Actually, he was saying the name of Belle Skiffington, “the best evidence of the ruination that spoiling brings,” according to her husband. Belle is a minor character in The Known World, his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2003 novel. I heard him read from this book, along with the beginning of “Blindsided,” a story in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, recently at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was the 2010 Morgan Writer-In-Residence. I took the blurry, dark photo above during the question-and-answer part of his reading, when he asked a woman who wanted to know about his research for The Known World if she was sent by the agency that sends someone to all of his readings to ask that very question (we were all rather star-struck, so some of our questions came out funny).
His serious answer was that he did very little research, though he first intended to, because he didn’t want the research to become the work–he wanted us to think about the characters. Mr. Jones spent ten years thinking about The Known World and its characters before he wrote the first draft in three months, right after being laid off from his job writing and editing for Tax Notes. “The creative mind can’t be held back,” he said–what an empowering message for the many young writers in the audience. He also advised them that if they really want to write, they have no excuse not to–anyone can find a pen on the street, some paper in a dumpster.
Earlier that day, Mr. Jones was interviewed by Frank Stasio on WUNC’s The State of Things, and they discussed writing and the teaching of writing. Click here if you’d like to listen to the program.
I’m rereading The Known World now, noticing particularly all the deft touches of humor in such a profound and serious book. If you haven’t read it, or his short story collections Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, please put them on your list. If you live in D.C. or Virginia, I think they are required.