Edward P. Jones possesses a labyrinthine imagination. His fictional worlds are complex and whole, the lives of his characters as rich and real as any writer alive today. A native of D.C., Jones attended Holy Cross College and the University of Virginia. He has written two books. Lost in the City, a collection of stories, won the Pen/Hemingway award in 1992 and his most recent book, The Known World, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.
P&P's Dan Rivas conducts the interview.
DR: You spent almost ten years creating The Known World in your head, but committed almost nothing to paper. Did you believe that the characters and stories you were creating would ever become a book? How did you keep it all in your head?
EJ: I figured it would eventually be a book; I just did not know when. As you may know, I, for those ten years, thought I needed to read those 40 or so books I had on American slavery. I could never get into reading those books—I never got beyond the first one I picked up year after year. I am not an historian and I suppose getting into all those pages was not in me. I guess that if I were reading just for pleasure, it would not have been a problem. Maybe that creative gene in me rebelled at the notion of needing to read nonfiction to create fiction.
But I need to create and throughout those ten years the gene kept working. The novel built itself in my head. I never wrote but 12 pages in ten years (and never took notes) because I felt I didn't deserve to write until all the books had been read (No dessert before all the vegetables.).
I believe I could keep it in my head because I had a day job and it paid the rent, bought the food, etc. I had the luxury of time because I was not out in the cold and starving (The well-off can go to New York and claim to be starving for their art, but they can always go home. People like me grow up worrying about food and rent, and when the basic needs are taken care of, we can lean back and not worry too much. But we are storytellers and can't run from that, so even if we are not plugging away, the gene works on.).
DR: In the twelve years between the publication of Lost in the City and The Known World you were mostly unknown. With all the success The Known World has enjoyed you’ve been thrust rather suddenly into the spotlight. Has this been hard? Is there a part of you that wishes you could return to being an obscure writer for a tax newsletter?
EJ: Eleven years actually. It has not actually been hard, I would say. I have been invited to many more places and having stood outside looking in, I have said yes to a few too many invitations. But that is a learning thing—you simply learn to say no. (A few other things have to receive a yes—I try to say yes to most things in D.C.—to schools, to book clubs, to those things that may help the community. One writes because you are compelled to, because you cannot help it, but also to be, somewhere down the line, to be read. There is nothing in all the years of summarizing—and that's what I did, there was no firsthand reporting—newspaper and magazine articles for the various Tax Analysts magazines that I care to be remembered for. But the two books I have done have been dedicated to my mother and whoever picks them will see her name. That would not happen if they pick up Tax Notes or whatever.
DR: I read that you had James Joyce’s Dubliners in mind when you wrote Lost in the City. Did you have a particular book in mind as you were writing The Known World ?
EJ: No, because I had never read a book (though there were one or two among those 40 I never got to) about black slave owners. I had heard in college that there were such slave owners, but after that one-line fact, I was venturing into an unknown world, including writing something longer than a 30-page story.
DR: Throughout the story “Lost in the City,” lines from the song "John Brown's Body" run through Lydia’s head. This is after her mother has died and Lydia repeatedly conflates John Brown with her mother "moulderin in the grave." That song was an abolitionist anthem, but she seems to be singing it with a tinge of irony. The "moulderin" is what she dwells on, not "his truth is marching on." That story ends with a memory about a woman who worried that her husband would leave her. “She just became his slave,” Lydia’s mother says. What strikes me about all these details is the fact that Lydia is well educated and affluent, but echoes of slavery run throughout her life. And for other characters, a job is a "slave," and there is a sense that volition is only a half-truth. How much did you have in mind a kind of "contemporary slavery" when writing Lost in the City and some of your more recent stories?
EJ: Lydia keeps repeating those lines because they are some of the first she spoke in public. I don't think she relates that to her or her mother's life. But one thing I have found in the past two years when answering questions about The Known World is that I say things in the work that emerge from my subconscious, things I have perhaps absorbed in my being in simply living on this earth for decades.
Slavery is the essential thing at the center of so many black lives, myself included. I may not always be aware of how deep it goes, but my mind, in concert with that creative gene, does. I was aware with "Lost in the City" that Lydia was a slave to something else—the job, the drugs, the world that wasn't a common sense one she was born into and grew up in. I knew that. Other things came out without my being all that aware of them, with that story, as well as with some recent ones. I do know, again, that slavery goes deep, especially because we still live with its vestiges. Most of those people in New Orleans could be ignored by a conservative government because, first before poverty, of their color. Barbara Bush saying the people in those stadiums had the best times of their lives was speaking for most of the people in her son's government.
DR: Did The Known World then seem to be a natural continuation of some of the ground you explored in your stories?
EJ: I tried not to let anything modern intrude on the 1855 Virginia world I was trying to create. Or a conscious level, I am not writing politics or propaganda.
DR: So many of your characters are trying to improve their lives, but their successes are often tainted, and ambition is sometimes their ruin. I think of Moses in The Known World, or Lydia, or many of the children of middle class black families in your stories, and that incredible scene in “Gospel” where Vivian is sitting in her car as the snow covers the windows. These characters are not exceptionally good, but the point is more that they never had a chance. Did this feeling come from growing up in the “other,” segregated D.C.?
EJ: I don't think it has anything to do segregation in D.C. We lived in a black world and had little to do with white people in the rest of D.C. It was not like the oppression in the south where every day they had their boot on the back of your neck. We were saved from that. The people in the stories and The Known World are what they are because that is how I see the world. At the end of the day, when you add up the positives and negatives, the latter will always outnumber the former. That's my thinking. Some other black writer with a similar background may think differently because he or she is wired differently. A world of some other god in another universe, for example, might have blue grass and purple blood and a Bush with a humane sensibility.
DR: You write women exceptionally well. They’re tough, and adaptable, but the world seems particularly bent on tearing down the security they’ve built around themselves. Were there particular women in your life who have informed your stories?
EJ: No, maybe it's the way I would like to see the world. My mother, because she could not read or write, no doubt suffered a thousand and one indignities every week. In the Pigeon story in Lost, I named that tough little girl Betsy Ann, the name of a girl I knew in childhood. That first girl was not tough, was picked on and had a terrible stutter. The best that I could do for her, in my world, was name a no nonsense girl for her. Give her something she never had in real life. The fictional girl overcomes all the way until, at the end, she is ready to take on the world. Her father knows that and has removed that rope fence on the roof.
DR: I tell everyone that I think you are one of the most brilliant writers living in America today. To me, part of that brilliance is the intricate web of characters you have created through your stories, many of them appearing more or less prominently in other stories. It’s as if you possess some wholly formed world within your mind where everyone meets everyone else eventually on the DC grid. Is this conscious? Are you trying to construct a Yoknapatawpha County or do you find you can’t let some of your characters go and want to see them through to a kind of conclusion?
EJ:Before I ever discovered Faulkner or that I might want to try writing, I was in college and was shocked at the ignorance of my fellow students about life in D.C. They knew only that it was the seat of government. Then I discovered Dubliners and took that first creative writing course. The stories, over two decades, came with my effort to set the record straight. D.C. is a place of neighbors where people do good and bad things to each other, just as they do in Dubuque and Seattle and Worcester. I wanted more and more of the characters in Lost to roam in and out of stories. I ran out of time and inspiration. The new stories go back to many characters who lived in the first book. I would like to have several characters in The Known World to be the ancestors of the ones in the stories. I don't know if I can do that. (God got tired after six days; some other god of a world in another universe probably went on for twelve days— thus that kooky purple blood and a Bush who has actually read the Bible.) If I do a third book of stories, I hope to do southern ones and the people in them will be connected with those in the first two books of stories. All the people I create in D.C. should, in small and large ways, be connected with all the others. One thing that surprised me with The Known World was the decision to go forward with giving larger roles to the white characters. I never flinched like many white writers do: "Can I write about black people?"; they usually can't because they don't see us as full human beings, one reason why there are, for example, so many stereotypes in movies. I try to give every black character her due, and I wanted to do the same with a Robbins or Skiffington. I never thought I would revisit the people in "LOST," but the creative mind has a mind of its own. It well may be that a full world connecting Manchester County with D.C. is working itself out as I grow older. I don't know.
DR: You describe your desire to write as an “ancient compulsion.” Where do you think this compulsion comes from?
EJ: I don't know. As a teen, I was able to copy a number of newspaper and comic book characters. I stopped that sometime in high school. Maybe there was an undeveloped artistry there. I'll never know. When I was at Tax Analysts, a woman wanted a homemade birthday card for her son. I told I would draw Garfield the cat. I failed. It came out horrible, and that stupid cat is rather a simple drawing. I had not kept up with whatever talent there was. I have been blessed because I did find writing. Maybe there was a painter in me, a sculptor. The sad thing for billions around the world is that they are born into circumstances where they will never know if they can write or paint or sing. In ways no one may have studied yet, they suffer because of it. I can be depressed, but a page or two or three of good, solid writing lifts me up and for some time, I am again of worth, I am again a child of this world.
DR: The older editions of Lost in the City had photographs of D.C. by Amos Chan. Why weren’t they included in the newer edition?
EJ: Dawn Davis, my editor with TKW, asked about including them. I had never been all that thrilled about many of them -- with the story about Rhonda Ferguson, those kids heads ARE CHOPPED OFF. I didn't want that to go on. Some of the photos were rather pedestrian. The first time around, they asked about including photos and one wants to be published, so I said yes.
DR: When will your new collection of stories be published?
EJ: My hope is the fall 2006.
DR: What are you reading right now?
EJ: I was in Ireland in June and met the daughter of the story writer Mary Lavin. I had 2 of her books but hadn't seen any others. Lavin's daughter gave me 2 more and that's where I am. After American story writers, I suppose I love the Irish ones best and Lavin is at the top of my list. Read a few and you'll see what I mean.