For nearly a decade, characters, plots and dialogue swirled in Edward P. Jones’ head, shaping the novel he hoped to one day write.
But it wasn’t until he was laid off from the job he had held for 19 years condensing articles for a trade journal that he could finally spill out his story.
The result is “The Known World,” a complex and often heartbreaking narrative about a black slave owner in antebellum Virginia. The book has become a literary sensation and has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award for fiction. The winners will be announced March 4.
The novel, which was a National Book Award finalist and is being touted as a possible Pulitzer Prize nominee, tackles a neglected chapter in American history: black slave owners in the South.
Kirkus Reviews called Jones’ work a notable book and gave it a starred notation: “The particulars and consequences of the ’right’ of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice.”
Jones, 53, who lives alone in an apartment in a Washington, D.C., suburb, is surprised by the literary celebrity brought by “The Known World,” which in its eighth printing with 100,000 copies, according to publisher HarperCollins.
“You hope for nice things. But I was unprepared for that,” says Jones, who attributes his success to “a combination of luck and hard work.”
Black slave owners an untouched topicHis novel begins in 1855 with the untimely death of slave owner Henry Townsend, flashes back a couple decades, then traces the lives of those who dwelled on the plantation after his death until just before the Civil War.
“Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known,” Jones writes. “He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word ’master.”’
The known world starts unraveling after Townsend’s death: Slaves escape, the black overseer tries to gain his freedom by having an affair with the master’s widow and poor white patrols catch freed slaves — including Townsend’s father — and sell them back into bondage.
Jones uses nonlinear plot lines to stitch together his story, and readers learn what becomes of many of the characters before the characters themselves do. His writing is measured, straightforward. But he also employs vivid dialogue and touches of the supernatural to add color or to lighten the mood.
He decided to write about black slave owners because of a fact he once heard in college. “Something went off in my brain in the late 1980s, I guess. Then I began to form a novel around whatever the first thought was,” he recalls.
He would think about the story while on the bus, grocery shopping or watching a movie, “working things out, making things logical. If you do it long enough it doesn’t take very long once you sit down to pull it out of your brain.”
He bought several books about slavery but didn’t read more than a couple chapters of each for research.
“I’ve always believed fiction is fiction. I’m surprised that people who wrote fiction books borrowed from their own lives. That’s probably why it’s taken me so long to write ’The Known World,”’ says Jones, who won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1993 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for his first book, “Lost in the City,” a collection of short stories about life in 1950s-1970s Washington, where Jones grew up.
Didn't consider fiction as a careerHis childhood was relatively pleasant, although his family was poor and moved “18 times in 18 years”; his father left home before Jones was 5. It was tough for young Edward to make friends, so books became his companions.
“I discovered reading books, and that plays a great part of where I am now,” Jones says. “It took a lot of energy to meet and keep friends outside of school.”
At first, he turned to comic books. Then he started reading such writers as Richard Wright before expanding his reading to other authors.
A chance meeting with a Jesuit teacher led Jones to the College of the Holy Cross in Massachussetts. He started out as a math major, sitting in the back of the class because he was shy and lacked confidence. “I needed glasses, but didn’t realize it before then,” he says, “got lost in calculus class and decided to change to English.”
He never considered fiction writing as a career, and instead wrote news releases for the U.S. Park Service in Washington. At the same time, he was caring for his mother, who was suffering from cancer. After she died in 1975, he drifted to Philadelphia, where he wrote his first paid story, for Essence magazine. But before he learned the story was going to be published, he returned to Washington to do odd jobs, crashing with family friends and staying some nights at a homeless shelter.
At the encouragement of novelist John Casey, whom Jones met at a writers’ workshop in 1977, he went to the University of Virginia, where he studied creative writing and earned a master’s degree in fine arts. He also taught fiction writing but feared he lacked credibility because he had not published.
Being a struggling writer would not bring in steady paychecks, so in 1983, he took a job as a proofreader for Tax Notes, working there for nearly two decades.
“Each time Edward has written something, he has been nominated for the Book Award, and as well he should,” Casey, who won the 1989 National Book Award for “Spartina,” said. “He’s obviously quiet and self-contained, but boy, can he write.”
Jones’ book “was an amazing, complete world,” Casey said. “The speech, what you see, what you smell, what you feel — it was just an astonishing new path for him to take — and I don’t know how he did it.
“I was astounded by the size of the book — not the length, but the size — it’s one of the major works of recent times,” said Casey, who puts it on par with “Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks or “Underworld” by Don DeLillo.
Keeping it simpleDawn Davis, Jones’ editor at HarperCollins, said she took on Jones’ book solely on the strength of the work, which arrived on her desk in finished form.
“I read it and was astounded by the profundity of it all,” said Davis, who was not concerned that more than 10 years had gone by since “Lost in the City,” Jones’ short story collection.
“I was surprised at how many booksellers and people in the industry remembered ’Lost in the City’ and wondered what happened to Edward Jones.”
For his part, Jones is still unsure how he became a writer. “I don’t know if I told myself I wanted to become a writer — it’s such an iffy world,” he says. “I didn’t grow up thinking I could make a living at it. I grew up thinking I didn’t want to be poor anymore — that was just a major thing.”
His foremost inspiration was his mother, Jeanette, who worked as a domestic to support her three children. “The Known World” is dedicated to her and to Jones’ mentally disabled brother, Joseph.
“She had a hard life,” Jones says of his mother. “I owe a lot to her. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could thank her in some way. Books I do from now on will be dedicated to her in some way.”
His newfound fame has brought financial success. Still, Jones does not plan to radically alter his simple lifestyle. His publisher bought him a fax machine, but he doesn’t want an Internet connection or even a mobile phone. He doesn’t want to own a house, but plans to move to a larger apartment.
And buying a car would complicate his life: “Someone stealing it, you have to buy insurance,” he says. “That is what the public transportation system is all about. I’ll just do that.”
Jones is working on a new collection of stories and but finds time to give readings, where he continues to meet admirers. The events take a lot of energy from the introverted author. Still, he says, “It’s nice to be invited someplace.”