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     Volume 4 Issue 39 | March 25, 2005 |

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A Writer of the Known World

Winner of 2004's Pulitzer prize for his novel 'The Known World', African American writer, Edward P Jones was recently invited by the USIS to come to Dhaka and give a few readings and meet with people including school students, writers and journalists. In an interview with SWM Jones shares his thoughts on his motivation to write his first novel and what gets his creative instincts going.


It's not everyday that you get to talk to a Pulitzer Prize winner in Dhaka. Especially one who doesn't really like to talk much. But apart from the slight inconvenience of running out of questions, listening to Edward P. Jones, is an intriguing experience. Reserved and a man of few words, Jones is unapologetic about his reluctance to explain his work. He writes because he wants to, on what he feels like writing about. Which is why he chose such an unusual story line for his second book 'The Known World' that won him the Pulitzer for 2004.

The backdrop of the book is a plantation where slaves work and live out their lives. But the slave-owners are black and the characters-- both black and white-- are complex with many shades of grey. Jones's first book 'Lost in the City', a collection of short stories was originally published in 1992 and short-listed for the National Book Award.

It was while in college that Jones heard about the fact that in the 1880s there were black slave owners and this bit of fascinating history got him to visualise a full-scale novel. The story, says Jones, centres on a 31 year-old black man Henry Townsend who dies at the very beginning of the novel. He leaves his widow a retinue of 31 black slaves and the story revolves around them as well as other characters.

This includes Henry's mentor William Robbins, a former white slave owner who sold Henry's freedom to his parents. William sells a piece of land to Henry along with a slave, Moses. When Henry dies his wife is at a loss about running a plantation with thirty-one slaves and begins to depend on Moses. Moses, on the other hand, tries to get the slaves their freedom. Jones adds that his book is about a myriad of characters and their complex relationships with each other. There are rich blacks and poor blacks, rich whites and poor whites, white people who are sympathetic towards blacks and those who are blatantly racist, American Indians and a light-skinned black who could pass off as white but doesn't want to.

The writer insists that there are no political messages in the novel and that his writings are based purely on realism. "That is what I aim for," says Jones. "They are simple stories. I don't see why you have to be complex or dense to tell a story; if you have an agenda then write essays, storytelling is about human beings," he comments dryly.

Jones does admit however, that American society is still a divided one. "People of one class and race live in one place, people of another class and race live in another." America is a very complex society. It's not clear cut all the way down…There are days when I get up and feel that I am glad to be there and there are days when I feel 'why am I here?'"

Jones's own story is as engaging as his fiction. Born on October 5, 1950 and raised in Washington DC, by his mother, a dishwasher from North Carolina who never went to school, Jones spent most of his time reading books. Most of his early life was spent in poverty. He studied English at Holy Cross and later got his MFA from the University of Virginia. It was while in college that he started writing seriously, coming up with his prize-winning short story collection, Lost in the City. Jones has regularly been published in the New Yorker Magazine.

Although it took him about 10 years to complete 'The Known World' Jones says that he read very little of the enormous amount of research material he had collected. Thus Jones relied completely on his imagination, a method that continues to be the main driving force of his writing. He spent 19 years of his life summarising business-articles for a magazine, a job that involved little creativity but paid well enough for him to pursue his real passion-- writing.

Jones says that his ideas often come out of the blue. "You might be buying eggs in the supermarket when you have an image in your head of a woman in a corn field with blood on her dress and holding a shotgun…It's not like you read the headlines in the papers and say to yourself that you will write about them." The writer adds that usually when an idea for a story comes to his head he thinks out the whole story line before he actually begins to put it on paper. But the rest explains Jones is all hard work. Plus there is no guarantee that the success of the first book will automatically get transferred to the second one. "Every book has its own life." His favourite writers include James Joyce and Anton Chekov. Jones says that he enjoys watching movies and is particularly fond of Satyajit Rays films.

Jones's working regime includes getting up as early as 6:30 a.m. when the 'sun is still fresh' as well as the mind. He says that if he wakes late, say 9a.m then the whole day is wasted unless of course he is at the end of a book or story in which case he will go on until it is finished.

As a person Jones is not much of a social butterfly and prefers to keep to himself rather than go to a café to make intellectual chitchat with writers over latte, as he puts it.

Jones believes that for writers there is no end to learning. "It's always a learning process," says the no-nonsense writer who says that winning the Pulitzer was a big surprise: "I never take myself too seriously."

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