Here’s one of those times when social media has really proven a blessing. I met Tayari Jones through Twitter, and while I did not know her work at the time, only that she was a working writer, I have come to greatly appreciate not only her writing but also her honesty about the writing process, about challenging discussions, and about life in general. I think you’ll find you appreciate her, too.
Your new book Silver Sparrow has just been released. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
The first sentence – â€œMy father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.â€ – sort of gives a quick description of the story. Itâ€™s a novel about two sisters who have the same father. The thing is that Dana knows about Chaurisse, but Chaurisse has no idea that her father is living a double life. I decided to tell the story from both of their points of view because neither of them knows the whole story. Only the reader will.
This book took me five years to write. It was the most emotionally challengingâ€”more so even than Leaving Atlanta, although that subject matter (The Atlanta Child Murders) was of much more intense. I think that the matter of personal betrayal was far more taxing than a sort of excavation of history.
I just had the privilege of reading your first chapter, and I’m most struck by the weight the narrator, Dana, gives to naming things. In fact, she says, “It matters what you call things.” Is that something you as a woman and a writer also believe?
Yes! Language is everything. It reveals what we think, and it guides what we think. For example, an ongoing discussion I have with young people is to stop calling women â€œfemale.” It matters that you use a term usually used to describe animals to describe a human being. Call her a woman. Language can strip a person of dignity as well as restore dignity. It can elevate and degrade. I try to be extra careful with language. The one thing for which I have no tolerance in my creative writing workshop is sloppy language. I want my students to search for the perfect words that say exactly what they mean to express. They think I am unreasonable, but I keep on them.
What made you want to write about bigamy? It’s not a topic that comes up in modern society that often (although the show Sister Wives might be changing that), so I’m eager to hear how you came upon it.
Actually, it wasnâ€™t bigamy that drew me to this story. It was the idea of shared fathers. Lots of people have siblings that share just one parent, and it necessarily makes for certain tensions and inequality. I mean, a man can only live in one home. One set of kids gets a full-time dad, and another will not. This is the subject that I really want to talk about, and itâ€™s an ancient conflict in literature, all the way back to the Greek myths and before. The big problem with Zeus was that he had all these half-mortal kids outside his marriage to Hera! And even in the African American tradition, very often slave narratives were stories of the black children of the slave owner who were denied their birthrights as heirs. In modern times the question is sticky. What is a man to do if he has a child outside his marriage? How can he do right by everybody involved? In Silver Sparrow, James decides to marry his mistress, too, and try to keep all the balls in the air which is devastating to everyone involved.
What is your writing process like? What was the process of writing Silver Sparrow like for you?
Slow! Actually, I am a fast writer and a slow writer at the same time. My mentor, Ron Carlson, used to say that some people are ekers and some a gushers. Ekers are the ones who spend hours and come up with only a couple sentences. I am a gusher. When I type, it sounds like someone is firing a machine gun. BUT, only about 5% of what I write is usuable. So I just write and write and write until I end up with something good.
Your book tour has just begun. What is the experience of reading your own work and talking about it like? Do you take energy from that process or is it more draining than anything? Or maybe it’s both?
I love meeting readers. Yes, itâ€™s draining going from city to city, and a person gets tired of hotel foodâ€”but itâ€™s such a job to meet people who have read my books. When I write, it can be like sending a letter in a bottle. Itâ€™s such a thrill to know that it reached someone.
On your blog, you give great writing advice – I especially like “The Lucky Charms Method for First Drafts” – so if you have to give three “tips” for writers, what would you say?
Itâ€™s a hard question, because itâ€™s like giving beauty tipsâ€”it really depends on what the issue is. But there is one thing:
Stop censoring yourself when you write. If you want to censor, do so when the draft is done, but when you censor as you create, you will keep from accessing the best part.
Thinking again about Silver Sparrow, where did the seed for this book come from? Was there a moment when you had a story or character come fully into view?
When I write a novel, I imagine a world. The characters don’t really show up one by one. Instead, they tend to come to me as sort of ghostly figures, and their features become more clear as a write– like a Polaroid developing.
I know it’s probably way too early to ask this, but I can’t resist asking if you have a “next” project in mind. Or are you totally dedicated to Silver Sparrow and need to keep your focus there.
I have a new project in mind, and itâ€™s really intense. I am afraid to even talk about it, but it is something that has been on my mind since I was seventeen years old.
If you could recommend five books that the readers of my blog should not miss, what five would you recommend?
Everyone should read every book that Toni Morrison has ever written. Really. But start with Song Of Solomon. Those are the only books that I feel that everyone in the world should read. But here are some titles I have read recently that I likedâ€”Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun, Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie and Butterfly Boy by Rigoberto Gonzalez.
I am deeply honored that Tayari granted me this interview. Be sure to pick up a copy of Silver Sparrow; definitely check out her blog; and join me in following her on Twitter. Plus, she’s on tour, so be sure to visit her tour schedule and go see her loveliness in person if you can.