Interview with Indie Lit Winner, Tayari Jones
By: Melody (Fiction Director)
There’s been an inescapable hum of excitement surrounding Silver Sparrow. It must be incredibly rewarding as an author to know that so many readers connect with your writing. How has this affected your writing process? Have you begun working on a new book?
First off, thank you for this wonderful accolade. I am very honored to be chosen as the Indie Lit winner in fiction. Silver Sparrow has been an amazing ride. My publisher, Algonquin, has been really committed to getting my work into the hands of new readers and the whole experience has been surprising and beautiful. I am only now learning to really enjoy it.
For Sparrow, I have been to over fifty cities on a year-long promotional tour. This has certainly affected my process. I am always packing a suitcase or unpacking it. I have been fortunate enough to receive a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, so I am working on a new novel and I am excited by it. It’s the most contemporary thing I have ever written—it is set in 2006. Another challenge is that part of the novel is written in the voice of a man who has recently been exonerated after serving seven years in prison. I am really having to stretch and go to some uncertain places. It’s thrilling, but also terrifying. But someone said about writing—if you’re scared, you’re doing it right.
One of the things that set Silver Sparrow apart was the characters. Every character, major or minor, felt like a real, complex person. I imagine that there are many details about Dana’s and Chaurisse’s lives that we – the readers- never get the scoop on. Do you ever find yourself wanting to talk about your characters as if they were old friends? Do you miss them when the writing is done?
While I am writing, I talk about the characters all the time. I may say, “I am so worried about Chaurisse!” Or sometimes, I will be shocked by their behavior and said, “You will not believe what Raleigh did!” My friends understand that this is how I write and how I think. I like to feel like my characters live in the world, not that they live in a book. I go out of my way to make them feel like actual people. It all starts with naming. I don’t like symbolic names for characters. Yes, it worked for Dickens, but for me, I need a character that feels like a real person, with a real name.
I think I know when I am done with a book when I no longer think about the characters or talk about them. It’s like they leave me, making way for the new people from the new book.
The epilogue was a great source of discussion for the judging panel. We debated whether Dana and Chaurisse grew or learned from their parents’ mistakes, and mourned that they couldn’t find a way to be sisters. How did you decide on the structure of the novel? Was it difficult to decide whose perspective you wrote each part of the story from? And, if I may, did you identify more with one of the girls than the other?
I had planned to write the entire novel from a single point of view—Dana. But as the secret daughter, she lives in the dark and she just doesn’t have access to the rest of the story. Further, you really don’t know what dark is until you see light. Dana and Chaurrisse complement each other in a narrative sense. Neither of their stories is complete with the other. I didn’t really identify with one girl more than the other. Every novel I write is a sort of emotional autobiography. I do not write any emotion that I haven’t experienced myself.
As for the end of the book, I really can’t say how much they grew, that feels a little bit too moralizing, but I believe that they were both changed. Each of them will go out into the world with a more sober understanding of the way things work.
Throughout the book you explore the ideas of power and legitimacy. Gwen tells her daughter that knowledge is power, but Dana senses from a young age that knowledge is a lesser form of power than is legitimacy. James is in the position of power, yet as the book progresses we see that he is rather weak in spite of being the pivot point for so many lives. Ultimately, however, it is a balance between personal character and the confines of society. How heavily do the time and location in which the characters live impact the decisions they make?
That’s funny. I don’t think James is necessarily weak. He does things that are not admirable, but I don’t know if that is the same as being weak. I feel that he makes the decisions that make him happy. He doesn’t put himself on a limb for others, which would likely make him “brave”, but I don’t think it’s an issue of strength or weakness. But then again, I don’t tend to think of characters that way when I am writing them.
I was struck recently—with all the debate about birth control—by the extent to which that a lack of access to contraception is what really what makes this plot happen. Both of the mothers marry James because they are pregnant and really need the support of a man.
Bigamy, at first blush, can seem a rather sensational topic. Yet you told this story in such a way that the reader can’t help but empathize with the characters. What inspired you to tackle the subject? Did you set out to write a book about bigamy, or did that develop later?
I actually set out to write a story about sisters who have different mothers. I have two sisters who are not my mother’s children and the relationship has always been fraught. So this was my entry to think story. The bigamy idea came to be more with the raising of the stakes on the novel.
But I think that it’s less sensational because the main characters are not the women who are “sharing am man.” These are daughters sharing a father. It’s something a lot of people grapple with.
I love how involved you are in encouraging aspiring authors, helping them develop their craft. Are there authors that have inspired you along your journey? If you could pick one book that everyone should read, (in addition to your own of course!) what would it be?
There is really no one book for everyone. Different books mean different things to me at different points in my life—so there is really no one book for me! I want everybody in the world to read Toni Morrison, because she is an American genius.
Thank you to Tayari Jones for answering our questions.
2011 Shortlist for Fiction
- Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney (Syracuse University Press)
- Cross Currents by John Shors (Penguin Group: NAL Trade)
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Knopf/Doubleday Publishing Group)
- Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
- The Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene (Penguin Group)