We sat down with Authors Guild council member and author Tayari Jones to discuss her upcoming novel An American Marriage, how to balance writing and teaching, and what issues writers should be concerned about today in this Q&A originally published in the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 Authors Guild Bulletin. Interviewed by Isabel Howe.
To start, can you tell us about your next novel, An American Marriage, which will be published by Algonquin Books on February 6?
Jones: An American Marriage is a novel about a young couple who have been married for 18 months when the husband is wrongfully incarcerated. It’s not so much about incarceration; it’s about what happens after five years, when he’s released. He’s innocent; his lawyers get him out. How does he resume his life? He hasn’t spoken to his wife in two years. He sees her as the key to getting his life back. She sees herself as a person. What does it mean when someone pins all their hopes on you? What do we owe one another? How do we balance our own lives with our responsibilities to others?
In the news, the story always ends with them getting out, they’re walking out triumphantly, and you just assume all is well now. But relationships are complicated even when no one has been wrongfully incarcerated. What happens when she comes home one day and he’s on her couch?
Let’s dive into the business of being a professional writer: you do a fair amount of teaching, fellowships, judging contests and so on. These jobs are the bread and butter for a lot of writers.
Jones: I do it all. I’m an associate professor at Rutgers Univer-sity at Newark. I’m leaving soon to accept a fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. And I teach in the summer. I do lots of things, but I try to make all of my outside work writing-related. It’s the way I make a living, but it’s also how I remain a part of the community of writers. Writing is so solitary, but in all the other things I do, I meet more writers. Everything I do in my life causes me to meet another writer.
I judge a lot of contests, but I don’t judge them for the money. For one thing, judging contests does not pay very much money at all. I judge contests because I feel that it’s part of my citizenship as an author, to have my voice register. These prizes can introduce a new writer to the literary world. They can shape someone’s career. The question is, who has a hand in these things? I think we owe it to our peers, and our future peers, to participate in this type of work.
Are there parallels in your work as a teacher?
Jones: I think teaching is the same thing; you’re shaping the lives of young writers and bringing them along. Teaching is the thing I do the most. It’s my bread and butter, it’s where I get my benefits, it’s my life. It’s how I support myself. I’m very glad that I’m able to teach creative writing. It keeps my head in the game all the time. Teaching is almost like a refresher course for your own education.
When do you write? Is it possible to become too immersed in the business of being a professional writer?
Jones: I’m going to say yes and no. Yes, of course, having a job means there’s time you’re not writing, but that’s true with anything in your life. The world isn’t going to stop spinning for you to write your book. No matter who you are, no matter what situation you have, life beckons. It is challenging, sometimes, to find time to write. But I don’t have to have the whole day to write. If I can write for two or three hours in a day, I can make a lot of progress by the end of the week. Small, workable goals make progress. Even when I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my writing, so I feel like I’m writing all the time.
I think it’s a new thing, this idea that writers believe that doing anything other than writing is an imposition. Art has never been convenient for anyone. No one’s life is convenient. With artists, it seems like more of an outrage that your life is inconvenient. But it can be done.
When we tell people that they must write every day, it makes people who work, people who perform childcare, eldercare, people who have other responsibilities think, “Oh, I can never be a writer.” It makes people feel that writing is for a privileged class of people who, if they weren’t writing, would be eating bonbons. But we make the time.
Developing habits and carving out time is more important.
Jones: Slow but steady. A page a day is more than 300 pages in a year.
The majority of writers do things other than write. It drives me crazy when I’m on a panel and someone asks, “Which of you are full-time writers?,” suggesting that those of us who have day jobs are unsuccessful. Or that people who have day jobs don’t believe in themselves enough to quit. This happened just last week at a writing event. I think it comes from some kind of made-for-TV understanding of what it is to be a writer or successful. I say you’re successful based on the quality of your writing, not on whether or not you have a job.
That question really comes up?
Jones: All the time! Quite often with the people who are “writing full-time,” it’s not because they’re supporting themselves from their books; it’s that something in their life supports them. Once I was on an all-woman panel and I was the only one that had a day job — but I also was the only one who wasn’t married. Everyone else was getting applauded for not having a day job, and I’m looking like the unsuccessful one who has to go earn her living. It was so frustrating. I wanted to say, I’m not married! That’s how these other people are “writing full-time.” It’s a question people ask all the time.
How will you spend your time at the Black Mountain Institute fellowship?
Jones: I’m so excited about this fellowship. I found out about it quite by accident. It’s a year-long residence at the University of Nevada’s Black Mountain Institute, which recently bought The Believer magazine. They have a new festival, The Believer Festival, so I’ll be involved in that. I’m researching a new novel. If faculty members want me to visit their classes, I will, but mostly I’ll be working on my next book.
I admire the work the Institute is doing. They have a special emphasis on international writers and widening the scope of literature. They have one fellow who’s a “sanctuary fellow” from another country, who’s been there for three years. I’m thrilled. I leave in two weeks.
Have you had a writer-mentor?
Jones: Oh, yes. I have been so lucky in mentors and I love to talk about my first mentor. I went to college young. I was only 16. I met a writer there, a teacher, Pearl Cleage. She’s a playwright and a novelist. I feel like she set my life in this direction. We’re still close to this day. It’s been 30 years. I just had lunch with her when I was at home in Atlanta and we’re going to launch my new novel there together.
She’s a working writer. When I met her, she was teaching part-time and had all these other jobs, kids, a husband. She modeled for me the way you make your artistic life your whole life, the way you allow it to reach out into so many different directions. It wasn’t an ivory tower model of what it was to be a writer. She was motivated by the joy of story and a sense of literary citizenship. She also ran a magazine at the time. She was my first mentor and her example stays with me to this day.
Is that a role you’ve played with younger writers?
Jones: I take my teaching and my mentorship very seriously. I often tell the students I advise at Rutgers that I don’t like to talk about the professional side of writing before they’ve written their first book. Your first book is your time to write innocently, not knowing what the market wants. I tell them, I’m your mentor now and your mentor forever. When you have your book completed, I promise I will talk to you about business, but for now let’s just talk about what’s on the page.
I love that. Knowing too much about the business side can really stress out young writers and even block them from writing.
Jones: No one has ever said, “Wow, thank you for telling me that bit about the business; I feel motivated!” People always feel anxious. I tell them they can come back, because they do need that.
What motivated you to join the Authors Guild? What are your goals as a Council member?
Jones: I joined the Guild in 2011. Judy Blume suggested that I join, and one does what Judy Blume wants you to do. As a member, I learned about so many resources. Part of what I want to do as a member of the Council is to work on recruitment, so other authors know about the Guild, what it does, and what it has to offer. I live right here in New York and I did not know. I think there are a lot of people who would be excited to join and belong. There’s power in numbers.
With so many of us writers having other employment, we forget that we’re also a united class of writers. I belong to organizations about being a teacher; I belong to three or four such organizations. Writing is so solitary, I often forget that I’m part of that class as well.
What other ideas do you have for the Authors Guild Council’s work?
Jones: I think each of us has something else we’re good at. For me, I’m such a people person and I’m plugged into a lot of different communities that may not be plugged into the Guild. I really want recruitment to be my wheelhouse, to make our group bigger, stronger, more diverse.
There are so many people who identify as writers and who are living as writers. In Mississippi, in Alabama, in Georgia, where I’m from. I would love to see us have more regional outreach.
Over the decades, the Guild has addressed many hot-button issues in the publishing industry, such as photocopying, licensing, censorship, the rise of e-books and piracy. What do you see as a central issue today? What worries you, as a writer?
Jones: I always think about the question of access. I am very concerned about people who don’t live in New York, people who don’t have mentors and don’t know the way in. There are so many important stories being written by people who don’t know the way in. That has always bothered me. You cannot apply for or go for things you haven’t heard of.
When I was a little baby writer, I had never heard of so many things. I can’t remember how I found out about the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, but I went. Other people were talking about all kinds of opportunities that I’d never heard of. I went to my room and I cried into my hands, because I thought, how will I ever catch up? I’m not from the background that a lot of these people have. I have a story, but I don’t know how to do things.
You don’t even know where to look. I found out about so many things because I bought this book from PEN with grants and awards available to American writers. I would read it every day and circle things and apply for all manner of things. If I hadn’t stumbled upon that book — such a simple resource, that book.
When I was a young writer, back when people used to blog, I had a blog that was all about getting the word out. That was my whole reason for living, getting the word out to people who weren’t plugged in. There are so many stories; so many people have so much to say. There’s no one without a voice. We have to help amplify these voices. That, for me, is my ongoing issue.
The Internet doesn’t always help. There’s too much information out there and people can take false turns.
Jones: There are so many people scamming on writers who don’t know, who are just trying. I want to be a champion for the people who are outside. Save the young people; save the new people! Save the people who are not young in years but who are young in this career.
Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow and An American Marriage, forthcoming from Algonquin Books in February 2018. She has written for The New York Times, Tin House, The Believer and Callaloo. Her awards and honors include the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute.
Photo credit: Nina Subin