Edward Jones grew up in Washington, D.C., raised by his single mother (both his books have been dedicated to her), attended Holy Cross College on scholarship, the first person in his family to pursue a higher education, and the University of Virginia where he earned an MFA in writing. In 1991 his first book, Lost in the City, a story collection, was nominated for a National Book Award. In August of 2003, his second book and first novel, The Known World, was published. It was also nominated for a National Book Award. Edward Jones lives in Washington, D.C., is currently finishing up a story collection and probably—in his own way—working on a novel.
The Known World tells the remarkable and little-known story of free black people who owned slaves—in this case Henry Townsend, whose freedom was purchased by his parents, Augustus and Mildred, from their former master, William Robbins, the most powerful man in anti-bellum Virginia’s Manchester County. Robbins, who is fond of Henry, mentors him and sells him a parcel of land—and his first slave, Moses. Henry dies prematurely, in his mid ’30s, and his widow, Caldonia, is unable to handle the plantation and begins to depend on Moses, who with disastrous results conspires to send the Townsend slaves to freedom. Additionally, there is light-skinned Fern Elston, who could pass for white but doesn’t want to, John Skiffington, the local sheriff who is no friend to slavery, his Northern wife, his ambitious cousin Counsel, and an array of free and enslaved blacks, Indians, poor ignorant whites that complete the picture of a complex and fracturing social system.
In his November 13, 2003 Boston Globe profile of Jones, Dave Mehegan proclaims, "Once every few years, you come across an artist whose depth of talent you’d never guess from meeting him, whose own explanation of his work can’t wholly account for it. Edward P. Jones is one of those artists… ‘If there’s such a thing as a born writer,’ says Maria Guarnaschelli, editor of Jones’s story collection, ‘he is one.’ There are a lot of wonderful writers, but when you read his prose, you hear music.’" When you read the conversation below, and hopefully Edward Jones’s powerful novel, I think you will agree.
Robert Birnbaum: I am not going to ask you to read the passage that I asked about last night at the [Newtonville Books] reading:
When Augustus Townsend died in Georgia near the Florida line, he rose above the barn where he had died, up above the trees and the crumbling smokehouse and the little family house nearby and he walked away quick like toward Virginia. He discovered that when people were above it all they walked faster, as much as a hundred times faster than when they were confined to the earth and so he reached Virginia in little or no time. He came to the house he had built for his family, for Mildred his wife and Henry his son, and he opened and went through the door. He thought she might be at the kitchen table, unable to sleep and drinking something to ease her mind. But he did not find his wife there. Augustus went upstairs and found Mildred sleeping in their bed. He looked at her for a long time. Certainly as long as it would have taken him, walking up above it all, to walk to Canada and beyond. Then he went to bed, leaned over and kissed her left breast.
The kiss went through the breast, through the skin and bone and came to the cage that protected the heart. Now the kiss, like so many kisses, had all manner of keys, but it, like so many kisses was forgetful, and it could not find the right key to the cage. So in the end, frustrated, desperate, the kiss squeezed through the bars and kissed Mildred’s heart. She woke immediately and knew her husband was gone forever. All breath went and she was seized with such a pain that she had to come to her feet. But the rooms and the house were not big enough to contain her pain and she stumbled out of the room, out and down the stairs, out through the door that Augustus as usual had left open. The dog watched her from the hearth. Only in the yard could she breathe again. And the breath brought tears. She fell to her knees, out in the open yard, in her nightclothes, something Augustus would not have approved of. Augustus died on Wednesday.
I was prepared [last night] to argue the point that it is self-contained. That’s a wonderful passage. [EJ demurred when I requested him to read it, saying that the audience might not follow it.] One need not have read the book to get a lot out of it.
Edward Jones: But it’s a kind of surprise, what happens to him—certainly, the final thing. Also, there are people who hadn’t read the book.
RB: Okay, well, right. Within the context of the reading at Newtonville Books last night I guess you are right.
EJ: If it was a group of people who had read the book, there wouldn’t be any problem.
RB: You are saying that its greatest value is in the context of the book. I’m suggesting that’s, of course, true, but it is such a wonderful piece of writing—I would include it in any commonplace book of choice morsels of writing and fragments and quotes that I created.
EJ: It is in a way. Also, how he [Augustus] got there is a long story before that. And then of course there is the story about the couple whose farm he is on. Also, there would be not just the part where he is killed. But whereas the Jebediah Dickinson thing is just all about him, the beginning, the middle and the end. Of course, I did that to primarily illustrate things about Kern. It just happens it’s one piece on its own.
RB: I was fascinated by your comments about how you came to write The Known World. Maybe you can talk a little about how you did come to write the book and some of your feelings about it.
EJ: I started working on and thinking about it after the time that I was finishing up Lost in the City. Certain images started coming to mind and then I began working on it and I never got around to doing much writing except for 12 pages, since ’91, ’92 when I started on it. I just kept putting all of it off. But I was writing it all out in my head, for the most part, in a very general way—here and there bits of dialogue. I knew exactly what the dialogue was, but it was sort of a general outline—not outline because I had it all mapped out. One of the things I forgot to say is there are a number of reasons I never got around to reading all those books.
RB: Those 40 books?
EJ: Yeah. Part of the reason is that I just didn’t want to fill my head with all that stuff. And also several things started happening after Lost in the City came out. I worked with Arena Stage in Washington. There was a group from California that went all around the country, and they created plays that were sort of centered in that community. What I worked on—worked on with three or four others—was Christmas Carol, and we called it Community Carol, and I had places in Washington as the settings. That took up some time. So I kept putting off the research. Around 2001 I finally got around to it after five weeks of vacation. I decided to start with the writing. I just gave up the idea of ever doing the research and all. I just sat down and started plugging away.
RB: EL Doctorow opines that you do the least amount of research that you can get away with. Ironically, you say one critic accused you of overburdening your story with details.
EJ: I don’t know. There are points in there—I mention the U.S. Census. I think what they are talking about is, I had—this is a real county. I just gave it a different name. Well, in fact, in addition to my intention of doing the research, I was going down to Lynchburg (VA) to visit a friend of mine and use his county as a setting for the novel. I was going to call whatever his county is Lynchburg County or something. But I never got around to visiting him. So I had to create my own place. In doing that I was sort of freed [up], because had I used his county I would have had to know every single thing there is to know about that place in case someone came along and said, "Well, you got this fact wrong." But if I created my own Manchester County I can say the U.S. Census in 1840 said this many people, and this many people. I can say these three people in the 20th century wrote these history books about this county. And they said this, that and the other. It’s all out of my imagination. I was freed because of that.
RB: Liberation by fiction?
EJ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
RB: I think it quite wonderful that you talk about writing this in your head for whatever amount of years—eight or nine years and then finally setting it down on paper—you have said that you wrote Augustus as one section and then you broke it up.
EJ: All that section from the moment that he is sold. There were a lot more humorous moments in it, and I don’t know, maybe that was my reaction to what was going to happen to him. My editor, when she looked at it, thought there was too much of that. So I toned a lot of it down. There was a lot of stuff coming from [the character] Stennis.
RB: The slave with the Tennessean?
EJ: Yeah, Darcy is the guy from Tennessee. I didn’t pick a lot of names deliberately but I am not a fan of Jane Austen so Darcy is in there.
EJ: And I am certainly not a fan of all those senators from the South.
RB: Right, like Stennis of Mississippi.
EJ: Yeah that was deliberate. So I created the whole thing, and then I had to chop it up because I knew that a lot of it would go in the end of certain chapters. I was aware of that, around the time of the section with the Frenchman and the thing with the jail and Moses and all of that.
RB: The French Canadian? Oh no, he was French.
EJ: You are thinking about the pamphleteer. And that’s another thing, all that stuff about the Canadian pamphleteer—all that stuff about, in the 1990′s there were five of these pamphlets on black slave owners left and two were in the Library of Congress. Well, it sounds like I went to the Library of Congress and saw them. And two were sold as part of a collection for 1.7 million dollars. But I was aware after that chapter there wasn’t a lot of drama there. One reason this whole thing with Augustus evolved in my creative mind was because I wanted more drama there. The thing with Caledonia and Moses is mild in a certain sense.
RB: It’s erotically charged. That’s mild?
EJ: Yeah, but I don’t read many books for eroticism anymore.
RB: [both laugh]
EJ: So I was aware there would be readers like me that would not get a lot out of that. Originally in those 12 pages I am talking about, six pages were the first chapter and six were the final [chapter]. In those six pages, as Skippington gets up with the toothache and everything thinking he knows where Moses is and the deputy—and that time wasn’t related to him and didn’t even have a name. So in going over this in those years I knew that I would come up with a chapter that would reintroduce Council Skippington. And that would add a little more as well. And from there things would start moving and moving toward that final chapter.
RB: What is your general grasp of American history?
EJ: I have a very vague sense. I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I do remember several years ago, PBS had this show on the West. I don’t remember a whole a lot about it but maybe that had a part in it as well. I didn’t really go into a lot of detail where he was going because that would have meant reading all those books. I just wanted him to go into this surreal world. It was real for him. It happened and it was a sort of a descent that began with the death of all those people on his plantation and the final thing, of course, is when he shoots his horse. I made certain that there was a lot of wildness down there. As long as I am telling this is such and such—and as long as I don’t say anything to contradict that—all those people that come riding out of the forest that Council sees—as long as it’s plausible. And if I thought it was plausible, then I could say it. The same with that weird family and that boy and everything. I looked at it and asked, "Are you going to explain how he gets to Manchester County?" I didn’t need to. All I show is that he is in a bad state once he does get there.
RB: I have a gnawing feeling that there is something extraordinary that a book like yours would be published in this day and age. But then again, book publishing has always managed to surprise—
EJ: Yeah, yeah—
RB: Anyway, this minor but in another time this book would have been published with end papers that included maps, even if this was fictitious locale—
EJ: Maps as well as putting down the names of all the characters.
RB: That might be a dumbing down gesture. The characters are so strong and present, I don’t think as one is reading the book one forgets them.
EJ: People are coming along now—the guy in Publishers Weekly, he was very nice and everything, but he said the first hundred pages are daunting. I think a lot of the stuff that I am hearing now, had I heard it as I was cracking this thing maybe it would have had an effect on me. I hope that it wouldn’t have. I hate to think I would l have gone and taken somebody out just because people would have found it daunting. They all say it’s a bit hard going in the first hundred pages but then after that it smoothes itself out.
RB: I started rereading [Cormac McCarthy's] Blood Meridian this morning. That book begins with a bang.
EJ: I have McCarthy’s work, but like so many books that I collected along the way when I was thinking about this, I said, "Well, I don’t want anybody else’s work to influence me in any way."
RB: That must be tough. There are books you want to read just to read but then you can’t gauge what effect or resonance they’ll have.
EJ: Yeah, I know. Another thing I was concerned that somebody might come out with a novel about black slave owners. And then I would have to—
RB: What are the odds?
EJ: And I could say, "I’ve been working on mine for a long time." But what proof do you have? It was all in my head.
RB: Do you enjoy writing?
EJ: No. I think in terms of [pause] the gratification part of it, I would rather I that had been able to carve wood. Maybe that’s why a lot of people carve wood. If I am carving, for example, a horse. I can see right off where the problems are. But if you are dealing with a 400 page book, you think you know what writing is, that doesn’t always help you when you are going over all those pages. But you can look at the horse and say, "This leg is a bit too long. The head doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the body." So yeah, there are certain things to be said for something like that. Maybe even painting.
RB: You didn’t grow up aspiring to be a writer.
EJ: No, no. That sort of came. In a certain sense, it’s still coming.
EJ: I remember when I was in high school they had these summer jobs and they would take you around to various places in D.C. where you might end up working—we went to the Government Printing Office. And this guy had his nice little cubbyhole—he didn’t have a window. And I looked at it and said, "Well, I could handle that. I could be happy in that place." You sort of aspire to having a job. Because when you grow up worrying about paying the rent and everything, having a job is important. Being a writer is sort of way out there. It’s over there someplace. So I came to it late and even now, I mean, you write one day—you take a week and you write a good story perhaps. And then you get up the next Monday, and all the effort and knowledge that went into writing that first story—you can’t transfer it over to the second story. You are always starting at the bottom again. So it’s—a nasty job. It’s a nasty job.
RB: Lost in the City was nominated for a National Book Award.
EJ: Yeah, the same year as All the Pretty Horses won.
RB: I’ve read all the books except the Shirley Hazzard book [Great Fire, Hazzard's book, did win]. I’d be surprised if your book didn’t win.
EJ: Well, you know there is always something going on.
RB: Right, of course, it is still a contest. Having said that, what would it mean to you to win?
EJ: Well, I don’t know—
RB: Because you haven’t won.
EJ: [both laugh] That’s exactly it. So I couldn’t say. Shoot, I couldn’t begin to imagine. Which is why I don’t think I will.
RB: You don’t think you will because you can’t imagine it.
EJ: I can imagine a book, sort of.
RB: What does it mean that you were nominated? Again?
EJ: That means a lot. A few months ago I was in a Barnes and Noble in downtown D.C. and there were all these books—just all these books, nice brand new shiny books and somewhere along the line two or three people and maybe even the readers that they have at the lower level, read this and decide that—
RB: I don’t think it works that way. I think the judges are supposed to read them all for the National Book Awards. Last year’s there was a big to-do because Michael Kinsley, who was a judge, made public that he didn’t read all the books.
EJ: It does mean a lot. Lost in the City only sold about five or six thousand copies.
RB: You managed to get references to Lost in the City and even the title The Known World makes its way into the book, in the discussion of the map that is on the wall at the jail.
EJ: That’s so people will know where it came from. I don’t know how many books are in me, but what I am going to do in the final story of the collection I have to turn in—somewhere someone will say "the known world." That book will be called All Aunt Hager’s Children. And if I get around to doing a fourth book then in the final chapters of that someone or something will come up and say " All Aunt Hager’s Children." I am a fan of Hitchcock movies. He just shows up and walks through for a few seconds. Ten or so years ago there was an essay in the New York Times Book Review by Phillip Roth, and he said he was going to school someplace, and he was in a cafeteria, and he came across a piece of paper, and he said he has taken the first word that was on that paper, and he used it as the first word for his novel. And the second word was used in the second novel. You never saw that? It was fascinating, if it was true.
RB: Can you say more about the story collection you are working on?
EJ: When I wrote The Known World I had also over the years been thinking of stories. And what I have done is—for example in the first story in Lost in The City is "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons" and there is the barber who gave her the pigeons. Well, I came up with a story that takes place when he was an infant and the woman who found him, he is wrapped in blankets and hanging from a tree on a street in Washington. This story is about her and her new husband and the infant plays a part, but a very small part. I was never going to get around to writing stories again. But the strange thing is after that Oklahoma City bombing, it was a week or so after that, and I was hearing this song "I Will Survive."
RB: The Gloria Gaynor disco hit?
EJ: I had never heard the words really clearly before. And all of sudden I started thinking about the woman who is in the title story of Lost in The City. This woman who goes with her friend and the daughter to Israel. And I started seeing this woman and all of a sudden I started creating a story around this woman. So I began thinking about the other stories. I started creating stories around them. One of the stories in Lost in the City is "A New Man"—a girl runs away from home. She is in high school and she just disappears. Well, as I thought about a story and I came up with something called "A Rich Man" which was in the New Yorker. So that’s what I am working on and I have to turn those in in February. My editor wants them so they will be ready to with the paperback edition of The Known World. We’ll see.
RB: In your nascent authorship [both chuckle] how involved are you in the business parts of being a writer? How much do you pay attention?
EJ: I see those [trade magazines] because they sent them to me. You look at them and it’s like picking up that Bride’s magazine.
RB: [both laugh]
EJ: Who reads this stuff? I don’t ask how the book is doing. When I sent my stories to my agent the first time around the only magazine that was interested was The Paris Review. So I thought it would be the same sort of thing, this time around. I was really surprised when he told me about The New Yorker and then another one ["All Aunt Hagar's Children"] will be in there in December [The Winter Fiction Issue]. I just live my life. I have writer friends but I don’t really chum around with people. I am sort of a loner.
RB: Does that go with the territory of being a writer?
EJ: No, I think it’s probably me. I hear about people who pal around in D.C. and talk on the phone and have parties every weekend. That’s just not me.
RB: Are you a long-term D.C. person? Can you imagine living some where else?
EJ: I wouldn’t want to. I have been living in this place in Arlington, Virginia, for twenty years. But the last four years I have been very unhappy because they put various people above me who don’t put carpeting down. And I hear them walking around. I have been in a really, really bad situation. There was depression involved. Because it’s an invasion. My hope is that I can find a place in Washington around Dupont Circle because I lived there before I went to I graduate school.
RB: Why do you want to live in the city, a city at all?
EJ: I was born and raised in Washington and I sort of—I don’t know—it’s home. It’s home. I got an offer from Georgetown to teach, but it was one course. And it was less for one course than what Princeton paid me and this was several years ago. I didn’t say that to the guy. I just said I was busy. I have trouble—talking—
EJ: Exactly. Probably I’ll get around to saying that. But it would have been nice to teach there if they gave me the money. I don’t have a car and if I found something in Dupont Circle, it’s a bus ride right down to Georgetown.
RB: Is teaching something that you would like to do more of?
EJ: Yeah, I like teaching. There is something called The Writer’s Center just outside of Washington. They have classes for people who work during the day—these are mostly adults. And it’s better with them then these undergraduates.
EJ: Or graduate students—"I have a great deal here. All you have to do is recognize it and tell me how wonderful I am." It’s better with people who have been out in the world for a while. I did like teaching and it sharpens you in a way, reading other people’s work.
RB: Read anything lately that you are excited about?
EJ: I’ve been reading copies of Best American Short Stories. It’s easy to get around in. Some of the stuff is okay. There was one about this kid in New Orleans and he comes upon this doll and it was really unlike anything I had read in a long time. I was touched by that. But so much of it is just—there is no feeling in it.
RB: To what do you attribute that?
EJ: The writing?
RB: Not having any feeling in it.
EJ: I don’t know. I don’t know.
RB: You went to the University of Virginia and received an MFA.
EJ: I was there from ’79 to ’81. I met John Casey in ’77 and he
asked me about coming down there, then when I heard [James Allen]
McPherson [Pulitzer Prize winning author and MacArthur Fellow who
is currently on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop]
was there I got excited, so I applied there. And that’s where I started teaching.
RB: It seems you didn’t continue in the prototypical writerly life.
EJ: They say that the schools are teaching people to do a certain way and maybe those three guys [Casey, McPherson and Peter Taylor] didn’t shove me in that direction.
EJ: I think too, that I was 29 years old and so I was going in a direction that I was going to go in anyway.
RB: Why did you do it [go to graduate school]? Because of McPherson?
EJ: Yeah also I was in this job working for Science magazine, and they get all these articles, and they can’t publish them cold, and they have to get what they call referees—people to look over them and say, "Yes, do it or don’t do it." And that’s all I did—I had been doing for three years. So it was [a] job. I took a big leap because going down there [Virginia] God knows. I thought, "I don’t know what will come of this.” Maybe I would get started on more writing and something would come of it. That’s why I did it.
RB: How much do you look towards your future?
EJ: I don’t know. A bit. I’d like to maybe think about getting married somewhere down the line. But I don’t know if that will happen. Because I have been alone for so long. There are times sitting there and I am watching my TV at night and I say, "Well this is not too bad. And do I want to start sharing this?" But there are other days when, especially if you are sick or something—it’s just uh—
RB: Having been twice married I imagine there is something I can say about this but the grandest thing is that I have a son [named Cuba].
EJ: See, I would have liked to be a father. Maybe—who knows maybe there is a chance—
RB: I became a father at 50.
EJ: Oh okay, well I’m 53.
RB: In terms of a body of work—you seem to joke around about whether you’ll get this or that done, but do you—
EJ: The story I am doing for the New Yorker is about the early 1950′s and this guy comes back from the Korean War and it’s sort of a detective story—there are a lot of things that are in it, actually. I have been thinking a lot about this guy, whether I can also do something and possibly write a novel about this guy. The problem I have is that I say certain things about him—he comes to certain conclusions in the story and I can’t have him go back over the same territory again. I may end up talking to my editor and also to my agent Eric Simonoff but many years ago, in the ‘70’s I started thinking about three young people and their mothers—a novel possibly. And I did a little work on that. God knows what it looks like now.
RB: It sounds like you have a mental cigar box that you throw ideas in—
RB: You don’t put them down on paper?
EJ: For Lost in the City I did make a lot of notes—those little cards that come out of magazines—I had a ton of those when I started.
EJ: But I didn’t do that for The Known World—a lot of things I didn’t do—In Lost in the City, I wrote stories and a lot of people didn’t have names because I didn’t want to stop to make up names. I’m not very good at making up names. When I was doing The Known World I said, "Well I don’t want the problem of going through the D.C. phone book again." That’s what I did, I went through the phone book and got things out of there. First names here and last names from over there. That’s why in The Known World a lot of names are sort of dull like Fern [laughs]. I didn’t give a lot of thought to it. If I have time and everything there are certain projects that I might want to investigate. And I would just sort of take time to look at all angles of it and see whether or not there is a novel.
RB: So do you feel pressured?
EJ: No—a little bit now. Because more and more people are buying the novel, there wasn’t any of that with the stories. Nobody bought the book and so I just disappeared. And so I could take my time in thinking of The Known World. So far nobody has said anything and for the collection of stories. I haven’t received any money. So there isn’t that problem.
RB: [laughs] You may have the problem of actually making some money from your work.
EJ: Yeah, the job I had for 19 years went—I was in the middle of writing the novel, I had five weeks of vacation. So I don’t have a job and that’s a bit scary. Because I had been homeless once—in the ’70s and so it just doesn’t—
RB: It’s not a bright spot in your life.
EJ: No. There’s people who will say its wonderful and everything. They can say it because they have parents who have mansions and stuff. They have money. But it’s just me, myself and I.
RB: Well, I hope it’s not too long before we talk again.
EJ: Don’t forget the stories are coming out.
RB: Right. Good. And you will no doubt be going around talking about them. Thanks very much.
EJ: All right.
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing