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Tayari Jones talks about the novel that changed her life

Tayari Jones will speak at 3:15 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom.
Published Nov. 6, 2018

Since Tayari Jones' novel An American Marriage was published in February, it has spent 10 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, been chosen by Oprah Winfrey for her book club and optioned by Winfrey's movie production company, and been nominated for an array of literary prizes.

The book, a riveting story about young black newlyweds Roy and Celestial, whose world is rocked when he is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, also appeared on former President Barack Obama's list of summer reading recommendations. "When that story came out," Jones says, "I think we sold 20,000 e-books in one day."

Speaking by phone from her home in New York recently, Jones says that in the past year she has done more than 150 book events. "This book has been so much. It's brought me so much pleasure, but it's also ... a lot."

An American Marriage is the fourth novel by Jones, 47, an Atlanta native who is a graduate of Spelman College, the University of Iowa and Arizona State University. She has taught creative writing at the University of Illinois, George Washington University and Rutgers University. She recently joined the faculty of Emory University, a move that will take her home: "I've bought this beautiful new house in Atlanta. My favorite room is the writing room."

How has the huge response to An American Marriage affected you?

If I had known when I was writing it that this would happen, it would have frightened me. When I was a midlist author, I didn't worry so much about what people think. I knew I had a small, dedicated readership. I never imagined strangers or fan mail or hundreds of people at readings.

Before, my readers were primarily black women. They worked every day, they raised children, they were in book clubs. I've been very supported by working women. I was proud of it. These aren't the women who sit on prize committees or the people who make publishing decisions. But they were my readers. When I moved to New York, one of them knitted me an afghan. She said, it's cold up there.

You began your research for the book with the idea that it would be about mass incarceration of black men, and particularly wrongful incarceration. But only a small portion of the book is about Roy's prison experience; most of it examines the impact of his incarceration on his marriage to Celestial and on their families. What shifted that focus?

I already knew what I thought about wrongful incarceration. I mean, that's why they call it "wrongful." To write a novel, I need to find a question I don't readily know the answer to. That's how I became interested in the collateral effects. Their problems as a couple are similar to anyone's, but because of his situation the heat is turned up so high.

What really brought it together was when I overheard a couple arguing at the mall. She said, "Roy, you wouldn't have waited seven years for me." And he said, "This would never have happened to you." That's when I knew there was a story there. I do sometimes wonder if they might have been talking about something completely different. Maybe he was in the Peace Corps.

The novel is also very much about families, especially about the relationships between parents and adult children. Why was that important?

I'm very interested in the generational legacy of families. We're born into families, but we also shape them. In this case, their parents' expectations of the marriage change with Roy's incarceration. I've often said when the going gets tough, people get retro. Before, everyone supported her (artistic) career. They loved Celestial's fire. But now they need her to be like a woman from another era. I've said that Roy is like Odysseus: He just wants to come home to a clean house and a faithful woman. But he lived in 70 BC.

Is there anyone who was an inspiration for Celestial?

She looks a lot like me. I'm tall, and I have a lot of hair. So in some ways she felt very familiar. I was interested in writing an artist, and I also have a very good friend who is an artist. She has a very different temperament from Celestial but she (like the character) makes dolls. I'm interested in the challenge of the female artist. Her dolls are art; they're in museums and galleries, they win awards. But people think dolls are toys for little girls.

I get this all the time. I'll sit next to some guy on a plane, and he'll say, "Oh, you've written a book? I'll buy it for my wife." It wouldn't enter his mind to read it himself. And he's not trying to be offensive; that doesn't enter his mind, either. He just assumes my work has nothing to do with him, and he assumes we both know it.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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