What do you say when Oprah Winfrey tells you that your latest novel is going to be her next book club selection?
“I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ” Tayari Jones answers, laughing. “That’s what you say.”
It’s true. “An American Marriage” by Jones — a Rutgers University-Newark English professor who’s now completing a stint as a visiting fellow at the Beverly Rogers Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at UNLV — officially has joined the ranks of Oprah-approved literature.
In a message on her website, Winfrey says Jones’ novel about the effect of incarceration on an upwardly mobile African-American couple “redefines the traditional American love story” and places readers “inside a world that a lot of people don’t know about, but impacts all of us in really big ways.”
Readers will “come away with greater empathy and understanding, but even if you don’t, it’s just a really great read,” Winfrey added. “It’s the perfect book to read along with a friend or family member. You’re going to want to have someone else reading it because it’s so juicy.”
Oprah calling …
Jones — speaking from a book tour stop in Kansas City — said the phone call from Winfrey was “very exciting. She just called up out of the blue.”
Jones had no doubt that it truly was Oprah. “Her voice is so distinctive,” she says.
But “it doesn’t really sink in because it’s uncharted territory. You don’t really know what it means.
“I did understand that there would be more publicity, but also more responsibility. When you think about it, Oprah Winfrey lent her good name to this project, and if she likes the book she’s also invested in the issues. So it really kind of stepped up my understanding of this project as a mission, as well as a story.”
“An American Marriage” ($26.95, Algonquin Books), released last month, is Jones’ fourth published book. Its emotional spine derives from a conversation Jones overheard.
Jones had been researching the issue of mass incarceration, particularly that of minority men, and thought she had “information, but not a story.
“Then I was at a mall in Atlanta and heard a couple. The woman said clearly, ‘You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’
“I was so intrigued by this question of waiting, and how does a relationship endure in the wake of incarceration,” Jones says.
The novel follows Celestial and Roy, a young Atlanta couple. He’s a business executive, she’s a promising artist, and when Roy is arrested and sent to prison for a crime he did not commit, Celestial finds herself becoming drawn to Andre, a childhood friend and the best man at their wedding. And, when Roy’s fortunes change, all three characters must deal with the fractures in their lives caused by a horrible injustice.
Jones tells the the story via alternating chapters told from each character’s point of view. In one particularly emotional chapter, life-altering decisions are conveyed through an exchange of letters.
Neither Roy nor Celestial is an ideal character. While sympathetic, they’re also, at times, self-centered, rash and even nasty. Nor does the story hew to the narrative that readers might expect.
“When you say, ‘This is a novel, and the woman’s husband is incarcerated,’ you think it’s going to be about her brave fight,” Jones says. “Instead, I present you with real-life persons, flesh and blood persons.”
For example, Celestial responds to Roy’s jailhouse pleas to maintain their marriage not as a long-suffering soap opera character, but as a 27-year-old woman facing the very real prospect of putting her life on hold for the next decade or more.
“My favorite part is when he says, ‘I’m innocent,’ and she says, ‘I’m innocent, too,’ ” Jones says.
But, Jones says, “also, the book is a little bit funny. … The book has lots of joy and, also, some levity in it. I feel that really doesn’t get talked about much.”
A universal story
While “An American Marriage” revolves around an African-American couple experiencing a singular issue, Jones is confident that the story will strike an emotional chord with all readers.
“What I’m very delighted about is, readers are seeming to see themselves in the characters, regardless of their actual experience,” she says. “We, all of us, know what it is to love, what it is to lose. But I’ve especially been heartened by positive reaction from people who do have experience with this in a more literal way.”
On living in Las Vegas
Tayari Jones is spending the 2017-18 academic year as a visiting fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.
While at BMI, she has been working on her next book and taking part in BMI-sponsored activities. She’s also scheduled to participate in BMI’s second Believer Festival April 13 and 14.
Jones, an English professor at Rutgers University-Newark, says she’s “very grateful” for her BMI experience and found much to like here.
“I love The Writer’s Block bookstore. It’s the best bookstore in the world,” she says. “The art scene is really growing, and it’s exciting to be in a place where things are really starting to happen.”
And: “Cirque du Soleil is my favorite thing. I think there are two types of people in the world — those who like Cirque and those who don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”