American author Tayari Jones has been keeping a big secret about her new book, An American Marriage, for a very long time – or at least it seemed that way. In October 2017, Jones got a phone call that changed her life. Oprah Winfrey was on the line, telling her that An American Marriage had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. But there was a catch. Jones couldn’t tell anyone until the book was published months later, in February 2018.
“So you have to sit on the secret a long time,” Jones, 47, says in a phone interview from Atlanta, Georgia, the United States.
It’s something authors dream of – because an Oprah’s Book Club endorsement guarantees instant sales.
And since Winfrey relaunched her book club online in 2012 – it ran for 15 years previously to coincide with the hugely popular Oprah Winfrey Show on TV – she has been more selective, picking fewer books. Only one was named in 2017, Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.
Winfrey, apparently, has been waiting for months, too, to tell readers about Jones’s novel and is betting big. Her Harpo Films company is attached to produce the adaptation of the book, too. In a video announcing the book’s selection, she says she read the book in galley form, before it went to print.
“It’s so juicy,” she says. “Every chapter, it’s, ‘Will they or won’t they, and how’s this going to end?’ It’s one of those books I could not put down. As soon as I did, I called up the author and said, ‘I gotta talk to you about this story.’”
An American Marriage tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a recently married black couple living in modern-day Atlanta. Everything seems to be going their way. Celestial is getting recognised for her work as an artist. Roy’s career as an executive is also thriving. But when Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison, for a crime he didn’t do, everything changes. Celestial, the newlywed, has some big questions to answer.
“It’s really a love triangle,” Winfrey says in her video. “It places us inside a world that a lot of people don’t know about, but that affects all of us in really big ways. … I think you’ll come away with greater empathy and understanding.”
Besides Winfrey’s stamp of approval, An American Marriage has garnered praise from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Jones normally lives in Brooklyn, New York City, and is on the MFA faculty at the nearby Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is spending the 2017-18 year in the Bennett Fellows Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute to work on her fifth novel.
Jones is the author of Leaving Atlanta (2002), a story set during the infamous child murders there of 1979-1981 and Silver Sparrow (2011), about the relationship between two sisters, one who carries her father’s last name and the other his shame. Her third novel is The Untelling (2005), about a woman seeking to overcome the trauma of her past.
OK, tell us about the moment Oprah called and said she wanted to make you the Oprah pick? Did you scream? Is that instant book sales?
Well, it’s not instant sales, because they told me about this in October (2017). It’s complicated. First, they have to take pictures for the (March 2018) magazine (Winfrey’s O The Oprah Magazine). Then they have to print regular copies of the book like everything is normal. Then they have to print the Oprah Book Club copies. Then they hide those 100,000 copies somewhere. Then they have to get the bookstores to order the books sight unseen without knowing the title. They are sent to the bookstore in plain brown boxes and the stores are told not to open until a certain date….
Let’s go back to the actual call.
I received a phone call at nine at night. I was driving my car. A voice said in surround sound, “Hello, this is Oprah”. She has a distinctive voice. She waited patiently a good 45 seconds for me to go through all the, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it”. Then she said she had read my book in manuscript form and wanted to use it for her book club. And would I like that? I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
It seems like you are taking on more complex subjects. How have your grown as a writer?
I think what I’m doing is more topical. What was important for me when I wrote my earlier books was giving the family structure the significance of any other topic. As an African-American novelist, there’s so much expectation to pull from the headlines. I want to give more space to our family stories, our everyday slice-of-life stories. This story is more overtly engaging with the kind of structural challenges of African-American life.
Why did you decide to take on mass incarceration?
I was interested in mass incarceration, not because of any personal experience. It’s just as a black American, this problem is always in the air. I grew up understanding that prison could come and get you. You didn’t have to earn your way into prison. I decided I wanted to explore this in my work.
The mistake I made in trying to write the book is that I was taking on mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is not a plot. It’s not a story. It’s not a conflict. It’s an issue. And I’m not a sociologist. So I think when I was trying to write to an issue, I couldn’t get anything done.
I had to think about one individual incarcerated. Then I could open it up to a story that could be surprising, engaging, funny and romantic. I use the skills I used in my earlier books. I could use the skills I already had when I realised that every incarcerated person is a part of a family. – The News & Observer/Tribune News Service