Edward P. Jones grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother worked as a dishwasher and hotel maid to support Jones and his brother and sister. Though she couldn't read or write herself, Jones's mother encouraged her son to study, and eventually a Jesuit priest who knew Jones suggested he apply for a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, Jones discovered the odd fact that in the antebellum South, there had been free black people who owned black slaves.
"It was a shock that there were black people who would take part in a system like that," he later told a Boston Globe interviewer. "Why didn't they know better?" That question stayed with Jones for more than 20 years and would eventually inspire his first novel, The Known World.
After graduating from Holy Cross with a degree in English, Jones moved back to Washington, D.C., and began writing short stories, aiming to create a portrait of his city in the mode of James Joyce's Dubliners. He attended writing seminars, then earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Virginia, but he felt that neither writing nor teaching was a reliable enough source of income. He took a day job as a business writer for an Arlington, Virgina, nonprofit, and held it for almost 19 years -- during which he published his first short-story collection, Lost in the City, which was nominated for a National Book Award. He also began planning his first novel, composing and revising chapters entirely in his head. Jones had just taken a five-week vacation to start writing the book when he found out he was being laid off, so he lived on severance pay and unemployment during the few months it took him to finish his first draft.
The Known World was published in 2003, 11 years after Lost in the City. "With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times Book Review. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post Book World called the book "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years."
Though some reviewers have praised the author's impressive research, Jones insists he made almost everything up. During the 10 years he spent thinking about his novel, he accumulated shelves full of books about slavery, but ultimately he read none of them, choosing instead to write the book that had already taken shape in his mind. The depth and detail of Jones's fictional Manchester County has been compared with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; Martha Woodroof of National Public Radio also noted similarities to Dickens, in that Jones spins "a densely populated, sprawling story built around a morally bankrupt institution."
Despite all the attention he's earned, Jones seems unwilling to assume the role of celebrity writer. "If you write a story today, and you get up tomorrow and start another story, all the expertise that you put into the first story doesn't transfer over automatically to the second story," he explained in an online chat on Washingtonpost.com . "You're always starting at the bottom of the mountain. So you're always becoming a writer. You're never really arriving."
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Unable to find a full-time job after college, Jones was on the verge of borrowing $15 from his sister for a bus ticket to Brooklyn, where she lived, when he got word that Essence magazine was publishing his first story for $400. A job at the American Association for the Advancement of Science enabled him to stay in Washington, D.C., where he continued writing the stories for his collection Lost in the City.
Jones has never owned a car, commuting instead by public transportation. "I don't want to own something that you can't take into your apartment at night," he explained in an interview with The Washington Post.
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In the fall of 2006, Edward P. Jones took some time to answer some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
I don't believe that there is any particular book that influenced any "career" I might have. There are books that have meant something to me, like Who Killed Stella Pomeroy. This was the first real book that I ever read. I had long been reading funny (comic) books and books of fairy and folk tales; the latter had all been illustrated with at least one drawing or painting. But Stella was the first without any pictures, only the words of the author. I read it when I was 13, and what struck me was that after years and years of reading funny books and folk tales with pictures, I was reading a book and was able to create a world -- this one was Britain in the 1920s and/or 1930s -- based simply on the author writing that it was so -- the landscape, the people and their words, the mystery situation.
I read it when I was visiting an aunt and cousins in Virginia, while on summer vacation. Decades and decades later, the grandson of friends heard me talk about the book went on the Internet and got me a copy of Who Killed Stella Pomeroy. It's packed up now so I can't give you the author's name. It was, I recall, written by a man who had had an exemplary career with Scotland Yard.
Words and what they can do are what the book gave me.
With my own first book, Lost in the City, I was touched by Joyce's Dubliners. I was in college and found that very few there knew anything about Washington, D.C., other than that it was the seat of the federal government. They themselves had come from places of communities but they could not envision that with D.C. I was thinking of Joyce and what he had done with Dublin when I began thinking of my own stories.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
That is difficult because there is a universe of books that I could call my favorites. (And it's hard to put a finger on them because 98 percent of the books I own are still in boxes after I moved back to D.C.)
Perhaps if I knew I would be stranded on an island with but one book, I would choose the Bible. For no religious reason whatsoever, but because of the varieties of stories, which might be useful as the days pass. The Bible is also influential in that I first read most of it while in graduate school. I read The Jerusalem Bible, a modern translation, for the course "The Bible as Literature." I was moved by the poetry but it also occurred to me that the world of those people had come through clearly and movingly even though the various writers had told the Biblical stories in an almost reportorial fashion -- no overwhelming, intrusive emotional insertions. I remembered all that when I began creating The Known World -- a horrendous story comes with its own emotion, so why add your own gratuitously.
After Stella Pomeroy, I read Black Boy, Native Son, and His Eye Is on the Sparrow, which is the autobiography of the black actress Ethel Waters. I was raised in a D.C. that for me was primarily populated by blacks who had been born and raised in the South. I grew up hearing stories about that place. What those latter three books did was make literary all those oral stories. The books put them all into words that I could go back to again and again. Native Son only added to that -- from the first ringing of the alarm clock, I was in the urban world of Chicago, but it was as familiar as D.C. The people were the same, what they did, good and bad, were the same; it was Wright's Chicago, but it was home for me.
Jane Eyre, when I think of that book, it conjures up the best moments of college English courses. Literature is extraordinary, especially when you have a good professor.
I have the complete stories of Chekhov. Anyone who writes short stories can tell you why he is important.
To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood. I was well away from the first books I ever read, but these two, and dozens of others (the novels of Erskine Caldwell; Coming of Age in Mississippi: The Autobiography of Anne Moody; etc. provided a continuing voyage into very detailed worlds. These books and others were all read before college and they were further proof of my decision that funny books were not enough for me. I didn't know but my mind was expanding and I was fortunate to have discovered the proper nourishment. The idea of writing was still years and years away but the groundwork was being laid -- this was good writing, special writing, and a part of my brain was making note of that for the day when I sat down to write.
Two books that I consider wonderful: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- which may not need further words.
And the stories of Mary Lavin, an Irish writer (born in Massachusetts) who produced about 10 or so volumes of short stories. I consider her the very equal of Joyce when it comes to storytelling. Starting with her first book, Tales from Bective Bridge. I care her for her work so much that I nodded to her by mentioning Tales in the story "Bad Neighbors."
There are so many other books but I don't have time to search the mind's attic and talk about them.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
When I write, I try hard to employ all the senses, but I very often fall short. Mostly, what I end up using more than anything is the visual. I'm handicapped in that way. I might well be able to paint a picture with words than to make the reader smell a field of flowers of whatever kind.
So the movies that make it for me have been the ones that are the most beautiful to watch. But writers need good stories as well, and when you have those qualities, you have some of the movies that I treasure. Godfather Parts 1 and 2. I was not impressed with Godfather 3 when I saw it in the theater. Gorgeous to see in many ways but the story sometimes fell flat and amateur actress Sophia Coppola didn't help matters. Seeing it years later on TV, I was surprised at how much I liked it.
A Man for All Seasons, because of what I said above, but also because Paul Scofield is unforgettable.
Days of Heaven. Every frame is a masterful painting.
Recent movies -- The Memory of a Killer -- a Belgian film with an actor with a performance that simply grabs.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I spend a lot of time leisurely listening to music, though I love music -- folk songs, Motown, some classical work.
When I write, I listen to two pieces of music almost exclusively. For my second two books, The Known World and All Aunt Hagar's Children, I had taped Judy Collins singing "That's No Way to Say Goodbye." I taped the song from my 33 1/3 vinyl record (scratchy sound because I bought the record in 1970 or thereabouts) so the song plays about many, many times in a row.
There is also the opening music from Paul Newman's movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. (I don't know the composers of that music; it might be a couple named Bergman who did other movie work I've enjoyed.)
Both pieces are quite moving and they stir something that affords me the feelings to bring to life the fictional people in my head. I also listen to Pachelbel's Canon in D.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I've visited about 12 clubs in the D.C. area, but I could never imagine coming up with a book for any club I might be a part of.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I like giving books of photographs or of realistic paintings (what could be better than all of those pages of Rembrandt?).
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no rituals. It is too difficult to make those characters out of nothing to do a lot of fancy stuff before you sit down and start hitting the keys.
What are you working on now?
I'm not at work on anything. My mind is still going over the people in the new book and what I could have done better. Maybe when I stop beating up myself, something new will come to mind.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I don't think of myself that way. I am grateful for where I am and I know I'm better off than many who have been published but I still see myself as just starting out. I'm not a Depression baby, but that syndrome may help to explain: You never stop thinking of yourself as very hungry, even though you've just eaten and the icebox and pantry are full and the supermarket next door says you can have whatever they have.
I have packed away somewhere a note (not a full page of words; just something written on a notepad) from an editor at a major publishing house about Lost in the City. She just wrote that she had no interest in the manuscript. She wrote as if her morning had started out wonderfully and then my work showed up.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I could not possibly point to any one writer, but there are several whose work I've enjoyed tremendously in the last couple of years. If they said I could have more than the Bible on the island and that I could pick works by new people, these are some I would pack in my island box:
Daniel Alarcon; David Anthony Durham; Tony Grooms; William Henry Lewis; Elizabeth Poliner; Carolyn Ferrell; ZZ Packer.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I don't have any tips. That would presume I know a lot more than I did 10 years ago, and that is not true. Writers, at whatever stage, should love reading, should pick up a new book and tremble at the thought of what the writer will do to them. So much else comes from that.
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