The novel that would change Tayari Jones' life was inspired by a moment in an Atlanta mall.
"I ran across a young couple, arguing," Jones remembered, in a telephone interview from her Atlanta home this month. "The woman said, 'Roy, you know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years.' He said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. It wouldn't have happened to you in the first place.'"
It was a scene that struck Jones, and resonated with her. She'd been trying for some time to find the shape of her upcoming fourth novel, in which she wanted to explore questions of racism and wrongful incarceration, of the effect on families and communities when innocent men are locked up. "I was outraged, I was upset, I was shocked," Jones said of her research, "but I wasn't inspired."
And then she saw that young couple – the woman beautifully dressed, the man a little less so – and a story clicked: a man unfairly imprisoned, a woman waiting at home as time goes by. "I imagined a young woman who was an artist, her whole life ahead of her – does she have a right to her dreams?"
That incident was the spark of "An American Marriage," a delicately layered novel about love, race, youth, and what we owe to our past and to loved ones. It tells the story of Roy (Jones kept the name), Celestial and Celestial's old friend Andre, to whom she turns for solace when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
Writing it was a long process (that mall incident was in 2011); she wrote the entire novel three times over, finally settling on a structure in which Celestial's, Roy's and Andre's voices speak in turn. Jones, who is a creative-writing professor at Emory University, had already experienced great ups and downs in her writing career; the publisher of her first two books dropped her and she struggled to find a home for her third novel, "Silver Sparrow." A chance meeting with author Judy Blume ("it felt like divine intervention!") finally put her in the hands of a sympathetic new publisher, and she wrote "An American Marriage" knowing that at least she had a contract.
And then, a few months before the book's publication, lightning struck, in the form of a phone call in which a very familiar voice said, "Hey girl, this is Oprah!" "She likes surprising people!" said Jones of the call, which came out of the blue, asking the author if she'd like her book to be an Oprah's Book Club selection. "I said what anyone would say: 'Yes, ma'am, that would be nice,'" recalled Jones, laughing.
Buoyed by rave reviews and the Oprah imprint, "An American Marriage" spent nine weeks on The New York Times best-seller list last year. A movie deal has been struck – "I'm waiting with bated breath to receive the screenplay," Jones said – and she's bought herself a house in Atlanta, whose writing room upstairs has an espresso machine and "a beautiful view of a little patch of trees."
But success hasn't changed everything. Jones continues to teach writing, finding that working with students "has me thinking about writing all the time." She remembers how, when she was struggling to finish her third novel, she'd gotten the bad news from her publisher. "I told my students that you write a story because it needs to be written, you don't write for the market or a publisher, you write out of loyalty to the story. How could I face them if I was going to abandon my story?"
And she still writes the way she always has: on one of several vintage manual typewriters in her collection. "It's like when you eat too fast and the plate is empty so clearly you ate it, but you don't really remember eating it. That's how I feel when I compose on a computer – it's too fast," she said. "The typewriter slows me down, and it's more legible than handwriting. And I do feel very satisfied making all that noise, I feel like I'm getting something done."
She recommends the experience to other writers, but has a few tips: Don't buy used typewriters on eBay – "unless it's from a company that sells typewriters a lot" – and if you pick one up at a yard sale, make sure the space bar works. (Everything else can be repaired, but the space bar is crucial.)
During the past year, Jones has spent much time on the road for "An American Marriage," but she's never gotten tired of talking about it. "I love the book and I love the people that it has brought me into contact with," she said, noting that it's been a special pleasure to connect with longtime readers.
"I wrote my first book 17 years ago, and I had a small but devoted band of readers and they're still with me. Sometimes I'll give a signing and I'll recognize faces – they'll bring those old books to show they've been there all along. It's really moving; those early readers kept me going when things were really bleak ... Their belief in me and my work – they don't have the reach of someone like Oprah, but it means that much to me."
And what will be the follow-up to "An American Marriage"? Jones says she hasn't yet had a moment, like that one in the Atlanta mall years ago, that's sparked a story, but she's looking forward to quiet time alone in her new house, dreaming up some new invented lives. Whenever inspiration strikes, she's ready.
"I am so eager, you just don't know," she said. "I ordered ribbons for all six typewriters!"