‘The Known World’
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JEFFREY BROWN: You won’t find Manchester County on maps of 19th Century Virginia, but in the new novel, “The Known World,” it is a place of vivid characters who live amid the realities of slavery: Moses, a black slave, who ate dirt because “the eating of it tied him to the only thing in his small world that meant almost as much as his own life.” William Robbins, a strict white slave owner who loved a black woman “far more than anything he could name and, in his quieter moments after the storms in his head, feared that he was losing his mind because of that love.” And Henry Townsend, who “wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known.” Henry, a slave owner, is black.
The book is receiving glowing reviews. Jonathan Yardley, a prominent critic for the “Washington Post,” calls it “the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years.” Its author is 52-year-old Edward Jones, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and became the first in his family to attend college. His first book, a collection of short stories called “Lost in the City,” came out in 1992 and was nominated for a National Book Award. “The Known World” is his first novel. We met on a hot late summer day at the Sully Historical Site in Chantilly, Virginia, a former estate that includes a cabin where slaves lived, just as in Jones’ book. Edward Jones, welcome.
EDWARD JONES: Thank you, thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Your book is called “The Known World,” but in many ways it’s an unknown world in which blacks own other blacks.
EDWARD JONES: I think it’s unknown only in that the focus has been on something that’s black and white, whereas if the picture had been extended just a bit, you would have seen a world where there were black people, a minority of black people owning slaves.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how did you come to this story?
EDWARD JONES: I think it may have begun when I was in college when I first came upon the fact that black people owned slaves. I didn’t do anything with it then because I had no notion of becoming a writer. It was only after I published my first book, “Lost in the City,” that I began to think about what would become “The Known World,” and it took about 10 years of thinking and putting the characters together, putting the plot together.
JEFFREY BROWN: The story, the characters are full of moral complexity — people owning each other, people loving when they’re not supposed to love.
EDWARD JONES: Yeah. Some people look back at it and see how simplistic it was. But I think it was a very odd era, a very difficult era and a very complex era. In terms of the complexity and confusion of everything, I think even, for example, in the case of someone who’s considered a bad person, I didn’t want to leave it as just being a bad person. I knew I had to say, “well, on this day he’s a horrible person, but then at 9:00 at night watch with his family.”
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a passage here where Moses, the slave, describes when he first was bought by a black man.
EDWARD JONES: Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: I wonder if you could read that for us.
EDWARD JONES: Certainly. “Moses was the first slave Henry Townsend had bought, $325 and a bill of sale from William Robbins, a white man. It took Moses more than two weeks to come to understand that someone wasn’t fiddling with him and that, indeed, a black man, two shades darker than himself, owned him and any shadow he made. Sleeping in the cabin beside Henry in the first weeks after the sale, Moses thought that it was already a strange world that made him a slave to a white man. But God had indeed set it twirling and twisting every which way when he put black people to owning their own kind. Was God even up there tending to business any more?”
JEFFREY BROWN: You create a world where order vies with decay, where decency is side-by-side with cruelty. In fact, you’ve written a quiet book. It could have been angry. It speaks quietly, but with a lot of depth of emotions.
EDWARD JONES: Yes, slavery comes with its own emotion. The story is… has its own passion, you know, and so why raise your voice with something like that? Just telling the story of a man wanting to be free and in trying to be free, they caught him and cut off his ear, you know. Why put a lot of exclamation marks with something like that, you know. You can tell it very, very straight.
JEFFREY BROWN: One interesting thing Jones does is sketch the ultimate fate of a character in just a line or two, letting readers see the characters’ future, beyond the eve of the Civil War, where the novel itself ends.
EDWARD JONES: I was a kind of god, you know. I can see the day they’re born. I can see the day they’re born, I can see the day they will die. And because that was in 1855, writing in 2003, as the god of all of those people, I felt some sort of need to say in a lot of cases, you know, “this is his day here so on this day he will die” and these are the other circ his death.
JEFFREY BROWN: You felt yourself as a writer like a kind of god?
EDWARD JONES: Yeah. And I’m not saying that in any sort of lofty sense, but only I think in a need to be complete, to set the record straight, you know, the entire record straight, to be as whole as I possibly could.
JEFFREY BROWN: You chose not to do a lot of research. You got this in your head over many years.
EDWARD JONES: I just decided that, one day that I would just use whatever knowledge I’d accumulated in living life, you know, a book I read when I’m 25, a movie that I’d seen, some documentary I’d seen on television, things like that. And I started writing, you know. I had a sense, I think, that people should come first. And all this research about, well, at did the saddle look like, you know?
What kind of leather was it, and all that, that I didn’t even need to do anything about. I could say, “saddle,” and if I had some character there in the forefront, and if you believe in the character, then you would believe that he got on the horse and got on that saddle. If the character wasn’t in detail enough, if the character wasn’t real enough, then no amount of my saying how wonderful the saddle was, going on for page and page and page, showing you all the books that I had read about saddles, you know, it wouldn’t do the story any good.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now you, yourself, grew up poor. I understand that your mother could not read or write.
EDWARD JONES: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: What made you want to be a writer?
EDWARD JONES: I didn’t start out thinking that I wanted to be a writer. I think that came much later. I took my first writing course when I was in college and even then, I didn’t really latch onto this idea of becoming a writer. I think when you grow up in certain circumstances, you are taught that there are only certain roles in life that you should yearn for, you know. So by going to college I had already gone beyond what, you know, the world had already decreed that I should be. I didn’t know any writers. I had read a lot of books, but they were as if they were way off there on a mountain, and they wrote those books, and they sent them down, and we all read them. But it wasn’t, you know, it wasn’t something you could aspire to grow up to be one of those people on the mountain.
Then I took a writing course, and this professor said wonderful things about what I was doing, and I did a little bit but I never really pursued it. I did it off and on after college. I don’t really sit down every day and write, just because I like working things out first in my head. But what made me become a writer, I don’t know. We’re compelled to do certain things, you know. Some people are compelled to sing songs, some people are compelled to paint pictures. I’m just compelled to tell stories.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Edward Jones, thanks for talking to us.
EDWARD JONES: Thank you. Thank you very much.