Tayari Jones Teaches to Honor Your Practice

August 27, 2011
Written by

 

Silver Sparrow cover
Silver Sparrow
by Tayari Jones

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

 

An exclusive Authorlink interview With Tayari Jones,
author of Silver Sparrow and other works

By Ellen Birkett Morris
September 2011

Tayari Jones tells her students in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark that there is nothing they can know about the publishing process that will help them finish writing their book.

“I don’t want them to get discouraged about publishing their hypothetical book. I tell them ‘work on your story. Honor your practice,’” she advises.

Wise words from a woman who first discovered that writing “could be a life choice” after taking a class with Pearl Cleage at the age of 17. She went on to earn a degree from Spelman College, Master's degree from University of Iowa, and earn an MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University .

Jones went into her MFA program as “a true apprentice, frightened and without ego” and worked with her thesis advisor Ron Carlson on what would become her first novel, Leaving Atlanta.

“Ron walked me through the revision process. His mentorship was invaluable.”

Her life experience includes a stint teaching developmental reading, a task which caused Jones to examine her desire to write.

“I thought writing must matter if people hungered to learn to read,” . . .
—
JONES

“I thought writing must matter if people hungered to learn to read,” said Jones.

She has also served as vice-chair of Girls Write Now, an organization that matches teen girls with writing mentors.

Jones doesn’t write everyday. Some of her time is spent teaching at Rutgers-Newark where the motto is “real lives, real stories.” Her students come from all walks of life.

“You can make your writing life out of the time and resources you have. I want to read a story by a woman who works two jobs and has three kids. ”

Her third novel, Silver Sparrow, examines the experience of two daughters of a bigamist father, Dana Lynn Yarboro and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon. The book, set in a black neighborhood in middle class Atlanta in the 1980, is told in two sections, one in the voice of each sister.

Jones found the form and focus of the book organically. She began the book in Dana’s voice and decided she needed to include another point of view. She tried the second section in Chaurisse’s voice and, while she liked it, Jones tried out the voices of the other characters to make sure she picked the right one.

“Point of view is the most significant decision a novelist can make.”. . .
—JONES

 

 

 

“Point of view is the most significant decision a novelist can make,” said Jones.

She prefers to write without an outline.

“I want to feel as a writer the way the reader feels. I want that open-ended sense of discovery,” said Jones.

While this is her process, she says there is no magic formula for producing good work.

“Understand that your process is what it is and it’s okay. Whatever gets you to the end of the story is what works,” said Jones.

She works first on paper. Jones compares writing longhand on a pad of paper to eating slowly so you can savor a meal.

“With the computer I feel like I bang it out so fast that I don’t know what I’m doing. When I write longhand I’m not at the mercy of my impulses to delete large sections of text,” said Jones.

Her stories spring from a variety of sources from a compelling character to an intriguing idea. Silver Sparrow came from the idea of sisterhood.

“Whatever I begin with is not what I end up with,” observed Jones.

She began wanting to tell the story of two women who had a third sister in common but settled with the idea of two sisters who share the same father but live completely separate lives.

“If you know what it’s like to be trapped in an elevator you can write about being trapped in a spaceship. Everyone has to be able to parse their experience and understand themselves in a certain way to open up their writing,” said Jones of the creative process.

She wrote the book over a period of four years. Jones relied on the Almanac for details about particular years, but said her research mainly consisted of “examining the nooks and crannies of my heart” for her own reaction to betrayal or dishonesty.

“As Ron Carlson says ‘if you don’t know how your character feels take it to the body’. How does it feel in the body?”

For Jones, the greatest challenge of the novel was making the voices of the sisters, who come from the same place and similar socio-economic backgrounds, distinct.

“I couldn’t depend on accents. I had to infuse the voices with the each girl’s personality and world view.”

As the book progresses the two worlds collide. As the book ends you have a small glimpse into how each girl ended up.

“I write to find the answers. I believe in the pleasure of difficult reading.”
—JONES

 

 

 

Jones believes that hard questions make for good fiction. “I write to find the answers. I believe in the pleasure of difficult reading. I like to come out of a book feeling different than when I started it.”

As she came to the end of the story Jones resisted the urge to “puppet master” her characters to provide a neat and clean ending.

“I drive the car and my characters are like unruly passengers in my car. I need to let them be and not have them act as I would like them to act. My obligation is to the truth. It demeans the true conflict if you resolve it in 300 pages,” said Jones.

When a first draft is done, she begins again with a clean paper rewrite.

“I write the book and then I write it over,” she said.

Once that is complete she reads the book aloud for several hours a day until she has read the entire manuscript.

“It is tedious. I find that I have embedded rhymes all over the place. I realize the words that I repeat over and over again. Reading aloud makes the dialogue so clear,” she said.

Jones worked with editor Andra Miller at Algonquin to put the finishing touches on the book. “Don’t fight your editor. I want the best book I can have and I trusted Andra to see me through the editing process,” advised Jones.

She connected with agents Jane Dystel and Mariam Goderich, when one of the teachers in her MFA program sent her book to their agent.

“How successful you’ll be as a writer will depend on how well you take disappointment.”
—JONES

 

 

 

“I had an agent drop me because they wanted me to rewrite my book as a YA novel. Things go up and down. How successful you’ll be as a writer will depend on how well you take disappointment,” advises Jones.

She is now hard at work on her next novel, a multi-generational tale that begins with the African American migration from the south to the north in the 1930s.

About Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones has taught at Prairie View A&M University , East Tennessee State University , The University of Illinois and George Washington University . Currently, she is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. She was named as the 2008 Collins Fellow by the United States Artists Foundation. She will spend the 2011-12 academic year at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow, researching her fourth novel.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.

 

Categorised in: ,

This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris