Without ever explicitly describing the couple as middle-aged black people, Jones scripted their race through their language patterns and vocal cadences, their clothes, their customs. I knew them intimately. Truthfully though, even as I felt I knew them intimately, I still wondered throughout that first reading whether those were black characters. Had an author told a story that depicted the disappointments, realities, and experiences of black men and women without actually having explicitly stated they were black? I could visualize Loneese and Horace, as well as the other characters, even without Jones providing clues about the hues of their skin or the relative kinkiness of their hair.
Jones, the winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, spent 10 years thinking about his novel, The Known World, a story about a black slave owner in Virginia. The writing took only months. For Jones, putting words to paper comes after he understands the climax of the story. All the writing is toward that end; knowing where the writing is going is the hard part, once there, much of the writing is, as he says, behind you. He speaks candidly of his depression and finding that writing, rather than antidepressants, has seen him through. Even if no one else reads the work or responds to it, the fact of being able to fill the page with characters and events built through his imagination, gives him satisfaction and the feeling of well-being. Whereas some authors seek unfettered time to write, Jones found that freedom because of having a “day job” working for the federal government. He could think his stories through, working out the characters, and working toward the conclusion without the stress of wondering how he would support himself or whether he was completing the book fast enough so that it could be published, allowing the publisher to recoup its advance. Now he teaches creative writing at George Washington University.
For Jones, being a writer means always becoming one, there is no “creative bank” a writer can draw on when starting a new novel or story, you are always “starting at the bottom again.” Eschewing the myth that copious research renders fiction authentic, Jones relies on and is in fact freed by his imagination and the remembered details of every day life to create stories and characters that explore the known world of black Americans. His fiction is heart-stopping and wondrous, masterful and simple. We are the richer for reading it.