I love writing about Atlanta because it’s the city I know best, and it’s a city whose history I know. I have lived in ten cities in twenty years, but I don’t have roots in any of these other cities. I always say that when I write a story set in a city, if my character is walking down the street, I need to know whose bones she is walking over. And I only have access to this kind of information in Atlanta.
I was born there and it delights me that upon meeting me, people sometimes say, “Are you from Atlanta?” I know a lot of writers fear being “pigeonholed” by region and fear the label “southern writer,” but for me, it feels like an apt description. I actually think fear of labels can make a person write a book that’s less interesting, shooting for that holy grail of “universal,” which is really just a marketing conceit. I like to write a story that could not have happened in any other place but where it is set.
Do you consider your books as connected, for example as part of a large series that gives voice to the history or culture of a place?
Are the novels connected? I’m going to say “kind of.” All these characters probably know each other, or if they haven’t met each other, they’re probably a degree of separation away. I think everyone’s work comes together and creates a portrait of something. I do think I’m creating a portrait of Atlanta, and I do it self-consciously because I find the city itself so fascinating. So will there come a time where I write my last Atlanta book? Maybe. The novel I’m working on now, which is called Dear History, is set in Atlanta, but the characters stick very close to home. I’ve noticed that in this book, the characters don’t travel about or visit landmarks. It’s very intense and domestic and stays close to a couple of blocks.
Dear History is about a young couple whose lives are devastated by the man’s wrongful incarceration. He’s given a twenty-five-year sentence, but is released early after seven years. But his wife has essentially been living her life like she’s a widow for the last four or five years. And the real questions of the novel are: what is her obligation to him; what is his to hers; even if you can’t pick up where you left off—because that’s the fantasy—can you pick up at all? It also speaks to a kind of African American middle class terror that you cannot achieve your way out of the predicament of race, the constant fear of mistaken identity—that you will be arrested; you will be beaten by the police, and no one will believe that you are who you say you are. But it also speaks to the fear of the modern woman. In the novel, Celestial has to decide if she’s going to wait on her husband Roy, who is incarcerated. I think the modern woman is also put in this situation where she’s asked if she’s going to wait on a man—a career woman, for example. How much does she put her life in a holding pattern in anticipation of the arrival of a man?
I think the way my mind works is I’m always wrestling with the big ideas. I think all novels, not just mine, are emotional autobiographies, and intellectual autobiographies. So I think my novels work the way my mind works. And these are questions that I struggle with all the time. And I believe that as I get older and more confident as a writer, I approach the issues in my mind in a more literal way.
I did not look at a specific case. I’ve read a lot of memoirs of people who are incarcerated, but the problem is, everyone who has written a book about being incarcerated is the type of person who would write a book about being incarcerated. The thing about fiction is it gives you some room. You can write about people who are not the kinds of people who write books. So I’ve been reading a lot about the laws. But what they say when you do research for a novel is that you should do your research and then try to forget it, because you’ll find yourself trying to work in some nugget that you think is fascinating, and you want to figure out how to make your novel fit it. I focus on the relationships in the story. And those relationships are really what I’m turning over in my head. The prison part is interesting, but it’s not the thing that keeps me up at night, pondering. And another thing I do in the research—I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries about women whose husbands are in prison. But again, the kind of person who is in a documentary about her husband being in prison is the kind of person who would be in a documentary. But I have been learning a lot of mundane details. And documentaries are actually better than reading books or memoirs because you have a lot of ordinary people in documentaries because the artist is the filmmaker, not the subject—so you get less food that has already been chewed.
One of the things about young adulthood is we have to remember, we were all once young adults. Being a young person is an experience I once had. If I had lived in Amsterdam, I’d be curious about writing about that. I think we don’t understand young adulthood as a lived experience. We are witnesses to that experience. I feel like young people are always on the margins of society. They can’t vote; they can’t drive. They are the only people that you can legally beat. So kids are marginalized, even when they’re privileged. It’s an extremely frustrating position to be in—to be a young person—which makes them excellent characters for fiction.
I always joke that I want to be influenced more than I am by Toni Morrison, because she is the greatest living American writer. I think Dear History is my own grappling with the questions Morrison raises in her Tar Baby. In that book, the question is, How much is Jadine willing to give up to be with Son? And Morrison deals with this beautifully. And I feel like Celestial is similar to Jadine in that this man with quite a past has abruptly arrived on her doorstep. Yes, he’s her husband but he’s been gone a long time. I even give her a deliberate shout out. In my novel, the husband is arrested in Eloe, which is the town where Son is from. It’s not the same Eloe, but…
I don’t write every day. I wish I could write more frequently, but don’t we all? I feel like our writing habits are like our eating habits. No one is ever proud of his or her eating habits. We always feel like we could eat better. So I feel like all writers think they could write better, or write more. But I write as much as I can. These days I write on typewriters. I used to be really into sharpened pencils, and then I was really into fountain pens, and now I’m really into typewriters. I don’t like to compose on the computer. But that being said, I’m willing to compose on a computer. I’m willing to compose with a pencil. I’m willing to compose with fingerpaints. I feel that the more flexible you are with your process, the less likely you are to be blocked. It’s important to have preferences, but not rules. Because what happens if you decide you can only write if you drink green tea and face east? If you don’t have green tea, your whole writing day is gone.
I feel like I have not taken full advantage of my time as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute because I’ve been on tour for Silver Sparrow. So I haven’t had the long stretches of uninterrupted time that people fantasize about. But I think this is an example of how there’s never a convenient time to be busy living your life. So I teach. But if I weren’t teaching, I’d be doing something else. I don’t think it’s possible for me at least to have an uninterrupted year. So I don’t find teaching to be any more demanding than the other things life demands of me. And as far as balance, I don’t do much balancing. I usually do one thing or another. I have found that when I’m teaching, I just teach. In the summer, and on the weekends, and during vacations I write a lot. I try to confine my teaching to Monday through Friday. I don’t prep on the weekends. It’s important to give yourself time to do your own life. I compartmentalize my responsibilities.
I did say that. I think it’s true that many of my characters might not otherwise be listened to. It’s like a rabbit hole. You say, “people who wouldn’t tell their stories.” They would tell their stories; just not to you. Everyone tells his or her story to someone. So perhaps I like to write stories about people who are on the margins of mainstream society. You don’t give voice to the voiceless. You give hearing to the people who are willfully deaf.
April 19, 2012
TAYARI JONES was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is a coming of age story set during the city’s infamous child murders of 1979-81. Leaving Atlanta received many awards including the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. The American Booksellers chose Silver Sparrow, her third novel, as the #1 Indie Next pick for June 2011. Library Journal, O Magazine, Slate, and Salon all selected the novel among the best of the year. Tayari Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. Currently, she is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. Her work has been supported by The National Endowment for the Arts and The United States Artists Foundation. She is spending the 2011-12 academic year at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, researching her fourth novel. (Photograph taken by Rayon Richards.)