Academic journal article African American Review

An Interview with Edward P. Jones

Academic journal article African American Review

An Interview with Edward P. Jones

Article excerpt

Edward P. Jones is a writer of the kind of fiction one might have thought was going out of style: readable, absorbing, and exquisitely literary. After a startling publishing debut with Lost in the City, stories drawn from his native Washington, D. C., Jones went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Known World in 2004, an unusual story about a former slave-turned-slaveowner in antebellum Virginia. He published his third book in the fall of 2006, All Aunt Hagar's Children, a collection of short stories about ordinary people, whom we see as only they can be. Jones pays careful attention to presenting the circumstances of their lives and the consequences of their choices. Neither blaming the victims nor forgetting that they exist, Jones is more concerned with alerting us to the characters' contradictions, i.e., what makes them human. Unlike the brooding sensibility of Faulkner's fiction or the violent rage that characterizes Wright's work, Jones's world has a sober inclusiveness. He mediates his characters' lives with elegant, understated prose that is as compelling as it is persuasive. Each page is a reminder of his artistry and the compassion he feels for each of his characters.

This interview was conducted shortly before the release of the hardcover edition of All Aunt's Hagar's Children, August 18, 2006, at Union Station in Washington, D. C. A trade paperback edition of the book was published in August 2007.

MEG: Let's review some of the major facts about your life. Washington, D. C. is home for you and you went to Cardozo High School, where you have returned to talk with students on at least one occasion that I heard about. After finishing Holy Cross, you came back home to a job in the 1970s. Your mother's death occurred in January 1975; you published your first story in Essence. In 1990 you published your short story collection and by then, a host of other stories had appeared in leading literary magazines. You were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for your novel. But you did not start out as a writer and did only a little writing when you were in college. How did you get started as a writer?

EPJ: The job I had after college was terrible. I was going nowhere. After working all day, I was simply going home and watching TV and reading. I saw a flyer for a writing seminar financed by some fellowship at George Washington University in a bookstore--and it was one day a week. I thought this would work fine. I did that in the '70s. The seminar was held at the home of the writer Susan Shreve, and this was the first writing course that I had after college.

MEG: But you also returned to the University of Virginia for the MFA. Since creative writers typically don't make a lot of money starting out, were you thinking of getting a job and living as a "starving writer" for a while?

EPJ: No, I didn't think of becoming a writer and suffering, because I had done a lot of suffering as a child. I can remember distinctly my mother putting large things in a big frying pan, which you really couldn't call flap jacks. There was just one for three people and we didn't really have syrup, but when you've eaten enough of those ... when you haven't anything else to eat, then you know the world isn't waiting for you to just show up and give you a job.

After I'd finished Susan's seminar, I saw her someplace and said I didn't know what I was going to do next. And she looked at me and said well, you will get a job. She didn't have to say "stupid," but you can know what people's eyes say. I think this has to do a lot with class. Because she came from a certain class where the world is out there, she believed all I needed to do was open the door. I realize now what I didn't realize then. The world is a different experience for poor people. I have a friend who was raised poor in Wales and married the son of a military guy who came from different circumstances. She said she realized they were different when she expressed concern about holding on to her job as a high school teacher when they talked about moving. …

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