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A prizewinner's own story
The Irish Times
June 18, 2005
Copyright 2005 The Irish Times
Weekend; Arts; Pg. 6
Meeting Edward P Jones in Dublin, it's soon clear that he is as unusual as his remarkable novel, The Known World , which this week won the Impac literary prize, writes Eileen Battersby.
Edward Paul Jones spent a long time thinking about The Known World. "I worked on it in my head, I kept waiting to do all this research, to read a lot of history," he says. "But I never did read those books. There was no research. I never wrote any notes. I made it all up. After years of working on my novel, I only had six pages of it written down. Everything else was in my head."
When he finally did begin writing it, the magic flowed freely because his imagination had been busy. Even when waiting for a bus, he thought about the book. Characters appeared, and with them their histories, stories followed stories, and a world was created. There are stories involving the central characters, and other tiny stories.
"I'm as interested in the tiny ones as I am in the main ones," Jones says. "I don't know, I collect US stamps and these tiny Japanese figures that look like they've been zapped by a ray gun, but they still have all this detail."
The Known World is intricate, reverberating but never contrived. Therein lies its genius.
It is Bloomsday in Dublin. The pianist in the hotel has begun playing, so it makes sense to move to a quieter place, where Jones begins telling another story. His own.
"I never had a passport until last December," he says.
His belated request for one was treated, not surprisingly, with some suspicion. Officialdom couldn't figure out how a man of 54, and a writer, living in the US had not needed one until then.
"Well, I'd just never gone anywhere, except Canada, where you don't need a passport coming in from the States," he says. "My mother had needed my birth certificate for starting school when I was five years old, and that's when it was dated. So, well, it was a long time ago, 1955. They gave me a temporary passport; it only lasts a year."
About 30 seconds into a conversation with Mr. Jones - "Edward, my mother called me Edward, not Mr. Jones" - it's clear he is as unusual as is his wonderful novel which this week added the 10th International Impac Dublin Literary Award to the Pulitzer Prize it won last year.
He says his hair is greying and "most of it is gone", but the day after the prize ceremony, dressed in a dark green sports shirt, and still absorbing the events of the previous hours, he has a plump boy's face, big white teeth and a rich, melodic voice. He has never married and has no children, "though I'd like some". His expression is open, still that bit surprised about what life tends to deal out - "all the bad things, one more reason not to believe in God" - and he seems young, as if he has never quite let go of his tough early life. "I don't want to forget it, it's important to remember all of it," he says.
He neither dramatises nor sentimentalises, but favours the truth. "I see fiction as reporting, as telling the truth."
HE GOT TO college because he won a scholarship. "Mom could never have afforded to send me," he says. Everything is described in a calm, factual way. Not as openly politicised as Russell Banks or Tobias Wolff, Jones, who appears to have neither a personal nor a literary agenda, admits to being an angry person, "but not as angry as I was". He is, though, very angry about the current state of the US, with which he has a love/hate relationship - "We've become a people who've taken to forgiving this guy for all the lies he's told us. I'm flabbergasted at it all . . . this passivity. I see it all the time on the TV, people phoning in to talk shows and saying they forgive him" - but Jones seems impressively neutral about a Catholic childhood spent on the move, from one rented set of rooms to the next.
"We had moved 18 times before I was 18," he says. "Mom couldn't afford a nice house. She was a cleaning lady, she couldn't read or write, but she wanted us to have a nice place and she kept trying to find it for us."
His mother, Jeanette Jones, remains most important. "She died 30 years ago, January 1st 1975. It hit me real bad. She was 57 or 58, and had had a very hard life. There were three of us, my sister and brother, who is very badly retarded. When I was about three years old, this letter arrived and I couldn't read it, and she couldn't either. So she had to ask this man in the building to read it and she started to cry."
The letter concerned his brother. The authorities took him away.
"He was institutionalised, and still is," Jones says. "We visit him, my sister and my niece, and I."
He remembers his father, "but only in the way you remember somebody you once met somewhere. He was from Jamaica. He left us, and it's the strangest thing, one time when we had moved, again, we were living in the new place a few weeks and it turned out that he was living just across the street."
His father used to sit at the window. "He was sickly. He died from lung cancer, Mom did too, she was a smoker all her life. They died within a few months of each other, Mom in January, he in March. I didn't even know he had died. We went to visit him and the woman he had lived with told us he was dead."
Jones says he was not upset. "I'm glad I wasn't close to him. I wouldn't have been able to deal with the two deaths so close."
After his mother died, he went to Philadelphia to stay with the parents of a college room-mate. "I stayed for six months; I was grieving."
Unlike many authors, Jones does not speak about himself as a writer. There is no pomposity, no arrogance, no streetwise assurance. You have a conversation, not an interview. He answers questions, but he also picks up the narrative. He doesn't make an interviewer feel as if he is going through the motions. Although his two books to date have achieved such critical success, he seems to see himself as a person who has written some stories. He has suffered from depression and is conscious of the isolation of years spent working from home. He speaks of a life shaped by a youth spent watching his mother's struggle.
Reading, for him, was dominated by comic books, "and then I slowly began reading books. My first real book was an English thriller". At Holy Cross College, where he took a BA in 1972, he read Joyce's Dubliners.
"I liked the way he had all these characters living in the same city," Jones says. "I thought, what if I could write about Washington the way Joyce wrote about Dublin."
Lost in the City (1991) became that book. Although he was born and raised in Washington DC, Jones says most of the people he knew were Southerners who had moved to Washington. His mother came from Virginia. Jones doesn't feel Southern, but it is a culture he knows, having attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, where he completed an MFA in creative writing in 1981.
HOW ABOUT THE business of being a writer? Is it his vocation? "No, I don't think I'd ever see myself as someone sitting down to write every day," he says. "You kind of wait until you have something to say. Until late 2003, I had a day job. I was content. I watch a lot of TV, I love my TV, I couldn't live without it."
He says he would love to be able to buy his mother a big colour television with "a VCR and tapes of all those shows she enjoyed, like The Beverly Hillbillies and Bonanza".
Aware that critics and readers have noted the strength and resourcefulness of the female characters in The Known World, he says: "I kind of like the idea of giving people who never had a chance in real life a better deal in a story. I suppose I think of women I knew, like my mother, or a girl I knew at school who is the character in the first story of Lost in the City, and try to make things more fair."
The Lost in the City stories, all but two told in the third person, chronicle the contemporary urban experience Jones knows. In his next book, he is creating the histories of many of the characters from those early stories.
Both Lost in the City and The Known World were also shortlisted for the National Book Awarding the US. On the first occasion, "I went to New York for the ceremony. It is a big deal, like the Oscars", Jones says, smiling at the memory. "Cormac McCarthy won for All The Pretty Horses. He didn't come. Robert Stone did - he had been shortlisted for Outerbridge Reach. He was the only one who didn't wear a suit."
BUT THE BIG event did not set Jones on his way to a high-profile literary career. Instead he returned to Arlington, Virginia, where he had worked since 1983 on a tax magazine, Tax Analyst. Three years later, he began working from home.
"I did proofreading and summarised newspaper and magazine articles about tax issues," he says. The stories in Lost in the City, which won the PEN/ Hemingway Award- "it's not as big a deal as the PEN/Faulkner" - were written during his first years working on the magazine.
Since the publication in August 2003 of The Known World, his own world has changed. It has also got bigger.
"I've done some travelling in the US," he says. "I went to LA. Last year I moved from Arlington, where I'd lived for 21 years."
Noise, not fame, caused him to move back to Washington. A succession of noisy neighbours banging around overhead for four and a half years generated intolerable stress, which unsettled him.
"I complained a lot, all the time," he says. "No one did anything, no one bought any carpet." In April 2004, he returned to the building one day, collected his mail and "complained about the noise" - but his neighbours looked at him a bit differently.
His photograph was on the cover of the New York Times and his name was the first one mentioned in the list of Pulitzer Prize winners. A couple of weeks later, he moved out.
"My books are still in boxes and I'm getting interested in traveling. I want to see places," he says.
The Known World is moral and human, but never moralistic or righteous.
"I tried to show the characters changing the way people do," he says. "The Moses at the start of the book is not the same man at the end. Also, I wanted to give everyone a chance, the good and the bad. I think that's only fair."
As part of Dublin Writers Festival, Edward P Jones will read from The Known World (Amistad), along with Antoni Libera and Sue Miller, at Project, Temple Bar, today at 1pm. See also On The Town and Artscape: W8
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