Edward P. Jones in Conversation with Wyatt Mason

EDWARD P. JONES reads an excerpt from “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River.”


WYATT MASON: Good evening. It occurs to me that one of the great things that children seem to lose as they grow up is the right, that many of us get as little people, to be read to.  And so it’s a ritual when we’re adults to actually hear beautiful writing read to us. Maybe it’s part of being an adult, we can be children sometimes.

I want to say a few things before we begin speaking. First of all, it’s a pleasure to hear those remarkable Kweli authors and Edward’s wonderful story. I want to give you one little anecdote. Saul Bellow was very close friends with Ralph Ellison and they lived together in the Hudson Valley with their wives, where they were writing novels in the ’50s and teaching at Bard College. And one night Bellow and Ellison and a third author, Georges Simenon, a French writer who wrote hundreds of novels, were sitting together at Bard. Simenon didn’t know Ellison and said, “What do you do?” And Ellison said “I’m a novelist.”  And Simenon said “How many novels have you written?”  And Ellison said “Well, I’ve written one novel.” And Simenon said, “Uh, . . . one novel. You’re not a novelist.” [Laughter] That tells you altogether too much about too many things, but the main thing I would say is how wrong one can be. To be the author of one great novel is to have accomplished a great deal and “The Known World” is just such a book. So we’re sitting next to a remarkable story writer and novelist tonight in Edward P.  Jones. I’d like to read a tiny bit, just one paragraph from that novel as we begin to talk.  At the end of that book there is a moment where the scene shifts from an imaginary county called Manchester to Philadelphia, where a number of slaves, who’ve escaped from the larger story of the book, arrive in a great room.  And in this great room is an enormous, remarkable artwork.  And one of the former residents of Manchester County writes back to her sister about this artwork, which has been produced by one of the characters in the novel, a woman named Alice, who is rumored to be, and understood to be, crazy.  We see her in no moments in the book where she isn’t doing something that people aren’t very surprised by. So here’s this grand piece of art that they come upon, and these are the words from a letter written to a family member describing Alice’s art.

“ . . . a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure—all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing.  It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself.”

“. . .  There is nothing missing, not a cabin, not a barn, not a chicken, not a horse. Not a single person is missing. I suspect that if I were to count the blades of grass, the number would be correct as it was once when the creator of this work knew that world.”

What one emerges with from reading your work is a sense of the extraordinary variety and particularity of human beings, and you devote an enormous amount of time to knowing the individuals who pass through your world in your fictional universe. And I wonder about that specificity and how it’s achieved, because you say that you don’t write from your life. 

EDWARD P. JONES:  Well, I guess I always believe that [with] this fiction thing, because it’s not true, that you have to tell as many lies as possible so that people will swallow it. So that’s what you do, you know.  There’s a table, it’s just not a table, but it’s a table that holds a candelabra and a bible. You just try to be as detailed as possible, because in the end of course, it’s untrue, so you have to have people believe they can take it and accept it. 

WYATT: You said that before you can write a character, even a minor character in a short story who may be there for just a paragraph, you need to know almost everything about them. 

EDWARD: I think I might back away from that. [Laughter] I think perhaps it’s a case where even if it’s a minor character and you give the character a paragraph or a page, and then if you’re called upon --if the [minor] character on a page is just having breakfast and that’s it, if you are called upon, you should be able to say what the character will have for dinner, even though that’s not in the story or the novel. You should try to know as much as possible, even though it will never be in print. 

WYATT: Lately, you have been teaching writing to some younger people, undergraduates in Washington D.C where you live. And I wonder-- you said that when people ask you about process, you really have nothing to say, because it’s such a mystery, even to the writer.

EDWARD: I can be on the bus, taking my groceries home from the supermarket, and all of a sudden something will just appear in the mind. It has nothing to do with the bus, it has nothing to do with the city, but the imagination has its own way of working away, and I just let it go.  I’m always surprised at the fact that people, they read my work and they feel-- they want to believe that it all happened “once upon a time.”  It seems to me that we’ve gotten away from this notion that the imagination can do wondrous things. I suppose, when they were teaching us that in school, that you know, that the imagination died, I was absent.  [Laughter] I’ve been very blessed. I don’t really want to use anything from my own life or the lives of people I know.
WYATT: Out of propriety or the privilege of the imagination?

EDWARD: I think it’s both. You know, there might come a day, if I’m still doing this, where I won’t have an imagination anymore, and then I’ll start stealing left and right. [Laughter]

WYATT: You grew up in D.C. in your childhood you lived, if I understand correctly, in eighteen different apartments during your first eighteen years. And you’ve remained a resident of D.C, you’ve watched it change a great deal in all that time. What roots you to this city [the] most?

EDWARD: I lived in Arlington, V.A, across the river, from ‘83 to ‘04. When I got out of grad school and came back up to the area, I didn’t have a car, [I] didn’t want a car, and the job I had was in Arlington, and I didn’t want to commute every day across the river, so I got an apartment in Arlington.  The problem with living in so many different places growing up is that you can’t go back to a particular neighborhood and remember the place when you were five, when you were ten, [or] when you were fifteen. We lived in places for, generally, about a year or so. My mother was a dishwasher in a restaurant and didn’t really have enough money for us to get a solid place, and so whenever something bad would happen-- in one place I remember, a basement place, when it rained, our apartment would flood.  So we ended up moving a lot, and that means I don’t really have any place that I can call home in Washington.  There aren’t any people that I know anymore in Washington, as a matter of fact. I’m the last of all of them. 

WYATT: Your mother, Jeanette Satana Majors could neither read nor write in your childhood. Did she tell stories? 

EDWARD: No, she talked mostly about growing up in the South. She was born in V.A. and raised in Virginia and North Carolina. And she had stories about her family, her grandmother, [a] farm. Things like that. But, really, she was not a storyteller in the way of fictionalizing things. But she had a certain voice that was Southern and that was all her own, and I think that whenever I put down a sentence, I’m trying to recreate that kind of way she had of talking. It had a certain melody to it.

WYATT: Your first story was published in 1976 in a magazine, in Essence, yes? Your sister was a subscriber to a number of magazines, if I remember correctly, and you were reading stories in that magazine that you thought weren’t so good. 

EDWARD: Month after month they were bad stories. I was about two or so years out of college, I had a creative writing course when I was in college, and I suppose my work was just as bad as the undergraduates I’m teaching now. But reading that magazine, Essence, every month, I just said to myself, “One day, I can do better.” 

WYATT: So, you [wrote] this story called Harvest?


WYATT:  [Harvest] was set in the South? 

EDWARD: Right.

WYATT:  And then, there’s something very unusual that happens in terms of how [Harvest] ends up being published and how you found out [about it being published].

EDWARD: Yeah I was living-- my mother had died the first day of ’75, and I moved for a time to Philadelphia and stayed with the parents of a college roommate, and when I was there from January to February, … around April, I think, I wrote a story and I sent it off, and I came back down to Washington in June.  And, I don’t know when Essence said “yes” because the people in Philadelphia never forwarded any mail. So, we went from April of ’75 until September of ’76, and finally, they sent what was in a Mailgram, and it [said] the story was being published, and it was coming out in a matter of weeks, as a matter of fact. I still don’t know how they did that, because I never signed anything. [Laughter ] But, they gave me 400 bucks and for a whole month, I could go into any Peoples Drugstore and take the magazine off the shelf and see my name in black and white. 

WYATT: So what does it mean for a young author at that time, if you can think back, and think about what it is to be a young writer publishing for the first time in Kweli, say-- how important is it for a young writer to have that experience of a beginning?

EDWARD: I think for me, it was-- because my circumstances weren’t that great, I had a job and I lived in just one room, and a lot of the time it was rather lonely, but once the story came out, I sort of felt as if I belonged. It does something tremendously to you, and the feeling of that went on and on so that the next year, I think it was George Washington [that] had this program where a writer would come in and teach a course at the university and also one to people in the community, and I applied with a certain amount of confidence that [you know], I would be accepted, and I was. And that same sort of confidence [went] with me when I applied to graduate school.  And so it was-- it did a lot, it was tremendous, and, if I close my eyes and think back, I can still see myself going into those drugstores.  [Smile]  And my mother had died too, and that was-- you know-- I’m carrying that around.  And, unfortunately for her, she never saw it.

WYATT: You dedicated all three of your books to your mother, and you continue to write with her voice in your head. How has the process -- I don’t mean day to day -- but how do you think about the writing you do now you have -- Edward has two story collections which are connected like no two other story collections I know of.  They’re fourteen stories each and each story in the first collection is revisited in the second story, not as a sequel, not as a continuation, but somehow, a small character in one is connected to a larger character in the next. They’re sort of two hands that join. That’s certainly nothing you could have conceived of when you wrote Harvest in the ‘70s.  I wonder how your thoughts about this evolving body of work, which now includes a novel-- it includes 28 stories-- how do you think about your project?

EDWARD: I don’t really. I mean, you know, I suppose the only time I really think about it is when I am called upon to read. You know, other than that, the books are there and-- some are in the apartment-- but I really don’t visit them very much.  Um, I think that despite all the good things that have happened to me, what I’ve always realized is that none of those good things can help me write whatever will come next.  And they say, “Well, you got this award, you got that award.” Well, if I sit down to write, I can’t take all those awards and put them on the laptop and say “work.”  [Laughter]  What I also say is that you can write a million stories, but when you get to the million and first story, you are back down to the bottom of the mountain.

WYATT: So it’s always a view from the bottom?

EDWARD: You’re always starting over. 

WYATT: Is there any less frustration that you encounter from being at the bottom? 

EDWARD: No, because you’re taking these people who never existed and you’re trying to create them.  It would be one thing if they were from my own life or the lives of people you know.  You just sort of change a little of this, a little of that, and you go on your way.  But these are all people who’ve never existed at all and it’s hard. It’s hard making them real, it’s hard making them believable, it’s hard making them do logical things that a reader will accept. 

WYATT: If writing gets harder, it seems that we live in a culture where reading has gotten harder.  You told me earlier that when you were a student in college, you were expected to read a book a week.  And of course, you were taking English literature.  And now someone told you that, oh, the students, they just can’t do that. How do you think that the world is changing the way we read, and do you think that there is any change in the way a writer needs to approach his art in such a time?  

EDWARD: I don’t know. I’m not someone who goes out to a lot of parties, you know, or [gets] invited to dinner three or four times a week.  For the most part, I’m in my apartment where I pay rent, and it’s just me and the apartment. I don’t really, you know, go out and about and ask questions of the world.  So I really can’t answer that. I wouldn’t know what to say.

WYATT: Do you see in your students an approach to reading or writing that seems very foreign to you or new?

EDWARD: Yeah. A lot of them, for some reason, it seems as if they’ve never read a book in their lives. These are undergraduates.  But I remember a few years ago, I was teaching at something in [the] Washington area called the Writers Center, and these are people around the world who have day jobs, and this woman, I think she was thirty-five or forty, she was writing dialogue as if she had never read a book.  And I always have conferences with my students, either in person, or at that time, over the phone. And we were talking on the phone and I said, “Go and get a book off the shelf and look at how the dialogue is laid out,” and she was quite surprised. I don’t know how you can get to be thirty-five and wanting to be a writer and don’t know what dialogue should look like on a page.

WYATT: So what do you think is the impulse, if not reading other people’s work, that makes a young writer want to write in the classes that you’ve seen?  

EDWARD: I think they think it’s easy.  A little of this and a little of that, as long as you have a dictionary, you can do it. I think that’s what it is.

WYATT: All the words are there.

EDWARD: Yeah. [Laughter]  But yeah-- they seem-- some of them seem to want to do fancy language, and I tell them, time and time again, if a story is powerful enough, then simple plain language will do the job.  And they seem unable to accept that at times. A few of them, I think, have gotten things better since January, but there are others who just want to plow ahead no matter what I say.

WYATT: Let’s have a short example of some of, what I don’t see as very plain language, but rather just plainly beautiful language. This is from Edward’s first story collection. Lost in the City, a story called Young Lions, featuring a young man named Caesar, who we re-encounter in the second story collection. And Caesar is visiting his father’s home in the absence of his father. 

“Caesar touched nearly everything along the way—a lace piece made by his grandmother that was on the back of the easy chair in the living room; a drawing of the house signed and dated by his sister taped to the refrigerator; the kitchen curtains he had helped his mother put up.  In a corner of the kitchen counter he found wrapped in a rubber band the letters he had been sending to his father; only the first one had been opened. 


"He turned away and went to his sister’s room, where he touched the heads of the three stuffed animals sitting on the pillows of her bed. In the room he had shared with his brother, he took as many of his clothes as he could carry, his hands shaking each time he picked up an item.”  

One of the things that I go to your stories for repeatedly is to find these moments of unlikely intimacy and aloneness with people who, when we see their acts in the public world, like Caesar, who in the first story and in the later story, hurts people, you manage, in a very real way, to find those moments where they are more fully themselves, not simply their worst actions. 

EDWARD:  The great task, when you’re dealing with someone who is not a nice human being, is to show all facets. It’s rather easy to get things across when you are dealing with someone who is good.  As a matter of fact, Caesar has broken into his father’s house. His father has changed the lock. They’re on the outs.  But I remember when I did the novel.  There was a man who causes a former slave to be sold back into slavery, and this happens the night that this former slave is coming home from a job. He’s a furniture maker.

WYATT:  And a free man.

EDWARD:  Yes, he’s free. He carries around his free papers. And he meets up with these slave patrollers, and they end up selling him to someone else back into slavery. Now when that happens, we already know that this former slave, Augustus, is a good man. And I realize when I was doing it, because it comes near the end of a chapter, that it would have been the easiest thing in the world to stay-- because they put Augustus in the wagon with some other free people being sold back into slavery--  and it’s a poignant moment. And it would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to stay with the wagon of new slaves, but I thought that my job was to stay with this man who had done this awful thing to this good man.  Because it’s probably one of the worst things that happens, aside from the murders-- it’s one of the worst things that happens in the novel-- and it was my job to show that this man had not always been that kind of man. And as a result, I came up with this story, and I sent it to my editor, Dawn [Davis].  Dawn had very little comments for me to work with, so I decided to revise and revise still more. I forget the name of the guy who sold Augustus back into slavery, but there was just a little bit in that section, and I decided to give it even more.  And I came up with this scene where this man, this slave patroller, had a few years before went to someone to get money he was owed. And in that man’s house there was a plain chair that was made by Augustus. And the man that owes the slave patroller this money is a very large man, about 340 pounds, and he is sitting on this plain chair.  And I wrote something about, “the chair never complained, never squeaked, all it wanted was for the man to gain another 100 pounds.”  And the fat man goes out of the room and this slave patroller knows that this is a great thing, this chair.  And he picks it up and he looks at it and examines it, and he realizes that never, never in his entire life will he ever be able to do something like that.  And that’s when the moment was born that would cause him to sell Augustus back into slavery. But you have to find those moments, you know, because people live their lives and, at some point, bad people take a wrong turn.  And you have to find that moment in order to give them their wholeness.

WYATT:  In writing The Known World, you spent ten years conceiving it in your head.

EDWARD:  Yeah, it wasn’t all that fancy. It was just ‘cause I was lazy and I didn’t want to do research about American Slavery. [Laughter] So it was ten years of-- as I have often said, you know, the part of my brain, the logical part, felt I should do research, but the creative part can’t be held back.  And so for ten years I just thought of this novel, waiting for the day when I would read all those books, which never came. I just started writing what was in my head.

WYATT:  You also said that in not doing research or what little research you did, you realized that the kind of story that you could tell if you actually told the full complete story of the depravity that was slavery in America wouldn’t have been possible to contain in a novel, because it would have been just too oppressive.

EDWARD: Yes, every page would have been, you know, I mean, horrible things happen to people in the novel, but there were greater horrors that happened to people over centuries of American slavery. So, it sort of freed me from having to deal with all of that, because I did read fifty pages of one book and I got a few facts. And I know if I had read all forty of those books I would have had five thousand facts that I would have felt the need to put into the novel. And the result, of course, would have been not a novel of characters but one of research.

WYATT: You’ve written about the period of slave owning in the United States. You’ve written about two generations, at least, of African Americans living in the wake of that period. And America is still exhibiting all of the difficulties that have arisen as a result of the infamies of our history.  But there have been changes, at least outward changes, in America over the last few years, and one of them is we have an African American president who is a writer. I wonder, first of all, does that change seem meaningful to you?

EDWARD: Well, I’m sure [it does] for many, many people, but not necessarily for me. He lives in a realm that doesn’t really touch me. Because I get up, and I have to get on the bus, I have to get on the subway, and he has people driving him around and all the rest of it. And I think that if this were happening when I was growing up, it wouldn’t have had any effect on me.  I mean, my mother worked very hard, and I’m not sure if having a black President would have changed her circumstances very much. 

WYATT: Do you think that there has been any discernible change in the way that people of color are received as writers in the last thirty or forty years? 

EDWARD: I was trying to remember the other day, when that transit cop in San Francisco shot that black guy in the back, I think it was two years ago or so, and I believe Obama was around, but that didn’t help that poor man. That cop still had a certain attitude and the guy ended up dead. So again, he lives in a certain world and the rest of us live way beneath it. I mean, I think it’s good for a lot of kids to know that you can attain certain things, but, I don’t know. I live in Washington, D.C, and the whole mantra of people in America is “how wonderful democracy is,” but we don’t have any representation.  If it’s so good, if democracy is so wonderful, why don’t they give it to people in Washington? 

WYATT: You said that James Joyce is one of the writers who’s been very important to you - his collection Dubliners. I wonder if you can tell us just a few other books that have been meaningful to you, in your past as a reader, and if there is anybody now who is writing fiction who is of interest to you as a reader.  

EDWARD: I was one of the judges for the PEN Hemingway Award, which is given to the best first book of fiction. And we gave the first prize to a man named Brando Skyhorse, and he has this grand collection of stories called The Madonnas of Echo Park.  It’s wonderful, wonderful work.

WYATT: And that came out what year?

EDWARD: Last year. 

WYATT: Okay. Others?

EDWARD: There are some, but right now my mind is going blank. I do know that when I was in graduate school, I didn’t get a whole lot from the reading and writing courses in grad school. What I did get a lot from were the literature courses, and the one course in particular was The Bible as Literature.  I had read only maybe a chapter here, a chapter there, of the bible. This was the first time I had an opportunity to read just about the entire book.  And we didn’t read the St. James version.  We had the Jerusalem bible, which is a more modern translation, but the poetry was still there. And I think having read all of that, I was able, with the stories, and then with the novel, to be able to use what I had read. Because the people I write about generally are very religious people.  And even though I’m not, I have to sort of be respectful of that.

WYATT: So you say though you are not religious, you are doomed to write about people who are.  Is there something that you can imagine that you wish to achieve as a writer that remains yet undone.  You have said that doing something new-- I remember before The Known World came out, your concern, in part, as it was getting done-- you were worried that someone else would tell a story about a black slave owner. There are territories that have not been charted yet, and I wonder if you see certain ones that call to you. 

EDWARD: No, nothing comes to mind, nothing that is as unusual as a black slave owner. There are things that I’m interested in, but I’m at the very beginning of trying to compose those things. I have always said, I’ve never really read a book about it, but I’ve always had a special interest in [the] 1918 riot, race riot in Washington D.C.

WYATT: I’ve looked at the clock and it seems that we are at the fringe of our time. Are we going to take questions from the audience?  We can-- would anyone like to pose a question for Mr. Jones?

EDWARD: I’d like to thank Wyatt. This is the second time Wyatt has done this, and I really appreciate it.