Photo credit: Nina Subin
Describe your latest book.
An American Marriage
is first and foremost a love story. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, only married 18 months. As she says, “I was still combing the rice from my hair. I was dancing the line between wife and bride.” They live in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Young, black, and upwardly mobile, they are the embodiment of the New South. When they go to visit Roy’s family in the small town where he grew up, he is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Although Celestial is his alibi, he is sentenced to 12 years in the state penitentiary. After five years, he is released and eager to resume their life together, but Celestial’s life has moved forward; but perhaps it is possible to try again. This book took me six years to write. The conflict was so complicated — how do you balance your desires and responsibility? Are love and obligation opposites? What do we owe one another? I kept rewriting the novel until I figured it all out.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
— the official guide to late-blooming.
When did you know you were a writer?
When I was a little kid, I stapled pages together and said I had written a book. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I started to believe that writing could possibly be my life. But even then, I was 27 years old before I was brave enough to pack my bags and move from Georgia to Arizona to accept a scholarship to study creative writing.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I live in Brooklyn, so my apartment is tiny! My writing nook is a corner of my living room. I use a manual typewriter. I love the sound it makes — the bell at the end of the line is so encouraging. Also, the typewriter is not connected to the Internet, and the result is so much more legible than my handwriting.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Typewriters! Specifically, the mystery of the Smith Corona Ghost. The Ghost is almost identical to my pink typewriter, but it is chrome. The story is that 50 Ghosts were purchased for the reporters at The New York Times
, but the newsmen were not interested in such showpiece machines, preferring their broken-in typewriters. So, the 50 Ghosts were put into storage. And now nobody knows where they are! I bought what I thought was a Ghost online, but my typewriter doctor told me that it was just a basic Smith Corona that had been taken to a body shop and dipped in chrome. This typewriter is my white whale!
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
The most meaningful thing happened when I was promoting my last novel, Silver Sparrow
. The story is about two sisters who share a father, but one sister is kept a secret from the other. I was in Wisconsin and a reader gave me a photo of herself with four or five other people who were all holding copies of Silver Sparrow
. I assumed they were members of a book club, and in a way, they were. Apparently, they were siblings who didn’t know each other until their father passed away. One sister bought copies of Silver Sparrow
for everyone, and they used to the book to find a way to talk about their experiences and get to know each other.
The second most interesting encounter was in Richmond. A man said he had something he wanted me to sign. I expected it to be a copy of one of my earlier titles. Or maybe his arm. Who knows? But then he whipped out this awesome portrait of me that he had painted himself. I signed it with the gold paint pen he provided and then he took it back home with him!
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
Even though I am an experienced traveler, I am an insane over-packer. When I am on book tour, I am forced to keep it down to what I can carry on the plane with me. But for vacation, all bets are off. I have a full luggage set and I use every single piece of it.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I want everyone to read Attica Locke. I love myself a literary mystery. And I also love southern novels. She has one series set in Houston and another set in rural Texas. She takes on big issues like race, gentrification, and policing — but at the same time, the mystery is just juicy and twisty. Start at the beginning with Black Water Rising
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
I collect pennants made by a Brooklyn artist who sells them under the handle Rayo and Honey
. I have seven of them. My favorite one displays a quote from Toni Morrison:
“You Are Your Best Thing.” But I am also pretty fond of the one that reminds us of Shirley Chisolm’s famous slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.” What can I say? I love them all!
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
Writing. It’s a strange thing to sit at a desk all day making things up.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I didn’t make the pilgrimage myself, but one of my graduate students went to Lorain, Ohio, to get me some dirt from Toni Morrison’s hometown. I store it on my desk in a little jar. I shake it from time to time — like a maraca — to help me rattle my thoughts loose.
What scares you the most as a writer?
My biggest fear is that I will get halfway through a novel and it will just die on the vine. This has happened to me before. I sometimes think writing a novel is like a great love affair. They can start hot and just burn out. It’s nobody’s fault really, but painful when it ends.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Lucille Clifton
's poem, "won't you celebrate with me":
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“The vast generosity of women is a mysterious tunnel and nobody knows where it leads.” It’s not all that lovely on a word level, but this idea helped me unlock An American Marriage
. When I wrote it, I understood the whole project in a different way, allowing me to finish the book.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
The reckless use of apostrophes.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I don’t feel guilty about it, but I am always looking at tutorials on YouTube. I taught myself to swim this way! I also repaired my coffee maker after the manufacturer scoffed at my warranty.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was 20, I was in graduate school studying literature. I was miserable. I was writing about
novels, when I wanted to actually write
novels. I reached out to my mentor from college. I told her how miserable I was and how I didn’t want to disappoint my parents, etc. The letter was about five pages long. She wrote me back on a postcard: QUIT. LEAVE THAT PLACE. IT’S YOUR LIFE. And so I did.
My Top Five Love Stories.
Some are funny, some are weepy, and a couple of them may not even know they are love stories, but all of them show that personal connection is the art we make every day.
by Gloria Naylor
The Accidental Tourist
by Anne Tyler
The Bride Price
by Buchi Emecheta
by Toni Morrison
by Victor LaValle
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow
, The Untelling
, and Leaving Atlanta
. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers and blogs on writing at www.tayarijones.com/blog. She lives in Brooklyn. An Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University, she is spending the 2017-18 academic year as the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An American Marriage
is her most recent book.