Fictitious 'World' steeped in life's realities

By DONNA LIQUORI , Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, February 6, 2005

Edward P. Jones made the whole thing up. All the people, all the census data, all the situations.

That's important to know when you read Jones' Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Known World" (Amistad; 388 pages; $13.95), because you will be swallowed up by the invented antebellum world of Manchester County, and Jones' story of a slave owner who happens to be black.

"Yeah, you write it so that people will feel that it's real. You want them to believe it existed and was real once upon a time ago," Jones said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C.

His writing is so realistic that some news accounts about the book credited his research, and some reviewers took out their maps of Virginia looking for Manchester County. "Of course, it is rather flattering," he said.

Jones, who kicks off the new season of the New York State Writers Institute's visiting authors series Tuesday, was a college student when he first heard that blacks had owned slaves. From that nugget of truth came the story of Henry Townsend, who is on his deathbed as the book opens. His overseer, Moses, has just finished work:

"Moses closed his eyes and bent down and took a pinch of the soil and ate it with no more thought than if it were a spot of cornbread. He worked the dirt around in his mouth and swallowed, leaning his head back and opening his eyes in time to see the strip of sun fade to dark blue and then to nothing. He was the only man in the realm, slave or free, who ate dirt, but while the bondage women, particularly the pregnant ones, ate it for some incomprehensible need, for that something that ash cakes and apples and fatback did not give their bodies, he ate it not only to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the field, but also because the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life."

Jones had intended to use a real place in Virginia -- where a friend lives -- as the setting for "The Known World," yet never got around to researching it.

"I had to come up with my own place -- and you just pile everything into it," he said. "Had I used my friend's county, I would have been limited to the facts. ... I can say whatever I want about Manchester County, because it's my own."

But even working in an imaginary world didn't make writing any easier: "You're always starting at the bottom of the mountain, always wondering if you're doing the right thing."

Life stories

The characters of "The Known World" -- and there are many -- are often not who they seem. At times, Jones lays out compressed life stories -- some occupying just a page: their births, their lives and their deaths.

"I'm sort of a miniaturist," he said. "That's just the way I do things. It's the way I write."

The result is a book containing many, many stories about the people of Manchester County, all woven into a narrative of epic scope. Jones' characters are multidimensional, and their actions and feelings are sometimes unexpected, portraying their moral ambiguity.

"They're all important in their own way," the author said. "I can't say I had any favorites." Some of the evil-seeming characters redeem themselves, while some of the more morally sound people find themselves in less than righteous situations.

"I didn't want to do any people all one way," he said. Instead, Jones aims to present them "the way human beings are in real life -- I didn't want any sort of stereotypes."

A wedding present

One of the most complex characters in the book is John Skiffington, who becomes Manchester County sheriff. Skiffington, who leans toward abolition, must uphold the laws regarding slavery. And when Skiffington and his Philadelphia bride receive a 9-year-old female slave as a wedding present, they must decide whether it would be better for her to stay with them as a slave or be turned away.

Jones said the story about the child being given as a wedding present was one of the first stories he wanted to include: "I just knew that was something I was going to do."

The sheriff was also going to be a minor character, but his role kept getting larger and larger.

"I didn't have any sort of agenda. I didn't have any lessons to get across," Jones said. "I hoped people enjoyed the book. It's entertaining, and when it's all done, I hope they remember it and think about the book."

Jones, also a winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award for his 1992 short story collection, "Lost in the City." When Jones received the news of his Pulitzer win for "The Known World," he was going through the difficult task of packing up to move. The news about the prize, he said, made it easier. In addition to the Pulitzer, "The Known World" won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Last year, Jones received a MacArthur "genius grant."

Not there yet

Despite all of the accolades, Jones is not given to self-praise. Asked when he started believing he was a writer, he said: "I've never reached that point." Some days the writing comes easy, Jones said, while other days are a challenge.

Jones started writing in college off and on, receiving a bachelor of arts degree from the College of the Holy Cross in 1972 and a master of fine arts from the University of Virginia. From 1983 to 2002, he worked for a trade publication, Tax Notes, from which he was laid off.

"It's never nice to be let go from a job," Jones said. "I suppose it was about time, anyway."

Jones is working on another short story collection, due out next year. He doesn't have any plans for another novel. But you never know.

"Some idea might come to me."

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer from Delmar.

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Edward P. Jones