Talking to Tayari Jones about 'An American Marriage' and Oprah

Talking to Tayari Jones about 'An American Marriage' and Oprah
Oprah Winfrey and Tayari Jones (Victoria Will / Harpo, Inc.)

Tayari Jones is a bard of the modern South, a writer whose skill at weaving stories is matched only by her compassion for her characters. In Jones’ previous novels, she has tackled subjects as varied as the Atlanta child murders of the 1970s-’80s and the bond between two daughters of a bigamist father. Her highly-anticipated fourth novel, “An American Marriage,” centers on a love triangle of extraordinary circumstances. Roy and Celestial, a young, middle-class black couple, are still newlyweds when Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. As Roy struggles with his anger and despair, Celestial tries to provide the emotional support he needs — while also pursuing her career as a maker of fine dolls and finding solace with her childhood friend, Andre.

While “An American Marriage” confronts thorny issues around race and the criminal justice system it is, at heart, a love story. It’s also a meditation on the creation of art, the meaning of family and the conflict between duty and desire. Jones has crafted a complex, layered story that’s both intimate and broad, a literary page-turner that’s impossible to put down. Born and raised in Atlanta, Jones now lives in Brooklyn and teaches at Rutgers University-Newark. She discussed her novel by phone from Boston, where she was in the middle of a 35-city tour. At the time we were scheduling this interview, “An American Marriage” was announced as the new pick for Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films will also produce the film version.

“An American Marriage” is a departure from your previous novels, which mainly focused on younger characters. Your new book is about adults with complex problems. What was it like for you to work on this different canvas?

It was super challenging. When I had written novels with younger characters, I was confident that I knew more than they did, so I felt I had distance from the subject matter and a wisdom about the conflicts. In writing this novel, the characters are nearly as old as I am, and they’re struggling with questions for which I wasn’t sure I had the answers. The writing was more of an exploration.

I also intimidated myself early in the process with all the research. I discovered horrible things about the American penal system, and at first I was trying to novelize my research. I don’t like to read things that feel like the novel version of a sociological text, but for a while I felt like if I didn’t incorporate all of my research, I was somehow not being true to my aim of discussing the problem. But that is the absolute wrong way to approach writing a novel. As they say, you should write about people and their problems, not about problems and their people. I learned way too much about the problem and I didn’t have the people. I was learning, but I wasn’t imagining.

Although Roy and Celestial are newly married at the start of the novel, their marriage isn’t idyllic. Roy still collects phone numbers from other women, Celestial doesn’t understand how much pressure her family’s wealth puts on Roy. What are the challenges of writing about a marriage that has yet to completely gel?

I didn’t find a challenge in that at all. I think a fairy-tale marriage is harder to write, because a fairy tale doesn’t resemble anything you’ve ever seen in real life. I just wrote the characters real.

For example: Celestial is an artist, she’s ambitious, she wants to chase her dream. Anyone who’s chased a dream knows it takes a lot of time and focus, particularly in the arts. And she can’t do that and be the dutiful caretaker of an incarcerated person. So she has to make choices. If someone asked you if she had the right to pursue her dreams, without mentioning her husband, you would say, “Of course!” If your marriage is keeping you from pursuing your dreams, you need a new marriage. But if you add that Roy is wrongfully incarcerated, then it’s almost like she’s being a negligent member of her community. How does one balance your commitment to the collective, and taking care of yourself? This is a balance I struggle with all the time. I think a lot of women do.

There are several strong marriages in “An American Marriage”: Roy’s parents, Celestial’s parents, even Andre’s father and stepmother. It struck me that all these unions are happy in hard-fought ways that aren’t simple: they involve stepchildren, affairs and other challenges. What does this say about marriage? About love?

In real life, love doesn’t follow the rule book. When your soul mate rolls up on you, you can’t say you’re busy.

But it’s important to remember that these marriages that are strong are also marriages that are very long-lived. I don’t know how strong they were when they first jumped off.

I had a lot of fun with them. I think that marriages work to the extent that both people are getting what they want from the relationship. Roy’s parents don’t do anything but each other, but I would not look at it like “Wow, that’s what I want.” It works for them, though, and that is really the key. So I think what makes relationships work is really a question of compatibility.

Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones Nina Subin

Roy’s imprisonment puts a human face on the issue of systemic racism and the ways that black men are imperiled. Can you talk about what it was like for you to inhabit him as a character?

Because I’m a woman and he’s a man, often people think that’s where the challenge was. But I feel that as a black woman, all my life I have known the black male story. I have always been aware of the contours of their dilemma and pain and struggle. As a black man, you can be successful, do everything you can, but out of nowhere, prison or the police can get you like a natural disaster, like a hurricane. It’s almost like it isn’t personal when you get hit by a hurricane. It just happens. I’ve always been aware of that sense of dread and fear. So to inhabit that voice, to inhabit that fear, it wasn’t foreign territory. That is such an ingrained part of the culture— the peril to which black men are subjected.

My challenge was how to make that story new. The harder thing was inhabiting the voice of Andre, the other man in the story. He is Celestial’s best friend since childhood, and he is in love with her. I had to really think about what it was like for him — the survivor’s guilt he feels for simply not being incarcerated. And the absurdity of that, when just living an everyday life makes you feel like you’re the most privileged person in the world. Andre would not be considered a privileged person in another context. But simply for not being incarcerated, he’s the lucky one.

Part of making the story new was to complicate the narrative we have. The matter of wrongful incarceration — that is not complicated. It’s wrong. The end. So I had to think of ways to make the story complex, to have moral ambiguity.

There has been — rightly — a lot of attention on the over-incarceration of black men. There’s been less of a focus on the women who are left behind. Can you talk about the choice to center this book on Celestial — to make it about her experience as much as, maybe even more so, than Roy’s?

I’m going to push back a little bit on the description of Celestial as the woman who’s left behind. I think this actually is the only way women who are involved with incarcerated people are discussed. He’s taken away, but I don’t know if that makes her left behind.

But I did want to look at the collateral effects of his incarceration, and the way the culture looks at women’s roles in these relationships. And it’s not just lovers — it’s mothers, it’s sisters, it’s neighbors. Women are the caretakers of incarcerated people. And if they’re portrayed positively, they are seen as dutiful, they are sacrificing, but there’s very little conversation about what is being sacrificed. And I think it’s because of this idea that women are defined by their relationships to men. It was really important that Celestial have her own story even if there were no such thing as Roy. I needed her life to be a worthy life, not just significant because of ways that it was affected by her husband’s predicament.

There’s a line in the book where Celestial says to Roy, “I’ll be here for you, but not as your wife.” And Roy is just furious. I think of this book in some ways as echoing “The Odyssey.” Roy loves that Celestial is an independent woman when he meets her and when he marries her. He likes that he has this woman he cannot control. But then when he’s arrested, he really needs a more traditional woman. He wants a woman like Penelope in “The Odyssey.” He wants it to be 400 BC. What’s expected from her is the same as what Odysseus wants from Penelope. But the world has changed. There’s a moment where Roy says “I’m innocent.” And Celestial says, “I’m innocent, too.” What’s being asked of her is incredible but it’s proposed as if it’s mundane.

The letters between Roy and Celestial during the years he’s in prison are to me the most heartrending part of the novel. You can feel the connection fray. What went into your choice to use letters?

I write letters all the time. I was really committed to the letters even though I did get some resistance from my original editor. But I felt that Roy and Celestial would communicate by letter. When I was trying to write how their relationship progressed while he was in prison by using a lot of prison visits, the scenes weren’t interesting. Because just like in real life, they were never alone. They couldn’t be candid, the environment was terrible. There wasn’t a space for them to really explore their feelings with each other until I started giving them the privacy of a blank page on which to communicate.

Roy and Dre represent different possibilities for Celestial — young excitement and passion versus mature steadiness and friendship. Does she want different things at different points in her life? Is that a function of growing up or of her particular situation?

She’ll never know. Because part of what happens to you happens because you’re getting older. The thing to think about with Celestial and Andre is that Roy changes the context of everything. If there were no Roy, Celestial and Andre’s relationship would be adorable. Many a rom-com has been built on the idea that your true love is someone who has been there all along. And that is an acceptable, sweet narrative of romance. But because of Roy’s situation, it’s become as though the relationship between Celestial and Andre is not the real relationship. The absence of trauma in that relationship causes it to be suspect, even though if it were in another context, that would be evidence that he is the One.

One of the real accomplishments of your novel is that Celestial, Roy and Andre remain sympathetic even as they make choices — between responsibility and desire — that frustrate us. How did you manage those dilemmas?

I really made a point not to be judgmental as a writer. I had to write with a kind of openness to each of them. People are complex. There is no good way out of a bad situation. There’s no way that these three people could make decisions that would be easy or that wouldn’t be frustrating. It’s impossible. There’s no elegant way to manage the rage that Roy has. And Celestial feels duty and love and resentment, and a lot of times, these things are not pretty to watch. I think the challenge of writing a novel like this is not to let your story become some kind of morality play. And not use the characters to build sympathy for a cause but rather to use the characters to illuminate the situation.

It’s a challenge when all the characters are worthy of love, worthy of our compassion. When you have a novel structured as a love triangle, how do you end it? That’s why I was stuck for a year on the last 20 pages — I wanted to be fair to all of them. And the way I did it was to realize that the question of the book isn’t who gets the girl? The question is, how do we all live together? They all had to do the hard work.

You grew up in Atlanta and it remains the setting for all of your fiction, even as you’ve lived away from it for a long time. How does being of a place, and yet removed from it, shape the ways you relate to it in fiction?

What I’ve noticed is that with every one of my books, the people spend more time in the house [laughs]. I do feel that in order to have a story set in a place, I have to know it all the way under the ground. If not I just don’t feel qualified to write about it.

Also, I live in Brooklyn now. If you’re a Southerner, people act like you got here on the Underground Railroad. I have to explain to them, no, I got here on a plane. People think Southern literature is the literature of the past. I think to Northerners the South is a symbolic space, still relitigating the Civil War. As we say in the South, I just rebuke that.

I am deeply committed to the modern Southern story. This is what I do. It’s my contribution. I think of these books as love letters. I miss the South so much, and writing is a way to keep it alive in my heart.

Tayari Jones' 'An American Marriage'.
Tayari Jones' "An American Marriage" Algonquin

How has Oprah selecting your book for her Book Club 2.0 changed the trajectory of your book and your life?

When I wrote my first book (in 2002), Oprah had just ended her book club, and I felt like I just was not born at the right time. So that was an early dream that I just packed away, because it was over.

For her to call me on the phone — she just called me on the phone to tell me that I’d been chosen for her book club — it rejuvenated the writer that I was when I was just starting out. Getting Oprah’s endorsement felt like the most miraculous gift. And especially after her awesome Golden Globe speech, I feel so proud to be associated with her and her work.

It’s a responsibility though. When I’m out at speaking engagements, I’m aware that she has lent me space on her platform to talk about this book and the issues in it. And while I am thrilled with all the new readers, I’m also aware of the responsibility of having her name on the front of my book.

What’s the most indulgent thing you’ve treated yourself to in celebration?

I will tell you what I did. I was saying, “Should I go to the spa before or after I get back from the tour?” I’m doing 35 cities, which is a lot. My friend Lauren was like, “Tayari, you’re the Oprah pick. You can do both!” My mind had not clicked over to the idea that I didn’t have to be so careful as I’ve been. So I went to the spa and had everything done. Everything. I had two massages in one day. I’ve never had two! I scheduled one, I had lunch, and I had another. That’s the most indulgent thing I did.

That’s lovely. It’s not like you went out and got a Maserati.

I’m so small scale. I got the add-on aroma therapy. I didn’t hold back.

Revoyr is the author of five novels, including, most recently, “Lost Canyon.”

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