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Tayari Jones Knows Why She Sings

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May 8th was a big day for Tayari Jones. That is when her third novel, Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), which deals with the two families created by a single man, came out in paperback. To kick-off the whirlwind of reading and speaking engagements, her publisher has released the first chapter, which can be read online here. An NEA fellow and a winner of a United States Artists Foundation grant, Jones is no stranger to the publishing world. Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, (Warner Books, 2002), about the child murders of 1979-81, won the Hurston/Wright Award for debut fiction, and her second, The Untelling (Grand Central Publishing, 2006), about a family that suffers a car accident which kills the father and one of the three daughters, won the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices. Silver Sparrow is blazing a new path for Jones, who took some time to talk about her work, the writing life and future plans.

RF: Silver Sparrow was nominated for a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work: Fiction. What did it mean to be recognized by the NAACP in this manner?

TJ: This meant quite a lot to me personally because my parents actually met at an NAACP meeting in Urbana Illinois in 1962.  It was a wonderful full-circle moment for me.  I think the NAACP isn't recognized enough for all of the work it does, especially in the field of law.  They may have faded from view over the last couple of decades, but they are fighting the good fight.  I am proud to be a member. It was also a kind of topsy-turvy experience to be honored at a Hollywood awards show. It was like opposite day.  Writers on the red carpet?  Flashbulbs popping in my eyes? It was a lot of fun, and an honor to be nominated.  (As a novelist, who would think I would have occasion to ever say that?)

RF: Many writers find their inspiration comes from looking toward the home of their hearts, as yours does, an effort that Salmon Rushdie once describes as "looking into a broken mirror," because the picture cannot be entirely accurate. How do you travel that emotional distance, between where you are and where you once were, when you write?

TJ: Honestly, the "how" of this is very mysterious.  When I write, I don't feel that the mirror is broken.  When I am writing a story it feels as real as the life I am experiencing off the page. It's an emotional illusion, I guess.  A hallucination.  It's only when I am reading over what I have written, after it has a chance to sit, that I see the ways that it is art, or artifice.I often say that I like to write about characters who feel like they live in the world, not like they live in a book. I like straightforward names for my characters.  When I get too symbolic with names, or places I start feeling like the characters and the story are less read, and I lose interest. The way that a reader likes to get "lost in a book," blurring the experience between the story and reality -- that's how I like to feel when I am writing.  I don't know how I do it exactly, but I am very grateful when it happens.  Each time feels like a gift.

RF: You say -- and I agree -- that it is the personal stories that determine the "unofficial history of a neighborhood, community and nation." We could argue that both, the re-imagination of historical events (as in your first book), and the imagining of a fictional cast of characters (as in your second), by a writer who is sensitive to her role as a translator (to the world outside the place/events), give us a portrait of a culture and a nation. Did you feel that your approach to the first was markedly different from your approach to the second?

TJ: My first novel, Leaving Atlanta, took at look at my hometown in the late 1970s, when the city was terrorized by a serial murderer that left at least 29 African American children dead.  Two of these were students from my elementary school.  People often think of me as reimagining history -- but I was there.  To me, it doesn't feel like recreating.  It feels like memory, like bearing witness.  So the process of writing both books felt the same to me. The challenge for me is to remember that relationship between the characters is why I'm here, not to use the characters as a way to express my worldview. It requires a lot of restraint.  I have to almost forget that anyone is going to read the books, or that I have any obligation to anyone or anything but the story.  I have to trust the characters to do the ideological heavy lifting by themselves. At a conference, I once heard Katharine Dunn say, "What you know doesn't mean write what you already know."  I look at a story as a way of deepening my understanding of a subject. I have gone into a project with one opinion and come out of it with a new way of thinking.

RF: In 2010 you joined the boycott of Arizona, in protest against SB1070 which penalizes non-Whites. In your letter you wrote, "That people should be legally required to show proof of citizenship is similar to the antebellum mandate that black people produce 'free papers' proving themselves not to be slaves." Recently, after the Trayvon Martin murder, you were on NPR speaking to the fact that young Black girls watch as "our mothers groom our brothers to live in a world that feared them... We, too, were in training, learning to protect the men we loved." Many writers avoid the activist role despite having one of the best tools -- words -- at their disposal. What makes you different? What gives you the courage to raise your voice against social injustice?

TJ: I think all artists are activists, whether they know it or not.  The ones who think they are avoiding it, are activists for the status quo.  I don't mind expressing my opinions and speaking out against injustice. I would be doing this even if I wasn't a writer.  I grew up in a household that believed in social justice.  I have always understood myself as having an obligation to stand on the side of the silenced, the oppressed, and the mistreated.  I never made a decision.  It was how I was brought up.  It's what I believe.  I don't think it takes courage to stand up.  If I fear anything, I fear being silent, because I fear the consequences of that silence.

RF: You maintain a very thorough blog in which you comment on a range of issues including the craft of fiction. Right now you are in the midst of writing your fourth and one of the pieces of advice you give is to ignore bad writing in a first draft, to remember that it is "a place holder" until you come up with something better in revision. What is the best writing advice you have ever received?

TJ: The best advice I ever received was to "do whatever you have to do to survive the draft." The same person said, "Once you write it, you can fix it."  So often fear can keep a person from putting the pen to the paper.  And if the fear chokes you before you have drawn your first breath, all is lost.

RF: Back to Silver Sparrow, where you give us a story that has, at its heart, a secret -- the two lives of a bigamist -- but whose story is revealed through its daughters. What made you choose to tell this story from their perspective rather than their mothers who were, themselves, victims of both the honor code the man imposed upon himself (you get a girl pregnant, you marry her), and their social milieu (with no access to birth control).

TJ: I chose to narrate the story through the eyes of the daughters because they are my generational peers. I am very interested in the mentality of my generation of African-American women.  We are the heirs to so much change -- the gains of civil rights and the gains of the women's movement. We are living unprecedented lives and we must draw our own maps.  Each novel I have written is such a map.That said, I want to add that just because I didn't choose to use the mother's point of view, it doesn't mean that I wasn't interested in their stories.  I suppose I was just as interested in the girls as daughters of their mother's trauma.  Look at how the mother views the Pill as a panacea that will solve the problem of their daughters' sexuality.  And no doubt, access to contraception does save the girls from their mothers' fate, but there is more to healthy sexuality than avoiding pregnancy. It's almost like the girls have the 2.0 version of their mothers' problems.

RF: Do you think you will remain in the immeasurably complex environs of the South, Atlanta in particular, for your new novel?

TJ: I love writing about Atlanta, Georgia.  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. In Silver Sparrow, on more than one occasion in the book, someone says, "Atlanta ain't nothing but a country town, and everybody knows everyone."  I like the idea that Atlanta, one of the country's largest cities, only has about two and a half degrees of separation between its citizens. I also find the setting of Atlanta to be incredibly rich.  Like many Southern cities, it wears its history on its sleeve.  For me, stories exists in the place where present and past collide.  In Atlanta, this happens on every street corner.

I am starting to feel a bit of the distance these days. I have been living in the New York area for several years now. I am working on a new novel, and the characters are staying quite close to home.  I wonder if it is because the story is set in current-day Atlanta and I need to go back there for a long visit -- a year or more -- to relearn the lay of the land.

Tayari Jones was born in Atlanta and is currently a Radcliffe Institute Fellow at Harvard University, where she is researching her fourth novel. She is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.