It Gets You Through: The Rumpus Interview with Edward P. Jones

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Edward P. Jones is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Known World. His collections of short stories include, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. In addition to the Pulitzer, he has received numerous awards including the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Lanan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship.  He currently lives in Washington, DC.

I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Jones while he was visiting Laramie, Wyoming. He was leading a four-week writing workshop in the MFA program at the University.

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The Rumpus: When you have a teaching job like this, is it an interruption from your writing?

Edward P. Jones: No, because I’m never really doing stuff everyday. A lot of things go on in my head, and when I’m ready, I can get down to it. But I can think no matter where I am. What’s been strange is that I don’t think I’ve been away from home this long since ’64, when I was thirteen years old.

Rumpus: It sounds like a lot of your work happens before anything hits the page.

Jones: Yeah, like I always say, when I did the novel [The Known World] I delayed the research for ten years or so. I lived my life, I did my grocery shopping, I was on the subway, I was on busses. But I can think no matter where I am, and this place down there in Virginia was coming into being. It was important for me to get the whole thing worked out in my head even though I hadn’t realized that was what needed to happen. I felt that I couldn’t sit down and do any sort of physical writing until I had done all the research; that I wasn’t really entitled to do any writing until then. But I was putting off the research because the whole idea of reading those 40 or so books on American slavery, it was just, eh, you know? I think if I were writing a non-fiction book it would be one thing, but I was interested in creating people out of the imagination. Part of me realized that research shouldn’t be the process.

What has become important in the last few years is knowing the ending and writing towards it rather than floundering out there. I suppose in the beginning years, before Lost in the City, I’d probably come up with an idea for a story and just sit down and start writing. I don’t enjoy that, sitting there and wondering what should come next.

Rumpus: Do you push in those times?

Jones: No. If I’m at the point of having the woman walk down to the corner, and I know the words are there and it’s just a matter of smacking myself upside the head, then I’ll go with it. But if I can tell that they simply aren’t there today for whatever reason, then I don’t really worry about it. And I think – I don’t know if I should have this kind of attitude – but it’s not as if the road will end if I can’t write the story.

I know people are going to jump on me for this; the Mona Lisa’s a nice painting but if the guy had never painted it, the world would still go on. Not that I’m da Vinci or anything, but having those kinds of feelings sort of frees you.

Rumpus: You wouldn’t necessarily say that about the invention of electricity, so what’s the distinction? How does art function differently? Is there a need for it?

Jones: I think there is. There’s a certain connection you get without even really knowing that you’re being connected. I’m not a musical guy. I know the sound of a piano and a violin, I know drums, not much beyond that – but when I was about 16, I read From Here to Eternity and I guess Prewitt was playing the saxophone. This is a guy who is unhappy in a number of ways. One of his ways of getting around it, it seems, is he takes his saxophone to a hill and just plays. I swear, reading that, I could hear every note he was playing. Every single note. You could tell this guy was suffering and the only way he could get to tomorrow was by playing this thing. It had an impact that I can’t really articulate to this day, but it’s something to do with the fact that there was this writer, James Jones, who wrote about a man who was in pain, and he did it so well that I, who was living half a world away and would never see Hawaii, could understand everything that was going on.

I think that if the art is not made then the world will go on, but once the art is created, it sort of connects you with just about everybody else who’s around.

One of the nice things when I had a day job, it was easy enough that I had time to read several newspapers every day. I remember an article from the Wall Street Journal about a woman in Appalachia, who was maybe 90 when the article came out. She had a number of journals and people had encouraged her to take a community writing course. The professor was able to get her a publisher and apparently the journals are coming out. The article also noted that she’d had this horrendous life with her husband; beatings and maybe some other things. After the guy had drunk it off and gone to sleep, and the kids were in bed, probably the only thing that kept her going, allowed her to get through life, was being able to write. And the result of course is that she survived this guy.

I can remember being in college and there was a girl in Atlanta that I liked from high school. She didn’t care a wit about me. I’d get some letter from her that was lukewarm, or cold and then I’d write these long, long letters to her – ten, twelve pages – talking about the possibility of us. I’d put it in an envelope and mail it off in the campus center, and you wouldn’t believe, I was just happier. If I didn’t have that, if I wasn’t able to write those letters, I don’t know what would’ve happened to me. I would’ve been worse off than I was. I probably would have gotten the same experience if I were able to paint something about us having a nice life or able to write a song or take some cheap banjo and play it. That’s what art does.

I often say the sad thing about most of the world, billions and billions of the people, is that they don’t know they can write a song and feel better about themselves. They can write a story and feel better about themselves. They can paint a painting, sculpt something, and feel better about themselves.

Rumpus: Do you feel influenced by other art forms? Do you feel influenced by other writing?

Jones: Not really other writing. I mean, I can enjoy people but I don’t read anything and say, “Wow, I like the way that was done, let me see if I can duplicate that.”

I have certain pieces of music that I listen to. A friend of mine gave me this song, and it’s one of the things that I’ve always used over many years. I’ve heard it maybe a hundred thousand times by now. It’s Judy Collins singing “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”

Rumpus: And you’ll just have that playing in the background?

Jones: Yep.

Rumpus: How do you think it’s acting for you?

Jones: I don’t know. I’ve never sat down and tried to analyze it. I like it.

Rumpus: If you were to encounter a student that came to you and said, “I haven’t written anything in a couple of years, I’m working on stuff in my head,” what would your reaction to that be?

Jones: Ten years. Eric Simonoff in New York – he was my agent – now and again he would call me up, we’re talking about from ’93 until 2002 when I sent the manuscript off. Once I got caller ID I’d hate to see the agency’s name pop up. What could I say? “I’m working on it. It’s in my head.”

Rumpus: But there’s a difference in that you delivered.

Jones: Yeah, but if I had not found a proper way to move on with these people to such a stage where everything happens there in the last 50, 60 pages, then it would still be in my head. God knows how many more years it might have taken. I think I was helped by the fact that I had a day job which paid the rent and everything else. If I had been practically homeless then my thoughts would have been about my next meal and about paying the rent. But I did have a job, and I had a video store not too far from me, a nice Safeway. I had a pretty nice life. I had the comfort of being able to work this thing out in my head and not be pushed. But Eric [Simonoff] got to the point where he didn’t really call me up and ask.

I hadn’t taken New York’s money. Someone recently said, “Well, that could be mistaken for the fact that you gave away your work.” But I didn’t want an advance because they would be calling me up and wanting to know about the book. Again, I had a job.

So if a student came to me with that, “I’m working on something, it’s in my head,” I would say, “Give me the first line. Talk to me about the first page.” Because I could have. If Eric had asked for that, I could have said, well right now there’s this black guy and he’s an overseer but he’s a slave and it’s evening. And all the rest of it. I did write, as I said, but I didn’t take any notes.

If I had been nudged, it might have taken a little less than ten years. A bit of it is just plain old laziness on my part. I’m not going to pretty it up. What did happen was that a friend of mine got her book published. I like her a lot and she had been a student of mine. When she was writing her book she paid me a nominal amount to talk to her about it every day on the phone. We’d sometimes spend two, three hours. She got an advance and got the book published. I can’t say that I was jealous but once I lost the day job, then I began thinking, “I don’t know if my work is any good but if she could do it then maybe somebody would accept what I’d done.” So I forged ahead and here we are.

Rumpus: Were the characters cooking that whole time? Is that part of how they came out so fully formed?

Jones: Yeah. You can’t sit down in the last days of 2001 after Christmas and produce a first draft by March. People were amazed at that but they seem to forget the ten years. If I didn’t know where everything was going, I would have sunk. I would have been faced with the fact that I didn’t have a lot of savings, now I have no job, and what’s going to become of me? I can’t think about writing a book. Shoot no.

So, yeah, if a student comes to me and says, “I have this thing in my head,” then the thing that you try to do is pull it out as much as possible. My whole approach is that the most important thing is the conclusion, the climax of it. If that’s there then so much of the work is behind you. Because again you’re writing towards that.

Rumpus: A lot of what comes through in your work is this detailed, in-depth knowledge of your characters. How close are you to them inside your own head? Do they feel living, breathing inside of you and can you sort of turn to them and get what you need to know?

Jones: No. You have to drudge it all up out of your own self, out of your imagination.

Rumpus: People often talk about the compassion you have for your characters.

Jones: Well that’s the nature of what it is you’re doing, I think. There’s the character Harvey Travis in the novel who has done this horrendous thing to this man, and my job as a storyteller was not to stay with the victim and milk that for all it’s worth. My job was to tell how the victimizer got to be in that position. It’s not necessarily compassion so much as it is an attempt to tell the character’s full story.

Rumpus: Can you give a specific example of your working process?

Jones: I went through a bad depression. I was seeing a therapist back around 1990, 1991, and I had to go from Arlington, where I live, to Washington. I had come on the subway from Washington to Rosslyn. From there I would take the bus to my apartment building. I was standing there and I was still feeling depressed, I think I was taking some sort of medicine. (Remind me to mention the medicine stuff later, by the way) And I’m just heartbroken about people, mostly about this girlfriend I had, and also I think there was chemical crap going on with me. I was just standing there waiting for the bus to come and there were people around me. All of a sudden, I could see the opening of that story, “A Butterfly on F Street” [from Lost in the City]. I’m waiting to go home which had nothing whatsoever to do with this story I was thinking about. There it was. These two women are meeting because they had this dead man in common. It’s just so strange the way the mind works. I didn’t have a pen and paper and all I could do was keep replaying the scene over and over and over again so I wouldn’t forget – even the little snippets of dialogue – so that I would have it when I got home.

When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.

The thing about it is – and for this it was amazing – it felt like five weeks of Valium, or Prozac. Just the idea that I had a breakthrough like that; it gets you through. We go through life and we’re sort of two dimensional so often, then when you can do a painting or some writing it brings out another dimension to you.

Rumpus: Given the fact that you’ve sought publication, it’s implicit you think there’s value in sharing the work. Most of what you’re talking about is the process fueling the maker, but it clearly doesn’t end there for you.

Jones: I would probably do it, mostly in my head anyway, if I knew that no one was ever going to publish it, just because it’s soothing. If you can create this thing where this woman whose husband had left her in his last months of life meets the woman who had nursed him to the last moment of death, what are they going to say? What’s the air like? What kind of street is it? And it happened to be one of the busiest streets in Washington. It would be an unusual occurrence; as unusual as a butterfly on a city street. Just the whole idea of being able to breathe life into these two people, right there in that moment, it gives you something. There’s an extra thing of course if someone will publish it. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had three books published. Most of the people that ever lived have never had books published.

Rumpus: Did you want to touch back on the issue of the medicine?

Jones: Oh yeah. Well what happened is – and it’s nothing really to do with writing at all – but the medicine would kick in after about two or three weeks, and all of a sudden, the whole world and everything in your life can be wonderful. The medicine pulls you up. But you say to yourself, “I want to wake at seven o’clock this morning and peck away.” And the medicine says – because you’re laying there and it makes you sleepy – it says, “Nah, do it tomorrow.” The medicine just says, “Sleep until eleven,” and you get up and you’re dull-headed and you turn on TV and the day is gone.

I had been in this one apartment building since ’83, and I was very happy there. Unlike when I was a child, I had heat in the winter and air conditioning. A lot of my books had always been in boxes because I never had enough bookshelf space, and this place had bookshelves built into the walls. Oh, fabulous. That first day I started getting things out of the boxes, I put everything up on the shelves in no sort of order. I sat in a chair and just looked at it.

Then these new people bought the building and they didn’t make the upstairs tenants put down carpet or anything. I went into this state of depression, because people would be walking upstairs and making noise. Maybe if I were married and sharing that pain it would have been different, but I was in my apartment alone.

I remember the first guy, at all hours of the night you could hear him walking across the floor. I would be lying in bed and just feeling awful, because this was going to be my life for God knew how long. He would walk from the bedroom to the living room, living room to the bedroom. At one point, just to make sense of it, I thought to myself, “Well he’s doing a self-portrait, and the mirror’s in one room and the easel and paints are in the other room.” And another night I said, “Well, there’s a pile of sand and he’s taking one grain from one room and putting it into another room.” I thought if I could have hired some hit men I certainly would have.

That was ’99 when that guy moved in, and I was edging toward a time when I thought I would get around to reading all those research books for The Known World. I was still feeling bad and it was hard for me even to think about reading. Then in 2001 when I got five weeks of vacation in early December from my day job, I figured I would finally start. I knew that if I had gone to some doctor and gotten medicine, I would have run into the problem of well, you know, the medicine would help, but I wouldn’t have been able to do any work. I had to make the decision to struggle through the pain. So I just started the writing. I tried to do five pages a day. Two weeks into it I was very fortunate because my office called and said I didn’t have a day job. By then I was 75 pages into the novel. There was still a thing with the people above, but everyday I was getting further and further from that, and closer to something else.

Rumpus: Do you view your work as having a specific place in the contemporary literary community?

Jones: No. I don’t know a lot about what’s out there so I don’t know where I fit in. That kind of thing really doesn’t concern me. Not at all.

Rumpus: Do you feel in dialogue with previous writers?

Jones: No. I’m out here by myself. I don’t know where in the line I am and don’t really care.

Rumpus: If you were to interview yourself, what would you be asking? Is there something that gets often overlooked?

Jones: No, because I never think of myself as being important enough to be interviewed. There’s nothing that I’m interested in about myself. I lead a rather simple life. It’s not as if I’m out to this café every night and I’m jetting around the world and I know this person and that person. When a lot of your day is watching movies on the internet or something, then…What’s going on in your brain isn’t something that you can really get out into words.

Once or twice people will recognize me in Washington and I’m always surprised. Until they say, “Mr. Jones,” I wonder if they maybe have the wrong person.

Rumpus: Do you think in terms of what project might come next?

Jones: No. I don’t have any ideas right now and if nothing comes, then nothing comes. But it’s not something you should sit around worrying about. [The Known World] just came out of the blue. And that’s the way, for me, it should be.

Rumpus: That requires a fair amount of trust and confidence in your own process.

Jones: Yeah. I mean, it’ll happen if it happens. And if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be and you just go on with the rest of your life.


Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in California. He is the creator and host of The History Channeler comedy podcast and has written for This American Life, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs including the recent No Country Music. He can be found at http://www.scottpinkmountain.com/. More from this author →