Tayari Jones

NEA Literature Fellow
Tayari Jones head shot.

Photo courtesy of Algonquin Press

Tayari Jones Transcript

Music Credit: “New Life” composed and performed by Antonio Sanchez from the Cd, New Life.

Tayari Jones:  I like to think of writing a novel the way I would approach, say, a slice of chocolate cake.  Like, if someone gives you a beautiful piece of cake, you don’t say, “I’ll be so glad when I’m finished eating this cake.”  You want to eat the cake and that’s how I feel when I’m writing.  I want to write the book.

Jo Reed:  That is novelist, teacher, and NEA literature fellow Tayari Jones and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Over the course of her career, Tayari Jones has received many awards including a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 Although Tayari has written a number of short stories and articles, she is best known for her three novels--each distinctive and beautifully-crafted, each set in Atlanta and each award winners.  Tayari’s most recent novel is Silver Sparrow which tells the story of two half-sisters, the separate homes they are raised in and the father that they share. Library Journal, Slate and Salon all selected Silver Sparrow one of the best novels of 2011, O Magazine recently named it as an all-time favorite.

Tayari Jones joined me in the studio and we began our conversation with Silver Sparrow.

Tayari Jones:  Silver Sparrow is the story of the two families of James Witherspoon, a prominent Atlanta businessman.  He has one family that is known to everyone-- his wife, Laverne, and their daughter, Chaurisse-- but he also has a secret family, his second wife, Gwen, and her daughter, Dana, and the story is told from the points of view of the two daughters.  Dana, who lives in the shadows, narrates the first half of the book, and the second half of the book, the story is told by Chaurisse, the daughter who, up until now, believed that she lived an ordinary life.

Jo Reed:  What inspired this story?

Tayari Jones:  Well, I think I should start by telling you what did not inspire it.  My father is not a bigamist.  To the best of my knowledge he is married only to my mother for the last 47 years.  They just had an anniversary.  But I was really motivated by a question in my own life and family, that I have two older sisters who are about 10 to 12 years older than me, and they were not-- they're my father's children, they're not my mother's children-- and they were reared in Louisiana while I was brought up in Atlanta.  So I always-- all my life I felt that I had a sister that I couldn't quite reach, and all my life I wanted a sister; and I have realized that all my work involves someone with a sister just out there that they can't access, and that's how I first starting thinking about these questions of siblings and what does it mean to be a sibling to someone even if you don't know them, or don't know them very well.

Jo Reed:  By why bigamy?

Tayari Jones:  Why bigamy?  I think the bigamy came in in that when you write fiction-- like in fiction classes, we're always saying "raise the stakes"-- and so the question of what kind of a responsibility do people have to their different children.  The question is in more stark relief when the matter is bigamy, because when the matter is bigamy, everything is equal.  The girls are the same age, they live in the same town.  It's easier to kind of get the moral question going; and I believe that if you know what it is to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about being trapped in a spaceship.  So I believe that just the questions that I've had in my own life about family, and the questions that I've had in my own life about relationships, betrayal, truth, etcetera, that that kind of gave me what I needed to write about bigamy.

Jo Reed:  You mention Silver Sparrow has two narrators. Why did you structure the book this way?

 Tayari Jones:  Ultimately it’s my choice, but it wasn’t my plan, I would say.  I actually wanted to write it all from a single point of view, from Dana’s point of view-- the daughter who is a secret, who can never tell anyone her father’s name.  But I got about-- well, what ended up being halfway through, but the way I felt writing was I got to a certain point and I realized that since she can never know what happens to her father when he leaves her company, then she can’t know the whole story.  So from his second-- his, what you would call his primary family, I guess, I felt like I needed someone from that side of the wall to tell me what’s going on.  And so I felt like I interviewed everyone that lives over there until I got the right ambassador to share the second half of the story.

Jo Reed:  And that was his daughter Chaurisse? Was it hard for you to make that transition or at that point it was just a natural progression?

Tayari Jones:  Well, I felt like I was all tapped out with Dana.  Dana had told me everything she had to offer.  She’s like, “This is all I got,” and I said, “Well, okay,” and then I interviewed James’s other wife.  She was too close to the subject.  She couldn’t give me what I needed.  His best friend, he was so consumed with his own problems, and Chaurisse just really came through.  And so once I committed to her, it wasn’t hard to see her point of view.  And also, I identify so closely with both the girls because I feel that in my own mind, I am both a Dana and a Chaurisse in that-- I feel like Dana in that-- not that I am-- my father is a bigamist, but I’m a daughter in a family of sons so I know what it is to be loved yet have a slightly lower status and so I could write from her point of view.  And then, for Chaurisse, I actually have two sisters.  We have the same father but we have different mothers and they grew up apart from me.  And in their eyes, I’m the girl that had everything because I had our father.  I grew up with my dad.  I saw him every day of my life.  I speak to him every day even now.  So I was able to write from a point of privilege and say-- to talk about how it feels to be a person of privilege who doesn’t think of yourself as a person of privilege.

Jo Reed:  Well Dana and Chaurisse are an extreme example, but as you say they really illustrated a dilemma felt by many children who have the same father but very different experiences.

Tayari Jones:  Oh, absolutely and, if you think about this question of same father/different experiences, this question is actually the bedrock of Western literature.  If you even think back to the Greek myths, all the Greek myths are about Zeus having all these outside children who are his children but not fully Titans, right, like, Hercules, Perseus, all those guys.  But usually the story is about a young man who is his father’s son, yet not his father’s heir.  And even if you look back to the history of African-American literature, the slave narrative is, “I am the son of this plantation, yet not the heir of this plantation.”  And so when I wrote it with girls, with daughters, I had to change it because girls are not really the heirs anyway so what exactly are you making claim to?  And that was where-- you have to find the part of a story that’s the part that’s new, that you don’t know the answer to.  And that was my question.

Jo Reed:  I have a question about endings. I find in much of contemporary fiction the ending just falls flat, so I don’t even fault novels when the endings aren’t good, but Silver Sparrow on the other hand really does hold through until the very end.

Tayari Jones: Well I think because I took such a long time to write this book, I wrote several endings until I got an ending with which I was satisfied. I think that’s the key. I think many contemporary writers are on deadline and you don’t have time to continuously write and rewrite that ending and you end up with an ending that you can live with, not an ending that you feel really closes off your thought because to end a novel, it really takes a while for you yourself as the novelist to really understand it enough to end it. And you just need that cooling off period.

Jo Reed:  Tayari, please read a little bit from Silver Sparrow.

Tayari Jones:  I’ll read from the first chapter.  “Chapter One: The Secret.”  My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.  He was already married 10 years when he first clamped eyes on my mother.  In 1968 she was working at the gift wrap counter at Davidson’s downtown, when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary.  Mother said that she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade.  I said that maybe that means there was some kind of trust between them.  I love my mother but we tend to see things a little bit differently.  The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us.  James is what I call him.  His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him daddy even now.”

Jo Reed: What a beginning to a story.

Tayari Jones:  Well, thank you.

Jo Reed:  Why did you choose just to begin with a bang?

Tayari Jones:  I tried opening the story in a number of different ways ‘cause there’s always this feeling that you’re going to reveal too much.  Like, if I reveal in the beginning that he’s a bigamist then what else is there to talk about?  But I just decided-- I try to tell a story the way I would tell it if I was just telling it to a friend and, if I was telling a friend, I wouldn’t hold back on that big detail that the father is a bigamist.  So I just tried to go with what was organically, for me, the way a story would just be told.  Like, I think that once you start telling a story in a way that you’re aware that you’re writing it down you kind of lose some of your natural mojo.

Jo Reed:  How did you discover that?

Tayari Jones:  I actually discovered that, strangely enough, through teaching.  I’m on the faculty at Rutgers University, Newark Campus and we have an MFA program.  So I spend a lot of time coaching people through their first novels.  And, with my students, I could tell when they switch from natural story telling mode to writer mode and I would tell them, “Just stop thinking about what you’re writing and just-- how would you tell-- what would you lead with if you were just telling this to a friend?”  And so then I just started taking my own advice.  I mean teaching has been wonderful for my writing ‘cause it’s made me really self-conscious about process.

Jo Reed: What is your process?

Tayari Jones:  Well, I like to use manual typewriters actually.  I don’t necessarily recommend this to other people.  What I recommend to other people is that you figure out what works for you and manual typewriters I li-- I used to do handwriting but the typewriters are so much more legible than my handwriting.  Sometimes I would come back to my handwriting and say, “Now what was that?”  So the typewriters give me, like, the best of both worlds: the legibility of using a computer but the slowness of the typewriter.  And I also-- I just love making all that racket.  You feel like you’re getting something done, right.  All that clackety-clack and then, at the end of every line, that rewarding little bell.  I just love it.

Jo Reed:  Do you outline?

Tayari Jones:  No, I don’t do that.  I just follow the story to see where it takes me, which is probably why it takes me so long.  I mean, I work four or five years on every book and I know it’s because I don’t have an outline.  So I end up discarding hundreds of pages by the end, pages of ideas that didn’t work.  But, for me, I have to enjoy writing the novel.  I like to think of writing a novel the way I would approach, say, a slice of chocolate cake.  Like, if someone gives you a beautiful piece of cake, you don’t say, “I’ll be so glad when I’m finished eating this cake.”  You want to eat the cake and that’s how I feel when I’m writing.  I want to write the book.  I don’t necessarily want to find ways to write it more quickly, more efficiently.  I want to just immerse myself in the world and he adventure of it.

Jo Reed:  Do you think of about responsibility towards your characters?  And I ask you that because I’ve just been reading something by Toni Morrison who talked pretty specifically about the responsibility she feels towards her characters.

Tayari Jones:  Well, you have to do right by them.  I feel that very strongly.  I sometimes say to my students, “How would your character feel if she saw what you wrote about her?”-- just to be generous and fair.  And that is one of the things that I do because the characters, although they are not real, they live only in your imagination, they are like real people.  Real people will identify with those characters and you have to be responsible in how you handle them because your reader kind of gets-- disappears herself into that character too.  So you have to be responsible.  You have to be fair.  Everyone has a side and everyone has to have a legitimate point.  I feel that if your characters do not have a legitimate point you haven’t searched hard enough.

Jo Reed:  Tayari, let me ask you about what you said about abandoning hundreds of pages.  How do you know when to push through a storyline, for example, and when to abandon it?

Tayari Jones:  You know, it’s like a relationship.  You don’t always know when you need to abandon it until everyone else can tell you. Like, everyone else could totally see this relationship is not working for you and you’re like, “But no!  But no, I think-- you know you just don’t understand,” and then at some point you realize it.

Jo Reed:  Another year of therapy!

Tayari Jones:  Yeah, so it’s just like that with the book.  Like, I’m working on a novel now and I’ve got about 130 pages in the beginning that I’m having to face the fact that it’s not working.  I defended it for a long time ‘cause I worked so hard on those pages, but I now see that I need to approach the story in a different way.  But no one gives up their hundreds of pages lightly but you have to give them up.  And, whenever you’ve given some of them up before, you know that you can recover from it.  I think a lot of would-be novelists-- the inability to give up the hundred pages is what keeps them from ever really writing their first novel.  They keep endlessly revising something that’s not working because they can’t just give up 100 pages and write 100 new pages.  They keep tinkering.  I’ve known people to tinker for decades and they never move forward on their work.

Jo Reed:  How do you help students recognize that when something isn’t working its ok to abandon it? I mean it’s not like abandoning your child although I’m sure it feels that way

Tayari Jones:  You have to just keep telling them and some of them will be able to do it and some of them won’t.  But then, every now and then, someone will surprise you.  There’ll be some pages you think should be cut loose and they pull a rabbit out a hat and make it work.  Like, I think as a teacher, you also have to be aware that you could be wrong, but that unwillingness to let go, I’ve seen it hang up so many young writers.  Really, like, I know people 10 years after the fact still tinkering, still tinkering when they woulda been better off to be writing something fresh, new and just give-- I mean, I have a novel in a drawer.  So I gave up the whole doggone novel, my first novel.  I wrote it in my very early 20s.  I wrote it largely in the bathroom at my lunch hour at work and I would go into the bathroom with my laptop.  It was the first laptop ever invented.  It weighed like 13 pounds.  I was so proud of having such a small light compact machine and I would take the-- so the job where I was working did not have a computer for me to use.  So I would take this laptop and I would haul it into the-- they call it the ladies’ lounge-- and I would shut myself in it and write and I wrote this book.  I wrote a few pages a day.  I finished this novel.  I was so proud of it.  I felt like I had persevered.  I wrote it in a bathroom for goodness sake.  You know?  No one could question my dedication.  And basically it was a dog of a novel and it was never published and it should never be published.  But I-- so grateful that I was able to let it go and then go on to write what was my real first novel.

Jo Reed:  How was it letting go?  How did you get to that, “I’m letting this go,” stage?

Tayari Jones:  You know, I had a former teacher of mine, one of my undergraduate professors, read it and I knew that this woman liked me.  I knew she cared for me.  I was her favorite student and she had so much criticism for it.  She gave it to me very gently but I could see there was so much wrong.  And I didn’t think that she was a person with any ulterior motive or a person who didn’t want me to succeed.  She was just an expert and she could see how this first novel-- I mean, the first thing she said to me was, “I really respect what you’ve done here,” and then she told me all these other things and I just realized that this novel was a mess and I just-- I don’t know.  I just let it go but I think it’s because I trusted her.

Jo Reed:  When did you first know you wanted to write?

Tayari Jones:  When I learned to read.  I always loved-- I loved reading and I wanted to write.  I used to just write stories for my own amusement but I think it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that writing could be a life for me.  I think it’s because I was a girl.  I think that when girls like to read and write, people don’t think it necessarily means you have something to say.  I think that people think it means that you are nice.  Like, when you’re a teenager, the world is divided into two kinds of girls: nice girls and other kinds of girls.  And that is the only distinction that kind of matters.  So if you like to read and write, everyone’s like, “Oh, what a nice girl,” because, as I often say, nobody ever got pregnant in the library.  So you were just considered a person that your parents could be proud of, they didn’t have to worry about.  But no one ever asked, “What are you reading?  What do you think about it?  What are you writing?”  So it wasn’t until I got to college-- I went to Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta-- where someone asked me, a professor by the name of Pearl Cleage.  Pearl said to me, “What are you thinking?”  No one had ever asked me that and it changed the way I understood my own mind.

Jo Reed:  What do you consider your first success as a writer?  Is it your first published piece, your first finished piece?

Tayari Jones:  I mean, I think there’s so many different ways.  I mean, you could look at your first success as the first time you try.  My first published piece-- Pearl had a magazine.  She had an NEA grant for a magazine called “Catalyst” and she published my first story.  And she paid me $100 and I was shocked!  I had no idea that you could make money and $100 seemed like so much money.  I was like, “What should-- how should I spend it?  Should I invest it?  What should I do?”  But it was exciting to get that congratulations letter.  So I do kind of consider that when I became a professional but I think that my first success was when I signed up for my first creative writing class and tried.

Jo Reed:  You’ve received NEA fellowships.

Tayari Jones:  I have, yes.

Jo Reed:  And how-- what difference have they made for you?

Tayari Jones:  The NEA fellowship-- I was just talking to a friend about how anytime is a great time to receive an NEA fellowship.  For very young writers-- ‘cause some people receive them very early in their careers before they even have their first book and I know, for a lot of my peers who got them young, that NEA fellowship signaled that they had arrived, that they were a talent to watch.  I never got one as a very young writer.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t get my NEA fellowship until after I had published my third novel.  But at that point in my career, I was at the point where a fellowship from a national organization like the National Endowment for the Arts led to me being promoted on my job.  It allowed me to take the time off from teaching.  It raised my stature in an important way, as opposed to when-- if I had gotten it very young, it would’ve been more of a boost and a push.  But when you get them older, it’s more of a reward that can by parlayed into other opportunities in a different way.  But like I always say, it is always a good time to win an NEA.

Jo Reed: If you had to think about a literary godmother-- literary godmothers, we’ll make it plural-- who would they be?  Or godfathers for that matter.

Tayari Jones:  The thing about one’s literary godparents-- to become a writer, you need mentorship from so many different quarters.  For example, like, my literary god mother in my head is always Toni Morrison.  I mean, I think she is the finest writer of a generation and she’s also-- impresses with her trajectory.  She wrote her first book in her 40s.  She had two kids.  She was divorced.  She was working full-time as an editor.  Yet, she’s the finest writer of her generation.  So she is inspiring in that way but then there’re a lot of kind of, like, less famous writers who spend so much time hands-on with emerging writers, teaching them how to live.  For example, when I was working at George Washington University, the writer Maxine Clair took me under her wing and really demonstrated for me the writer’s life, that it’s not necessarily a famous person’s life but a life lived with integrity.  When I worked with Ron Carlson at Arizona State University, Ron was the first writer to talk to me about only the craft.  Don’t look to the left.  Don’t look to the right.  Look at that sentence.  Look at the way the story’s put together.  He taught me to privilege craft over everything else.  So there’re just so many lessons.  And then the writer Jewell Parker Rhodes taught me about the career side.  I was her assistant and she really let me behind the curtain and see how career things worked so that I could become a savvy player.  So I feel like I had influences from a lot of different quarters.

Jo Reed:  And back to your teaching just for one moment. Do you talk about the importance of reading to your students?

Tayari Jones:  Well, I teach graduate students so, if they don’t...

Jo Reed:  Oh, okay.

Tayari Jones:  ...already know that, then they won’t be in graduate school.  But we do a lot of reading.  I mean, all of us are nuts about reading.  I think the main thing that I have to work with with graduate students, particularly in this country, is about reading broadly.  I think that reading can become fashionable and that everyone can be reading the same five books ‘cause they’re fashionable ­­right now and I really push students to find unusual texts, eccentric texts, texts that may not be famous.  Like, don’t look at the lack of exposure attention that a book gets to decide whether or not you think you need to be reading it because we’re reading to find truth and beauty, not for fame.

Jo Reed:  If you had to talk about a couple of books that didn’t receive a great deal of fame, didn’t sell particularly well but you think are just beautifully crafted, put-together books, what would they be?

Tayari Jones:  Oh, don’t ask me that question because I feel like it always hurts the writer’s feelings to be spoken about.  I’ve had myself mentioned in those lists, like underrated books or underrated authors and they call my name.  I just wanna go home and cry.

Jo Reed:  Okay, then I won’t ask you that.  Okay, let me ask you this.  Who are you reading now?

Tayari Jones:  Okay, that’s a great question.  Right now, I just finished the most unusual novel called Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. That book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  It’s about sl-- it’s hard to say.  It’s about slavery but it’s set in 2004, about some people living in Texas who are, like, kidnapped and made to work on this farm.  And there’s a woman there who knows all about cooking and recipes.  So it’s ki-- and it’s kind of funny and it’s heartbreaking and just-- and I mean this in the best way: it is an utterly eccentric novel and I loved it. I also read a memoire by Jim Grimsley called “How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of a Racist Childhood.”  And it’s about Jim Grimsley growing up during the integration of schools-- and he was a White child and Black children came to his school-- and how that reckoning really changed his worldview.  And the extreme effort and pain it takes to grow, to outgrow what may be destructive lessons you learned as a child.  I felt that it was the most candid book about race and racism that I’ve read in a long time because I feel that he portrayed himself as a child racist.  A lot of times in books, they make the racist, like, some monster that the reader does not identify with so the racism seems to be over there and he wrote it, like, over here and it’s such an inspiring, triumphant story.

Jo Reed:  The ability of books to put you in another world and yet have a line that can still-- that still speaks to you.  I always find that extraordinary, that specificity, that universality.

Tayari Jones:  I always say you have to write really hard to make it read easy and I think that’s what happens, how you can slip into a world before you know it because the writer has just invited you in.

Jo Reed: Silver Sparrow is the third book you’ve set in Atlanta. Now I know you were born and raised there, but you’ve live in a lot of other places too. Why the return to Atlanta?

Tayari Jones:  Well I lived in Atlanta the longest. It’s the place that I really really know and everything that keeps me awake at night lives in Atlanta and further, Atlanta is a wonderful place to set a story because I believe that all the issues that the country struggles with, the urban south is where the rubber hits the road. Everything you see on the news is always happening in Atlanta.

Jo Reed: Tell me about the title, Silver Sparrow.

Tayari Jones:  “Silver” is a word that Chaurisse uses to describe girls she thinks are better than she is. As a teenage girl…Chaurisse, she has no idea that she’s living at the expense of Dana. She just thinks she’s living her life. She thinks she’s just a kind of chubby girl who doesn’t have a boyfriend really. And she’s just trying to fit in at high school like everybody else. And she meets Dana who is the most beautiful girl she’s ever seen and she thinks, “Oh, she’s a ‘silver’ girl” like that song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” when it says, “sail on silver girl all your dreams are on their way” and she thinks Dana is the embodiment of this idea and so that’s where the term “silver girl” comes from and “sparrow” is taken from the hymn, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” which suggests that God has His eyes on everything, even the smallest among us which is the sparrow. And that’s what Dana is, a “silver sparrow” and I didn’t come to this title easily. It was kind of an 11th hour title, but I love it so much because I receive emails from children who grew up this way, well they’re adults now, and they’ll say, “I’m a silver sparrow” and I realize that it’s the only positive sounding expression for children who lived under these circumstances, in the shadows. So rather than say, “I’m the product of an adulterous relationship”, which sounds so harsh and so unfirming someone can write me and say, “Dear Tayari, I’m a silver sparrow too.”

Jo Reed:  Do you want to tell me what you’re working on now or would you rather not?

Tayari Jones:  I feel like I can tell you what’s working on me, I feel, at this point.  I’m working on a novel about a woman who is a successful artist.  She’s a visual artist and things seem to be very going well in her life.  But she has a secret and her secret is that about 10 years ago she was a young-- she was a newlywed.  She was married just a year and a half and her husband was incarcerated, albeit wrongfully, but he was incarcerated and she was unable to kind of live that life of waiting and support and she went on with her life.  And this is, like, her dark secret and the novel opens when she receives the letter saying that he’s getting out. You know, we’re talking here about revision-- is that the 150 pages that I said I had to jettison.  I had originally conceived of this as a novel about a woman whose husband was wrongfully incarcerated and she didn’t wait on him.  And you see how it’s a different story when I frame it that way? And so when I was walking the reader through her not waiting on him, the reader was so appalled that you couldn’t hear my point which is how much waiting is reasonable to ask of a person.  And so now that I’ve changed my approach to it, I feel like there’s more room in the story to ask the questions that I need to find the answers to.

Jo Reed:  Tayari, thank you so much for coming in on a cold winter morning.

Tayari Jones: It’s always a pleasure to talk with you Jo.

Jo Reed:  That is 2012 NEA literature fellow Tayari Jones. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. 

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. 

Transcript will be available shortly.

Tayari Jones: an author who loves the process of writing.