Tayari Jones' new book, An American Marriage, was just chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the newest selection for her Book Club, and it’s currently in its third week on the New York Times Bestseller list. The novel, Jones’ fourth, centers on Celestial and Roy, a married couple whose lives are torn apart when Roy is wrongfully imprisoned. When Roy is released, the couple must reconcile their past with their future.
On Wednesday, March 14, Jones will speak at Brazos Bookstore about her new book. We caught up with Jones to talk about An American Marriage, paying it forward and paying it back, and what Oprah’s like.
First things first: Congratulations! You are having quite the moment right now. What does that feel like?
It’s so exciting. I published my first novel 15 years ago, and my little joke is that I’m like the little engine that could: just plugging along, doing my best work. And now, all of a sudden, this amazing thing has happened. So I just feel like a sweepstakes winner, really—every day I wake up the balloons and confetti are falling from the sky. I just can’t believe that this is my life. I feel so lucky and so blessed.
You’ve been so gracious about it all, too. I love that you’re basking in this moment, but you’re also using it to shout out the people who have been by your side and to lift other people up.
When I started publishing in the early 2000s, I was not a savvy person. I didn’t know anything about the way publishing worked. And so many people were nice to me and took me under their wing. Now, I want to pay it forward by taking young people under my wing. But I also want to try to expand opportunities for writers who came before me who didn’t get the attention they deserved. I want to pay it forward, but I also want to pay it back.
Speaking of which, you recently wrote a new introduction for the reissue of The Darkest Child by Delores Phillips, which had gone out of print. It was an act that reminded me a little of Alice Walker’s efforts to bring Zora Neale Hurston’s work back into the literary conversation. How does it feel to be a part of The Darkest Child’s new life?
Alice Walker is from Georgia, and so is Delores Phillips, and so am I. Gotta put that out there. We’re holding it down for the Peach State!
With this new platform that I have, every chance I get, I talk about that book. It should be a classic. I feel that it was published at the wrong time. Well, there’s never a wrong time to bring a new voice into the world. So I think what I should say is that when it was published, it didn’t receive a lot of attention. I don’t want to say it was the wrong time. There’s no wrong time for the truth. That is my heart project: to talk about that book every chance I get.
An American Marriage features a story that’s heavy with drama and tragedy—one that could be overblown—but you make it quietly powerful, rather than melodramatic. As you worked on the novel, how did you keep that balance?
I teach creative writing at Rutgers University, and I have a theory of writing that I call the budget model. I tell my students: Imagine you have $100 with which to make this book. And really dramatic events are expensive. You can blow your whole budget on a really dramatic murder, and then you don’t have anything left for the rest of the story. You don’t want to go over budget.
So when I was writing about the deprivation Roy experienced in prison, I decided to use his craving for fresh fruit. I felt that that was not a very expensive budget item as far as drama for the story. I just took that little detail and infused it with all that I could, so I would still have space to pursue other storylines and ideas. If you go over budget in the story, it’s too much. The example I use with my students is E.T. An alien in the closet is super expensive. That is why everything else in the story is very bland. They used all the budget on the kids having an alien in the closet. You have to be frugal. That is where the magic of the novel comes in: You have to be able to deliver that emotional punch, while staying within the budget.
Early in the novel, Celestial frets over the difference between “Art” and “art,” and wonders if she’s compromising. Celestial is a doll maker, but is that something you wrestle with as a writer?
When I was very young in my career, I wrestled with it because as a young person, you’re really struggling to be taken seriously. And when you add demographic constraints—I’m a woman, I’m African American—you feel like you’re fighting to say that your voice matters.
But as I got older and as I continued to write, I knew that I mattered to myself. I stopped worrying so much about the ways in which I was classified. Most of that struggle is in your own head. The average person doesn’t read a book and say, “Is this Art enough?” The average person reads a book to see if they are moved emotionally. That’s the criteria that real people have.
I agree. I think the best books can be both “art” and “Art.” The writer finds the line right between those two.
I think so. And the only way you can find it is to not look for it.
Finally, I have to ask about Oprah. I noticed that she kind of mispronounced your name when she was announcing An American Marriage as her newest book club pick on CBS This Morning, but I’m sure even getting your name mispronounced by Oprah probably feels like an honor.
(Laughs.) You see, in subsequent appearances, she’s changed the pronunciation. It happens. My parents don’t even say it in the exact same way, so I’m not as sensitive about it as some people are. I’m a flexible person. I once knew someone who was calling me by the complete wrong name—not a mispronunciation of my actual name, but a completely wrong name. I was probably 18 or 19, and I was too embarrassed to correct her. It went on for a long time. Eventually she was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?” It was just embarrassment upon embarrassment. She was calling me “Kimberly!” (Laughs.) She had me confused with someone else I think, but I was just too embarrassed. I just felt like it was too awkward for me to say, “That’s not my name at all.”
Oh, no! Kimberly...that’s so bad. But back to Oprah: How does it feel knowing that she wanted you and your book?
It’s two things. It’s just a thrill, but it’s also a responsibility. With an endorsement—from Oprah or the people who blurb it—these people have let me borrow their good name for this project. I really hope that the book and the projects and events we do surrounding the book will make the people who have lent their good name will be glad that they did so.
With Oprah, it’s also a recommendation from a person of such integrity. There are endorsements in the world that you may not want. But Oprah Winfrey is a champion of readers, a champion of writers, just a champion of goodness and the idea of using literature to bring us all closer together. It’s what she does in all of her work: It makes us better. So I’m honored to be associated with her.
Tayari Jones, March 14 at 7 p.m. Brazos Bookstore, 2421 Bissonnet Street. More information at brazosbookstore.com.