undefinedEdward P. Jones, ca. 2004. Photograph courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In the past two decades, Edward P. Jones has produced three works of fiction—the short-story collections Lost in the City (1992) and All Aunt Hagar’s Children (2006), and his epic novel about black slave owners and the effects of slavery, The Known World, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. His many other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004 and the PEN/Malamud Award for excellence in the art of the short story in 2010.

Like his great precursors James Joyce and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jones is a writer of place—mainly the segregated Washington, D.C., where he grew up in the fifties and sixties. For the most part, he writes in the third person—his tone is cool but engaged, knowing. Although he is familiar with the ways in which white power has impinged on black life, his real interest lies in experience at an intimate scale; his Washington is an oversized small town where chance encounters, changes in the weather, a little local fame can lead to momentous events, and where the Deep South remains a living memory, as for example in his early story “A Dark Night”:

About four that afternoon the thunder and lightning began again. The four women seated about Carmena Boone’s efficiency apartment grew still and spoke in whispers, when they spoke at all. They were each of them no longer young, and they had all been raised to believe that such weather was—aside from answered prayers—the closest thing to the voice of God. And so each in her way listened.

Our interview took place over two days in the Hay-Adams Hotel, in Washington, in late spring. The cherry blossoms were gone, but the air was fragrant with the green of Lafayette Square. “If you didn’t have those trees,” Jones pointed out, “you could see the White House.” A private person with a shy demeanor, Jones laughs readily when telling a tale about his upbringing, or his journey as an artist. But his openness is not greater than his desire to remain relatively anonymous as a writer (he refused to have his picture taken for this interview, for instance), thereby underlining his belief that his work—his stories—should do the talking.

Hilton Als

 

INTERVIEWER

Were you always a reader?

JONES

Oh, yes. I started with comic books. In Washington they called them “funny books.” Then in 1964, when I was thirteen, we spent the summer in South Boston, Virginia, with my aunt and her children. Her son-in-law, one of the things he did was scavenge junk from the junkyard. One day he brought home some books, including something called Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? That was my first real book, without pictures in it or anything. I was so surprised that you could read and create the world in your own head without the benefit of pictures. I really didn’t go back to comic books after that.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of books did you read?

JONES

At first I read mostly books by Southern authors—black and white—because almost all the people I knew were born and raised in the South, starting with my mother. I remember I got a lot of Erskine Caldwell. The summer of 1965 I think I read about four or five of his novels. And Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Then I started branching out. I remember reading From Here to Eternity. I didn’t know anything at all about music, but there’s a section very early on where this guy Prewitt is on some little hill and he’s playing his trumpet, and I could hear every single note.

Ten or so years ago, someone asked me to come to her class and answer questions about Lost in the City. This one white woman said she had trouble feeling or caring about any people who weren’t like her. You hear that and it’s like somebody slapped you in the face. It made me think about From Here to Eternity. Hawaii, all the way out there, and this guy playing his music on a hill.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother was from the South?

JONES

She was born in Virginia and raised in Virginia and North Carolina. She came north and settled in Washington a little before the war. She did what they called “days work,” taking care of a white child and cooking and cleaning. Then somehow she met my father and I was born in 1950 and my brother in ’52 and my sister in ’53. He was a drinker, so things started going bad pretty early on. Within a few years she was on her own, working full-time, with three kids.

INTERVIEWER

What part of town did you live in?

JONES

We lived in eighteen different places by the time I was eighteen, but New York Avenue is the earliest place I can remember. It’s quite fancy now. Then we moved across the street, into a rooming house. My mother couldn’t read, and I remember she got a letter from the court, and she had to find a guy to read it, and it said that they were going to commit my brother. The phrasing at that time was “feebleminded,” not “retarded.” I can remember her crying. She had hard trouble with three kids, but just the idea of losing one . . .

INTERVIEWER

How was she taking care of him? How old was he?

JONES

He was under five. At one point, before he was committed, we were living in a two-story house on Fifth Street. Everybody else had their own room, but they’d come and look at our TV while my mother was working. She was paying for our television on time so she had someone there to take care of her kids, and my brother being severely retarded, “no” didn’t mean anything to him and “yes” didn’t mean anything to him. So one day this woman put my brother in a chair and tied him down, and my mother came back and had a fight with the woman. Later we moved up the street, into a basement, and it must have been the wintertime, because I remember—this is the image I have quite clearly—they had this stove right in the middle of the room and my mother was trying to get it started. And because there was no warmth in the room, she took us and put the three of us on the mattress and doubled the mattress over us.

INTERVIEWER

You all shared a bed?

JONES

Yes, when my sister was an infant. I remember one time, when we were liv- ing on Fourth Street, my mother heard what she thought was a cat in the middle of the night. My brother had climbed out of the bed and got out of the window, and he fell two stories. Luckily, he survived and there wasn’t any major damage.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when your brother was taken away?

JONES

Six or seven.

INTERVIEWER

And your father was long gone by then?

JONES

He was, though my mother knew where he was generally. At one point he put it out that he was dead, so he wouldn’t have to do anything. I can remember times when my mother asked me to go to a friend to borrow a dollar or two dollars for food.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you move so often?

JONES

We moved because my mother fell behind in the rent. One time my mother took me with her to look for a place. She told my sister to stay home. At that time I didn’t have shoes. This was a Sunday, and she had received what they called a “set out” notice, an eviction notice. They were coming to set us out the next day, Monday. My mother said she had never been set out before and she wasn’t planning on being set out now. So we found a place.

INTERVIEWER

Your memory for detail and places is incredible. Did you always have that memory?

JONES

I think so. When I was working at Science magazine, we had ten or twelve pages of university telephone numbers, so we could call up the referees—scientists and such who looked over papers before publication. It wasn’t long before I memorized just about every number there.

INTERVIEWER

When you’re a child and you’re dislocated so often, I think it forces you to remember where you live. Apart from the threat of being put out, were there other reasons for moving?

JONES

Sometimes the places would become unlivable. On Tenth Street, I remember, the place would flood when there was a hard rain. We were in the basement, again, and there was a little room off the kitchen that held the furnace, with coal on the floor. But that thing never worked, so in addition to the flooding it was always cold.

The man who owned the Tenth Street place, his name was Roscoe Jones. He had a habit, if you didn’t pay your rent, he would come and take your windows. That happened to us. We stayed overnight with a friend. But he had done that to a family farther down Tenth Street and their baby caught pneumonia and died. Jones was sued. I think years later somebody killed him.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that you don’t like writing about your life in your stories.

JONES

Well, all the places that I write about are real. I mean, the woman who becomes blind on the bus, I never knew anybody that happened to. But I had to put her someplace to live, so I might as well put her in our Tenth Street apartment, in a building that I knew.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about your schooling.

JONES

My father was Catholic, and my mother wanted me to go to Catholic school. That’s what I did in first grade. But she couldn’t afford the payments. I think it must have hurt her a lot, not to be able to give me a Catholic education. When I was in high school, she told me that she had wanted me to be a priest . . . but it was too late for that! And I wouldn’t have wanted a celibate life.

INTERVIEWER

Was your mother religious?

JONES

She was religious in that do-unto-others way. She never went to church—except, I remember, when we moved to Tenth Street. She wanted to have a new beginning, so one Sunday she took me and my sister down to a Baptist church two blocks from us, because everyone in the neighborhood was going to that church, and the preacher’s up there and he says, We have three new people here, so the three of us stood up and he pointed us out. But we didn’t go back. She just wanted to make a new start. Every September, we would go out and buy toothbrushes and toothpaste. It was, Okay, new school year, we’re going to brush our teeth. And, you know, the toothpaste runs out and that’s it. It’s all gone in October. I didn’t grow up brushing my teeth. I saw a dentist when I was twenty-two and he said I had perfect teeth. It probably has to do with the fluoride in D.C.’s water.

INTERVIEWER

Did you do well in school?

JONES

Very well. I still remember the year we did geometry. Tenth grade. I went into that geometry class, and—I’m still amazed at it today—there was no question I could not answer, no test I could not do well on. The teacher would be doing things on the blackboard, and as soon as he asked the question, my hand would shoot up. He would look at other people, waiting for them to say something—he got tired of me knowing all the answers, but in a nice way. That was the spring my sister ran away. She stayed away for a week. Eventually my mother sent her to live with relatives in Brooklyn. I didn’t stop going to school that week she was away, but I hadn’t really looked at the book. I hadn’t studied. And the teacher asked a question, and he looked at me, and I couldn’t answer. I still remember that.

I was always proud of the fact that I had good attendance. And all through junior high I was in the best class.

INTERVIEWER

Your mother must have been very proud of you.

JONES

I never gave her any trouble.

INTERVIEWER

How come no one had taught her to read?

JONES

My mother was moved back and forth from this place and that place, so there was no stability. She told me she left school at second grade. She was raised mainly by her grandmother. That grandmother was very good, but the other one was just awful to her. She told me that the horrible grandmother, on her deathbed, saw the devil crawling up the wall. He had come for her because she had done such a good job as his servant, but she was afraid of her master.

INTERVIEWER

When you were growing up, did you spend a lot of time taking care of your sister?

JONES

Yes. At one point, sometime in the early sixties, my sister and I were out playing, and my mother called my sister, and we both were about to go inside. That had been our habit all our lives. No matter who my mother would call, we both would go. But that day, a friend—the kid we were playing with—says, Why are you going? She called your sister. I’d never thought of that before!

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to have such close relationships at home? Did that allow for you to have friends?

JONES

I had friends right up until we moved from Tenth Street to Sixth Street. That was in ’64, the year after Kennedy was killed. I was thirteen. After the move I stopped going outside. I think it was probably the onset of puberty, and just ... I think all the moving around had just caught up with me after all those years. So, I had television, I had my funny books, and that was it. I just stayed inside. I never made a single friend on that street. And then we moved farther down Sixth Street, and I never knew anyone there either.

INTERVIEWER

You just kept to yourself.

JONES

And then we moved to the 1100 block of Eighth Street. That would’ve been ’65. Same thing. I can remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird there, and In Cold Blood.

INTERVIEWER

Were you sad? Were you depressed?

JONES

No! I couldn’t wait to open a book! And even though there were only four TV channels, I was happy.

I remember, one afternoon the principal and my mother came to my classroom. My mother never went to PTA meetings and such, but there, all of a sudden, were the principal and my mother. And my mother took me, by bus, back to where she worked, to Chez François. There was a guy there named Roosevelt. He had, for I don’t know how long, been teasing my mother about confining me to the house after school—which was not true, of course. And my mother brought me in front of him and said, Tell him. Tell him I don’t make you stay inside. I think she had just been crushed by his saying that. I mean, it must’ve taken something extraordinary for her to get on the bus, take it all the way to school, go to the principal’s office—because she was a shy person, you know—tell him my name, have them go to the homeroom, take me out, take me all the way to her job . . . It was just quite amazing. But I never was unhappy. I didn’t really miss having friends.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of girl did you like in school?

JONES

I’m not sure if I had a type. I never had any courage to ask anyone out.

INTERVIEWER

Why? You’re so smart and charming.

JONES

I can remember in tenth grade, eleventh grade, having my mother bring home Noxzema. I don’t think I had a severe acne problem, but there it was. And then just the awkwardness of being in your own body. And it wasn’t like I had a father who could come along and say, It’s not so bad. The worst that could happen is a no. My mother didn’t have the capability to talk to a young man and tell him everything. She had no facility for that.

INTERVIEWER

Did you feel bad not having a father around?

JONES

You know, when this interview is over, I will have spent more time with you than I ever spent with my father. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but not really. In the summer of ’65, my aunt and cousin came back to D.C. for a few days. My sister and I had spent the summer with them in Brooklyn. While we were away, my mother had moved to this tiny room on M Street, but the three of us couldn’t stay there because people kept breaking in while my mother was at work. So during the day, the four of us—my aunt, my sister, my cousin, and I—would go looking for a place. And we found a place at 927 N Street. Now, my aunt wouldn’t have known this, but across the street—922—was my father and a woman he’d lived with for a long, long time. Well, my mother, she didn’t want that, but God, we needed a place to stay. So for most of my high school years that’s where we were, across the street from my father.

INTERVIEWER

Would you see him on the street?

JONES

No. I would go over from time to time and talk with him, but the conversations didn’t last very long. It wasn’t any conversation of any depth. I don’t think he ever asked me about my life or anything else.

INTERVIEWER

Were you disappointed?

JONES

No, no. I was already in high school, so my life had been without him up till then. I didn’t feel any loss. My mother died January 1, 1975, which was a great devastation. He died, I found out later, that April. And I felt nothing. So I was really lucky, because if I had known him, and I had lost both parents within three months—I would’ve survived, but still, it would’ve been pretty hard.

INTERVIEWER

Did you start writing in high school?

JONES

Not really. There was a program, a Saturday-morning thing that lasted for a few months, where we did stories. I wrote this story about a kid who falls asleep on a Trailways bus and when he wakes up he’s in East Berlin. That was the extent of it.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t think of yourself as a writer?

JONES

No! People say, Did you grow up thinking of yourself as this or that, blah blah blah. These middle-class or upper-class kids, maybe three or four times a week they’d have a doctor over, they’d have an engineer over, they’d have a writer over, and they’d get into a conversation with the writer and all of a sudden realize, Oh, I think I want to be a writer. That didn’t happen to me. That doesn’t happen to the rest of us. In my school they didn’t even tell us about the SAT until the beginning of senior year! This is what I thought the SAT was—you go into a room, and there are three or four white men, they ask you questions, and if you do well, you get a certain grade. Well, I got 489 on English and 532 on math. Of course, the top score in each section is eight hundred. Holy Cross took a chance on me.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like, those early years at Holy Cross?

JONES

My first year they put me in a room with this white kid from Fall River, but we never socialized. When his parents came to visit, he didn’t even bring them upstairs to meet me. We found out later, the administrators had gone around asking the white students if they would mind rooming with a black person. They never asked the blacks, though. The second year I was there, we got what was called the black corridor. Clarence Thomas lived there. I think he might’ve been the only person there who had a white roommate.

INTERVIEWER

How did it feel to be away from home?

JONES

I was homesick those first weeks of freshman year. This was the first time I’d been away from home for a very long time and with people who were strangers. It was pretty bad. And I didn’t wear glasses at that time. Being very shy, I came into the calculus course that first semester, and I sat in the back of the room, and I could barely see the blackboard. So I fell behind. I got away with maybe a D. And at the end of the semester, I said to myself, Well, you like to read, may as well go into English. And that’s what I did. I became an English major.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t know you needed glasses?

JONES

Not until Thanksgiving of my freshman year. I got a ride down to D.C. with some other black students, and they saw I couldn’t read the street signs until they were close. Somebody said, You need glasses! It was like when that kid said, Your mother’s just calling your sister—a revelation. It had never occurred to me. This was my life, not being able to see things a certain way. So I went to Sterling Optical—it was on Tenth Street, only a few doors from the house where Lincoln died—and I got glasses. And it was amazing. I could not believe how clear the world was, what I had been missing.

INTERVIEWER

But by then you had changed from calculus to English because you couldn’t see the board?

JONES

I couldn’t see it. My roommate, he was a math major as well. I suppose they put us together so we would help each other, but we never talked about anything really.

INTERVIEWER

Was it strange having a white roommate?

JONES

It was. The closest I’d been to a situation like that was having a white teacher.

INTERVIEWER

Were you aware of race as a child?

JONES

No, because the neighborhoods we lived in were black. The corner grocery stores were run by white people, but I don’t think I had a white teacher until I was in high school. Later on, in my mid to late teens, I might have ventured downtown, but generally there was no reason. We had U Street, which had three theaters. If we needed clothes or shoes we went up on Seventh Street. And they were black stores, for the most part. When I was growing up, if there’d been a black person on TV you’d call everyone to come and see, because it was such a rarity.

INTERVIEWER

How was it, studying English?

JONES

Freshman year I had Father Healy, who had been the president of Holy Cross in the forties. I made all As in his class. I didn’t have a typewriter, so I did my assignments on ruled paper. I didn’t even have staples or paper clips. Father Healy never commented about that. He was the great foundation of my career at Holy Cross because he was judging me on what I did, not on what few materials I had.

There was another professor in the English department who was supposed to be my guidance counselor. I remember telling him that I was thinking of joining the newspaper at Holy Cross, and he looked at me as if I could barely write my name, so why would I think about writing anything else. Well, I went back to Holy Cross after The Known World came out in 2003, and he was there for the reading. I remember looking at him and thinking, Yeah. Well, buddy, look at this.

INTERVIEWER

Did you talk to your mother about what you were studying?

JONES

No, she wouldn’t have comprehended any of that. Also, she had had a couple of strokes by the time I finished college. My aunt and my cousin and sister told me she wouldn’t be able to come to my graduation. They stayed, during graduation—my aunt and them—in Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon starts out. They stayed with a white couple. My aunt had worked for the wife’s family, and the husband had gone to Holy Cross. So graduation day I’m walking in the stadium, and they’re up there, and I see my mother! I was really surprised. They said that on the trip in from Hopkinton, in the car—they pointed it out, because Holy Cross is on a kind of hill—they said, That’s Holy Cross. And she started crying.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever write for the school paper, in the end?

JONES

I wrote about ten columns, as a matter of fact.

INTERVIEWER

What were you writing about?

JONES

Generally, I think, I wrote about the war.

INTERVIEWER

So you weren’t thinking about fiction then?

JONES

No. Well, second year I took a creative-writing course with Maurice Géracht. He’s a Jewish fellow from France, a survivor of the Holocaust. I took a course with him, and he had a lot of complimentary things to say. The fact that he was encouraging meant a lot. That was in the fall of 1969. We’re still in touch. I sent an article to the National Catholic Reporter that fall about my first year at Holy Cross, about being black at a white school, and they published it.

INTERVIEWER

Did you apply to journalism programs?

JONES

I did. And I got into a few, but they didn’t give me enough money—or else they gave me no money—so I didn’t pursue that. My mother, you know, she was frail. And there was just her and me. For a time I worked at the National Park Service, writing press releases. The National Christmas Tree is arriving at so many feet, blah blah blah. That kind of thing.

INTERVIEWER

So you moved back to D.C. after college and lived with your mother.

JONES

Yeah. When I was away and my mother was living alone, someone tried to break into her place while she was sleeping. Luckily the guy in the back apartment scared him away. So we moved her to 1221 Massachusetts Avenue. It was just an efficiency, but it was ready heat. It was ten stories, and the place was well insulated. So even though we had reliable heat for the first time in our lives, we didn’t need to turn it on. That was a bummer! But it was nice to have air-conditioning. We had never had air-conditioning. And the most important thing for me was that the door locked downstairs and there was a person at the front desk.

My mother relied on her memory to do things, because she couldn’t read. Part of that was not really knowing numbers. I can remember, one of the first nights we were there, looking out the peephole for some reason, and my mother walking by, because she was so new to the place she didn’t know which door was hers. She hadn’t figured it out that her door was across the hall from the little laundry room. After she saw that, she had no trouble. When I was growing up, we would take the Trailways bus to go out and see my brother, but in later years, when the bus stopped going there, she would have friends drive us out there. And she knew the turnoff to this place even though she couldn’t read the signs.

She was just... Her whole life was working. There was once—this happened when I was away at college, but she told me about it—when she went to bed and then woke up because it was time to go to work. Got dressed, had her little coffee at the little table, went down in the elevator to the street. Now, diagonally across from us was an Irish pub. And she was rather struck by the fact that the place was open so early in the morning. That usually wasn’t the case. And then she began to realize that it was evening. She had been so tired, she came home—

INTERVIEWER

She had slept through her day.

JONES

No! It was the same day! She would’ve died if she had slept through the day. Her mind was not focused on resting, but on getting to the job. Eventually, though, she had to stop working. One evening I was up in the apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, and I was watching TV, and I heard the screech of car tires. A few minutes later the woman at the desk called up and said my mother had been hit by a car outside. It wasn’t very bad, luckily. But I wanted to punch the guy, because he was drunk. After that she got worse and worse. And she had already developed lung cancer.

INTERVIEWER

How old was she when she died?

JONES

She was fifty-eight. My father died of the same thing, I think.

INTERVIEWER

When she was sick, you’d go to work then come home and take care of her?

JONES

Yes. We lived on her social security and my salary from the Park Service. Eventually, when I became her caretaker, I was able to get something from the D.C. government, but it wasn’t very much. Still, I was never a fancy dresser, and I wasn’t going out and getting a car, and I wasn’t going to the movies very much anyways, so I didn’t have a lot of expenses.

INTERVIEWER

Are you generally careful with money?

JONES

Always. There’s not a lot I really splurge on. My mother, she liked to dress nice. But I don’t care about a lot of clothes. I never cared about cars. Never cared about going on fancy vacations. I think in a certain way that’s good, because I get something like a computer and it works and everything, I’m happy. Probably the major thing I have now is the laptop.

INTERVIEWER

When did you write your first story?

JONES

Well, my mother died the first day of 1975. I lived for six months in Philadelphia after she died. When I came back to D.C. that June, I stayed with two old-lady friends of ours from time to time, and at the Y. That spring, in Philadelphia, I wrote a story called “Harvest” and sent it off to Essence. After I came back to D.C., the people in Philadelphia never forwarded any of my mail. When I wasn’t staying with the two old ladies, I was more or less homeless. This lasted for about a year. For a while I worked in a furniture store on Seventh Street, but they had these forms and my boss said I wasn’t filling in the numbers right, so they fired me. I didn’t have anything stable until September of ’76, when I got the job at Science.

One day there was a Mailgram that the people in Philadelphia finally sent on to me saying that my story was going to be published in Essence the next month. I don’t know how they did that without my permission, because I never said yes—not that I would have said no! I mailed the story in the spring of ’75. The Mailgram arrived in September of ’76.

Suddenly I had a job, a room, and a story in Essence. For a whole month I could go into the local drugstore, and there was a lovely woman on the cover of Essence, and I could turn to page 76 or whatever. And, Hilton, there’s my name at the bottom of the first page, and no biography.

INTERVIEWER

Because they didn’t know.

JONES

I got four hundred bucks.

INTERVIEWER

How did you end up at Science?

JONES

Starting in high school, I had a summer job there, menial stuff like alphabetizing cards. Then in college I asked them about a writing gig, and they assigned me a few short articles. One was about some bill on Capitol Hill. Then they sent me up to Philadelphia to cover a black medical convention. It was the first time I had ever been in a hotel. That first evening I was hungry, so I ordered room service. I think I got two hamburgers and a milk shake, and it was, like, twenty-five dollars. I was shocked. I got back to D.C. and they wanted me to turn in the expenses, but I didn’t. I was so embarrassed that the establishment would charge that much. I didn’t think the rest of the world would believe me.

So they hired me in September ’76, and once I had a solid job and that room on Twenty-First Street, I started saving money. And one day in 1977, I believe, I went into this bookstore on Connecticut Avenue, and on their little bulletin board was something about the Jenny McKean Moore Program, run by George Washington University. It was a writing class, in the evening, for people who had day jobs. I applied for that. The teacher was Susan Shreve. We met at her house, there were ten or twelve of us, and I did a few stories for them. I would type them up at my job.

INTERVIEWER

What were those stories like?

JONES

They were Washington stories. One was about a mother who has three kids—that was sort of drawn from life. I forget if she’s trying to find work or if she has a job, but she comes to pick up her kids from the lady who’s taking care of them. And she’s been thinking about suicide—killing her kids and then killing herself because of the enormous hardships. And the kids, they’re playing in the front yard, where there’s a little fence—it’s in the fifties, so you don’t have to worry about the kids being snatched by child molesters—but there’s a dog that they have right there. And she gets to the gate, and she knows the dog, because this woman has been the lady’s friend for a long time, but on this particular day, the dog jumps on her when she tries to open the gate. The sense I tried to give is that he knew what was in her heart and he didn’t want any part of that. Also I tried to imply that, based on that episode with the dog, she changed her mind.

Then George Mason University had a writers’ festival in, I think, January of ’78. There was a snowstorm the day it started. Toni Morrison was supposed to come, but the snow kept her away. The World According to Garp was about to be published, and John Irving read from it. They had the guy who wrote Deliverance—James Dickey. He read onstage, but he was drunk. John Casey was there, too, from the University of Virginia. He asked was I interested in grad school. So down the line I did apply to UVA and went to get my M.F.A.

INTERVIEWER

Did you keep writing Washington stories at UVA?

JONES

Yes. I also wrote stories about the rural South. I wrote a story that’s never been published, called “The Birthday Party.”

INTERVIEWER

Why didn’t you publish it?

JONES

It’s not worthy of being published—not yet, anyway. It’s about identical twins, women who live in the same rural community in North Carolina, and one of them has a sort of rigidity about her, and her granddaughter becomes pregnant, and the grandmother takes the child when it’s born and gives it away. Her sister doesn’t think much of that idea, and she pretends to be her sister and goes to the couple that has taken the child and says, I’ve changed my mind. And she raises the boy. Then it’s twenty-one years later, when they’re in their seventies, and the rigid one has not spoken to her sister in all those years. The story is all about an effort on the part of everyone to have these two women finally meet up again, on their birthday.

INTERVIEWER

Your stories often involve that kind of compression of time. The same thing happens in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.”

JONES

Yes, in that story there’s a very long paragraph about the girl coming home at nine years old, and all the stuff she does with the birds. That long paragraph ends, and the next paragraph is “She turned ten. She turned eleven.” So the reader feels the passage of time, thanks to the specifics of her life with the birds. You just let the mind do what it does.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you feel particularly attracted to the short-story form?

JONES

The ideas that came to me didn’t seem long enough to support anything else. Then, after I had finished Lost in the City and was thinking about what I would do next, I remembered from college this footnote that blacks had owned slaves. Over a few weeks, I began to think I might want to explore that—a black guy owning slaves. I realized almost immediately that I could not do that in a short story. I needed a larger canvas.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing the stories in Lost in the City?

JONES

After I finished at UVA and moved to Arlington, across the river from D.C., I just went back to living my life, you know, but I was thinking about the stories. I felt, partly, that I wasn’t really ready or able to do them. Then, in the late eighties, two guys died whom I had worked with at the new job in Arlington. They had both wanted to be writers. And I thought, Here I am, still alive, in good health, and I felt guilty, so I started working on the stories.

INTERVIEWER

Had you been depressed?

JONES

No, life was nice. In ’83, after I moved to Arlington, I had bought my first color television. I still remember getting that color television. For years and years I would watch my color TV and say to myself, You have a color television. It’s like you died and went to heaven. So yeah, life was happy. I was with a woman until about 1988. She wasn’t living with me, but we were happy. And I had a job. Things were fine. And then these guys died, just before 1990, and it seemed a shame to continue like that, so I started working on the stories.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to be working again? Did you feel pleasure or a sense of duty?

JONES

There was a great deal of pleasure in it. I asked myself, Why the heck didn’t you get back to this earlier? When you know you’ve hit the right notes, you just sit there and read the same paragraphs over and over and over again. It’s always a good idea to stop right there for the day, because if you continue, you might run out of whatever it is that made you hit those notes.

INTERVIEWER

Do you work first thing when you wake up in the morning?

JONES

I can’t say that I’ve done any real work in years, except for little essays here and there. But if I do have something to write, I have to do it first thing in the morning. I don’t have the mental energy it takes later in the day.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t agree that you haven’t done real work in years. I think you write stories in your head.

JONES

I can sort of close my eyes and think I’m reading a story in my mind, but until I can read it physically, with the eyes, it doesn’t seem to exist for me. There was a time, in the nineties, when the beginning of The Known World was in my head and I had a need to see it on the page, or at least on the computer screen. So over several days I wrote the pages that were in my head. There were just six pages. I needed to see the pages physically. And the logical part of my brain told me, You can’t do any physical writing until you’ve done the research. But the creative part of the brain can’t be held back. So over ten years, while I kept avoiding doing research, the creative part of my brain worked away, which I’m sure is why I could sit down in the final days of December of 2001, start writing, and have a first draft in March. People who don’t write think that writing is just the physical act, but first come all the steps of thinking it out before.

I remember how I finished the story “A Butterfly on F Street.” I was seeing a therapist at the time, in 1990 or ’91, because I was in a depressive mood. And I came back on the subway to Rosslyn, where I would take the bus to my apartment in Arlington. All of a sudden the final part of the story just came to me for some reason. I wasn’t even thinking about the story when I got on the subway, then all of a sudden I was thinking about it and it unfolded—just like that. Maybe that’s why I don’t really lash my back and worry about not working. I figure if it’s going to come to you, it’ll come to you. If I had pushed myself for some sort of proper ending, I don’t think I would have had the ending that’s there in the story now.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that TV was a kind of company for you.

JONES

People pooh-pooh it, but on the court shows there’s something wonderful at times, and also awful. There was one episode, I remember, on Judge Judy. This handsome mother and her teenage daughter were suing another woman over two cell phones. They had seen them on eBay and what the woman ultimately sent them was a page showing two cell phones. The woman’s defense was that that’s what they were looking at, that’s what they got. The utter gall of people in life! Other things I like to watch are true-crime shows—Dateline, 48 Hours. I’m fascinated by the awful, awful things that human beings do to each other. Just the other day, on Huffington Post—AOL is the page that my computer opens up to—a father took his six-week-old infant, because the child was crying, and he put her in the freezer. Luckily, she was saved.

I have been trying to help a friend of mine with her novel over the past few years, and what I noticed, and told her, is that she was failing to show the awfulness of human beings. I’m just fascinated by that father. Because I’ve never done a thing like that, could never conceive of doing that. To see people do these things—I don’t know, I feel blessed. Of course I owe it all to my mother. God knows what would have happened if she had abandoned us.

In “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” there is a moment when the father takes his infant daughter outside for the first time, in the carriage. And he thinks to himself, You know, there’s no one on the street, and she couldn’t tell. He could walk away. If I had had him walk away, it would have been another punch at what black men do, but I told myself if I had to do that—if the story called for that—I would have no choice. So I was rather happy that he turned out not to be that kind of man.

INTERVIEWER

Junot Diaz has said that Lost in the City seems like a novel to him, that it has a novel’s dramatic arc. Was that something you intended?

JONES

I only knew that I wanted to start with the youngest character and end with the oldest character. Maria Guarnaschelli, my editor at the time, wanted to change it around, but I always envisioned it that way. I had also wanted to have a lot of the same people wandering in and out of stories, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t mature enough, I suppose. I didn’t have the creativity. In one or two instances it’s there, but not enough.

INTERVIEWER

The stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children seem to line up, sequentially, with the stories in Lost in the City. Is that right?

JONES

Yes, they all line up somehow. The first story in Lost in the City has to do with Betsy Ann and the pigeons, and the first story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children is about the infancy of the man who ultimately gives her the pigeons. The second story of each collection is about schooling of some type and is told in the first person. Penny, the grocer, is introduced in “The Store,” in Lost in the City, and she shows up in the title story of All Aunt Hagar’s Children. In both of those stories, the narrator is a first-person man, but he has no name, and so on. If I ever do a third collection, it will be like that, too.

INTERVIEWER

You mention having had episodes of depression. Does that get in the way of your work?

JONES

For the last five years I spent in Arlington, between ’99 and ’04, I was in a depression most of the time. I worked at Tax Notes, an esoteric weekly trade magazine. My first job at Tax Notes was proofreading. Then they had me reading newspaper and magazine articles, and whenever they talked about taxes, I had to do a synopsis of the article, condense it. I was there until January 2002, when they let twenty-six of us go. I’ve had different episodes of depression, but during that particular episode I had to suffer through different tenants in the apartment above mine not putting carpet down. Constant foot traffic. All the noise. I can remember coming back from the library—where I had been doing research for my job—and I almost fell to my knees at the corner of my street, because I just didn’t want to go back home to the noise.

I wasn’t on the medicine then, but I had been on it in 1988. The trouble with depression medicine is you may go to bed thinking, I want to write, and you plan to wake up at seven, but you wake up at ten or eleven and the medicine says it’s okay—you can do it tomorrow, you can do it next week. That’s nice in its own way, it puts a shield around you, but that shield also keeps away whatever it is that allows you to write. In 2001, when I started the physical writing of The Known World, I knew I couldn’t take the medicine, because I would never write a word. So I stopped. A few days after Christmas, I started at the bottom of the mountain, and I wrote the first five pages. I wanted to do five pages a day. I still have the calendar where I wrote down what I had done, how many pages. The last week in January there are three or four zeros, but I didn’t feel bad about that because I knew I had a plan. Even though I didn’t keep to it that day, the book was still there in my head. I knew I could get it back. If I didn’t have a plan, if I were the kind of person who gets up and says, All right, what are these guys gonna do today? I would have been lost. The creative brain working away for ten years saved me. The logical brain and its research would not have saved me.

INTERVIEWER

When you said you almost fell to your knees, why didn’t you want to go home?

JONES

It was the noise upstairs. The people going back and forth. I could count their steps after a while. If I had not had the novel laid out in that big, general way, then I wouldn’t have been able to survive all of that. But once I started and the pages came and came, things were fine. I mean, when Tax Notes called me up in mid-January 2002 and said I didn’t have a job anymore, it hurt, but I got up the next day, Wednesday, and went to work on the book. Probably five pages that day because I had a plan—not because I knew what I had. Not at all. I mean, I’m me, I’m living in northern Virginia, I don’t know what people want in New York, or wherever the publishing world is centered. My daddy wasn’t some big wheel who could make them publish me no matter what. I had no power. I had an agent, but he didn’t have that kind of power. No, I just had to go on. I’m lucky, because I did things in that novel that I never learned you’re not supposed to do. In one paragraph you leap forward ninety years, things like that.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing All Aunt Hagar’s Children, after you had finished The Known World?

JONES

I started All Aunt Hagar’s Children in the midnineties. After I got the NEA grant, in 1986, I stopped going into the office and proofreading. I could work summarizing articles at home. One day I was watching morning TV. The Oklahoma City bombing had just happened, and among the talk shows there was one with a very nice British guy, and he had a woman on who was singing “I Will Survive.”

INTERVIEWER

Gloria Gaynor.

JONES

Yeah, and I’d heard the song, you know, here and there, but for the first time, for some reason, the words were very clear to me. I don’t know if it was the emotions of the Oklahoma City bombing or the emotions that came through with her voice and the words, but all of a sudden I could see the woman in the title story from Lost in the City—Georgia, the woman who went to Israel—and I could see a story developing with her. It played out in my mind, over weeks, over months. And then, that was joined by other stories that involve major and minor characters from other stories in Lost in the City. Before you know it, I had eight or nine stories in my head, and as time went on, more and more would grow.

The world that I wanted to situate them in was a far bigger world than the world in Lost in the City. I’m not sure if it was a conscious thing or not. I just wanted a larger and larger canvas. With a story like “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” I think a lot of people would have injected more and more extraneous stuff until it was a novel. I didn’t want to do that. I pared things down to thirty or thirty-five pages. But it still felt like a novel—there’s the narrator, there’s his mother, his aunt, his wife, there’s a white woman who dies on the streetcar tracks, there’s a woman he thinks is after him. A lot of people. I could have just expanded and expanded and sent it off and got some sort of advance for a novel. That’s not the way my mind works. I saw this man in a world of women, because there are no other men, really, in the story. There is his brother, but they only talk on the phone. He’s not a real presence. There is his boss, but his boss is in Israel. Even the bird, the mynah, is female. And this guy, as my niece would say, he has issues. Woman issues. He’s been to war, he’s in his midtwenties, but in the end, he’s still a boy. He talks about gold in his pocket like it’s candy. He’s upset when he doesn’t get his flavor of Kool-Aid. That’s what I wanted to focus on. Maybe something in my head said, If you make it into two hundred pages, that idea would get lost.

You know, I am fascinated by these small Japanese figures called netsuke. There is one I have of a woman standing with a pot, and sitting on a little stool beside her is a man. The sense you get is that it’s her husband, and she’s about to pour him, I would think, tea. You look at that, and you can just begin from there, thinking of a story. There’s another one, it’s a geisha figure, brown—the coloring of the whole figure is brown—but it has a cat face. Just lovely, lovely, lovely. At times I have told my students about the importance of having a beginning, a middle, and an ending, but sometimes I think you can make a story out of just about anything.

INTERVIEWER

But it is important to you that your stories have a climax.

JONES

Yeah, everything has to move toward that. Some people have said that some of my stories don’t have an ending. I always feel that there is one. It might be sort of muted, but it’s there. You know, sometimes you wake up with an idea in the morning, and it’s so strong for you that you just start working, and you have no idea where you’re going to end up, and the result, of course—because you have such energy and inspiration, you go too quickly—is that you end up with something flat, without an ending, without a climax.

That is why I like to live with a story, so I can come up with the climactic moment before I start writing. With students I’ve used the example of a car going from Washington to Baltimore. That’s always going to be your destination, Baltimore, and sometimes you might come upon a sign of a town you’d never known about and you’ll take a detour. That happens when you’re writing a story. There are people that crop up, incidents that crop up, that you hadn’t really envisioned, but the thing is, you will always get back on the road to Baltimore. That is the kind of promise you’ve made to the reader. If you set up house in that little town you didn’t know about, that’s not part of the contract.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about autobiography? Would you ever write one?

JONES

I don’t like writing anything about my own life, but after Lost in the City came out, a local paper published an article about me. I got to be friendly with the reporter, and one time she offered to take me down to an office-supply store and get some printing materials. She came with her two kids and they were in the backseat. Really nice kids and all. So then she took me back home, and she’s sitting there, driving, and I’m there, the kids are in the back, and I just reached back to sort of tickle their legs, you know, to say good-bye, and she looked at me as if I were molesting them. And I just thought, Jeez. I carried that for a long, long time. And the only way I could get it out was to include that in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” when his sister takes him back. And you know, he’s happy. He didn’t think he would want to be around these people, his family, but he had a good time. And they take him back to the place where he’s living on N Street, and he does one of those little things, trying to tickle their legs, and his sister looks at him with the same sort of look. And he’s sunk.

INTERVIEWER

Because you can’t ever recover from that.

JONES

I felt a tad better, though, after I wrote it.

INTERVIEWER

One of the things that’s so beautiful about your writing is that you really care about everybody. I think I read something where you said, Why make the white person more evil—to create villains?

JONES

When I got to the part in The Known World where they take Augustus in the night and send him back into slavery, my thinking has always been that I could have stayed with him in the wagon, with the other people who have been kidnapped, and ended the chapter just like that. But I thought my task had to do with Travis, the man who had made the decision to sell Augustus. I came up with the story where Travis had gone months before to collect a debt from this large man, a very large man, and this large guy had had Augustus make a chair. And as the large guy sits, the chair never complains. It won’t even complain when it has to carry another hundred pounds from the man. He leaves the room and Travis goes to inspect the chair. And Travis knew that in his whole life, he could never do that. He could never create a chair like that. Envy is zealous. The want, the need, the envy, it sometimes leads to horrible things, like sending Augustus back into slavery.

INTERVIEWER

“Bad Neighbors” is a story about envy. Why do you think that that’s such a prevalent emotion for people?

JONES

Because we never really get satisfied. Which is why people accumulate thirty, forty cars, accumulate women, or clothing. Because you’re never really satisfied. But I don’t sit down and think greatly about any human emotions when I write. It’s all about—the woman’s walking out of a cornfield, and far behind her is a burning house. And she walks out of a cornfield and the front of her dress is bloody, and she is holding a gun. She walks up to the door of another house. And the sense the reader should have is that this is not her house. But she doesn’t knock, she simply opens the door. For me, because I’m a movie person, it’s about what you can see. The emotions will just flow from that. What is this all about—the gun, the blood, the burning house in back of her, and the house that’s not hers in front of her?

Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “There’s no great art in confusing the reader.” That’s one of the laws you live by. Make it plain. Make it plain all the way through. Starting from “Once upon a time.” The emotions are indeed there, but you need not express them with neon lights.

INTERVIEWER

You said you don’t give your students things to read?

JONES

No, because I can tell that Katherine Anne Porter’s “Noon Wine,” for example, would be lost on them. I mean, they’re intelligent, but that story was written in the time when television was not a factor, the Internet was not a factor. When people sat down and crafted work. One of my students, when we had our conference, was telling me about a story in this new anthology of flash fiction. In the story, this guy is on a train and all these things start happening, and he has interactions with various passengers, and then at the end of it, he feels his head against the cold window of the train and he wakes up. So all of that was a dream. Now, I thought we had gotten over that. I mean, shoot. So that’s what they’re reading. If you give them something like “Gimpel the Fool” . . . I don’t want to spend a half hour or forty-five minutes talking about why Singer did this and why he did that. I would just rather do their stories.

INTERVIEWER

If I was going to start writing short stories, what would you tell me to read for inspiration?

JONES

What I would do, I would start with the Bible. Not for any religious rea- sons, but for all the stories. I mean, you have Lot. And an angel comes to his door. He doesn’t know it’s an angel, but it’s a visitor and you’re supposed to treat visitors like royalty. Well, the townsmen in that story come up, and they tell Lot to send out the visitor so that they can molest him. Well the visitor is royalty, so Lot gives them his daughter. You can come up with something comparable in the twenty-first century. Hell, that’s one of the reasons why I watched those court things, when I had a TV. Judge Judy had a case where a woman took her ex-husband to court because she wanted money to pay for the burial of their son. And it comes out, in court, that the father possibly knew who killed his son, but because he didn’t want to be a snitch, he didn’t say. Now, you can see the mother’s side of it, of course. But what is it in a man that he could say, I love my son, but there’s a code. I can’t break the code. That’s the stuff literature is made of. Stupid codes where love means nothing.