Going 'Beyond the Capitol'

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edward P. Jones often sets his works in the District.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edward P. Jones often sets his works in the District. (By Bettina Strauss)
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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

Edward P. Jones took a bus then the Metro to his first book signing in 1992. He sat in Dupont Circle until it was time to begin.

When it was over, he got back on the Metro, then back on the bus -- "even with the ringing of the claps, the applause . . . and the good feelings that were still there" -- and went home alone to his apartment.

"I don't have any furniture, you know, but it's my home," says the son of Washington and notoriously private Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Known World."

As he did that evening in Dupont, he will stay Friday at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where he will read from his collection of short stories, "All Aunt Hagar's Children," until every book placed in front of him is signed and every outstretched hand is shaken.

Only gratitude, it seems, can trump the 57-year-old writer's entrenched propensity for solitude.

"My sense has always been -- and I hope it never changes -- that it's a privilege to be invited someplace," he says. "Because every single person is important. They could've chosen the guy's book on either side of mine on the bookshelf, but they didn't."

Jones, whose works are often set in Washington, will share the Folger stage with Georgetown graduate and author Dinaw Mengestu for "Washington Writers: Beyond the Capitol," a literary event sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.

Mengestu's first novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," follows an Ethiopian through life in gentrifying Washington. Likewise, many of Jones's stories explore the struggles of those far removed from the gleaming icons of majesty and wealth in the nation's capital.

"I care more about the other Washington, I suppose. Not about the power and the people who have all the power," Jones explains.

Jones grew up the son of a single mother who never learned to read or write and supported her three children washing dishes and cleaning hotel rooms in the District. If he is humble, he says, it came as a result of the realization that "she suffered a million and one indignities, probably from people who think they're kings and queens of the world -- and I never want to get in that situation."

It's a modesty bolstered by deliberate insularity. Jones reads his reviews but doesn't know what is written about him on the Internet. "They say you're supposed to plug in your name and then things come up," he scoffs. "But usually if I plug in my name, it's Amazon saying, 'Buy this book for this price,' and I don't have much patience for that."

It was a long time, even, before he knew he had fans.

"I did 'Lost in the City' in '92, and then once 'The Known World' came out [in 2003], I'd meet these people who were saying, 'We've been waiting for your next work,' " he recalls. "And I'm thinking to myself, 'Are you kidding me? Are you sure you have the right person?' "

Well, he knows now -- and will sign every book, knowing that each reader's attention is precious.

"You're aware there are thousands and thousands of books in a bookstore and people have chosen to read yours," he says. "I'm very fortunate."

Washington Writers: Beyond the Capitol Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077.http://www.folger.edu. Friday at 8. $15. Washington Writers: Beyond the Capitol Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077.http://www.folger.edu. Friday at 8. $15.


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