"An American Marriage" by Tayari Jones. TNS
The novel that would change Tayari Jones’ life was inspired by a moment in an Atlanta mall.
“I ran across a young couple, arguing,” Jones remembered, in a telephone interview from her Atlanta home this month. “The woman said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. It wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’”
It was a scene that struck Jones, and resonated with her. She’d been trying for some time to find the shape of her upcoming fourth novel, in which she wanted to explore questions of racism and wrongful incarceration, of the effect on families and communities when innocent men are locked up.
“I was outraged, I was upset, I was shocked,” Jones said of her research, “but I wasn’t inspired.”
And then she saw that young couple — the woman beautifully dressed, the man a little less so — and a story clicked: a man unfairly imprisoned, a woman waiting at home as time goes by. “I imagined a young woman who was an artist, her whole life ahead of her — does she have a right to her dreams?”
That incident was the spark of “An American Marriage,” a delicately layered novel
Writing it was a long process (that mall incident was in 2011); she wrote the entire novel three times over, finally settling on a structure in which Celestial’s, Roy’s and Andre’s voices speak in turn.
Jones, who is a creative-writing professor at Emory University, had already experienced great ups and downs in her writing career; the publisher of her first two books dropped her and she struggled to find a home for her third novel, “Silver Sparrow.” A chance meeting with author Judy Blume (“it felt like divine intervention!”) finally put her in the hands of a sympathetic new publisher, and she wrote “An American Marriage” knowing that at least she had a contract.
Buoyed by rave reviewsBut success hasn’t changed everything. Jones continues to teach writing, finding that working with students “has me thinking about writing all the time.” She remembers how, when she was struggling to finish her third novel, she’d gotten the bad news from her publisher.
“I told my students that you write a story because it needs to be written, you don’t write for the market or a publisher, you write out of loyalty to the story. How could I face them if I was going to abandon my story?”
And she still writes the way she always has: on one of several vintage manual typewriters in her collection. “It’s like when you eat too fast and the plate is empty so clearly you ate it, but you don’t really remember eating it. That’s how I feel when I compose on a computer — it’s too fast,” she said.
“The typewriter slows me down, and it’s more legible than handwriting. And I do feel very satisfied making all that noise, I feel like I’m getting something done.”
Tribune News Service
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