Tayari Jones was at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene to launch her latest novel, An American Marriage. The book is the latest pick of the Oprah Book Club. The novel follows the story of a young couple, Celestial and Roy, recently married and on the brink of financial success when Roy is arrested and sentenced to a dozen years in prison. Though Celestial knows Roy is innocent, she begins a relationship with childhood friend Andre while Roy serves his time.
The title of the novel is something Jones and her editor discussed at length. At first she joked her cat was writing a memoir, American Feline. The joke lead to An American Marriage, but it didn’t seem quite right at first and they continued brainstorming titles. Jones thought the title sounded a bit like white people in Connecticut having some feelings. She eventually came around to the it when she realized a lot of people had gone through a lot, and that this was too was her home, and that the black experience is also an American experience.
The novel does deal with the issue of the American criminal justice system disproportionately and unfairly targeting black Americans. Jones wanted to write a bigger story while doing her part to confront issues of black American incarceration. She had been conducting a great deal of research on the topic but struggled to find the appropriate entrance for a novel. Novels require more to tell a story than merely an issue.
Sometime later, in Atlanta, Jones overheard a young couple arguing in a mall. The young woman said to the man: you wouldn’t have waited for me. From there, Jones knew she had a story to explore.
There isn’t much written about the women caring for incarcerated men, Jones said. She had to imagine what Celestial was enduring, but also didn’t want her character to act as a symbol. Women often serve as props for mens stories and Jones wanted to avoid that.
She also didn’t want Roy to serve as a stand in for black men as a whole, and the addition of Andre helps eliminate the everyman quality of Roy’s plight.
“I grew up segregated and bourgie,” Jones says, saying that she always had to endure the multiplicity of identities.
“The questions of the novel are questions I’ve asked.”
As to writing the novel, Jones explains she doesn’t outline. She sits down and plays around until figuring out what happens. She doesn’t write towards a specific place thinking this leads to a boring narrative.
“When I have trouble writing, I read poetry.”
Eventually she says she stops worrying and thinking about her characters and she knows she’s finished.