April 5, 2007
About this Book
"The Untelling" introduces us to Aria, a young woman who has managed to create a life of stability and normalcy for herself, despite a tragic childhood. A teacher in Atlanta, she's in a loving relationship and has a best friend in her roommate Rochelle. When Aria suspects she is pregnant, her life begins to change in unexpected ways, and the truth she learns has her questioning everything.
Ron Carlson: Hello. Welcome to Books & Co. I’m Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Tayari Jones, whose second novel, The Untelling, has just been published in paperback. Welcome.
Tayari Jones: Thanks.
Ron Carlson: This is exciting that the book had this second life as a paperback, but before we even talk about it, I want you to read -- just read us the first page, give us the flavor of this book, and then we'll start talking about what it's about.
Tayari Jones: Oh, I’d be glad to. This is from the prologue.
"Ariadne, my given name, the one that's on my driver's license, it's the sort of name that you're supposed to grow into. It was my mother's idea. Her parents underestimated her when they called her Eloise, a name that had strained at the seams before she was old enough to spell it. Our mother's gifts to the three of us were lush, extravagant, roomy names. Names that fit us like oversized coats trimmed in seed pearls, gold braid, and the hides of baby seals. My father had wanted us to have family names, with at least one of us girls named after his mother, Lula. My mother, who indulged my father in many things, could not give him this. Why, she wondered, would someone in this day and age give a child a name that was so Mississippi? 'That is not what Dr. King died for.'"
Ron Carlson: Thank you very much. Now, the main character of this book, she starts -- we go back in the past, but Ariadne is 20—
Tayari Jones: She's 25.
Ron Carlson: Twenty-five. And just -- let's just talk a little bit about what the book's about.
Tayari Jones: Well, when -- when – she goes by the name Aria, and when she was about 5 years old, there was -- she was in a terrible car crash -- she was about 10 years old -- and it killed her father and her baby sister, and it's really a novel about her efforts to reinvent her life, which she thinks can be done by marrying and having kids. Because when you're married and you have kids, people say, "Who's your family?" You can say, "Here they are, "and she doesn't have to talk about who was there before.
Ron Carlson: Right. And so, she's -- in the current story, what does she do?
Tayari Jones: She teaches adult literacy.
Ron Carlson: Right, right, right. And she's trying to come to terms with this past that's had more impact than she first suspected.
Tayari Jones: Well, the whole idea is, you know, people say, "Move on, move forward, get over it." And think about it, she was only 10 years old when this terrible car crash happened, so all her life she's been trying to move forward. So I think she's always aware of the extent it's impacted her, but she's embarrassed by it, so she's trying to kind of perform a sort of -- having moved on that I don't think she ever really feels.
Ron Carlson: Right, right. Well, what you just said is really kind of neat. I mean, it makes absolute sense, but the book itself, as we go through it, gets much more complicated than that, in terms of the things that Ariadne is facing and her family. It becomes very much – there are some other things in the past that come forward, too.
Tayari Jones: Well, it almost ends up like -- imagine if you're trying to paint a wall -- a room that already has wallpaper on the wall and trying to make it look smooth, and I think that's what happens to her because she doesn't ever fully reckon with what's happened to her, so she's just like painting over wallpaper and trying to make a new life without ever smoothing out what was there first.
Ron Carlson: Do you think that's unique to her, or is that what people do?
Tayari Jones: I think most people do it. I think that the walls of all of our interior probably have a lot of paint and wallpaper, but I think that when she has such a trauma that she really has to reckon with the past before she can go forward. But I think that we have this kind of heroic idea of people. It's very -- I mean, in writing this novel it was important to me to have a really fallible main character. I wanted to let her make mistakes. I think sometimes that the heroine of a book is supposed to be, well, heroic in a fairly obvious way. I wanted to see someone really screw up their lives and try to fix it.
Ron Carlson: Did you want that from the beginning? Didn't you start out with a person who was sort of impervious and perfect, or did you start with the idea of flawed or limited or that Ariadne, or Aria, would have certain liabilities?
Tayari Jones: It became clear to me as I went forward. I sort of wrote my way into the story. I just tried to be very honest as a writer to say, when the character is at a crossroads, when she can do one thing or the other, I tried to think, "Well, what might she really do?" And what all of us really do often is make bad choices. And I just tried to be honest. I didn't want to write her as an example of what one should do when faced with a dilemma. I wanted to see -- I want her to be human and real. And I think that writing it, I had to really open myself up to loving a character who was nowhere near perfect.
Ron Carlson: The -- your first novel, Leaving Atlanta, takes as its characters children, and as you were speaking just now, I felt that that's what you did with those kids, that treating them each and letting them open, and showing that their lives were complicated and full of light and shadow, was that part of what you had in mind, or – what I’m really asking is talk about the difference when after you've written one -- that you'd written a first novel, it was well received. And then were you -- did you cast about a little bit looking for what you might write your second novel about or did you have it underway?
Tayari Jones: Well, no, I cast about quite a bit. I originally -- The Untelling is set in Atlanta, which is exactly where my first novel is set, which is where I grew up, but when I first started writing it, I tried to set it in Phoenix because that's where I was living at the time. But I realized -- I think that was the really casting about was the where. Once I had the where, the rest of the story fell in line. But when I was writing things set in phoenix, I realized that I only knew the Phoenix that existed in, say, 2000, 2001. And I didn't know what was beneath the surface, so I couldn't write an honest story there.
Ron Carlson: And so place helped you find the story. You know Atlanta well.
Tayari Jones: I know it -- I know it in all its incarnations. I mean, I was born there in 1970 and I’ve seen it change so many times between then and now.
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Tayari Jones: So when I see, like -- when I see a street corner, I know that the name of that street has been changed twice -- we change street names all the time in Atlanta. I had to have someone from the Atlanta paper fact-check my story to make sure the street names were consistent. We changed -- I mean, street names in Atlanta change every four or five years with the new mayoral situation. So I feel like I know it, and I know what it was before. I think when you write, you need to know over whose bones your characters are walking.
Ron Carlson: That's an interesting concept. When you were reading the first page, it's obvious to all of us that language and your attention to language is going to be a big part of this book. You're not just going to tell a story board by board by board, but there's going to be kind of a luxurious sense of language. Is that part of your intent?
Tayari Jones: I think it's just part of the truth of this particular story. I mean, a lot of the story takes place in kind of shady neighborhoods. There are crack addicts in the story, you know, there are a lot of people who are struggling just to pass the G.E.D, there's poverty in here, and I do like to kind of -- I think a lot of times when people -- when you hear stories that are set in the inner city or whatever, that some of the beauty of language is often sacrificed to convey a kind of grittiness, but I wanted to use language that also shows how -- that there is lushness in that life as well.
Ron Carlson: Right. Well, it shows in the book. In -- did you have a plan or a plot for your first novel? When those kids during the Atlanta child abductions were -- those kids are all dealing with that and talking about it?
Tayari Jones: But that -- you know, that was more of the backdrop of Leaving Atlanta was the Atlanta child murders.
Ron Carlson: Right, I understand.
Tayari Jones: But what I didn't have – I had in mind the struggles of the fifth grade -- the fifth grade predicament was what drove me, so not exactly the plot. And as the characters began to shape up, then their challenges, the way that their lives were challenged based on who they were, where they were, it then started -- the book followed that shape.
Ron Carlson: Right, right. Yeah -- no, they're people first. And then there's this background, this ominous background second.
Tayari Jones: Well, I thought of that because when I tell people I grew up in Atlanta during the child murders, people say, "Oh my God, you must not have had a childhood." And I was like, "Yeah, we had a childhood, it was just a strange childhood." And so with that book, I was really aiming for that angle, that we were children, we just had this particular challenge.
Ron Carlson: Let's talk about the writing of The Untelling in terms of your planning. The -- we understand the ignition -- this accident that happened in the past, and that's written and delivered very forcefully, and then the aftermath. And then, did you have the other plot points in mind?
Tayari Jones: I didn't even have the accident in mind when I started.
Ron Carlson: You're kidding.
Tayari Jones: No, that came -- I was a good three-quarters of the way through. I couldn't figure out why this girl was so cagey and so anxious and worried about keeping people close to her. So actually, that came to me -- it ended up being in the front of the book as a prologue, but that's not the way that I wrote the story. I couldn't figure out what her problem was. Like, she clearly was carrying around this -- some unspoken tragedy she didn't talk about. Then it just came to me. It was like, "Oh!"
Ron Carlson: Wait, you mean -- let's clarify this because -- you're working, you're writing along --
Tayari Jones: I’m writing.
Ron Carlson: You're well into a book.
Tayari Jones: I’m a good 150 pages in.
Ron Carlson: You don't know where you're going to put the next foot.
Tayari Jones: That's right.
Ron Carlson: And when you put the foot --
Tayari Jones: But I’ve got my shoes on.
Ron Carlson: And then when you put the foot down, there was this other issue in her life with Dwayne.
Tayari Jones: Right, and then I came back and wrote the prologue.
Ron Carlson: I see. And then talk about going forward from there, then. You were informed by that -- because that's not the only thing that's been untold in the story.
Tayari Jones: Right, I start-- so that happened. So I realized that there was a car accident is why she was such a wounded person, and then once I figured that out, then I threaded it through the part I had already written, and then I moved forward. Armed with the information I now had, I was able to go to the next place.
Ron Carlson: Terrific. Let me remind everybody, we're talking with the writer Tayari Jones about her novel The Untelling, which has just been published in paperback. What was the biggest – besides that -- there are a couple of plot points -- what are the other surprises that came -- that you discovered in writing the draft of this book?
Tayari Jones: Actually, when the novel was all but done, it had been accepted by the editor, I felt like there was a hole in it. And what I realized is that I had not explained even to myself the mother's bizarre behavior.
Ron Carlson: Exactly.
Tayari Jones: And then that became clear to me. I just worried over it. I just fretted over it because there's a feeling that if your editor is okay, the book must be okay, but I knew it wasn't okay. And I -- and it was so close to, you know, the cutoff time to make any changes. And then when it came to me why the mother behaved so sadistically toward the daughters, that was a great -- it was a great burden to me because one of the themes of the book is forgiveness, and the way that you forgive people is to understand how they are, who they are. And so when that happened for me with the mother, then I felt like I had actually done the work of the book at that point.
Ron Carlson: Right, and also, that comes out of the text. You said the theme of the book is forgiveness. Now, do you work from theme in or do you work from moment or evi-- or event up?
Tayari Jones: I think I probably work from theme in. I think I do. There will be an idea that I’ve just been batting around. Like right now I can't stop thinking about the question of complicity, and so everything I write now is about complicity in some way. And when I was writing this, I thought a lot about -- I thought a lot about forgiveness, and what does it mean, how does it mean? And so even the short stories I was working on at this time were all about -- were all about forgiveness. I think in my first novel, everyone, you know, thinks of it as being about the child murders, but also I was batting around the idea of fatherhood, so all the characters have questions about their father. So it kind of comes from there out for me, I think.
Ron Carlson: Well, the first book, Leaving Atlanta, is very strong in its ability to create these people. They happen to be in fifth grade. They're people first, and then they have this -- the other thing second. And I think that writing children is so difficult, and you did it so masterfully there. Here one of the issues in a book like The Untelling is what I call the release of information. You have a current story with a woman who's a teacher, but there's a great deal bothering her in a current relationship, et cetera. Then you begin to release, or give us the history. Now did you make charts, or did you work with cut-and-paste?
Tayari Jones: I don't do any of those things. I just kind of try to write -- often, like I was saying, a lot of the information that's released, I didn't even have it -- I didn't have to -- as a writer, a lot of times I wasn't keeping a secret; I didn't know it yet.
Ron Carlson: Right, it was a secret.
Tayari Jones: Yeah, it was secret even to me. But then once I’m done with it, when I’m done with the draft, I can go back and put things in or rearrange or reorder. But I just try to do whatever I need to do to get to that last page. Things can be fixed. I think that you get a lot of confidence in writing when you know that they can be fixed, things can be fixed.
Ron Carlson: The -- were you writing -- Were you always writing?
Tayari Jones: All my life?
Ron Carlson: Yeah.
Tayari Jones: Yes. It's the only thing -- it's the only ambition I’ve ever had in my life that was serious.
Ron Carlson: To -- and was leaving Atlanta your first book?
Tayari Jones: No, actually when I was in my early 20s, when I actually was teaching reading to adults, I wrote a terrible novel, but it was -- it was my whole heart. I mean, I’ve looked at it now. It had about 20 characters; about 10 of them had point-of-view chapters. Because every time I couldn't finish it, I would say, "I wonder what the -- I wonder what the teacher would think."
Ron Carlson: Right, so you went around the whole table and let everybody talk.
Tayari Jones: Yes, let everyone have – put their two cents in. And I sent it off to an agent who wrote me a very kind letter saying, "You know, keep writing, kiddo," and that's what I did. I didn't -- I don't know, for some reason I didn't push the issue. It was achievement enough for me to have finished it.
Ron Carlson: Many people are working on books, and they work on a book for a long time but something finally -- either they let it go or they say, "By gum, I’m going to finish that." Now, what was the catalyst in terms of you cutting your teeth, your apprenticeship, and getting -- and finishing that Leaving Atlanta?
Tayari Jones: Well, for one thing, I was in school when I wrote it, but I felt that the backstory of the child murders, I really felt a need to get that story out in the world. I felt like it was the formative event of my childhood, but it had kind of been erased from the records. So few people had ever heard about it. So I had a kind of urge to add to the history, to the record, so I think that gave me a little bit more get-up-and-go to get it done, that I felt like -- I felt like I was doing something that needed doing.
Ron Carlson: How did you resist -- in both books, how did you resist the urge to have a big plot point? I mean, the idea -- in leaving Atlanta, it's a visit with a world. I mean, we stay with these people, we get very involved, but there is no solution, there is no big light bulb that comes in in the end. We just have this great, generous experience of having been with these people during this stressful time. Now, were you tempted to have something big happen? There is -- I mean, there is some tough moments which are sort of offstage.
Tayari Jones: Well, what I really try to do is I think a lot of times that big drama in stories, it can eclipse the writing, it can eclipse the character, it can get away from the truth of your story, that the big -- all the Noise, it's like sometimes it feels almost like your characters are banging pots and pans together making all this noise, but what you really want to do is hear them singing. And I just try to -- I really try and keep that in mind and just -- I mean, my stories tend to have a certain sadness, but I try to lace it with a certain humor, and I feel like all those elements are lost if there's big drama happening.
Ron Carlson: Mm-hmm, that's interesting. What about the whole issue of -- you have a lot of characters in this book that you deal with very fairly, and they come out in three dimensions. How do you avoid stereotype?
Tayari Jones: I think –
Ron Carlson: Do you -- go ahead.
Tayari Jones: I think, like for example, I have a character, Cynthia, who is a crack addict who lives next door to Aria, and Cynthia believes she's lost a rock of crack cocaine in the driveway, in the gravel driveway, and she's always looking. I mean, one thing I did to try to make sure she stayed as a round character is, one, I gave her a real name, I didn't give her some absurd nickname, I gave her a real name, Cynthia. And then I thought about her mother coming to visit her. I mean, a lot of times when people are addicted to drugs, people think of them only as a drug addict, but her mother's there, and I thought, "Well,
what would she do to try to impress her mother?" And I said, "Oh, she would put lotion on so she's glistening because her mother's coming to visit her." And these are the things that I tried to do to -- to undermine the stereotype. Or even Keisha, the pregnant teenager who's working on her G.E.D., one thing I did with her was that I let her feel superior to other people in the text. I tried to give everyone in this book a healthy sense of entitlement, which undermines almost all stereotypes of people in the inner city. Everyone in this book, even Cynthia the crack addict, she feels that she's a tidy person and therefore superior to Aria, because she says Aria's house is a mess.
Ron Carlson: Yeah, that's so interesting. That -- how do you do that? Is that simply a matter of sitting in each chair and being empathetic, or is there – do you make notes on these people?
Tayari Jones: I just -- you know, I just kind of think about -- I do try to sit in every chair, and the entitlement issue really helped in this one, just who does every-- because it's a lot about hierarchies of class and gender and the ways that people stack up in the world, and so I just thought about every person. Because in real life, no one thinks they're -- they're at the bottom of the heap. Everyone thinks if they look down, they'll see at least one other person.
Ron Carlson: (laughing) don't be last. That's good. When you -- both of these books, as you've been explaining so well, have a very dynamic and valuable complexity, and they're not nifty, they're not neat, they don't, you know, just tie up so sweetly. But what gave you permission to write those kinds of books, in terms of did you have models? I’m really asking about any reading you saw that – because literature, I think of it as books that actually mirror or suggest our complexity.
Tayari Jones: Well, one novel that was extremely influential is written by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. It's called Maud Martha. And Gwendolyn Brooks said that she wrote that novel in response to Native Son, and that she felt that African-American literature at the time was going to where some big, huge event -- it had to be the character against the system, and she felt like the complexity of people's everyday lives was getting lost in this.
Like, in Native Son, you know, bigger Thomas cuts off the white woman's head, puts her in the oven, and – and Gwendolyn Brooks said she wanted to write a novel where no one chops off anyone's head. And she's a poet. It's a very slim book, about 170 pages, and like I said, no one gets decapitated, it's just someone's life, and it was my favorite novel. And it gave me permission to feel that I could just write novels about people's lives. They don't have to necessarily, you know, do credo swapping their thought about the system. Their lives exposes everything about the world they live in. If I tell the truth, my idea and my beliefs come through through there because it's in the truth.
Ron Carlson: That's really well said. You teach.
Tayari Jones: I do.
Ron Carlson: And you work with writers, and certainly that's one of the issues that comes up, and I’m sure that you're passing that along, but what advice do you give people? Like, I’m working on my first book, say, and maybe I don't even know if it's my book, but I’ve written a little bit, something has my attention. What kinds of consultation or advice do you -- how do you work -- how does that work?
Tayari Jones: You know, I teach students at George Washington, but I also teach a class to people in the community who always wanted to write. You know, mail carriers and just all k-- working people. And I find that what I tell the people, particularly the people who are not in school that want to write, I tell them, "You write with the time you have."
A lot of times people think they don't have enough time. You use the time you have. If you're working 12 hours a day at your real job, it's going to take you longer to finish your book, but you will get there. Just be consistent. And read a lot, but when it's time to write, don't try to write something like what you've read, try to write what you feel.
Ron Carlson: The -- did you start that class yourself or...
Tayari Jones: Actually, no. It's part of the position I have at George Washington is that you teach a community class. The woman who endowed the class always wanted to write. She raised nine children, she went back to try to take classes, and then -- this is horrible -- she died, and so she left her endowment to the university so that people in the community, take your class now, don't wait. That's the message. So it's free, it makes it very convenient for people. So you don't wait. Don't wait till your kids are grown; you can do it today. You can start right now.
Ron Carlson: Right, right. Now, I’ve met and talked to a lot of writers, and I’ve met and talked to you several times, and you strike me as being quite optimistic and enthusiastic, not only about writing but about your work, and so on. And is that -- let's talk about what you're doing next.
Tayari Jones: I’m working on -- I’m working on two novels. I’m working on an adult novel called The Outside Child, which is about a daughter who is born outside of her father's marriage, so she's got a -- it's a kind of face-to-the-window kind of novel, which I tend to like. And I’m also working on a young adult novel.
Ron Carlson: I didn't know that.
Tayari Jones: Yeah, I’m kind of getting a kick out of it. I figure the books you read when you're a teenager, or like 13, you love those books more than anything you'll ever read again. Those are the times when books just -- I remember I was obsessed with a book when I was a little girl, and my mother wouldn't take me to buy the sequel, and I just fell out. I was a very obedient child, but that -- I just couldn't take it. And I think about -- so writing for that age group is so important because you can really touch a reader.
Ron Carlson: We're looking at -- I mean, that age group also needs books. I mean, young adult literature is such a broad spectrum now. Some of it's really tough, and Some of it's o-- too much of it for too long was oversimplified.
Tayari Jones: But young people need books by authors who are not going to lie to them. That's what I think is important. I think a lot of times we want to -- people think of young adult literature as "This is an opportunity to shape the youth," but I think it needs to be an opportunity to engage with them, which is really a different task.
Ron Carlson: It is. Yeah, the didactic book doesn't really go very far.
Tayari Jones: No, they're horrible.
Ron Carlson: Well, Tayari, thank you very much for being here. It's been -- this is a terrific book, and your career is so much fun to watch, and you're just a real example for a lot of writers, and I loved it. So anyway, I’m Ron Carlson. This has been -- our guest has been Tayari Jones. We've been talking about her novel, The Untelling, just published in paperback. I’m Ron Carlson. This has been Books & Co. I hope you'll join us next time.