Acclaimed author Jones maintains low profile


December 02, 2007|By Felicia Pride | Felicia Pride,Special to The Sun

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones lives a simple life. He rides the bus even though he can afford a car. He doesn't venture out of his Washington apartment much to find his subject matter.

Instead, his books come from an immense imagination, life experiences and observations.

For him, writing was not a career to which he aspired. It just came to him, he told an audience at Goucher College recently during a book signing and reading of his most recent book, All Aunt Hagar's Children (2006).

"You just get up and start [writing]. It's not like a decision to become a dentist," he said.

Jones, 56, realized he "had a facility for writing" as an undergraduate at Holy Cross, a liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass.

He pursued a master of fine arts degree in writing at the University of Virginia and taught writing at the university level.

Eventually, pragmatism got the best of him. He changed careers for a time, becoming a proofreader and doing news-release rewrite at Tax Notes, a publication dedicated to helping businesses and individuals keep up with the government's policies on taxes.

On his own time, he penned a collection of stories that was published as Lost in the City in 1992.

Although the book was short-listed for a National Book Award, it didn't sell many copies.

About 12 years would pass before publication of The Known World, which told the story of free blacks who owned slaves before the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2004.

Even with the acclaim and attention that come with such an award, Jones told the Goucher audience that not much has changed in his life.

The topic of The Known World -- free blacks owning slaves -- sparked discussion and curiosity when the book was released -- and at Jones' Goucher appearance.

During a question-and-answer session, the author was asked why he wrote a story featuring blacks as slaveowners.

He said he felt that this was one historical territory that hadn't been explored much in fiction. His main fear wasn't backlash, he said, rather, that another writer was going to beat him to the punch.

The Known World, published in 2003, garnered several other awards besides the Pulitzer, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Lannan Literary Award.

He shocked the crowd at Goucher when he said he didn't conduct much research to create the historical setting of The Known World.

Even most of the material that goes into his short stories comes from his imagination.

"I pay rent on my apartment, so I stay there as much as I can," he said. "I'm not inclined to get out there and walk the streets."

Instead, remnants of his own life growing up in Washington appear in his work, as well as observations that he's accumulated over the years.

Michelle Wright, co-founder of Three Sistahs Press, a Baltimore-based independent book publisher, took her 12-year-old daughter to the reading to expose her to black authors.

"I love his work," Wright said. "His reading was very subdued, almost calming. ... He's very simple, but truly a writer."

Jones said he welcomes the success that his writing has achieved, but doesn't want it to affect his craft.

"Once you become a different person," he said, "you aren't that person who wrote the book."

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