gazettelogo.gif - 2815 BytesThe Sunday Gazette
Arts & Entertainment
02/06/05, G-08

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer
Author Edward P. Jones Uses His Imagination to Create Stories

While many authors admit to putting much of their own background into their fiction, Edward P. Jones, the author of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Known World,” says that he relies solely on his imagination.

“As a kid I always thought writers made up all their writing,” said Jones in a recent phone interview from his home in Virginia. “I used to think it was cheating to write fiction based on your own life.”

His first novel “The Known World” begins a few years before the Civil War with the death of Henry, a black man whose father had worked his way out of slavery and bought his wife’s and then his son’s freedom. Instead of identifying with his father, Henry mimics his former master and eventually purchases his own plantation and slaves.

“I first heard there were black slave owners when I was in college,” said Jones, who graduated from Holy Cross College in 1972. “I used that as the core of the story, but I also wanted to tell the stories of all these other people in Manchester County, a county in Virginia that I made up.”

On Tuesday Jones will conduct a public reading at 8 p.m. at the University at Albany’s Page Hall, 135 Western Avenue in Albany preceded by an informal seminar at 4:15 at the Recital Hall in the Performing Arts Center located in the uptown campus.

DIFFERENT LOOK AT D.C.

Jones, who also received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2004, wrote his first book back in 1992. It was titled “Lost in the City,” and it was a collection of stories about African-American men and women living and working in the nation’s capital. The stories follow characters and take place in parts of our nation’s capital that the typical tourist never sees.

“That book was nominated for the National Book Award,” said Jones, “but it didn’t sell many copies, and no publisher was pressuring me to turn out another book. I kept thinking of these characters that eventually made their way into the novel. For ten years I thought about them.”

From 1983 through 2002 Jones held a day job writing for a tax newsletter, mostly out of his home. “The work was very dry,” he said. “It didn’t help me in any way as a writer. Because I worked out of my home I also didn’t interact with many people from that job.”

He didn’t write fiction every day, but he did think of these characters. He also collected many books about slavery, research books he meant to read, but he never got around to actually reading them.

“It occurred to me that if I read all these books I’d come across a lot of facts about slavery,” said Jones, “but I wanted to tell a story filled with characters not just a story about slavery. If I say it’s 1855 in Virginia readers will believe me. I don’t need to fill in all the facts.”

Henry dies early in the book, and after his death the “known world” that centers on his Virginia plantation gradually disintegrates, freedmen are re-enslaved, his widow has an affair with her manservant, and there’s even murder.

The story is not told in a linear way. It loops around in time and intermixes characters throughout.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

“I always thought I was writing a straight forward story,” said Jones. “For ten years I had these characters all laid out in my own mind. It was easy for me to follow because I knew what was happening to all the characters in 1855 and even years later. I know some readers have gotten confused because I’m not telling the story from A to Z. Other readers think these are stories that my grandmother may have once told me about our ancestors, but I really just made them all up.”

By focusing on his characters, and so many of them, Jones has told a story of slavery that has never been told before. “I tell people this book took ten years to write,” said Jones, “but only three months to actually sit and put it down on paper.”

Many of his short stories have been published through the years at “The New Yorker” and “Ploughshares,” and he will have a new collection out one year from now. “I’m sure I’ll write another novel again,” said Jones, “but all writing is hard work whether you’re writing short stories or chapters.”

His advice for beginning writers is to write and read. “The foundation of good writing is to be a good reader. I’m surprised by the number of people who want to be writers but admit they don’t like to read.”

HOOKED ON READING

As a young boy growing up poor in Washington, DC with a mom who was an illiterate hotel maid and a dad who was a restaurant worker, Jones never imagined he’d one day be a writer. “But I always loved to read,” he said. “I read mostly comic books. I read my first real book, a mystery, when I was thirteen, and then just before going to high school I read ‘Native Son.’”

He admits that was the first book he could ever really identify with. “As a teenager I began reading books about black people,” he said, “and I’ve been reading all sorts of books ever since.”

Jones is someone who writes because he can’t not write. “I’ve been very fortunate to be nominated and to win some writing awards,” he said, “but even if people weren’t publishing what I wrote I’d still be writing. There are some people like me who write because we have to. If ‘The Known World’ had never been published, I would have been disappointed for a few days, but then I’d go back to writing.”

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