Interview with Edward P. Jones
- by J. Shepperd
- May 14, 2013
Edward P. Jones is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World; winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Lost in the City, a collection of short stories; and a finalist for the National Book Award.
I sat down with Edward P. Jones in his George Washington University office. He teaches a creative writing class that meets twice each week. I hoped that looking around his office might spill some important ingredient about his work or provide a flavor or some telling detail but his office was bare. He sat across from me at his desk, and for a bit of the interview, sideways, with his body facing away from me. There was no comforting small talk, he wanted to begin and end the interview quickly. He smiled only once or twice when we found commonality in the Washington, D.C. locations of our childhood. My family’s church was near a building where one of his characters entered a story.
Edward P. Jones is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World; winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Lost in the City, a collection of short stories; and a finalist for the National Book Award. His latest collection is All Aunt Hagar’s Children, which reintroduces some of the characters in Lost in the City.
I came to your work through The Known World and yet I read in the introduction to the short story collection, Lost in the City that you were particular about the order of the stories. Ideally, how would you like a reader to come to your work? Is the order important, and if so, why?
In this case, I had the idea of starting from the youngest to oldest. It seemed more important at the time than it is now.
On page 6 of Lost in the City there is a sad and beautiful passage: “One morning, toward four o’clock they cut open her stomach and pulled out the child only moments after Clara died, mother and daughter passing each other as if along a corridor, one into death, the other into life.” I wondered if there was anything they could say to each other.
There was no need for words, at least none that I could think of back then.
Reading your stories requires certain conditions—quiet, concentration and time. Does writing them involve strict conditions as well? A No. 2 pencil, quiet, particular paper and light?
I can’t really speak to the way a reader reads a story. I can only write, and it is entirely made up. It is a beginning, a middle and an end. You just do your best job and you believe it is true and then a reader brings their own experience.
I expected to breeze right through them with pleasure instead, I couldn’t read many at a time, and found myself holding the book closed, between stories. As if you said, sit back, take your time, these things need to be considered. Is this in the style, the rhythm? How do you direct your readers to read in such a way?
For me, it is a rather simple process; a character is in mind, and word follows word, paragraph follows paragraph to a logical ending.
Your characters all seemed so isolated, and yet many of them were full-fledged members of their communities. How did you create this effect?
There is an emotional core that carries the story and still it is most important to have a proper ending.
Are you inexorably tied to Washington, D.C., in your stories? Somehow all of them touch upon the city, even if they don’t begin or end there.
No, not really.
If you moved somewhere else, do you think another city could inhabit you the way Washington, D.C., seems to?
It would just be me writing somewhere else.
When you teach writing, do you feel as if there are some essential things that you must pass on to your students? What essential elements are there for you?
They write much like I did when I was their age. You hope they come in the door with some creativity and then they simply have to keep reading and keep writing. Grow up, read more and develop, and with the need to continue.
Do you have more novels in you?
Don’t know. With The Known World, I’d been thinking about it for 10 years. When I began to write, I asked myself for five pages a day for three months. The sections were all there and it did not take any research, it was all in my imagination. I had five weeks vacation from my then government job, and two weeks into the vacation they called and told me that I no longer had a job. I kept writing.
Most people don’t think of the walking down the street part, the thinking, as part of the writing, but it definitely is a part of writing.
“Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister” was one of the most amazing stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
The characters were in another story and they came back and wanted more.
You write, after all of Hooper Andrews’ perfect teeth fell out in a bloodless pile on his pillow, “God, people said, did more mysterious things in Mississippi that he did anywhere else on earth.”
Strange things happen in lots of places and especially in stories, or in an imagination that feeds itself.
You seem to move around in time more in All Aunt Hagar’s Children than in Lost in the City? Did you approach the writing of these stories differently?
No, not really.
How did it feel to be the subject of the book Fraternity, Diane Brady’s book about you, and others that were recruited by Father John E. Brooks to the College of the Holy Cross in 1968? Are you all still connected?
It didn’t really feel any different. I remember Clarence Thomas calling from the car, to congratulate me on the Pulitzer Prize. The book was someone’s idea that they felt was important. I was happy for Father Brooks.
How has Washington, D.C., changed for you since your writing success? Can you still inhabit the city, quietly?
Yes, I still do what I’ve always done. People believe that the world has changed, I don’t.
Is writing any easier for you than it used to be?
The same. Nothing has changed really since the Pulitzer. If I were to change, I’d become the person that didn’t write the book.
Are you in any way surprised by your reader audience?
I’m pleased and surprised sometimes when people recognize me in the store and other places. Also, that so many people bring the other books when I’ve come to talk about a particular book. I don’t mind being stopped or recognized but I won’t read again until I’ve produced some new material.
Edward P. Jones collects stamps and Netsuke figures. He encountered the first Netsuke at the Peabody Museum. I asked him to explain what they were and when he did, his fondness for them seemed particularly apt: He’s amazed that one could put an entire world into something so small. I’m amazed at how beautifully he puts a whole world into a short story.
J. Shepperd is the interviewer.