Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World centers on a black slave owner, Henry Townsend, but instead of flushing out only one man's story, the novel zeros in on several unique narrative vantage points formerly "unknown" in literature, and history. With his careful weave of narrative, place and time, Jones illuminates the many dimensions and complexities that existed in the antebellum South.
An excellent interview with Jones on the Harper Collins website offers us a peek inside the head of this brilliant writer. Not only does the interview reveal the seeds of inspiration for the book, but also offers insights into the novel’s unique form.
There is a touch of the supernatural in events [in the novel]. How do you explain these incidents in the larger scope of your novel?
I was raised among a people who believe that if a person is killed on a city street, the blood of that person will show up on that spot every time it rains. Even years and years later. I was raised to believe that one's hair should be taken from combs and brushes and burned (my mother did it in an ashtray) because the hair could somehow get out into the world where birds could find it, make a nest of the hair, and give the person headaches. Those people believed you shouldn't rest your hands on the top of your head because it will shorten your mother's life.
Given all that, it's easy to create a situation where lightning runs away from a man because the lightning doesn't think it's time for the man to die. The cow with all the milk came from hearing law school friends talk in the 1970s about a court case where a man sued his neighbor to get back a cow he had sold him after the cow began producing milk again. So the supernatural events are just another way of telling the story by someone who grew up thinking the universe did weird things all the time.
Your account of antebellum Manchester County, Virginia, is by no means linear; you weave different strands of the story together and return to them at various phases of the novel. Why did you choose this format for your book?
I always thought I had a linear story. Something happened between the time I began the real work in January 2002 of taking it all out of my head and when I finished months later. It might be that because I, as the "god" of the people in the book, could see their first days and their last days and all that was in between, and those people did not have linear lives as I saw all that they had lived. What Tessie the child did one day in 1855 would have some meaning for her 50, 75 years later. She might not be able to look back and see that moment, but her creator could. That, perhaps, is why she says something about the doll her father made for her to Caldonia and Fern in September 1855 that she will repeat on her deathbed, some 90 years later; she might not even remember the first time she uttered those words, but I can't afford to forget if I'm trying to tell the truth.
Women in The Known World wield roles of extraordinary power, whether assuming the typically male responsibilities of the plantation like Caldonia Townsend; educating the illiterate like Fern Elston; inspiring violence, passion, and grief, like Celeste and Minerva; or creating art that transcends the brutal realities of slavery, like Alice Night. How important was it to you to give voice to women's experiences of slavery in this work?
I didn't set out with any agenda. When you are raised by a woman who had it hard and you are sensitive to how hard a life she had, you don't necessarily look around and think of women as fragile creatures, whether slave or otherwise. You develop the belief that they can "make a way out of no way." The hardy women of today had predecessors, I'm sure. It would have been insane for me, of course, to write a novel about a black woman who was president of the U.S. in 1855, or even a senator. But a black woman who becomes the head of a plantation due to the premature death of her husband who was helped along the way by the wealthiest white man in the county, that is believable. It is also believable that Fern Elston could make part of her living by teaching free black children; there were educated black women back then, and not all of them would choose to stay in the shadows, especially one with Fern's temperament. And no doubt there had to be people like Celeste who tried in their small way to fight something they were forced to live under; perhaps she, of them all, understood how Moses got to be that way: He was not born hating the world, she would have said. And I suppose Alice would have said that as well, had she not been so focused on escaping alone.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children
New York Times Bestseller and Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Jones's latest collection includes five stories that were first published in the New Yorker. If you are an admirer of the short story, you will be stunned by the fine art displayed here.
Lost In The City
Lost In The City was a National Book Award Finalist and won the PEN/Hemingway Award—not bad for a first publication. Set in Washington D.C., this collection of short stories delves into the lives and communities occupying the space outside the spotlight in the nation’s capitol. Here again, Jones reveals the emotional epicenter of humanity.
You can also read The First Day, published in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. It is one of those stories that you read and reflect on and reread and reflect on again.
9 months ago