A Natural

Edward P. Jones doesn't analyze himself or his writing. But since his first novel, 'The Known World' has won the Pulitzer Prize, he must be doing something right.

April 19, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Two things are apparent almost immediately when talking with Edward P. Jones, the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, The Known World. The first is that he accepts what and who he is, and doesn't spend much time analyzing himself. The second is that people dissecting his characters and words for deeper meaning will receive no help from him.

For a man whom Time magazine recently proclaimed to be "on top of the world," Jones is decidedly unassuming. Indeed, the rash of attention that has come his way since writing the critically acclaimed novel and, of course, winning the Pulitzer, couldn't be more contradictory to the man himself.

Jones, 53, is happiest when he's alone, or at his computer writing, or enjoying the flock of TV courtroom shows he tapes religiously every day - Judge Joe Brown, Judge Judy, the Judge Mathis Show - for viewing later in the evening.

Jones, a large, broad-shouldered man with a quiet, understated voice, stepped from his preferred solitude and briefly into public this past weekend with a Saturday appearance at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's CityLit Festival. He was there for a reading from The Known World, which, at its core, is about a black slave owner in pre-Civil War America, but which becomes so much more because of the wonderful characters who fill its 388 pages.

The book has received universal acclaim. The Boston Globe described the novel as "exquisitely executed" and USA Today called it "spectacular." That's an envious feat for any author, but nothing short of a stunning triumph for a first novel.

Jones' only previous writings were contained in Lost in the City, a collection of short stories published a dozen years ago. It won critical but not commercial success.

Just last week Jones finally received his first royalty check for that work, a sum in the "hundreds of dollars," he said.

He has yet to receive any royalties for The Known World. Those won't come, he says, until the publisher (Amistad/HarperCollins) recovers its advance to him, an amount he declines to specify, but which has been sufficient to pay the bills. Jones, in fact, doesn't even know how many copies the book has sold.

"I don't ask them," he says, "because I'm not going to have any interest until they start sending me royalty checks. They sent me the proposed cover for the paperback and it said `national best-seller.' I don't know if that's happening or not."

Jones has spent his entire life not counting on anything. Success has not chiseled away at that characteristic. "The glass is always half-empty," he says, "so that doesn't leave much room for believing that wonderful things will happen."

It is easy to assume that this outlook is the result of the stark poverty he endured as a child in Washington. His father abandoned the family and his mother worked to support Jones, his sister and a brother, never making more than $100 or $200 a month.

While Jones says it's possible poverty shaped his views, he doesn't delve into self-analysis. "It might just be in my nature," he says, refusing to go any further.

He credits his mother, though, for his success. Though she could neither read nor write, she encouraged him in school. "My mother wanted me to go as far as I could," he says. "She wanted to make sure that I did well in school. She knew how important education was. In addition to always being a good student, I wanted to do it for her."

After graduating from high school, Jones enrolled at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. "It was the civil rights era and Holy Cross, like a lot of other schools, was making an effort to bring in minority students. I was one of them."

Time quotes him as saying he always thought he'd write, but Jones denies that. "I don't remember saying that, because I didn't start out thinking I'd become a writer."

In fact, Jones says, he began majoring in math, though he soon abandoned that.

"I was very shy and I was in this new white environment and sat in the back," he recalls. "The teacher would just come in and start writing on the blackboard with his back toward everybody, so I fell behind in calculus. I got out with a low passing grade, and I decided well, you like to read so you may just as well get into English."

He took a creative writing course in his sophomore year. "I was complimented on my work," he says, "and I think that's sort of where things began."

Character building

After Holy Cross, Jones earned his master's degree at the University of Virginia, and has held teaching jobs at Princeton, George Mason and the University of Maryland. But his primary employment for most of the past two decades was writing articles for a small, struggling tax analysis firm. He stayed there for almost 19 years until he was fired in 2001, while on vacation.

"They had money troubles," he says of his former employer. "They canned 25 of us."

He was given two months' severance, which, along with a small retirement fund he cashed in, was sufficient to support him while writing The Known World.

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