Knowing Your Own: Jeffery Renard Allen Interviews Edward P. Jones

This interview with Edward P. Jones took place around the publication of his second short story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and was conducted by phone in the fall of 2006.

JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN:  You’ve probably been asked these things before, but I wonder if you might want to talk a little a bit about your recent successes. Obviously The Known World was a tremendous novel in terms of critical reception and sales as well. And you received a number of prestigious awards, many coming with some nice pocket change. How are you managing with all that?

EDWARD P. JONES:  Well, the answer that I give is that I’m managing and my life really hasn’t changed. I think if you talk to people who knew me before the book was out, they would say that I’m about the same person many times over. You can’t let things like that change your life or you’ll become a different person than the person who wrote the book. 

JEFF:  We have your new book of stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and one of the surprising things about your career as a writer is you’ve made your mark as a short story writer. Your first book of short stories was well received and now the latest collection. Often in this country stories are seen as a kind of death in the publishing industry. I wonder if you have any thoughts about why your stories have gained such an audience when so many other writers have failed to do so?

EDWARD:  No, because I don’t read someone else’s work and say “well, he or she did well and let me follow that person.”  I have my own world and characters and I just follow that. If I had followed the logic of the publishing industry, I would have followed The Known World with another novel. However, the stories were in my head and I went with those. Again I think the thing is that if I had wished for all of this, planned for all of this, not many good things would have happened. You have to go your own way. When I wrote The Known World, I was just writing it, and I lost the job I had for nineteen years, and the only thing I was hoping for was someone would publish it; I never thought much beyond that--good reviews or anything else that might come from publishing it. Maybe if I could get enough money to live on for the next three years.

JEFF:  Speaking of The Known World, I heard you say once that the book was essentially in your mind for ten years before you decided to do the actual writing of it. That is to say, you carried the story and characters around in your head for many years, a decade, but when you did the actual writing it only took a few months. Is that correct? 

EDWARD:  Yes. I think if I had set down from the first day with a clearer idea of what I was going to do from the first words, then it wouldn’t have taken about three months, it would’ve taken maybe a year, year and a half. Because I had lived with this in my head for some ten years and I had worked it out very generally and I knew where I was going. That meant in certain instances the book was already first-drafted in my head and all I needed to do, pretty much, was put it down. I don’t know if I should be applauded for being able to do a first draft in a few months, because those few months were actually about ten years. 

JEFF:  I also recall that you said you didn’t do any research for the book?

EDWARD:  No, that’s why for ten years I kept putting it off. Research wasn’t something I particularly liked doing. It probably reminds me a lot of going to college, you know, and having to get a grade. That’s why I sort of rebelled from doing any research for so many years. I didn’t want to do it for that reason, so in the meantime I worked the book out in my head, waiting for the day when I would do the actual writing.

JEFF:  That’s interesting. The Known World is historical and convincing, research or no. Would it be fair to say that as a short story writer, your stories primarily deal with contemporary society, as opposed to your novel which is historical? Are these deliberate choices?

EDWARD:  I don’t know. In terms of stories, I don’t know if I just want to deal with a particular era. The first story in the new collection takes place in 1901, 1902 Washington D.C., and the last one takes place in 1932, 1933, in Mississippi. So whatever the current situation comes to you, you follow that, and if it just so happens that it is in the fifties and the sixties or the seventies where a lot of my stories take place, so be it, follow that. But no, I never sit down and want to talk about a particular time period. 

JEFF:  Maybe this is kind of a risky question. You seem to be one of only a handful of African-American writers who’ve made it into the New Yorker. I think, in fact, you may be the only African-American writer who appears regularly in the New Yorker today. I wonder if you have any thoughts about why your work appeals to those editors and readers?

EDWARD:  No, I don’t. I don’t have any ideas. After I finished the novel and I had the stories written, I didn’t sign a contract for the stories really. The book was published once I got the collection together. What I did was essentially send the stories to my agent as I was finishing them. My agent was my principle reader. And, lo and behold, one day he said the New Yorker was interested. I don’t know. A lot of the people in my collection are women; most of the characters are women. They seem to be more central than the male characters. Is that the appeal? Again, if I had sat down and said, “I’m going to write a New Yorker story” and see where it goes, then that wouldn’t have worked. I wrote them for the satisfaction first of myself—that’s what you have to do--and then I sent them out to my agent and said “I have so-and-so many left to go before the book is complete.” So no, I never wondered once. I already had Lost in the City, and only two or so of the stories in that book were already published before the book came out. The rest of them had gone through the years of time I had started writing them. The only publication that was interested in them was the Paris Review. So when I was writing the new stories I didn’t think about the New Yorker or any other publication, so I was quite surprised. 

JEFF:  It does seem that your career in many respects is different from the paths of what most writers follow today, in terms of writing programs and that kind of thing. Could you talk a little about your development as a writer?

EDWARD:  I don’t really sit down and think of my life in that way. I lived my life and try not to analyze it. I suppose I really can’t say I have a writing career, because I don’t think of it as a career. I write and down the line hopefully someone publishes it, but I really can’t say that if no one ever publishes ever again that I would stop doing it. So it’s not a career in any sense. In terms of how I got here, it’s not as if I had a five-year plan or a ten-year plan. It never is. You do it and hope for the best. I never asked anyone for advice about how to become a writer, or how to do this or do that, the proper way to do it. You do it. 

JEFF:  Were you involved in the community of writers at all?

EDWARD:  No, not really. I’m not a very social person in that way. You won’t find me going to a dinner party, sitting at Starbucks talking shop to somebody, that’s not really me. I don’t really go for that sort of thing. I know Marita Golden. I met her way back when Lost in the City came out and later I was involved with the Hurston/Wright Foundation. I also met Ethelbert Miller around the time when Lost in the City came out. So that’s how I began my friendship with those two writers. We all had plenty of contact after The Known World and award events and such. But I’m not in regular contact with this. I’m just a solitary person.

JEFF:  You’re certainly very humble and success couldn’t have happened to a better person.

EDWARD:  Thank you. My mother couldn’t read or write, she washed dishes and cleaned rooms and everything. I try to live my life as if every single person is important, which I believe is [true], knowing, of course, people might say wonderful things about you today, but tomorrow it might be a different story. I’m always aware of that. That doesn’t mean if something happens you don’t go out and celebrate by having a glass of wine or a milkshake or something, but it also means you don’t go out and buy yourself a big car. I don’t drive so I don’t have a car and I still don’t have a cell phone. The problem about not having a cell phone now is I depend on pay phones and the world seems to be conspiring against me because they’re taking away all the pay phones so I’m having a harder and harder time to find one. I’ve had to go block to block to the nearest subway station to go down into the subway station to use the payphone. Somewhere along the line, I’ll have to get a cell phone I suppose, but I’d only use it when it was important. You won’t just find me walking down the street talking on the phone.

JEFF:  Would you offer that as advice to aspiring writers, to live a life of isolation, if I can call it that?

EDWARD:  I don’t. People ask me what advice to give and you can’t really give advice to people. They’re all individuals. I may like broccoli, you may not. If I say I got to where I am by eating broccoli, it wouldn’t do you any good to try to force yourself everyday to eat broccoli. It’s just not in your makeup. So we all have to go out in our own individual ways. What I tell people, the most important thing that they can do if they want to write, is to like to read. Read, read, read. That’s the major foundation. Everything else justifies it. You find people out there that say, “Yeah I want to be a writer.” But they pick up a book and go, “Huh, on no, three hundred pages.” So no, I can’t give any advice to anyone. Who I am is who I am. And no one else will go down the roads that I’ve gone down.

JEFF:  What does the term “African American writer” mean to you, if anything? 

EDWARD:  I don’t shy away from it. That’s who I am. I’m not one of those writers who says, “I’m a writer first.” You get too many people out there nowadays, starting with that famous golf player, who lists all the things he supposedly is, and the very last thing he lists is Black. If someone came along and discovered that he had Martian blood, he would put that in the list before Black. So, no, I never question this term. So Black or African-American first are fine with me.

JEFF:  So you’ve never found that it’s a label that’s hurt you in any way.

EDWARD:  No. I write about Black people and it never occurs to me that I should be writing about other people because my characters don’t come to me as other people. They come to me as black people. Sometimes a story involves someone other than black people, and that’s the way the story goes. But Black is who I am.  

JEFF:  A final question. Whenever I do interviews, I like to offer the opportunity to pose a question that you’ve never been asked. Is there a question you’d like me to ask that you’ve never been asked before?

EDWARD:  There’s never been a situation when I said “I want so-and-so to ask me that question.” That’s never been the case. I never have any questions of my own. In so many ways, it’s still a new thing to me that even after some three years of all this, someone still wants to call me and ask a question. It’s still a new thing to me. I don’t think I’ll ever get over that.