Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are living lives they always dreamed of, until Roy is incarcerated for a crime that Celestial knows he didn’t commit. That’s the crux of “An American Marriage,” the fourth novel – and first in six years – by Tayari Jones. Jones burst onto the literary scene with 2002’s “Leaving Atlanta,” inspired by the Atlanta child murders, and she hasn’t looked back. Before her Feb. 28 appearance at Square Books, Jones answered questions about her new book.
You’ve gone six years between novels. Was this one particularly tough to write, or do you just take your time?
This one was rough! I had to rewrite it three times— each with a different point of view. I finally spread all 1,500 pages out on the floor and chose the best pages from each version. After that, I had a draft that was about 80 percent complete. It took me another year to sort out the last 50 pages or so.
Where did the idea for “An American Marriage” come from?
Like everybody, I have not felt good about the way things seem to be going in our country. So many injustices, large and small. I wanted to use my talents and resources to help put out the fire. So I applied for a research grant to Harvard to learn more about mass incarceration. I learned a lot, but I didn’t have a story, yet. I’m a novelist. If I don’t have characters and plot, I can’t do my work. All I had was information.
I was really despairing when my research fellowship was nearly over and I didn’t have pages to show for it. But then, in the mall, I overheard a lovers’ quarrel. The woman said, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years…” and that was the beginning.
You make a point in the press material to say this isn’t a protest novel. Is that something that concerns you – that people might take that part of the book the wrong way?
I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to read any book. But I do know my intention is to find a place of ambiguity and explore those nuances. “An American Marriage” allowed me to think about the collateral effects of a serious social issue. It allowed me to example the ripples and the way a ripple feels like a tsunami to the people it happens to.
Your novels have tackled some pretty dramatic subjects, starting with the Atlanta serial killings. Does it take a lot out of you, or can you compartmentalize when you write?
Actually, writing is a pleasure for me. There is always pleasure in life, regardless of what else is happening. My goal as a writer is to write a world and capture the full humanity of an experience— the trauma, but also the gladness.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a new novel set in Atlanta. I’m thinking third person, but I’ve written enough novels to know that stories can have minds of their own.
Tayari Jones will sign “An American Marriage” on Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. at Square Books. For more information, go to tayarijones.com.