A reluctant literary star

Fear of poverty helped motivate Edward P. Jones to write "The Known World." It won him a Pulitizer, and now, at 53, he's finally arrived.

Published July 14, 2004 12:53PM (EDT)

One thing Edward P. Jones most emphatically is not is a man for living large. At 53, a relatively advanced age for the literary world, he has produced a first novel greeted with great acclaim and a Pulitzer prize. It has been optioned for a movie; release dates are scheduled across Europe; Time magazine says he is "on top of the world."

That may be. But Jones is still sleeping on the floor. Four months after moving in, his new apartment in north-west Washington DC remains bare except for the 100 cartons of unpacked books, the air mattress he cannot be bothered to inflate and the new laptop that is a recent and slightly grudging admission of his status as a full-time writer.

Yet for a man wedded to a minimalist lifestyle  unmarried with no children or pets, a self-described loner with a relatively compact group of friends  Jones has produced a book remarkably full of people and life.

"The Known World" is a novel about slavery, set in the American south before the civil war, when oppression was so deeply embedded in the collective mind that even free black people owned slaves. That little known and strange fact was the inspiration for the novel and the idea that an African-American writer would choose such a theme caught the reviewers' attention when the book came out in the US.

Jones, a tall man dressed in ordinary T -shirt, jeans and running shoes, is uncomfortable with the scrutiny. He is not enthusiastic about having his picture taken, though he is too courteous to refuse. We meet in a restaurant in Jones's new neighbourhood, an affluent and largely white enclave near the national cathedral. It is a chain restaurant  decidedly unfashionable  as was his original suggestion, a Chinese restaurant across the river in Virginia, chosen because it is close to the flat where he lived for 21 years.

The move was a rupture for Jones  eclipsing even the Pulitzer which he won the same month  but he says he could no longer stand the noise, the clacking of heels and the scraping of furniture from the flat above. He wonders aloud if the landlords have finally laid down carpet. "Every now and then I think maybe I can move back," he says.

Jones doesn't mix with writers and is openly hostile to the notion of literary social events. However, in conversation he is personable and forthcoming, animated about his passions  movies and television shows including The Sopranos. He has suspended his usual self-denial to buy the boxed set of DVDs. But the insecurities of being raised in extreme poverty have never left him and the habits of deprivation die hard.

Jones was brought up by his mother in Washington. She worked as a dishwasher and cleaned hotel rooms to support her children after their father abandoned the family. She had never learned to read and Jones remembers her life as a series of small humiliations, from straining to decipher the contents of soup tins in the supermarket to being crushed by haughty school teachers and bureaucrats. She always wanted more for her children.

By the time Jones was an adult, he had lived in 18 different places, all located in a relatively small area of the capital, each move dictated by his mother's struggle to get by. As a small boy, the moves did not really register as a dislocation. At each new address, he and his sister would go out to the street to play, and come home with a crop of new friends. "When you are 10, 11, 12 years old, it is not too bad, but then puberty started." By 1963, the year he became a teenager and President Kennedy was shot, Jones had retreated indoors, taking refuge in television and the comic-book world of superheroes.

He did not really read until the followingsummer, during the annual spring pilgrimage to his mother's people in Virginia, when a cousin produced a British mystery called "Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?" Jones says it was the first time he had encountered a book that did not have pictures. In high school, a teacher encouraged his interest, and he went on to a Catholic college in Massachusetts. He was on his way to making his escape, as his mother had planned. But shortly after he graduated with a degree in English, his mother grew ill, and he returned to Washington to be with her. She died in 1975, and Jones was adrift, unemployed and homeless for a number of years. When he did eventually find a job he was so distrustful that he forced himself to live on $2 a day. At the start of each week, he would buy a box of breakfast cereal and a pint of milk, he says, explaining his system of survival with the same precise detail he uses in his novel. On a good day, he managed to keep costs down to $1.80. "When you grow up with a mother who has to wash dishes and clean hotel rooms, you know the importance of having a job and you can't be without a job for any length of time, or you will be without anything," he says.

Those fears kept Jones from buying a car or other luxuries. Until the publication of "The Known World," he had rarely ventured out of Washington DC, though he did go on to take a masters degree in creative writing at the University of Virginia. He has been abroad precisely once  to a promotional event in Toronto, where he was horrified at the cost of room service.

Jones exorcised some of his childhood in his first book, a collection of short stories called "Lost in the City" published in 1992. The book is set in the streets he knew as a child, far removed from the Washington of the movies, with shots of the glistening white Capitol and presidential security guards jogging alongside official motorcades. Its vignettes of black Washington were critically acclaimed.

But the themes of slavery and the American south were working on Jones even then. His parents had come from the south, Virginia and North Carolina, joining the great 20th-century migration to the north, and he stumbled on the existence of a black slave-owning class while at university. By the time he began writing the story down in December 2001, Jones had been living with the characters for decades. "It is a thing that pulls you along from the beginning. You don't go to the library and walk along and pick out a topic," he says. "You are riding the bus, or shopping at Safeway, and all of a sudden the idea comes to you."

The book is set in the entirely imaginary Manchester County, Virginia, whose existence is reinforced with references to 19th-century census reports, pamphlets and other archival material  also concocted by Jones. In The Known World, he describes the novel's characters and the power relations of slavery in the most minute detail  as intricate a creation as his external life is spare. When he leaves something out, he has a good reason. In this tale of the South, Jones never reveals what crop the slaves were growing in the fields; he was too afraid of getting it wrong.

At the novel's heart is the story of Henry Townsend, bought out of bondage after long years of labour by his father, Augustus, after buying his own freedom, and that of his wife, Mildred. To his parents' utter horror and incomprehension, Henry becomes a slave owner himself.

Henry is not the only black man to give in to the slave-owning compulsion, but joins a small and affluent society of other free blacks who negotiate between the slave class and the black petit bourgeoisie and all the variously shaded worlds in between.

The Known World emerged after more than a decade of silence from Jones, but it took just six or seven months to write. Once again, fear of poverty was the compulsion. Although over the years he had taught a few university courses and published magazine articles, from 1983 Jones's main sustenance had been a small tax magazine where he worked as a proof reader and, eventually, as a columnist.

It was "dead work," that kept him anchored in his flat in Arlington, Virginia. Meanwhile, he collected books on the south, in the hope of getting down to research his novel. He took his Christmas holidays in December 2001 with the express intent of getting started on the book. He even set out a schedule, a disciplined pace of five pages a day. A dozen pages in, he got a call from his office to say he had been made redundant. He jettisoned the idea of research, creating Manchester County entirely from his imagination, and set a blistering pace, producing a first draft by June 2002.

He was relieved just to get into print, but the Pulitzer could change Jones's life. A third book is already in the works, a collection of short stories which revisits the characters of "Lost in the City." He senses there will be a demand for more photo sessions, more book readings, and parties. He might have to stop taking the bus around Washington. But to grow arrogant about his new status would insult his mother's memory. "I am beginning to realise now all the indignities she suffered in her life and, God, I want to be humble as I can as I go through life," he says.

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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