From the Women’s Prize Archives.
Tayari Jones won the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction with An American Marriage. We caught up with Tayari to discuss writing characters that feel real, broaching the impact of mass incarceration and why Toni Morrison is her obsession.
The characters in An American Marriage are incredibly three-dimensional, all worthy of empathy and all carrying their own burdens. How did you go about creating such finely wrought characters?
The key was to keep reminding myself of the golden rule: a good novel is about people and their problems, not problems and their people. When dealing with an issue like wrongful incarceration, it’s easy to make the characters symbolic – I could have made Roy brave and noble in the face of racism. Celestial could have been long-suffering and true. But that’s boring and it doesn’t answer the questions of how we live today. So I decided to write them as real as possible. I wanted to ask questions, not make a point.
Your book examines a wrongfully incarcerated man and examines how he, his wife, and their families deal with the fallout – what inspired you to write about this?
Sometimes novels start with a lightning-bolt moment. I know that a lot of people have just started thinking about the toll of mass incarceration, but I have always lived with the threat of injustice and prison. Prison was the bogey man that frightened little kids and grown men alike. I guess you don’t need a lightning bolt when it’s been raining all your life.
But that said, I found The Who and The How of the story by chance. I was in a shopping mall, and I heard a couple arguing. They were in love and in trouble. She said, “Roy you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he shot back, “This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”
I was intrigued by the complexity and intensity of their disagreement. I went home and started to write.
Can you tell us a little about the research you did to enable you to write about the personal/ individual effects of mass incarceration?
When I first started writing An American Marriage, I was on fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. I read many sociological texts about the history of incarceration and race in the US. But I didn’t really feel inspired. I was outraged, and very well informed, but I didn’t feel engaged in the personal way that fiction requires. Then, Dave Eggers sent me Surviving Justicea collection of oral histories of wrongfully incarcerated men. From their stories, I started to think about the minutiae of deprivation, the small details that capture the emotional experience of prison.
When writing An American Marriage, did you find your characters write your plot, or the other way around?
Well, I knew that Roy was wrongfully imprisoned and I knew he would be released. So, I guess that’s the plot. But what happened next is completely determined by the personalities of Celestial, Roy, and Andre. Who can say which was the more significant factor?
Which women writers most inspire your work and why?
My reverence for and obsession with Toni Morrison is neither subtle nor moderate. She is the greatest living writer. I often think of the way that she is able to elevate the lives of ordinary people into myth. She is a magician.
What are you working on now?
What am I working on? Or maybe the question is “what is working on me?” I have just moved back home to Atlanta after being away in New York for over a decade. The city is not the place where I grew up, but it’s also my hometown and I will always be a daughter of this city. I am working on a novel about returning home and asking the question – can you go back?