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Coming to the Festival of Books: Tayari Jones

April 25, 2011 | 11:03 am

Tayarijones_ettlinger Tayari Jones' first novel, "Leaving Atlanta," won the Hurston/Wright Award for debut fiction. Jones, who is a creative writing professor at Rutgers-Newark in New Jersey, is about to publish her third book, "Silver Sparrow," the top Indie Next pick for June.

Jones will be talking about her work and, with any luck, previewing "Silver Sparrow" at the Festival of Books on Sunday at noon on the panel "Fiction: Stories From the South."

Jacket Copy: Your book "Silver Sparrow" begins, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." Just for the record, this is fiction, right? And was there a specific incident that sparked the idea for the story?

Tayari Jones: My dad is not a bigamist -- my mother is his only wife. That said, I do have two sisters who were reared apart from each other and apart from me. This idea of being kin, close kin, but living separate lives, has always burned bright in my imagination.  I was writing about sisterhood when a friend mentioned a story she had read in the newspaper. It was a classic bigamy story -- at a funeral, two wives and two sets of kids show up and all hell breaks loose.  I was surprised how many people knew similar stories. But what got me going was someone at the table who said she knew all her life that her father had another family and she and her mom just agreed to live in the shadows.  And in the years that had passed since I started writing the book, I have heard from so many people in this situation. I call these daughters “silver sparrows,” and in their emails they sometimes say, “I’m a silver sparrow.”

JC: It's a book about adolescents written for adults. How did you approach that? Did you have any models in mind?

TJ: This is the story that spoke to me and the characters happen to be young, but the subject matter --  fidelity, loyalty, deception -- are not bound by age. And, I figure that every adult used to be an adolescent, so it’s a really universal point of view. There’s a long tradition of this, of course, from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "The Catcher in the Rye," to more recent novels like "Push." Adolescence is a modern construct and very American in so many ways. The adolescent protagonist is one of the hallmarks of American literature.
JC: As a creative writing teacher, is there any advice you give your students that you yourself have a hard time following?

TJ: I am always urging my students to honor their writing practice, to set up a schedule.  I tell them to learn to say “no” and put their writing first in life -- while at the same time, I am really putting their writing first in my life.  I take mentoring very seriously and as a result I hardly get any work done during the school year.

JC: Are you looking forward to anything in particular at the Festival of Books this year?

TJ: Patti Smith! I read "Just Kids" when it first came out and it blew me away. She is an American genius.  A happy day for me is when I can just stay home, take care of me, and have "Horses" on loop.  Even if she had never written a word, I would be psyched to meet her, but "Just Kids" is absolutely gorgeous. I am not the type to throw the word genius around, but that’s what comes to mind when I think of Patti Smith.

JC: Is there anything you plan to do in Los Angeles while you're here, apart from the Festival of Books?

TJ: They’re a little out of the way, but the Watts Towers, which a visionary Italian immigrant made by hand, are truly a national treasure. My longtime publicist says the penthouse bar in the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica is a good place to go when I need a breather and an ocean-front view. I wouldn’t mind if "Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980" opened at the Hammer Museum a few months early, but I’m sure I’ll find plenty to occupy my time.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Tayari Jones. Credit: Algonquin Books