The Known World of Edward P. Jones

Author Edward P. Jones's stories of black Washington have made him one of his generation's greatest writers.
By Neely Tucker
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Edward Paul Jones is sitting at a table in Guapo's restaurant in Tenleytown early on a midsummer evening, looking down into a glass of red wine. Nobody in the place recognizes him, although he's arguably the greatest fiction writer the nation's capital has ever produced.

His three books, two of them collections of short stories set in black Washington, have been hailed as masterpieces. He's won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critic's Circle award, the PEN/Hemingway Award, a MacArthur "genius grant," the Lannan Literary Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and a bunch of (by comparison) trifling stuff. He's won nearly $1 million in literary awards alone, never mind earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties.

And yet he hasn't written a word of fiction in four years. There is not a draft in a drawer, not a scrap of paper with notes for a story or a novel. He's knocked off some nonfiction introductions to classic works and edited a couple of anthologies, but nothing of the sort that made him a name.

So when he swirled the wine around in his glass, looked up and asked if I'd like to hear the opening and closing lines of the first short story he's worked on in nearly half a decade, "The Waiting Room," a story that won't be published for who knows how long, I was startled.

Jones dictated the opener:

"In late May 1956 -- a little more than a year after my mother bought the Fifth Street NW house that was the beginning of her small empire -- she heard a rumor that my father was dying."

Here's how it ends:

"And it would have been a great church had it not been for the dead man and all his flowers way down in front."

When I scribbled it in my notebook, Jones told me that this was the first time it had been written down anywhere. Jones spent 10 years creating nearly all of his Pulitzer-winning, antebellum-era novel, "The Known World," in his head, until he finally set it all down on paper in a three-month rush in 2001 after being laid off from his job at a tax publication. "The Waiting Room" is still locked up tight in his mind, though he dictates the opening and closing three times in a row, down to the dashes and commas, without so much as blinking.

"I write a lot in my head," he says. "I've never been driven to write things down."

Jones is 59. The bar he has set for himself, to more or less to do for black Washington what James Joyce did for Dublin, is in the literary stratosphere. He has done this, so far, in 28 short stories, collected in "Lost in the City" (1992) and "All Aunt Hagar's Children" (2006). The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley wrote after "Hagar's" that Jones was "in the first rank of American letters" and "one of the most important writers of his own generation." In the New York Times, novelist Dave Eggers said "The Known World" was widely considered to be one of the best American novels of the past 20 years, as "its sweep, its humanity, the unvarnished perfection of its prose" made it seem not so much written as "engraved in stone." "Hagar's" he noted, merely had the ability to "stun on every page; there are too many breathtaking lines to count."

This D.C. portraiture is extraordinarily personal, for Jones's turbulent early life has provided the setting for almost all of his stories. He is also, it must be said, a quixotic character who seems to arise from the fantastic world of his own fiction. He has never married and has no children. He never knew much about his father, a Jamaican immigrant, long ago deceased. His beloved mother, Jeanette, died nearly 35 years ago of lung cancer. His only sister, Eunice, was hit by a car in New York and killed two years ago after an angry standoff with the driver. His only brother, Joseph, was born with a severe mental handicap and has always lived in a group home in Southeast Washington.

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