eye ain't sleep." I think the voice is almost always hers. Except in cases where the first person is male, but even then sometimes. Especially with a man like the 'no-name man' in "Aunt Haggar's Children"; he is very influenced by my mother's voice.
Ellis: What about your mother's values? Are they also a foundation of your work?
Jones: Yes. I try to treat everyone the way I want them to treat me. Last night I was at a reading. One of the librarians stood up and said it was time for me to leave, but I told her I wanted to be there as long as possible. And there was a long line, even to buy the book, and I tried to smile and be gracious with each and every person.
My mother was in the hospital once and this woman came in who was working with her in a restaurant. She said to me that the reason she came to see my mother was because when she started working at the restaurant there were no lockers left, and no one would share their locker with her, but my mother did.
My mother never stole anything. Well actually she did when she was younger, before she had kids. She used to crochet and she went into a five-and-dime and she stole five or ten cents of thread. She said she was haunted for days. She was a very honest person. When she was working at that restaurant she used to have to vacuum the dining room, and one day she found some money. The woman who it belonged to gave her a reward and came back and shook her hand. There was no one around; I don't know how much money it was. The man who owned the restaurant had a room there. He kept change on a tray. And the only person he'd have clean the room was my mother.
Ellis: Do you think writers need teachers?
Jones: No, I don't.
Ellis: Do you have any advice for unpublished writers?
Jones: Just read and write, and read and write. That's what people do who are compelled to write. I could never give any advice to people who write because they want to be rich and famous. I generally read just for pleasure and I can rely on someone's work when I'm reading along, but I'm basically the same person I was when I was a teenager; I pick up a book if it looks interesting, and I just enjoy a good story.
Ellis: Ha Jin said, "I think a writer can only write about what is close to his heart. Do you agree?"
Jones: Yes, I guess that's true. I don't have any desire to write about Martians. I suppose I'll always write about black people. When I wrote The Known World, my intention was just to write about slaves that were owned by Townsend and the story got away from me. I never imagined that I'd be writing about so many white people. As things moved along people just took on larger and larger roles. Skiffington, Mr. Robbins, people like that.
Ellis: Are you working on something new?
Jones: I'm still working on the stories for All Aunt Haggar's Children. It's due soon. I've got six stories to finish.
Sherry Ellis is at work on The Goode Books, a novel. She teaches creative writing in Concord, Massachusets. Prior interviews she has conducted have been published in Provincetown Arts, Agni Online, the Barcelona Review, and Post Road.