Photo Credit: Nina Subin
As I sat in my office thinking of the best way to introduce this week’s piece, I started to think about all of the books I have read since becoming a “book blogger”; some of them great, many of them not. Looking back even further, I started to wonder how many books over the years have actually moved me. Sure, there have been books that have left a hangover or made me cry, but nothing in recent memory has ever really stayed with me, that is, until now.
An American Marriage, tells the powerful story of Roy and Celestial, a young newlywed couple navigating life together in southern Atlanta, whose lives are turned upside-down by a wrongful conviction. Because I refuse to be the person that spoils incredible storytelling for others, I’ll leave it at this: this is a story that will absolutely devour you.
To learn more about the newest release from Algonquin Books, we recently caught up with the author of An American Marriage and newest member of Oprah’s Book Club, Tayari Jones.
Bearded Book Boys (BBB): To begin, Oprah!? Congratulations on such a wonderful achievement! What was your reaction when you found out Oprah wanted to include your novel in her book club?
Tayari Jones (TJ): It was all very surreal. I am not a “win the jackpot” sort of person. To tell the truth, I never even won a raffle! So imagine my stunned surprise when I answered the phone and the voice n the other end said, “Hello, this is Oprah.” But once the shock wore off, I started asking myself what it means for Oprah to lend her good name and platform to this book about incarcerated people and their families. I understood that this was more than just selling books. It was about broadening a conversation.
BBB: I don’t usually gush like this, but I am now a full 24-hours post-An American Marriage and I’m still struggling to catch my breath. What inspired you to write what is already being considered one of the “great American” novels?
TJ: I think that makes us even. I’ve made you gush, and you’ve made me blush!
When I first started this novel, I was at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where I had been awarded a one-year research fellowship. Like everyone else in the country, I noticed that the world is on fire and I wanted to do my part to extinguish the flames. I chose the topic of wrongful incarceration and I did an incredible amount of research. But I didn’t feel inspired by what I learned. I felt outraged. I felt helpless sometimes, but not inspired to create fiction. But then, I overhead a couple arguing in the mall. The woman said, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And my imagination just kind of ran with it.
BBB: Let’s talk about the title. When I had first read the title, I (wrongly) assumed it was going to be a critique about divorce in America. Within the first twenty pages, I learned that it was not only a book about a divorce but that it’s also a book about a young couple navigating the complexities of life and love as black people in America. What I found most intriguing, though, is that there are very few moment’s when the characters mention the color of their skin. It seems so simple but it isn’t often that black Americans are referred to without the descriptor. Can you share a little about where the title came from and what you’d like people to take from it?
TJ: I grew up in the city of Atlanta, here there is a very large black middle class. I had all black teachers in elementary school, my pediatrician was black. So I never really equated black with being different. I understood myself to be the center of at least one universe. I think this is why my characters tend to share this sense of self.
When it came to the title, though, I resisted An American Marriage, even though it was my own idea. I thought the title sounds like it would be a book about white people in Connecticut experiencing emotions. My editor asked me why I felt that a couple in the very small state of Connecticut was somehow more American than my characters in southwest Atlanta. I explained to him that I had never a black person described as American, without “black” or “African” ahead of it.
Another issue was that the title AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE meant that I would have to admit that I was writing a novel about the Big Ideas and a part of me felt embarrassed to claim that space for myself. But after thinking it over and talking with my mentors, I decided to accept the title and all its weight and responsibility.
BBB: There are a number of complex themes throughout your novel, but one that really stood out to me was the way in which all of the characters viewed “Home” and how that view changed while Roy was away; some saw it as a physical place, some found it in a person, some found it in physical items, etc. As someone who has lived in different parts of the country, how would you define “Home”?
TJ: Home is always Atlanta for me. This may be due to the unique racial climate that I mentioned earlier. Ever since I left Atlanta after college, I have felt like a minority. And that feels like I’m living in exile.
BBB: I’m sure you have been and will be asked this question a lot, but do you consider An American Marriage a critique or protest of the United States justice system?
TJ: Absolutely. I think that anyone who engages this subject matter with a modicum of honestly will produce a critique— that’s how bad it is.
BBB: You’re on tour now until the end of June. How do you plan to handle the “Team Roy vs Team Andre” discussions?
TJ: I tend to get a little tricky on this subject. The whole mission of everything I write is NO TEAMS. Sometimes I even tell them that #TeamAnybody hurts my feelings and makes me feel that my story has failed. I want to create empathy for all the characters. After that, they usually put the teams away, at least until I am out of earshot.
BBB: Last question, Celestial was a successful doll maker. She crafted dolls of all kinds, but I especially liked that she sold the ones with imperfections for children to fall in love with. Do you have any special dolls or toys from your childhood that you’re still attached to?
TJ: When I was a girl, my mother sewed dolls for me and I treasure them to this day.
An American Marriage is on-sale now from Algonquin Books.