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Interview Edward P. Jones

At last we came upon what we wanted –- a large white house, a wood-pile nearly as high as the house and a negro man chopping wood for dear life. Through a big front yard full of shrubbery, a wide graveled walk and circular drive-way led up to the house, and in a few minutes our ambulance was in front of the veranda. The lieutenant sprang out and went up the steps. A gray-headed negro butler answered his knock.
‘Wanter see master, sah? Yes, sah. Won't you step right in, sah?’
‘I haven't time to stop a minute unless I can get lodgings for the night. I have ladies in the ambulance. Ask your master if he will be good enough to see me at the door for a minute.’
Sambo bowed, made haste backward, and almost immediately an old gentleman appeared.
‘Certainly, sir, certainly,’ he said, interrupting the lieutenant in the middle of his application. ‘Bring the ladies right in, sir.’
And he helped to bring us in himself. Servants of all kinds appeared as if by magic from all quarters, and took charge of our trunks, satchels, ambulance, and driver.

- A Virginia Girl in the Civil War, 1861-1865: Being a Record of the Actual Experiences of the Wife of a Confederate Officer

Edward P. Jones
Stacey Knecht

The Known World
Lost in the City

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SK — The Known World is not actually your first book. That was Lost in the City, a collection of short stories. Lost in the City was about ‘now’, The Known World is about ‘then’. What made you turn back to the 19th century?

EPJ — Well, I was thinking about what I’d do next and I remembered from college this one fact about black slaveowners – one line I read someplace, maybe it was even a footnote – and decided to graft a book around it. I thought I had enough imagination to pull it off.

SK — I have to admit, I was really surprised to hear about the existence of black slaveowners. It had never occurred to me that such a thing was possible. Do you remember how you first reacted?

EPJ — I was surprised too, of course, because up till then it was just black and white. You know, it’s not often that I mention this, but way back in high school, I read this very thin paperback about an American Jew who had sort of lost himself. I can’t remember all the details, maybe he lost his identity or something, and he had joined the American Nazi Party. I was struck by the fact that someone would take up with people who, if they had known who he was, would’ve murdered him. And that they were in the business of seeing that his family and everyone else associated with him ended up dead as well. I don’t remember the circumstances, I don’t even remember what happened to him, but just the whole idea that he would join them like that – it impressed me deeply. I’d kind of like to find that book again, but I can’t remember the title. The book was certainly in the back of my mind while writing The Known World.

SK — One question that kept coming back to me, while reading this novel, was: how ‘free’ was a ‘free slave’?

EPJ — I don’t really know. I didn’t do a lot of research on the book. The only thing I knew was what I knew before the idea of writing the book came to me. And I had my own assumptions, of course. When I first set out to write this book, that was back in ’92, I had about 40 books I was planning on reading, all background material. Out of all those books, I read maybe 40-something pages. One thing I do remember reading in those 40 pages, and I put that in my novel, was about this Virginia law in 1807, which said that if you became free, you had to leave the state. So I assume if a society feels that way, it couldn’t have been a good thing. It certainly wouldn’t have been a free society for people supposedly free.

SK — They didn’t seem to have any kind of protection, either, once they were free.

EPJ — No. As I said, it wasn’t anything I read about, but I just figure that if what stands between you and slavery is a mere piece of paper that says you’re a free person… I mean, paper is, you know… I’ve had five new stories published since this book came out: four in the New Yorker and one in Grant Street, which no longer exists. The story in Grant Street was about a little boy who is given a five-dollar bill by his grandmother. He doesn’t trust it, because all he’s ever known is coins. He thinks it can fly away, it could burn, it could tear. It’s the same with ‘free papers’: they’re nothing. They’re paper.

SK — Unless people back them up.

EPJ — Yes. Unless the society backs them up.

SK — And of course, in those days, if somebody were abused on the road, if their papers were taken away, they couldn’t just whip out their cell phones and call the police. It could go completely unpunished. And unknown.

EPJ — Yes. You could take a person and if you’re white you could take him someplace else and say he was your slave, and your word was law, because of who you were. The black person had no say.

SK — What was the advantage to whites to free their slaves?

EPJ — I don’t know. That’s something I never researched. There were actually some advantages to not doing too much research: if I’d read all those 40 books I may never have written this one! My head would be so full and I’d have way too many notes. That can hamper your imagination.

SK — So you made most of this up? The place, the people, the official documents and pamphlets and modern-day authorities you quote from? There’s even a 19th-century census report!

EPJ — Made it all up. But I’ll tell you how I got the names of those authorities, the historians. You see, there were certain people I wanted to acknowledge. I don’t particularly like books where they take two or three pages to thank everybody: the butcher, and the woman who does their toenails and fingernails… I wanted to keep it very short. There were three people I wanted to acknowledge, people who were somehow connected with the years when I was writing the book. People like Kim Woodford, down in Lynchburg, Virginia, who taught me how to drive when I was in graduate school. I wanted to find a way to thank him. I’d already made up a number of ‘historians’, they were right there in the book, but they didn’t have any names yet. So I phoned these three people and asked if they minded if I used their names. Kim Woodford teaches high school English and Latin and coaches basketball. He’s certainly never written a book about Manchester County, because Manchester County doesn’t exist! And everything I said about it, all the facts and figures, are made up. I was going to read all those books I mentioned and then go down and visit Kim in Lynchburg and use his county as a setting for the novel. But I never got around to doing that, kept putting it off. At the last moment I had to create my own place. One of the ways you can make that place real for people is to create a Census, so that’s what I did.

SK — The opposite is true of your first book, Lost in the City. The stories in that book are firmly rooted in a real place: there are many references to actual streets and neighborhoods in Washington DC. Did you find, as a writer, that creating your own, fictional county gave you more freedom?

EPJ — Yes, but I didn’t realize that at first. I thought it would be extremely difficult to create a place out of nothing. I was worried about that at the beginning, but what I realize now is, you give readings and there’s questions and answers…. I’ve never read in Lynchburg, but let’s say I did, and some guy in the audience stands up and says, ‘Mr. Jones, are you aware that on page 217 you say this about that, and that is not true! I know this county, I was born in this county and I’ve studied this county’s history, and that’s just not true!’ Well, no one in the universe can say that about Manchester County!
Anyway, we were talking about names. I’m not very good at names. I don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about them, just want to get on with the book. My characters are usually doing what they’re doing long before I’ve named them. If you happen to come up with a name you can live with, that’s what you do. If you’ve ever read 19th-century novels, you know they had names like Zeus, and Patience, Caldonia... But it can also be very arbitrary. For instance, in The Known World I originally had these two main characters: Augustus and Adolphus. My editor was concerned that there were two major characters with such similar names, might be confusing for the reader. So I said I liked Augustus best and I changed Adolphus to Moses, don’t remember why. My mother used to say, Well, things happen for a reason. So here I was able to include that little song, ‘Come on outa there, Mr. Moses man, Come on out and lead us to the Promise Land…’, and the irony of course is that he’s far from being a Moses.

SK — He’s more of a Moses-in-reverse, in charge of all these people, but in a very negative way.

EPJ — Yes. One of the stories in Lost in the City is ‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons’. I was trying to think of a name for the girl, a very strong girl, and I came up with the name ‘Betsy Ann’, which was the name of a childhood friend. A stutterer, very thin, picked on by everybody. It seemed to be a good idea to put this name on a strong girl, ‘cause it would’ve been nice of Betsy Ann could’ve been like that.

SK — The female characters in The Known World are generally very strong and determined.

EPJ — That’s just sort of the way they come out, that’s the way I always see them. My mother, you know, she had a hard time, but she was strong. So you sort of want to create people who might have been her. My mother was the major influence on my life, though she couldn’t read or write. She did whatever she could to put us three kids through school. Washed dishes, cleaned hotel rooms. That meant something to me.

SK — While reading this book, I often forgot who was black and who was white. I had the same experience several months ago with a book by Ivan Vladislavic, a South African writer. Obviously I’d been under the – very false – assumption – that in a book that took place in South Africa and in a book by a black writer about slaves and slavery, black would be black and white would be white. But it was more of a blur.

EPJ — That’s interesting. No one’s ever said that to me. Even if you think, black people are supposed to speak a certain way… I made sure that the white man William Robbins, who would’ve been educated, says things like, ‘She ain’t no more dead than you or me! Now hush that ruckus.’ Or, ‘I be back later. Maybe I be back tomorrow. But I want you here doin right when I get back, doin good.’ I figured, you’re all in the same world, so what you say is going to affect the way other people around you speak. The only one who doesn’t deviate from her very proper way of speaking is Fern Elston. And even Fern, if she let herself go, I suppose… but she doesn’t. Not for a moment.

SK — She was a fascinating character. On the issue of color: she’s very pale.

EPJ — She looks like a white woman, and some people think she is and never know otherwise. Her relatives have gone through life passing for white, but she has made a point of not doing that, not wanting to do that. So when she stands up for herself, she never makes a point of her skin color. It’s: I’m Fern, I would be this way even if I were dark-skinned, I will not be abused.
Sometimes people ask me questions about the book that make me realize that people are still racists.
There was one woman down in Virginia, I remember she had a German accent, and she said, ‘Well I’ve read Toni Morrison…’ She said that the black people in Toni Morrison speak as though they’re not intelligent. She was wondering why I had black people sounding so intelligent. Even though they were using ‘ain’t’ and everything! (laughs)

SK — (laughs) So what did you say?

EPJ — Well, you know, when people say something outrageous you’re sort of taken aback. You don’t know how to respond to that. Imagine, black people talking as if they were intelligent! That’s why I made sure that Jebediah Dickinson, a white man, used every bad way of speaking English that you possibly could! At the very end there’s one person who is probably the arbiter of what is right and wrong with the language, she couldn’t spell this one word! Jebediah Dickinson tells her, ‘Ain’t but one “T” in manumit. Cept when you usin the pas tense.’ (laughs). I was in Chattanooga once doing a reading, and there was this guy, he was in a wheelchair, he hadn’t read the book. Now, I read a certain section about Jebediah Dickinson, who always stood up for himself, and he said, Wasn’t I putting a 20th century sensibility on this man? As if no black person had ever stood up for himself or herself until the 20th century, until the Black Panthers came along. And you know, someone had said something similar in terms of the women being strong in those days. That wouldn’t have been the case, they said. And I said, Well, you know, I didn’t have Fern Elston running for the US Senate! I mean, I knew enough about what’s what not to do that. She’s not out there protesting and everything, she’s just the master of her own little world, and that’s it. It’s not as if I studied history to that extent, but I can’t believe that there wouldn’t have been women around like that. You hear about things. You know things. There were people who stood up for themselves.

SK — Do you, in your travels and your readings, come across a lot of these assumptions?

EPJ — Not usually. That’s why it’s always so surprising to me. This one guy suspected that everyone who was black back then was just sort of kowtowing to everyone. I tried to be very aware all the way through that no one did or said anything that sounded 20th century.

SK — At the heart of this novel is the story of Henry Townsend, who has been bought out of slavery after many years by his father, Augustus. Augustus had first had to buy his own freedom, and his wife’s. But then Henry becomes a slave owner himself, which is an enormous blow to his parents. His father says, ‘You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and legs,’ to which Henry replies, ‘Papa, I ain’t done nothin I ain’t a right to. I ain’t done nothin no white man wouldn’t do.’ Woven in and around this central, very dramatic story are numerous others – the book is filled with voices. At the back of the book is even a whole dramatis personae

EPJ — Yes, the publisher added that in the paperback edition. Thought the reader would find that helpful. I’ve met readers who keep their own list of characters at the back of the hardcover. They write the names down in pencil, with a little description.

SK — I did that with War and Peace! (laughs) It does help a bit. Of course, you can just sort of let them all wash over you, the names and stories and anecdotes. That’s what I did with The Known World, though I did find myself flipping back and forth to see if I’d missed any crucial information. After a while you get used to the non-linear style, the way a story can appear out of nowhere. Often you’ll introduce a new character, follow his or her tale through to the end – a literary tangent – and then leave that strand dangling and return to the central story.

EPJ — Someone else mentioned that once, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. I had it all in my head and I tell it in a way that I’m not really aware of. Do you have an example?

SK — There are many. Some go on for pages, like Rita, for instance, and some only last a paragraph.

EPJ — And they don’t turn up again?

SK — Not always. Mostly they just fade into the fabric of the story.

EPJ — Yesterday somebody asked me, why didn’t you tell us about what happened to Rita? It should’ve been obvious why I couldn’t do that, because Rita’s story took her to NY. And my story was in Manchester County.

SK — (laughs) But you could’ve! You’re in charge of this book.

EPJ — Not really, because the way you’re set up, you know, you can do whatever you want to do, but you set out with certain rules for yourself.

SK — What were your rules?

EPJ — For one thing, that it would all take place in Manchester County. The thing about the people Rita ended up with, the reason I let her go as far as she did, is that I was also writing about some immigrants, and their story lines came together. Same with the people who came from the Netherlands, the Irish woman, the Frenchman, the Canadian… with them, I could step out of the territory I’d made for myself. But with all the other characters it was always about Manchester County.
I think the best way I can tell you about what happened to Rita is by telling you about the kind of people she ended up with. And that’s the Irish woman who had a good heart, who wanted milk for her children, and God wouldn’t even give her that. She’s come to America, hating America, and I can’t imagine her finding this woman in a box, barely alive, and sending her back South. I can’t imagine her little boy, who is very close to his mother, thinking she should do that, either. That’s what I give you. Will I tell you about what happened after Minerva went to Philadelphia? Well, yes and no. I’m closing curtains all throughout the book.

SK — There’s a Canadian fellow in the book, a man named Anderson Frazier, who’s traveling around the country collecting information for a series of two-cent pamphlets he’s writing about ‘America and its people, especially what he called their “peculiarities”’. One of the pamphlets is about ‘free Negroes who had owned other Negroes’, and among the people he interviews, on his way through Manchester county, is Fern Elston. They’re talking, out on her front porch, and then out of the blue he asks her, ‘Have you ever been homesick, Mrs. Elston?’ Correct me if I’m wrong, but this sentence felt important to me. Seemed almost symbolic of something.

EPJ — No, not really. I think I’ve only ever been homesick once, my first few days in college. No, that was peculiar to him. I think I was trying… you just… you’re fishing around in all the things you know about life, trying to make every single person real. Anderson wasn’t as far from home as France or the Netherlands or Scandinavia, but for him, Canada would’ve been a long way away. I wanted some way of getting the reader to see who he was, and also a way for him to connect with Fern. And longing for his wife Esther, too.

SK — Are the characters in your short stories, in Lost in the City, in any way connected with the period you write about in The Known World? Do they stem from this history?

EPJ — Not literally, but my hope is that I in the stories I’m working on now – the book will come out next year – my hope is that I can somehow link the characters with the people who managed to make it to Washington. I’ll give you an example. The first story will be about a woman, a newlywed, about 19, and she’s just come to Washington. It’s 1901. Which is 55 years or so before the story takes place of ‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons’, from Lost in the City. Now, this woman is homesick… hm, maybe there is something to this homesick idea after all (laughs)… Anyway, the story is just about her and her relation to her husband. She can’t sleep, because she’s pining for Virginia, and she’ll lay down with the husband but then get up again in the middle of the night. It’s 1901, and there are gaslights… she’s out there and she gets out on the porch, there’s an apple tree in the yard, but since she’s seen it so many times, she sort of ignores it, she’s just looking out at the dark streets. And slowly she begins to realize that there’s a little bundle hanging from the tree. There’s a sound… she’s heard that there are wolves that roam the streets at night. At first she thinks it’s something wolfish in the bundle – ‘canine’, is what I say. Then – she’s come out there with a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other – then she thinks maybe it’s kittens. And then it dawns on her that it’s an infant, and that infant is Miles, the old barber who later plays an important role in ‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.’ This is where he begins.
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editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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