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In October, before Edward P. Jones’ debut novel, The Known World, was nominated for the National Book Award, Rodger Citron met with Jones to discuss The Known World, Lost in the City (his 1992 short story collection that also was a National Book Award finalist), and the author’s introduction to the joy of reading in the comic books he bought in his youth. A transcript of the interview follows. Q: You have said that the idea for The Known World came from a fact that you learned in college, that some African-Americans in the South owned slaves before the Civil War. Can you say more about the origins of your novel? A: That was the first time I had ever heard that. It was quite surprising. I don’t know where it was. It wasn’t a book on the subject. Maybe someone said something, it may have been a footnote in some book that I read. But that fact stayed with me. I wasn’t intending to be a writer at that time . . . but it stayed with me. So that when I began thinking about the novel it came back to me and everything else sort of flowed from that. Q: Can you describe how The Known World was written? A: I had the first six pages of the first chapter and about six pages of the final chapter and everything else was in my head. I didn’t want to sit down and do any writing because I kept telling myself I had to do research so I kept putting that off. Also the day job I had, when I wrote Lost in the City, my first book, I wrote it on this computer they had given me from the day job in 1986. But the program was a very ancient program � Wordstar I think it’s called � and I couldn’t find anywhere to print the thing out. Finally someone at the office . . . allowed me to come in early one morning . . . to print it out. So I kept putting off The Known World because I didn’t have a printer. I was really afraid that I would be in this situation where I would have a novel and wouldn’t be able to print it out. And there was research. And there are times when you wake up and don’t want to do any writing or think about doing any writing so I just put off the novel for about 10 years. And when I finally did sit down to do it, it took me about two and a half months to do the first draft. Q: Can you say more about how you thought through the novel during the years when you were not writing? A: I’m the kind of person, I don’t want to sit down and write and ask myself what should come next. I don’t have every detail laid out, but I know sometimes in a general way, sometimes in a detailed way as well, but I know how everything is going to end and so I think, in addition to putting off all the research, all this time allowed me to work out every single thing. I was particularly proud that I knew what the final chapter would be, where everyone would end up. So many times I read novels and the final third of the novel is flat. I didn’t want that to happen with me. So I just took all of those years, took my time, I didn’t have any advance or anybody’s money so no one was knocking on my door asking me for a manuscript. Q: Can you describe how the characters evolved during the period when you were not writing? A: I knew in a general way how everyone was going to be. There are people like Skiffington and William Robbins who originally had very minor roles in the thing that was in my head. As I got nearer and nearer to the time when I was going to sit down and do the writing in 2001, they began to be more important. There was at one point an attorney, he was a bit on the insane side, I am not saying anything about lawyers, but he was supposed to be the person who would go with Henry Townsend and purchase slaves for him. Because what I worked out in my head was that this county, Manchester County, decreed that black people could not buy black people, but as long as this white lawyer was with him, then he would have someone to do that. Well, as I was writing, William Robbins began to take on a larger and larger role and he became the person who went with Henry to get slaves so the lawyer sort of disappeared. That happened one or two times with other things in the novel, where I had worked out something in my head and then didn’t find a place for it when I started writing. Q: Was there a relationship between this character who was an attorney and your view of the legal system that allowed slavery? A: I am not sure if he was related to this system, the legal system. There probably was a reason originally why I had him be an attorney but I can’t remember what that reason was. But I know that I had an interest in mentioning as much as I possibly could that this whole system was legalized and several characters � well, Fern Elston, she owns slaves and says, “We are only doing what the law and God allow us to do.” And I wanted to make sure the reader came away with this notion that it was the law that set up this system and was keeping people [in slavery]. The main symbol of this law is the sheriff, John Skiffington. Q: What sources did you draw on in depicting the legal system in the novel? For example, you include an incident in which there is a breach of contract dispute over the sale of a cow. A: Well in the case where the man sells a cow that does not give milk anymore, and then once it does start giving milk, he wants it back, in the 1970s � and I wasn’t thinking about writing a novel at the time � several friends of mine were in law school and they mentioned a lot of cases. One was where a boy had an injured hand, and the skin was grafted and it grew hair, and they also told me about the cow situation. I don’t remember how it ended, but I just remember finding myself at that point in the novel where I wanted to show another aspect of who John Skiffington was and it just so happened that I went through my memory and I came up with this cow incident. It wouldn’t have mattered if I remembered how it ended up. I just wanted to show a Solomonlike quality that Skiffington has. He’s a good man but he can’t be all good in a world of slavery. Q: You worked at Tax Notes for a number of years. Did that job have any influence on your depiction of the legal system in The Known World? A: No. What I did at Tax Notes was summarize newspaper, magazine articles, op-eds, [and] columns on taxes. The only thing I can possibly say that entered into the novel is when I talk about that there were taxes on slave owners, and they used that money to pay the patrollers. Now I am not sure how they did it in actuality, but I found myself mentioning taxes in that small way, and that may be the only thing that Tax Notes contributed to the novel. Because the job otherwise was a dead job, I hated summarizing all that stuff, so I didn’t want anything like that to creep into the world of fiction that’s rather more fertile. Q: As The Known World unfolds, things seem to unravel after the death of Henry Townsend. Why is there this tendency towards chaos in the novel? A: I think it’s the dramatist in you, where you’re moving toward where things are thrown up in the air in a chaotic fashion. You don’t really have a story where things are nice and peaceful, there has to be this chaos where things are in the air. Sometimes things are resolved. Sometimes not. In The Known World, it is resolved to a certain extent. . . . I never was aware of that, but it’s trying to do the best story that you can and you’re trying to pull the reader in and if things are nice and hunky-dory the reader is not going to stick around very long. Q: Why do you write, and why is it important for you to tell stories? A: I think we’re sort of doomed to do certain things. Some people have this thing about playing the piano, playing the violin, singing, painting. It just so happens that whatever line it was that you stand in to get some talent, that’s the line I stood in. . . . I like good stories. So I just tell them. Q: When you were growing up, did you enjoy telling or writing stories? A: I think I liked reading them and listening to them. The writing part didn’t come until much, much later when I was far older. As a child, I was a fan of comic books and I liked those. For me in those early years it was hearing the stories, television and movies. I didn’t think that I had any stories in me worth hearing. Q: What comic books did you read? A: I started out � around 1961, 1962, it was Marvel Comics, when I first discovered those. Before that it was D.C. Comics � Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and the Justice League of America. There was a company that put out things like Casper the Ghost � I didn’t care too much about him � Hot Stuff, Richie Rich. . . . And then in 1961, 1962, Marvel came out, and especially when you get to Spider Man, unlike the people in the D.C. Comics, the people in the Marvel Comics had flaws. You have Spider Man who is out at one point fighting the bad guys and then he comes home and has to repair his costume. You know that sort of gets to you because you can see a three-dimensional person. With somebody like Superman, they always come up with ways to show his vulnerability. But they started with a character who was invulnerable and then all the time they came up with ways to sort of get him flat on his back, they never came across as being believable to me. . . . Until 1964 when I was 13 and I was visiting family in South Boston, Virginia, I had never up to that point read a book that didn’t have pictures in it. I liked to read fairy tales, folk tales, and I would get some of those out of the library, but each tale was always illustrated, there was one picture at least with each tale. And I was in South Boston, Virginia, in the summer, and I didn’t have any comics. And my cousin had this mystery called Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? And I started reading and I was hooked. I found that a writer can create pictures that a reader can see and characters that you can see and believe in.

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