Listening to Tayari Jones

Photo by Kathleen DooherPhoto by Kathleen Dooher
By Pat Harrison

She speaks in an intimate voice that makes people want to lean in close and listen to every word. And they do. They listen hard. When Tayari Jones read from her first novel, Leaving Atlanta (Warner Books, 2002), at the Radcliffe Institute's black history celebration, even the notoriously creaky floor in the Radcliffe Gym kept quiet as she read a haunting passage about a fifth grader living through the Atlanta child murders. Murders that occurred from 1979 to 1981, when Jones herself was growing up in Atlanta.

Later in the year, when Jones gave her fellows' presentation, the debut reading from her novel-in-progress, "Dear History," the Radcliffe Gym was once again hushed as she read about what happens when a man is exonerated and released from prison after seven years and returns home to his wife Celestial, who thought he was gone forever. Tayari Jones knows how to hook an audience, not unlike the great Toni Morrison, her favorite writer, who also reads in a let-me-tell-you-a-secret voice.

Jones has been on a roll lately, with the success of her third novel, Silver Sparrow, a story about two young girls who have the same father but different mothers. It was widely and well reviewed—the Village Voice, for example, wrote that Jones is "fast defining middle-class black Atlanta the way Cheever did Westchester." And Silver Sparrow was named one of the best books of 2011 by Slate, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Library Journal. But it wasn't always thus. Jones has traveled a long, sometimes bumpy road to get where she is today.

After publishing her second novel, The Untelling, (Warner Books, 2005), Jones wrote a partial manuscript of Silver Sparrow, which her agent sent around to publishers in hopes of landing a contract. "It was rejected all over town," Jones says. "Not so much because anyone hated the book, but because I was not seen to have a big enough name. The third book is the hardest to publish. On your first book, you're a creature of your publisher's imagination. They think you could be the next whatever they need another one of. When it turns out you're not, they say, well, we'll do the next one and recoup what we put out for the first one. Then on the third one, you often find yourself looking for a new publishing home."

Jones was so disheartened that she didn't work on the book for a year. "It's unusual for me not to work on a book for a month, let alone a year, because I love working on a book," she says. An associate professor in the MFA program at Rutgers—where she was hired by Radcliffe's Bunting Institute alumna Jayne Anne Phillips BI '81, director of the program—Jones realized that she was telling her students one thing and living another. "If one of my students were to say, 'I believe in this story, but I've been told that the it's not publishable so I'm not going to finish it,' I would say, 'Is that why you're an artist? Do you let the market tell you what to do?' I had to give myself my own tough love. Also, I felt like something of a fraud because I blog to emerging writers (, and here I was being cowed by the market. So I started writing the story again."

Tayari's Tidbits for Writers

  • Writing is slow at the beginning, and builds up speed as it goes. The best part is near the end, the opposite of a romance. 
  • I like to do my first draft on a typewriter. One, it isn't connected to the Internet; and two, I type so fast on a computer that I don't know what I'm doing. It's almost like when you eat too fast. A typewriter slows me down, forces me to be more mindful. 
  • With writing, it's not about being efficient. I've learned to enjoy the time, like when you eat a meal. It's not about being finished. It's about tasting and enjoying. 
  • My agent [Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management] is wonderful. She took me from the slush pile when I was just a little pup. I believe in relationships. People say it's a business, that it's not personal, but I think art is a personal business. 
  • I got the voices of the two girls in Silver Sparrow by reading the prose out loud. When you read out loud, you can hear when something's hinky. It's not a time-saver, but it works every time. 

With support from an unexpected grant, she took time off from her job at Rutgers and stayed in a friend's house on Martha's Vineyard, where she finished Silver Sparrow. "I wrote not thinking of my career, but to see what kind of writer and person I was. I felt like my integrity and who I am as an artist were on the line."

Silver Sparrow still didn't have a publisher until Jones attended a writers' conference where she read an excerpt from it. A woman came up to her afterwards and said she'd heard that Jones didn't have a publisher. The woman said she knew someone who could help, and she led Jones through the crowd to the publisher of Algonquin Books before promptly vanishing. The Algonquin publisher said she'd like to see Jones's manuscript and asked how she knew Judy. "Judy?" Jones said. "I don't know anyone named Judy." Her fairy godmother, as Jones calls her, turned out to be the novelist Judy Blume.

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has such a strong positive effect on listeners, Jones isn't immune to nervousness. After she gave her fellows' reading at Radcliffe, she blogged about the experience. "I had butterflies because 'Dear History' is not yet finished and I wasn't quite sure if it was ready for the public . . . But part of the Radcliffe fellowship is that each person should show how she (or he) has been using her time here. This year at Radcliffe has been such a gift, and this seemed like so little to ask. So I did it. And it went so well."


Excerpt from Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Beauty parlors, in general, are confessional spaces. A place like the Pink Fox is even more intimate than your average salon because it’s a business that’s also part of our home. If a client needs to go to the toilet, she uses the same bathroom where I take my shower in the morning. If she has an emergency, she might lift a panty liner from underneath the sink. Not to mention that there are customers who have been coming to my mother since before I was born.

The Pink Fox, with its two pump chairs, shampoo bowl, and three hooded dryers represented a generation’s worth of progress from the days when my mama sat hollering on the front steps rounding up customers for her own mama. “Miss Mattie is pressing hair today. Two dollars!” By 1967, my mama was making decent money renting a chair at a salon on Ashby Street, and Witherspoon Sedans was turning a good profit. There was money enough for my parents to put a down payment on a house, and Uncle Raleigh figured it was time to try living on his own. The Peyton Wall was long gone, Mayor Allen had said he was sorry, and black folks were moving in while white people were hightailing it to the suburbs.

Mama and Daddy had their pick of several houses, as the market was flooded. They drove the Lincoln slowly up and down Cascade Heights like they were browsing the kennels at the pound, looking for the perfect puppy. Daddy was leaning toward a new house because he didn’t want something that had been “ate off.” Mama didn’t care about new, she just wanted central air. Our house, 739 Lynhurst, a three-bedroom ranch in the middle of a busy block, near the bus stop, was reduced even further in price because the garage had been converted into a two-station beauty salon. A wooden sign staked in the yard read CHAURISSE’S PINK FOX.

Nine years married, with no high-school diploma and no baby to show for her efforts, my mama was not a lucky person. Blessings were rare enough that they caught her attention when they showed themselves, and she had good sense enough to snag a good thing before it could get away.

Excerpted from Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones. Copyright 2011 by Tayari Jones. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

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