Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Edward P. Jones on Washington, High and Low, in "All Aunt Hagar's Children"
(This article originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in October 2006)
In 2004, Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Known World,” which told the story of a freed slave who himself owns slaves in pre-Civil War Virginia. Jones has just published “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” (Amistad, $26), a nuanced collection of short stories covering the African-American community in his native Washington, D.C. over the last hundred years.
In Jones’s stories, Washington is seen by Southern blacks as a golden land of opportunity. The characters come from both high and low, from the strivers of “Bad Neighbors,” whose children will become doctors and lawyers, to an ex-con meeting up with a drug-addicted girlfriend in a battered residential hotel in “Old Boys, Old Girls.” For Jones, the African-American community of the city is a small village of courtesies and customs imported from the South, that dilute with each new generation. Though the language is rich, the life stories of the characters are often stark, with brutal domestic situations and love affairs not surviving the test of time. For Jones, even in the best homes, there is an emotional barrenness.
Jones, 56, was born and raised in Washington, where he still lives. Educated at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass, Jones is the author of the story collection “Lost in the City.” He has taught creative writing at many colleges and universities, including Princeton. Jones spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from a hotel in New York City.
Q. Most of the stories in this collection deal with the southern histories of your characters. Why?
A. This was intentional. Most of the people I knew in D.C. were first generation from the South. They came from East Coast states, particularly Virginia and North Carolina. My mother was born in Virginia and raised in North Carolina. Most people came up to D.C. for opportunity, but I gave the characters different reasons for coming up from the South. I wanted to disperse the immigrants that came up to D.C., so I often made them come from states I’d never been to, like Mississippi.
Q. When you were growing up in 1950s Washington, were the southern roots strong?
A. There was a southernness to the people, to the adults. They passed some of it on, as much as they could to the children. A lot of us went down to the South as children for the summer.
Q. You write about a diverse groups of people,from the upwardly mobile doctors and lawyers to gangsters, con-men and battered women on downward spirals. Why?
A. You never want to be a one-note writer. I would never want my characters to be all of one class. Everything is out of my own imagination. I think it is cheating to take things out of your own life and the lives of people you know, or to sit on the bus and take notes. That’s maybe why it takes me longer to write stories because I am starting from nothing.
Q. In the story “Common Law,” the children playing in the street shame an abusive husband into fleeing the neighborhood. Does this sense of community exist anymore in Washington?
A. I don’t know if these communities exist now or if that situation would have really happened. When you write fiction, you try to make it real. I don’t think that kind of thing happens anymore. In the South, people looked out for each other. Whatever sense of community they had, they brought North. I don’t think that’s there anymore. The older people have died out.
Q. In your story “Bad Neighbors,” you detail African-American class conflicts on one city block. It’s a sad story. Many of the other stories pair love with domestic violence and infidelity. Why?
A. That’s the way I see life. There are not a lot of nice moments in it. I am only trying to be true to the circumstances of the world.
Q. In one of the most touching stories in the collection, “Adam Robinson Acquires Some Grandparents and A Little Sister,” a wounded foster child is saved by his elderly grandfather, who is also redeemed by the boy. Where did the story come from?
A. Adam Robinson was a minor character in my early short-story collection. I don’t like really like writing stories where children are put in danger. In this story I could put Adam with grandparents who were solid and decent people. The title of the story may tell you what happens, but the story is how you get there.
Q. In the title piece, you have a Korean War veteran investigating a murder. Could you tell me about the character?
A. As my niece says, he essentially has “issues,” and at the center of that is his relationship with women. Besides him, all the men in the story are offstage. Even the dog and bird in the story are female. My hope was that I could bring him forth and he would be able to see what a wrong path he was on. Men are like children, and often have to be brought in to become full men. He spends most of the story thinking that he is going to go to Alaska and is going to fill his pockets with gold, like filling his pockets with candy. He should know better, after seeing the horrors of war.
Q. Do you ever put yourself in the characters you write about?
A. For me, it is never like putting oneself in the characters. It is always that things are being shown as if it were a movie. You have to sit there and tell the story in the best words possible of what is being shown. You can’t step into somebody’s shoes because the danger is that you will miss something. Even in the stories that I write in the first person, the viewpoint has to take in the entire scene.