Interview: Tayari Jones


On November 3, Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow and the forthcoming An American Marriage, visited campus as a keynote speaker at the inaugural C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference. During her visit, members of our staff were lucky enough to sit down and talk with her about her experiences as a writer.

We hope you enjoy as much as we did gleaning from Ms. Jones’s wisdom about topics ranging from the writing process, discrimination in publishing, to the joy of living the writing life.

Arkana: In some of your old blog posts, you wrote about your writing rituals. What are some of your more recent writing rituals? Do you write for a set time or for a certain word count everyday?

TJ: Honestly, right now I’m not writing that much at all. My new novel, An American Marriage, is coming out in February, so I’m very busy in doing the things to lead up to that. I find that my publishing mind and my writing mind are two different minds, and it’s hard for me to do the two things at the same time. But I am on what I call a maintenance writing schedule, where I try to make sure that I write, say, three or four hours a week, just to keep the project alive. I feel like if I don’t keep touching the project, it’ll die on the vine.

But when the work is going well, I don’t have to set any goals for it. It’s like when you’re in love, you don’t say, “Okay, I’m going to spend a certain amount of time each day being in love…” You never not have time to be in love. That’s how it is when the writing is working for me. I don’t have to say, “Oh I must do this, I must do that.” It doesn’t feel like discipline at all when it’s going well. I find I only need discipline when it’s not going as well.

A: What are some ways you deal with writer’s block?

TJ: I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I mean, if you try to write every day for a month and still can’t get anything done, then I’ll say you’re blocked. But most of the time I hear people say, “Oh, I’m blocked,” and I ask, “When was the last time you tried?” Watching Law & Order is not being blocked. You have to be trying to do it before you get to say you’re blocked.

For instance, when I was working on my last novel, I got stuck. I wasn’t blocked. I couldn’t figure out how to get the characters where they needed to go for a satisfying ending, but I wasn’t blocked, I was stuck. I think those are two different things.

A: So, do you have any tips for when you do get stuck? Like do you have any prompts or exercises you try to do, or do you just wait for inspiration?

TJ: You know what I do—I sit down and I set a timer, and I say, “I will sit here, at this desk.” I set the timer for one hour, and if I can’t get anything done in an hour, I give myself permission to go do something else. You just can’t get up—that’s the rule. I have to stay for the hour, and it’ll start to work. Or, not. I’ve learned to take satisfaction in trying.

A: What kind of things do you read to inform your writing? Do you do any research for your writing, and if so, how do you decide what information to use?

TJ: The book I’ve just finished, An American Marriage, is about a man who’s only been married for eighteen months when he is wrongfully incarcerated. And, it’s a lot to ask of his wife to wait for him. They’ve only been married for eighteen months! So I did all this research on wrongful incarceration, It helped me find a lot of ambient details, but at some point I had to put the notes away. I needed the characters to pull the story, so I didn’t end up using my fiction as a vehicle to display my research.

A: What advice do you have for someone who is interested in fiction, but doesn’t know where to start?

TJ: You just have to start. You know, I think that if you don’t know where to start it’s actually that you’re afraid to start. You just have to jump in anywhere. We can revise. I always tell my students, “I can’t help you fix it until you write it. Once you write it, we can fix it. I promise you we can fix it, but you have to write it.”

A: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were just starting out in your career in writing?

TJ: I wish I knew that you have a lot of time to make your mark. You have a lot of time. You have so much time. I remember that the people who started off with me, who had big careers when we started, many of them aren’t writing anymore, others of us are hanging on, and then these people have these late spikes. I have friends who’ve had these spikes in their careers out of nowhere. So it’s a long game. Just have a good time with it. Don’t worry about other people. Tell the stories you want to tell for the reasons you want to tell them. You’ll be fine. It really will be fine. I believe that.

A: And what do you think the biggest struggle has been in publishing your work?

TJ: First I’ll tell you the biggest pleasure in publishing my work. I feel like when you’re a person who has been marginalized for any reason—be it race, gender, sexuality, whatever—you always get asked the question, “Can you tell us how much it sucks?” It’s important to bring to light the challenges people face, but at the same time, we get so often defined by challenges that the pleasure in our lives and the pleasure in our work and the pleasure in our careers is so seldom talked about.

There’s this assumption: “Can you tell us how marginal you are?” I don’t think it’s all that helpful. I mean, I’ve had challenges, but one thing I’ve learned in teaching—everyone believes that they are the writer that’s not going to get picked. I even have students who are straight, white men, and they’re like, “Yeah, but I’m from Indiana, and they only want to publish people from Brooklyn.” Everyone feels like they have a reason why they aren’t the One. And the truth is none of us are the One. And all of us are the One.

This is something I learned when I first started writing from Nikki Giovanni. I met her kind of randomly and she invited me to her house. It was really fun. I stayed the weekend with her, and she was telling me about life and being a writer, and I told her that, at that time, my readers were almost exclusively Black women. She said, “Take care of your Black women readers. Those ladies will come to your funeral. They will take care of you your entire life. They may not be the ones in charge of the literary world, but they will take care of you.” And I have to say that when I was at down times in my career when I wasn’t getting any attention and my name wasn’t popping up on end of the year lists, I still always got letters from my devoted readers. One lady sent me an afghan she had crocheted when I moved to New Jersey. She sent a note that said, “It’s cold up there.”

So, that is the thing that’s the most meaningful. My career has allowed me to have purpose in my life, and I love it, and that’s more important to me than these negative things that I’m about to tell you: The challenge in publishing is the racism and the sexism. But that’s also the challenge in the rest of my life, too.

The biggest challenge with racism in publishing is this—you’re judged by your numbers, right? The number of books you sell. And if you do not have ready access to the largest market share, your numbers are not going to be competitive with other people’s. So, the challenge for all, particularly Black, art is this—if you don’t get cross-over, then in order to get a viable hit with enough saturation in the market you have access to, you kind of feel like you have to write a book, or make a movie, that is appealing to everybody in that market. So it’ll be broad. Because if you go avant-garde, you’re trying to market to a minority of a minority. If you had access to a larger market share, you could probably knock off ten percent of them and it would still be huge. But we have to get everybody, almost—man, woman, child, pets. You need somebody to buy more than one copy just because, so that you can be competitive.

And that is a challenge, and it’s a challenge because it’s something that you can’t really do anything about. People often say, “Well, it’s the marketing. They market books by Black people as a “Black book”, not as a book.” But actually I think that while that’s true, I don’t know if changing the marketing would change the way people read.

But, I have a job. I teach. I don’t make my living off my books. So, because I don’t make my money off my books, while this is annoying, it’s not a life and death issue for me. It just hurts my feelings when people say things to me like… I was at a book signing and this white man said to me, “I’m going to read this book because when I was growing up, I read a lot of science fiction, so I’m used to reading about things that are not about myself.” And he took my book. And I thought, wow, he thinks that I’m a Martian! That’s what he’s saying to me, “I’ve read about Martians, I can read about Black women. Why not? I’ve read about Martians.” And he was happy as he could be. He bought the book.

A: In earnest?

TJ: Yeah. He bought the book and walked out happy. I’m glad he bought the book. But that hurts my feelings.

Or, you know, it hurts my feelings when I’m sitting there at a book event and a woman walks up to me and says, “You know, I’m going to buy this book because my boyfriend is an African American.” But people say all kinds of things like that to me all the time because there’s a deep-seated assumption that what I do is so different that there has to be a reason [to read the book]. Why couldn’t she just say, “Cool cover.” [laughter] Which is how we pick up lots of books, right? So that’s what makes that numbers game so hard. Because you’re not getting those “cool cover” pickups. It happens with men too. Sometimes men say, “I’m going to buy this book for my wife.” I always say “Great,” because I love women readers, but also clearly he feels that my book is not for him. He feels that I should understand that my book is not for him—he’s not trying to be confrontational or controversial.

Still, I just want to point out that I don’t know where we got it into our heads that being a writer is supposed to be easy. It’s always been hard. But I enjoy it so, so much that these other things don’t stop me. Because like I said, I face the same challenges in the rest of my life too, and I still get out of bed every day. I fix my hair. I put on some clothes. You know.

But that said, publishing has to change. Because I do think a lot of people get left out because the challenge is too much. And you shouldn’t have to be a superhero to publish a book.

A: So when you think about cross cultural barriers, do you feel like when you’re a Black woman, you have to live up to that, or can you be like Toni Morrison and write strictly about the culture?

TJ: Yeah, you can. You can do whatever you want.

A: In today’s times, it’s hard.

TJ: It’s always hard. Everything’s hard.

A: That’s true.

TJ: Everything’s hard. There’s no one writing a book, no matter what they’re doing or how they’re doing, who says, “Well that was easy.” It’s a really challenging undertaking. And everyone feels pressure to do something other than singing the song of their particular soul. If you stay with it, I feel like it works out. And I have people who tell me, “Oh, that’s idealistic, and you’re an exception.” But, on some level we’re all exceptions. Just being a writer, you’re beating the odds. But you do it anyway.

And this is not to say that it’s the same for everyone. Different people have very specific challenges to who they are. And people have different advantages too. One thing I’ve noticed, from looking at my students and their careers, is that white women publish the most novels, but it’s also very hard from them to distinguish themselves. Because there are so many middle class white women from the Northeast publishing a novel at any given day, it’s hard to stand out in that crowd. So, that’s a weird challenge because there’s a feeling that they publish all the books. But when I sit on committees, I see lots of white women with lots of books, and I’ve never heard of them. And they’re just writing away. They’re doing their thing and they’re publishing, and their books are not getting attention.

There are different kinds of challenges to getting ahead. And the challenges happen at different places. For example, there are very few Black men writing young adult fiction, so somewhere before they publish there are roadblocks, but once they do publish, their voices are sought after. So, if they can get in the game, they’re in the game. So, different people have different roadblocks at different places. Which is why a program designed to make more diversity in publishing has to look at different places in the pipeline. Different demographics get hung up in different places. There is no one size fits all. It’s very particular how to create more equity.

But you see what I mean, though. I take every opportunity to judge things, even though it’s a lot of work and it pays nothing, because I do think it’s important who’s sitting at the table. And I get to see so many good books by all kinds of people that you’ve never heard of. I feel like my experience in judging has shown me there are so many good writers out there. So many really good books.

Therefore, I do not take it personally now when I don’t get things. I don’t take it personally at all.

A: That’s just a good attitude in life, in general, because there’s a lot of things you can’t control.

TJ: And you can get it later. That’s another thing. I’ve noticed that writers of color tend to be rewarded for their accomplishment not their potential. I got my NEA award after my third book, and a lot of my white peers got them before their first book. But I still got it. And a nice $25,000 check from the government is an awesome thing, whenever you get it. But that used to hurt my heart. I would be so hurt over these things. Now I know I’m getting a lot of things much later, but I’m getting them. And I’m able to put them to use in a more effective way because I’m seasoned, I’m older—I’m not a kid. But it just happens at different times for different people.

I’m from the slow and steady building career club. Slow and steady. If you do it because you love it, you can be slow and steady. If you do it because you love it, even if you never get that award or whatever that you wanted, you get so much satisfaction from your life that you don’t feel mad about it. If you’re in it just for prizes, you’ll drive yourself crazy, but if you’re in it because you love it, you’re just in it because you love it.

I respect writers at all different levels of accomplishment because I’ve done so much judging. I know that there are so many prize-worthy people who don’t have prizes. I know there are so many good books that don’t have publishers. So when someone doesn’t have a publisher, or their books are out of print, I don’t assume anything about their quality as a writer. It’s like when you meet people who are single, you don’t assume there’s something wrong with them. You’re like, “People are single,” you know? [laughter] You don’t say, “Oh what’s wrong with you?” You know how it is. That’s how I feel about a lot of writers. It’s just a matter of hanging in there.

It’s a fun life though. It’s a real fun life. I recommend it. I enjoy it. You get to meet people. You get to go places, and do stuff. Being a writer is a lifestyle. And if you look at it as a lifestyle… like I’m leaving here and going to Dubai. You get to do stuff and meet people. You meet some crazy people, some brilliant people. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a privilege.

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018).

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