Author talks about novel and offers advice to aspiring writers
Published: Sunday, March 3, 2013
Updated: Sunday, March 3, 2013 22:03
On Thursday, Feb. 28, the Carnegie Hotel welcomed Tayari Jones, who was giving a book reading from her most recent novel “Silver Sparrow.” The event was sponsored by the Office of Equity and Diversity, the Department of Literature & Language and the Women’s Resource Center.
“Silver Sparrow” is narrated in first person point of view by half sisters Dana and Chaurisse. Unlike most half-siblings, their father is a bigamist (someone who is married to two individuals at the same time), and the novel describes the way that each girl handles the cards that life has dealt her.
When asked if she knew any families who practiced bigamy (since it is rare in today’s society) Jones said, “I always start off by saying that my daddy is not a bigamist … I was actually inspired to write this because I had started off thinking, not so much about bigamy, but this idea of half-siblings,” said Jones.
“I have two sisters who were born before my parents ever met. They lived a completely separate life from me … I enjoyed a better quality of life for several reasons: one, I was just born in a very opportunistic time. I was born in Atlanta in 1970 and they were born in rural Mississippi in 1958 and 1959 … And two, they had a father who only had a high school diploma and I had a father who had a Ph.D.,” Jones said. “So growing up I’d always wonder what it was like have a sister since I lived in a house of boys …
“My fantasy was that somewhere in the world I had a sister … But I never thought of how I must look to her. I don’t think she was fantasizing about spending time with me, and I think she had probably felt like I had gotten everything.
“So that’s how I came to write this. I just turned the heat up, and I added bigamy to make it more interesting. There are all sorts of things that are interesting to you and your own life and your heart but it’s not interesting enough for other people. I believe that if you know what it’s like to be trapped in a spaceship, you can write about what it is trapped in an elevator.”
Jones is currently an associate professor for the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing program at Rutgers-Newark. From 2003-04 she was a member of East Tennessee State University’s English department.
Jones was born in Atlanta, which is where all of her books take place.
When talking about Atlanta, Jones said, “I’m writing another novel set in Atlanta, and I notice that the people never leave the house. I’ve been away [from Atlanta] for so long that I don’t feel too confident about my landmarks, the city’s changing so much.”
One member of the audience even asked about the possibility of New Jersey being a setting for one of her future novels since she teaches there and she quickly replied, “I’m not writing a book about Jersey.”
That being said, Jones has no immediate plans to change the settings of her future books, Jersey or otherwise.
She noted, “I would just feel like I was cheating on my imagination. I’m a monogamous writer … I feel like I’m doing something for the body of Southern literature. I consider myself a Southern writer, but hardly anyone thinks about the urban South in Southern writing.
“People think all Southern writing is grandmothers and mules … It [writing about Atlanta] is just what I do. I feel anxious thinking of not writing about Atlanta; I just can’t imagine it.
“But I’m always opened to growth, because when you say never that’s when the possibilities end. So, I’m going to say probably never.”
Jones was very personable and was always able to answer students’ questions in a relatable way.
“I think it takes me two to three years to write a book, but it’s kind of like writing papers. You know when you … have a month to write the paper, and you get it done in the three days before it’s due. I wonder how long it takes to really write a book.”
At ETSU, Jones taught composition English. When a fellow teacher asked how she could inspire students who lacked an interest in writing, Jones said, “I find that better assignments will make them more excited about writing. I also find that young people write papers in a foreign language called ‘Paper.’
“They speak English and they write in Paper. One type of asset is that they can use the voice they talk in. You [the teacher] get a good assignment and convince them that the voice they have is good enough.
“The thing about writing is that everybody just wants to be heard; on the Internet or in real life, people just want someone to listen to what they say,” Jones said. “They think of writing as this thing that they’ll get evaluated for and they don’t know how to do it. But everybody wants to be heard.”
Jones has won a number of awards for her work, which include the Hurston/Wright award for her debut novel “Leaving Atlanta” and the Lillian C. Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council and the University of Georgia Libraries for her second novel “The Untelling.”
Dr. Daniel Westover, a professor of ETSU’s English department asked what advice she had for students who were inspired by her success.
Her advice for student writers, and writers of other ages too, was to get a typewriter and to just do it. Jones explained to the crowd that she writes all of her manuscripts with a typewriter and then edits her work as she types it into her computer. A typewriter allows a writer to crumple up their work, toss it in a corner and start over without deleting everything on a computer.
She wanted students to know that they would have to get used to rejection, and that it’s almost impossible to achieve great things without taking great risks.
“Court rejection,” she said. “Chase it with enthusiasm.”
For more information on Tayari Jones and her novels, visit www.tayarijones.com.