Tayari Jones: The TNB Self-InterviewBy Tayari Jones
May 02, 2011
How much of this is autobiography? Is your father really a bigamist?
The dedication to my book is: “To my parents, who, to the best of my knowledge, are married only to each other.” It’s funny—when it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. For fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth.
Yes, that’s exactly what I am trying to do. What is it about your life that made you write this story?
Well, I do have a sister, but she’s not a secret—but she didn’t grow up with me. I think that many people have siblings with whom they share just one parent. I used to say “half sister”, until my nephew asked me to stop. “There are no half-people,” he said. “Am I your half-nephew?” So I really changed the way I talk about this situation. My sisters—there are two of them—lived so large in my imagination. I grew up in a house of boys, so the idea that I had sisters out there was really attractive to me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I wondered what they thought about me. After all, I was the one who grew up in the same house with my dad. I had a whole different life.
You write from the point of view of both daughters– the “legitimate” daughter and the secret daughter. Was one character easier to access than the other?
Not really. Each character had her challenges. With Dana, it was hard to keep from wandering into “woe is me territory”. I mean, she has a serious set of issues—she is forbidden to tell anyone who her dad is and she keeps running into her sister all over town and the sister has no idea and seems to be having the time of her life. It wasn’t hard at all for me to tap into the part of myself that feels overlooked and unappreciated. I mean, in real life, I am a daughter in a family of sons. But what was tricky was being open to the idea that Dana enjoyed particular advantages. I have to write Dana as a full person and not just as an indictment of her dad.
Writing Chaurisse was hard because I wrote her second. I was so used to hearing Dana’s take that I had to make myself listen to Chaurisse’s assessment of her own life. Guess what, she didn’t wake up every day counting her privileges. She believed herself to have an ordinary life and ordinary lives are stressful.
Fair enough. But what about bigamy? James gets Gwen to marry him although she knows he’s already married. And you write it as though it makes sense. Or a kind of sense, at least. What gives?
I have never been married, I’ll give you that. But I think we have all been in a situation where you knew—or suspected—that you didn’t have your lover’s undivided attention…
Awkward. Okay, let’s move on to publishing this book. Was it hard?
Yes, it was hard, nearly as hard as writing the book. I tried to get a contract for this book on just 100 pages and I wasn’t successful. It was rejected all over town. I was discouraged, to say the least. Can you imagine trying to finish a novel that has basically been pre-rejected? I had to sit down and decide what kind of writer I was. Was I writing to publish, or because I felt that this story needed to be written? I had to go back to the place where I was when I wrote my first novel—not sure that it would ever see the light of day. It was a tough experience, but a beautiful one, too. It showed me what I’m made of.
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is what’s next for every writer. The next book. The next project. It never changes. We’re always climbing that mountain, every single one of us.
I loved your first book. After finishing it, I knew you were a true blue author. One that would come back again and again with a story that would make me take notice. I have recommended The Untelling to many different people. I know Silver Sparrow is going to be unforgettable too. I wish you every success as an author until you reach the unreachable star that you wish to reach. By the way, luv that photo. Hope it’s the one on the flap of the book or on the back of the book. Thanks for being you.
I cannot wait to read it, Tayari. Just finished my master’s thesis, so I have time to read!! And my partner pre-ordered Silver Sparrow for me as a present. It better get here soon :).
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