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Quick Take: Tayari Jones, 'An American Marriage' and Oprah

The Black Mountain Institute fellow talks storytelling, social issues, and that fateful call for Oprah's Book Club.

People  |  Mar 22, 2018  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
Oprah Winfrey with her arm around Tayari Jones

Oprah Winfrey, left, gave her stamp of approval to author Tayari Jones' latest book by selecting it for her book club. (Victoria Will)

Editor's Note: 

Jones will participate in The Believer Festival,  a two-day roving celebration of writing, music, and visual arts, April 13 & 14 in Las Vegas. Admission to three of the events is free, but RSVP is required. More information is available on The Believer website.

Ever since her undergraduate days at Spelman College, best-selling author Tayari Jones knew she wanted to write for a living. What she didn’t know was one day, her fourth novel, An American Marriage, would be critically acclaimed and a 2018 Oprah’s Book Club selection.

Jones isn’t new to nabbing awards, but getting a literary nod from Oprah Winfrey is a whole new experience — one that can grow readership exponentially and catapult a book to international best-seller lists.

Jones is the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, a program that brings accomplished authors to campus for an academic year to write and contribute to the local cultural landscape.

The author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow, Jones is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. And she’ll be inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame this fall.

Between stops on her 35-event book tour for An American Marriage, Jones explains what that fateful call from Oprah means for her already celebrated writing career.

What was your reaction to Oprah’s call?

I was driving down Maryland Parkway when my phone rang. I had it hooked up to my radio, so after I said, ‘Hello,’ a voice in surround sound said, ‘HELLO, THIS IS OPRAH.’ I knew it was her. I would know that timbre anywhere. I must admit that my response wasn’t exactly dignified. I kept saying, ‘Oh my goodness!’ You have to keep in mind that I am not a person who gets lucky. I’ve never even won a raffle before!

You’ve woven mass incarceration and a love triangle into An American Marriage. What was the inspiration for the book?

I started this project six years ago when I was doing research on mass incarceration. But I wasn’t artistically inspired by the statistics and hard facts. I am a storyteller. I needed a story to capture my imagination. One day I overheard a young couple arguing in the mall. They were in love and in trouble. I heard her say, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ And after that, it was off to the races!

How has the Oprah Book Club selection changed your career trajectory?

I don’t know yet what the effects will be over the long haul, but I do know that I have enjoyed a much larger readership already. I also am aware of the responsibility that comes with being an Oprah’s Book Club author. When she put that ‘O’ on my book cover, she was lending me her good name to support this project. I want to make sure that my travels with this book help further her mission of literacy, but more specifically, I hope that this book increases our empathy and concern for incarcerated people and their families — issues that both Oprah Winfrey and I are very invested in.

What’s your writing process?

I like to write in the morning, when the saw is quiet and clean. No email has come in. No phone calls. 5 a.m. is the perfect time of day. But of course, real life has a way of butting in, and I often write when I can — snatches of time here and there.

Tell us about your experience at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute.

BMI is such a gift to a writer like me. I’ve been able to spend the first semester of my fellowship making some real progress on my next project. It has been such a pleasure to fellowship with the other writers-in-residence — such kind, brilliant people! And I have also been wowed by (retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice) Miriam Shearing, who funds my fellowship. She is such an inspiration.

Share a highlight of your book tour.

My hometown event in Atlanta was a dream come true. My fifth grade teacher was there with a whole carton of books. I hadn’t seen her in 35 years, but I would know her everywhere. She said she was proud of me, and I almost cried!

Who are you reading? What’s on your nightstand?

My nightstand is a very crowded place! I’ve got White Houses by Amy Bloom, Electric Arches by Eve Ewing, Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. And that’s just what’s on the nightstand. Don’t get me started with the stacks on the floor.

You’re a Southern writer. What do you most want readers to know about the South?

I want them to know that we are a vibrant and modern society. We are steeped in history, and yes, we put a lot of sugar in our tea, but don’t count us out. We have a lot to say.

When did you know writing would be your profession?

I loved writing all my life, but I didn’t know it could be my life until I went to Spelman College and took a class from Pearl Cleage. She modeled for me an artist’s life. I knew that I wanted to do what she did. She took me under her wing, and I have been there ever since.

You are an associate professor in the MFA program at Rutgers University-Newark. If you could, would you place An American Marriage on your syllabus? If so, why?

I would never teach my own book because I think it would make the students feel weird if they didn’t like it. But I hope other people do. I would like to see more conversations about how race and class intersect.