“When love calls, you better answer”—at least, that’s what Atlantic Starr once told us. But what happens when Oprah calls? The Glow Up asked writer Tayari Jones, who got the call from the great and powerful O in October when her latest novel, An American Marriage, was chosen as the first Oprah’s Book Club selection of 2018.
So what does Oprah say when she calls to give someone life-changing news?
“She says, ‘Hi, this is Oprah.’ That’s what she says,” Jones said, laughing. “And then she politely waits for you to get your whole freakout on. She patiently waits and then, when she’s decided that’s enough freakout time, she gets on to business.”
That “business” is a major breakthrough for Jones, whose first novel, Leaving Atlanta, won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Crafting An American Marriage, which debuted last week to critical acclaim, was a slow and arduous journey, spanning six of the seven years since her last (also critically acclaimed) novel, Silver Sparrow.
“I thought I couldn’t work this book out,” Jones said. “I thought I’d chosen a project that was too emotionally and morally ambitious, and I couldn’t work it out.”
Her journey began with a desire to engage more of the issues of the day in her writing—specifically issues surrounding wrongful incarceration, which she researched extensively during a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard in 2011. But though she became informed, she says she didn’t feel inspired:
It didn’t spark me as an artist, and I think it’s because when it comes to issues like wrongful incarceration, there’s only one side to that story. There’s no other side to it; it’s just wrong. And something with only one side, to me, is not dynamic enough to support 300 pages of a novel; you need ambiguity, you need adventure, you need—just so many things—but I didn’t have any of those things.
But inspiration often comes in unlikely places. For Jones, it arrived in a mall food court in her native Atlanta when she overheard a couple arguing at a nearby table. Jones took note of the physical differences between the two—the woman was very well put-together, clearly doing better than the man with whom she was engaged in a heart-wrenching discussion within earshot of Jones:
She said, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he said, “I don’t know what you talkin’ about; this shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place”... and I thought, that is really, in many ways, the heart of the African-American man-woman disconnect. He needs from her this kind of unconditional support, and she doesn’t believe that if the tables were turned that he would behave the same way. And he feels like, “These tables don’t turn, so it’s moot!” And I just felt like both of them deserved a full story, and that’s how I started.
What that overheard conversation inspired is a beautiful and sometimes brutally honest novel about love, loss, hope, redemption, the secrets we keep from those we claim to love, and what Jones feels is the fundamental disconnect and danger facing black heterosexual relationships in a country so deeply invested in both racism and the prison-industrial complex—and, consequently, the effects of wrongful incarceration on relationships, as Jones explained to The Glow Up: “I’m really curious about the residual effects; about what we owe one another; about the way this affects gender dynamics in our community.”
The title of An American Marriage refers to the union of Roy and Celestial, an upwardly mobile African-American couple whose young marriage is ripped apart by wrongful incarceration—a misidentification that Roy pays for with years of his innocent life.
What ensues during those years confronts the reader’s most deeply held beliefs about fidelity, obligation and, most important, love. It also addresses the paradox that can be created when the deep inequities in our justice system intersect with the double standards that often permeate our relationships.
Originally writing from Celestial’s point of view as a prisoner’s wife, Jones found that her character’s choices and behavior didn’t meet early readers’ expectations. “Everyone [was] upset at the mere concept of this book,” she said. “And I think that’s so often the case when it comes to people looking at women’s responsibilities. Any time you deviate from what they consider to be the norm, then it’s over. There’s so little room for her to be respected in her choices.”
Changing course, she attempted the story from Roy’s perspective as an innocent man behind bars. “When I came at it from his point of view, it was more conventional,” Jones said. “It didn’t feel challenging enough, and that’s when I decided to write it from all of their points of view, because you want your book to add to the conversation, not just reiterate a conversation that’s already happened.”
The result is a will-they-or-won’t-they story told through the lens of not only Roy and Celestial but also members of their immediate family and close friend Andre, who occupies one corner of a love triangle that has perhaps always existed in the couples’s relationship—a relationship complicated by race, disrupted by time and perhaps always destined to challenge convention, as Jones discovered in the writing:
There are so many novels by white women that involve women trying to break free of the bounds of tradition, but I realized that in the white women’s novels, the man is not in any trouble. So when she frees herself or changes the terms of her marriage, or what have you, because the man isn’t in trouble, you don’t worry about him, so her freedom isn’t tied to anyone else.
But with the black situation, the man is in trouble, so that if you reprioritize where his safety is not the first thing, or his care is not the first thing or the only thing on your list, there are consequences, because he actually needs you. And that is what makes Celestial’s situation so complicated, but it’s what makes it different than those other books.
But while the characters Jones has created are realistically flawed, there are no true villains in An American Marriage, only different interpretations of a tragic situation. That ambiguity is what makes the narrative so intriguing from start to finish—though Jones almost didn’t finish, finding herself “stranded” 50 pages from the end. She even began considering career paths other than her role as a professor at Rutgers University because “three-quarters of a book is the same as no book at all.”
“I felt like I was in a boat,” she said. “I could see the shore, and I could not get there. Like, someone had stolen my oar, and it was very frustrating.”
Though An American Marriage is Jones’ fourth published work, she is very clear on the fact that the writing process is overwhelming, especially if you aren’t able to dedicate yourself to it full time.
“They always tell writers, ‘Oh, you should write every day,’” she said. “And I think that people need to stop saying that, because I feel that it’s discouraging to busy people—you know, to people who work—working people.”
Jones wrote her first book on a desk in her clothes closet—with the clothes still hanging there. She stresses that patience is key: “If you can put in an hour three times a week, you can write your book. It’ll take you longer, but I just think it’s consistency, and you’ll get it done.”
Jones should know; An American Marriage is a six-year labor of love that is well-deserving of the mounting accolades it’s receiving. But it’s a triumph Jones readily shares with the community that has sustained her throughout her writing career:
You know what has been really delightful about this experience? You know, I’ve been writing a long time, and it’s been beautiful to share this with the people who were reading me all the time. I feel like we did this together. I feel like this victory is ours together. Black women, we don’t throw our people away.
And as we ended our conversation, Jones also made sure to share the words of her longtime mentor, acclaimed writer and playwright Pearl Cleage:
[She told me,] “When you write, always tell the truth.” And when I write about the community that I know—the community that I grew up in—what I try to do is an honest portrayal of the people. And I love them, so I think that love comes through. And I think that when we write about our experiences—not worrying about what it’s going to look like to other people, not worrying if other people will be in on the jokes—I think that what you end up with is a deeply American, deeply black, deeply true story.