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Off the Page: Edward P. Jones

With Edward P. Jones
Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Thursday, October 30, 2003; 11:00 AM

Edward P. Jones's writing is deceivingly simple. His sharp, direct sentences belie the complexity of the characters he creates, such as the "Young Lions" of his clear-eyed story from Lost in the City, a collection of stories that won him a nomination for the National Book Award.

A native of Washington, D.C., Jones writes about the residents too often ignored--those who don't live in the D.C. found on postcards. The Post's Jonathan Yardley wrote that one of Jones's most compelling themes is "the daily struggle of ordinary people against terrible odds."

_____The Post on Jones_____
Yardley: 'The Known World'
Book World Talks to Jones
Profile: His Own Invention
Yardley Review: 'Lost in the City'
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Jones's new book and first novel, The Known World, set in the antebellum South, tells the story of blacks who owned black slaves. In his review, Yardley calls The Known World "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years." This month, it, too, was nominated for a National Book Award.

Jones was online Thursday, Oct. 30 to discuss his writing and his new book. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction several months after this discussion. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello and welcome to "Off the Page." We are honored to have Edward P. Jones, whose novel, The Known World, has created quite a stir in the literary world. We already have many questions, so jumping right in. . .


Harrisburg, Penn.: I realize your work is fiction. Yet, what research sources did you use in creating The Known World? To what degree much did you strive for historical authenticity, and about how much is pure fiction?

Edward P. Jones: I think it's probably 98 percent fiction. I used a few in a few names here and there, people like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, but those are very minor and that's only in passing that I mention those.

I started out thinking I would read a whole bunch of books about slavery. But I never got around to doing that. I kept putting it all off. I started thinking about reading the books in '92, but while I was putting off the research, I was also crafting the novel in my head. So in 2001, after almost 10 years of thinking about the novel, I had about five weeks of vacation with the day job I had then, and I decided, I could either spend that vacation time and the next year or so reading all those books, and I decided not to do that. I decided just to go with the novel that was in my head. Everything was in my head except for about 12 pages.

In life, you accumulate facts about the world and about history as you go through your life. And I figured I knew enough about 1855 Virginia to write the novel. And as I said last night at a bookstore, if I say it's 1855 Virginia, then you'll believe me until I say something to contradict that.


Carole Burns: So what were the 12 pages that weren't in your head?

Edward P. Jones: It was about six pages of the first chapter, and about six pages of the final pages. And I think what happened is, there was probably some time when I got really anxious and I wanted to do some writing even though I didn't do the research. So those were pages I had written in '95 or '96. Everything else was in my head.


Washington, D.C.: Has there been much controversy surrounding your portrayal of an African-American as a slave owner? Have you had to defend the historical accuracy of Africans as slave sellers and African-Americans as slave owners?

Edward P. Jones: No. I first heard that there were black slave owners when I was in college, so that was a fact. With that fact, I had a license to create a fictional world. There's nothing anybody can say, because there were in fact black slave owners.

And I think I portray everybody in the novel in the fullest possible light. I bent over backwards not to create any stereotypes. There was some guy in the San Francisco paper who wrote about all the research I had done, and all the books that I did for the novel. If I did all this research, I'd certainly like to see where it is.

Part of it is, I say a lot about this Manchester County, and the U.S. Census of 1840, and I talk about how in the 20th century three people wrote books about Manchester. So I'm sure people might read that and think, all of that is real. But when I talk about the U.S. Census, I made that up. When I talk about those books, those books never existed. All the books I talk about are out of my imagination. It's all an effort to have the reader see Manchester County, to see that it was real.


Washington, D.C.: When will you be reading in the D.C. area? (Carole - can this be a regular part of your interviews? Would love to have a link to authors' book tour schedules, for instance.)

Carole Burns: Fine, fine--more work for me! Seriously, it's a good idea. We have been mentioning upcoming readings for D.C. within the questions. But I'll see if I can do.

Edward P. Jones: I've already read in the D.C. area, at Politics & Prose and several other bookstores. The next thing is I think in January, at The Writer's Center.


Boston, MA: Who are your favorite writers? Who are the writers that influenced you to become a writer?

Edward P. Jones: There are too many people that I admire to mention people. As far as the first book, Lost in the City, I had read James Joyce's Dubliners, and I was quite taken with what he had done with Dublin. So I set out to do the same thing for Washington, D.C. I went away to college and people have a very narrow idea of what Washington is like. They don't know that it's a place of neighborhoods, for example, and I set out to give a better picture of what the city is like--the other city.


Carole Burns: Can you talk about how you first came up with the idea to write about a black master of black slaves?

Edward P. Jones: I think I just thought of the images in the first pages of the book, and Henry Townsend on his deathbed, for example, and I just sort of went from there. I didn't set out with any sort of agenda. I just thought of the people first.

I was in college when I first heard of it, but I wasn't a writer yet. But it was a quite a surprise. I think the idea sort of came back to the forefront of my head, and I finished one book, and it was time to start thinking about something else. So the idea for the novel started coming to me more and more, and I went on from there.


Gullsgate, Minn.: I have ordered your short story collection, Lost In The City and look forward to a powerful collection. My question: How does another form of "contemporary slavery," determinism, enter your stories and the characters portrayed? To what degree does acceptance or rebellion give hope in the face of all such cultural limitations?

Edward P. Jones: The only thing I can say is the world in the novel has little to do with the world now. Some of the characters in Lost in the City have certain problems--that's where the title sort of comes from. Some of them find their way, and some don't. I guess you could call it "contemporary slavery." In the title story, for example, the woman has a problem in that she has educated herself into a strange sort of world. But I think that's true for everybody, one way or another. We get up and we have to go to work, and if we don't there are consequences.


Arlington, Va.: How did growing up in Washington, D.C. affect your writing? Or did it?

Edward P. Jones: I didn't have any effect. I think I would have been the same person if I grew up in Gulfport, Miss. It just so happens that I grew up in D.C. and I chose to write stories about D.C.


Washington, D.C.: In the Post profile when your novel first came out, I remember the writing of this book as a long, careful process -- and that this is your first novel. (Correct?) Please talk a little about sustaining your inspiration over that period -- how the energy and discipline required for a novel differs from short story. And do you have any first or second attempts at novels stuffed in a desk drawer somewhere?

Carole Burns: Here's a link to the Post profile on Edward Jones.

Edward P. Jones: I started thinking about the novel and I just sort of took my own time. I didn't have any sort of deadline. And I didn't have a problem with sustaining any inspiration. It was always there. I took ten years or so thinking it up, and I only had 12 pages of hard copy. So when I first sat down to write, the first draft took 2 1/2 months. That's the physical part of writing, but the ten years thinking it through counts as writing as well.

I don't have any other novels stuffed in a desk drawer. Floating around in my head, perhaps.


Carole Burns: As you wrote The Known World, did you discover that slavery is more about race, or less about race, than you thought?

Edward P. Jones: I think it probably doesn't have anything to do with race. It's about a person deciding to control another. That was it. I didn't have any sort of agenda, to say one thing about race. The thing in the end for me, slavery is slavery, and even if the master is a black person it still hurts the same.


Lyme, Conn.: In one of life's ironies, is it fair to state you would not have finished your second novel by now if you had not lost your previous job? Should we hope you don't get another job so we may soon see your third novel?

Edward P. Jones: I've only had one novel... I was pretty far into the novel, so I think even if I had the job I still would have continued. I work in the morning, and with the job I have, I work at home. So I would have gone ahead with the novel even if I had a job.


Arlington, Va.: How did you become a writer? More specifically, how long have you known you wanted to write, actually written, then submitted your writing for publishing? When did you find time to write your short stories since the novel was written on your vacation? Where did your idea come from? I'm very curious about the whole process of becoming a writer. I realize that's a lot of questions, but will take any answers that you'd like to provide.

Edward P. Jones: I started writing when I was in college, and I've done it off and on since then.

You don't really become a writer. You're always a 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. You're always starting at the bottom of the mountain. So you're always becoming a writer. You're never really arriving. Whatever nice things people say about The Known World, I can't take that tomorrow and start a new book. I can't put that into a creative bank. You think about all those people who write all those wonderful books, and then number 9 or 10 is horrible. Where did all that expertise go?


Centreville, Va.: What is your advice for up-and-coming writers? Any mistakes we could avoid?

Edward P. Jones: Don't worry about research. But the standard answer I have is to read and write and read and write and read and write, on and on and on. That's essentially it. I mean, if you want to be a golfer, you need land, you need equipment and everything. But if you want to be a writer, you can walk along the street and find a pencil on the ground, and you can peek into a dumpster and find all the paper you need. And libraries are free, so there you are.


Falls Church, Va.: Are you working on any new projects? Anything you can share?

Edward P. Jones: I'm working on a collection of short stories, that I'm supposed to turn in in February. A lot of them I've been thinking about for a long time, as long as I've been thinking about The Known World.


Carole Burns: Are the stories similar to those in Lost in the City?

Edward P. Jones: In some of them, there's a minor character from one of the stories in Lost in the City. There was a story in the Aug. 4 New Yorker called "A Rich Man," and in that story, there's a young woman with a child. She's not the primary character in the story, but she's important. That young woman originally appeared in a story, "A New Man," from Lost in the City. Also in Lost in the City, the first story is "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons," and she was given those pigeons by a barber, and in the new collection of stories, I'll talk about 1901 Washington, when that barber would have been an infant. And I'm talking about the woman who found him hanging from a tree, and the man this woman was married to.


Washington, D.C.: Do you teach? And if not, have you thought about it?

Edward P. Jones: I have taught in the past, but not in the last three or four years. I like teaching. It keeps you sharp, in a way. But I only taught when people asked me, and no one has asked me.


Alexandria, Va.: Full disclosure -- I have NOT read your book but am interested in doing so. That said, I detect an impression that you are trying to suggest that black slave owners in the antebellum South is not such a novel concept. But isn't it really quite a good selling/marketing point for your novel, aside from your philosophical statement about the universal hurt that slavery causes? The concept definitely would persuade me to choose your book over, say, Mandingo...

Edward P. Jones: Black slave ownership might be what makes someone pick up the book, but if the writing doesn't hold up, then the person isn't going to read very far into the novel. Essentially, the book is about far more that black slave ownership. If someone reading it goes into it, they'll see that I'm just not stuck on that topic. There are other things going on. There are relationships among people, of various kinds. I've been grateful to reviewers, especially Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post, who says it's about more than that.


Carole Burns: Here's a link to Yardley's review of The Known World.


Gullsgate, Minn.: Edward P. Jones: There is a story in the pages of The Minneapolis Trib this morning about an Iraqi-American trying to start a small convenience store in his neighborhood. His local councilwoman stopped his dream and he lost the 26,000 bucks he had managed to scrape together to ensure his American dream. So he left for Chicago -- but now has come back to challenge the system or at least all his life savings lost in the process. If he were one of the characters in your short story -- how would you find closure or no closure to this man's hope?

Edward P. Jones: Become a writer, and you write the end of the story.


Carole Burns: Edward, thanks so much for your time today-and good luck with the National Book Award on Nov. 19.

And thanks for all the questions. Be sure to sign on to "Off the Page" next week, when we have Martin Amis as our guest. The discussion starts Friday, Nov. 7 and 1 p.m., but remember, you can ask questions now (hint, hint). See you then.


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