A Conversation with Edward P Jones

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(photo credit: NYU Creative Writers)

A not small thing that has sustained me in these times is re-reading Edward P. Jones. When I get caught up in a terminally boring twitter debate about the need for Black Joy (tm) and what is a “suitable” Black love story, I only need to re-read “In the Blink of God’s Eye” to read one of the best meditations on love and care written. When I start to think about the tyranny of form and the narrative arc, I have the beautiful puzzled of “Spanish in the Morning”— a story that manages to be both about the immediacy of a first week of school and the swoon of recollection—to bedevil any arguments about the straightness of a narrative line.

“I think I’m going to try and ask him if he’d do an interview,” I told my friend Bill. “The dream,” he replied. Though when I actually sent out the request, it dawned on me how horribly intrusive I felt. Most writers guard their privacy. They are not like me, a frog willing to tell my name the livelong June to an admiring bog. So I felt sheepish and a bit shy when he agreed to this interview and that is reflected in the paucity of my questions. Luckily, he gave wonderful answers.

Please enjoy.

KG: I'm just going to dive straight into the first question, which is one of the things that I admire most about your work is your use of time. You often jump back and forth between time in a single paragraph or across the page. The movement of time and of life becomes expansive. It's an understanding of life that sort of fills out from the present moment. I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you think of time when you're writing and constructing stories and where this comes from.

Edward P. Jones: Well, I couldn't tell you about where that comes from. Things happen, you start writing, and the mind starts working. It's not as if you go into a room and pick out this and pick out that and use it. You have a story to tell, and you start telling in the best way possible. I think it's simply a matter of the fact that if you're trying to present the life of a character, you have a line that is the past present and the future. And anywhere along that line, you can pick out something in order to tell the reader what the character is about. So, you might well start on day one with the paragraph, but if within that paragraph you see it necessary to jump ahead, then yes.


You can do that as long as you don't confuse the reader. And I think probably one of the best examples of that is in this novel that I did where this woman is a girl, and I simply leap ahead, I think, 90 years when she's on her deathbed and is calling for the old doll that her father made for her. You can do that, yes, absolutely, as long as you're not confusing the reader, as long as you're telling the reader me what it is that you're doing and not being abstract. I don't like being abstract. I like plain, simple writing. That's the best. That's the best way of telling a story.

KG: One of the things that I know often comes up when talking about contemporary fiction, especially stuff published in the last five or 10 years, is that in American fiction at least there's been a loss of specificity of a place. And it seems like many writers set their work in sort of amorphous spaces, spaces that are sort of sketches of other places, but you of course are famously working within a very specific defined place. Places that people can find on a map. And so I'm wondering if you can talk about what elements you think define place in fiction and the uses of place in your fiction.

EPJ: I was born raised in Washington DC, and that's where I'd rather put characters unless there's a reason not to put in there. I mean, if there had been a good deal of slavery in Washington DC, then I would have put the novel there, but that wasn't the case. When we're dealing with fiction of the 20th century, characters from 20th century, I have Washington DC, and I see no reason why putting them in Chicago or San Diego. I know a good chunk of it…I know the streets. So when I think of characters, one of the first things I think I do is I situate that character on a street because I know just about what that street may have looked like, say, in the '50s and '60s. Even though the characters are fictional, out of my imagination, it helps a great deal if I can plug in an imaginary character and put that character on a real street. It helps to tell the story.

KG: Do your motivations for writing change over time?

EPJ: I'm not sure if I've ever really had any motivation. I mean, you get up one day. A particular character is there in your head, and then if it goes through the day, as you go through the week, you find more and more things more and more times. You're thinking about the character, what the character's going through, and before you know it, you have the essence of a story. And then you began to think, okay, how will I end all of this? How will all of this come to some sort of logical and real ending? And that's when I decided, well, maybe it's time to go with it. I don't see any reason to go with the story unless I have an ending…If you have a destination, if you have a conclusion, a climax of the story, then you're writing towards that, that destination. So, I don't have any sort of motivation for me. Motivation means that you have a kind of agenda that you want to get across, and I have no agenda.

KG: I'm wondering if you think of fiction in terms of shapes, in terms of like an arc or a circle or a spiral or these sorts of different visual metaphors that teachers of writing often used to talk about shapes of a story.

EPJ: Edward P Jones:
Nah. There's nothing lofty going on. Jack and Jill went up the hill for particular reason, and something more than their falling down the hill happened. Something happened up that hill beyond they're just slipping. That's it. You're not telling the history of the world. You're not telling the history of mankind, but these two kids going up to get some water. There was an ogre. There was something up there that caused them to come down a hill like that. The academics may well come along afterwards and pick the story apart and say Jill represents so-and-so, Jack represents so-and-so, and the ogre up on that hill represents all the evil in humanity. Well, when you're writing the story, you're not thinking about that. You're just trying to picture these two people, and then bucket as best you can. You're trying to paint them as best you can so that a reader will come along and say, "I see this. I believe this. Even though it's fiction, I believe it. I believe it's true." All the rest of it, you leave that up to the academics.

KG: Yes. You're reminding me of... Earlier today, I was reading my daughter this picture book. She's one, and she's just figured out that stories can scare her. She keeps going back to the scariest page in the picture book, the one that makes her cry, and she makes me read it to her over and over again, and then then she cries. It just reminds me, I think, of that chasing that feeling of what's real, of trying to get to something real. And the fear is very real to her right now, and it's a little bit of a novelty to her.

EPJ: There is probably some sort of seed, what you grow up to be. You may well be a writer. You may will be a doctor, but there's probably some sort of seed being planted there. Maybe on her part down the line that the more she's being told about this, the less afraid she will be. I can remember as a kid I always had these nightmares within a place. We lived on the third floor, and the basement was... It was all right because we just had a room in this large house, but in my dream the basement was an awful place to be. And what happened in one dream, I just decided that, okay, rather than avoiding it in this dream, rather than avoiding the basement, I would simply go down. And I went down into the basement in the dream, and in the end there was nothing there. And I never had the dream. I never had that nightmare after that.


So sometimes it's a matter of just being able to face all of it. Maybe on your daughter's part, it's more she's being told about this, the less afraid she will be. So, the one day, she'll have to go on to something else.

KG: I read in some of your interviews that you have been a really big fan of court shows, like Judge Mathis and stuff like that, and I'm wondering if that is still the case.

EPJ: I don't watch them anymore because I don't get cable. And before 2009, you could just hook up your TV, get regular free channels, and then the HD thing came in. I could never get the HD TV thing to work. So I haven't really had a TV since, so I haven't watched those shows…The stuff you get on AmazonPrime is horrible.
Now and again, something dramatic will occur on Netflix that's of interest, but generally it's a dry land.

KG: Yeah. I remember around 2009 or 2010, when I was in my MFA program, the thing that people like to say to be very contrary was, well, novels will just all become TV shows now because you can do the expansion that you can do in a novel in a TV show.

EPJ: Yeah. Well, on the page, if you have a character sitting at a table, and she's remembering the way your grandmother looked when she was in the kitchen cooking a meal, and then also on the same page, second and later, she can remember the smell of her father's cologne. That's sort take up a lot of space in a movie or TV show, but it won't be on a page, in a novel. So yeah, for some reason people are, as they say, continuing to try to invent the wheel. And it's already been invented, and it does pretty well. But the idiots go out there and say, "Let me reinvent the wheel and make it square." And the of course they never get anywhere because what's a square wheel.

KG: You said a little bit earlier about humanity, your view on humanity as sort of it's getting worse or it's not great.

EPJ: No. My view has always been bad. I mean, I had so many friends when Trump was elected, so many friends that just went into a great depression because this idiot was elected. I didn't go into any sort of depression because for black people, it's par for the course. There's nothing new. The world, it was awful before Trump, and it's awful during Trump, but it may will be awful after Trump.


The thing is with the election of Trump, so many white people all of a sudden woke up. But hell, it was evening for black people. We knew it. This kind of situation all day long, but for them it was morning in America…If the guy is reelected, then heck. They might be jumping out of windows. But I won't. I just make another peanut butter jelly sandwich and get on with the rest of my life.

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