Somewhere in Edward P. Jones’ apartment, mixed in among his collections of American stamps and thimble-sized Japanese netsuke figurines, is a Pulitzer Prize for his 2003 debut novel, The Known World. The Washington, D.C., native moved just north of Georgetown following a book tour two years ago but has yet to unpack his sizable book collection or even acquire furniture. Forced to leave the Arlington, Virginia, apartment he’d called home for two decades due to noisy neighbors, he’s literally waiting for the other shoe to drop on this place before he commits.
"They assured me I wouldn’t have a noise problem because this place is carpeted, but last August I started hearing a lot of stomping and that really got me," he says. "I don’t want to take my stuff out of boxes if I’m going to have a noise problem."
It’s a problem he won’t have to worry about for a while. This fall, Jones is back on tour with All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his second extraordinary short story collection that explores the unseen Washington where African Americans struggle with poverty, racism and violence.
How do you follow a Pulitzer-winning performance like The Known World, a sprawling historical tour de force based on the little-known fact that freed blacks actually owned slaves? Jones found inspiration in the characters and storylines in his debut collection, Lost in the City, which garnered a National Book Award nomination nearly 15 years ago.
"You could read nine or 10 of the stories in Lost in the City and pick them up in some cases and continue them in All Aunt Hagar’s Children," he says. "I never thought about revisiting that place. It’s just one of those strange things that happen when you have an imagination. Once you start pulling out the thread of that big ball, it continues and continues and can go on until you just put a stop to it."
Written in Jones’ deceptively simple prose style, the 14 stories collected here crackle with life as the author explores the inner lives of dreamers, redeemers, rendered families and troubled souls who transit through the District. Jones focuses on the African-American sections, primarily north and northwest, where the grandsons and granddaughters of Southern sharecroppers eke out a living in the service industries. It’s an area Jones knows well.
Unlike Lost, which took place in ’60s and ’70s Washington, this collection spans the 20th century; as a result, many of the stories are prequels rather than sequels to their Lost companion pieces.
One of Jones’ great gifts is the telling detail, whether it’s the war-shocked Korean War vet who lovingly dresses the body of his ex-girlfriend for burial in "Old Boys, Old Girls," a Hi-C-sipping Satan in "The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River" or an R-rated mynah bird who punctuates the title story with heat-of-passion exclamations.
If Lost in the City was modeled on James Joyce’s Dubliners, these expansive new stories, several of which emotionally qualify as novellas, carry a whiff of the fantastic that brings to mind Calvino or Borges, two authors Jones admits he has only read sparingly.
A peaceful sanctuary is particularly important to the 55-year-old bachelor and admitted homebody whose childhood was one of constant relocation within the nation’s capital. His mother, who worked minimum-wage jobs to feed her three children, could neither read nor write, but instilled in Jones a love of learning. Except for his college years at Holy Cross in Worchester, Massachusetts, where he earned an English degree, Jones has lived in and around Washington all his life.
In fact, nightmares of moving plague Jones to this day. A non-driver, he once said he would not want to own a car because he could not bring it into his apartment at night.
"You wonder, how can I get my whole life into this one room, or this one apartment, or the next apartment?" he says. "If I knew a way that I could write something that would kill off all those dreams, I would do it, but I don’t. My plan one day is to write a story that begins, ‘We never get over having been children.’ "
His Pulitzer Prize, followed quickly by a MacArthur Fellowship, gave Jones the freedom to write fulltime. Prior to that, he worked for 19 years summarizing articles for a nonprofit organization.
Jones develops his fiction entirely within his mind; he wrote only six pages of The Known World in 10 years "and three of those were the final chapter," he says. "I like knowing where a story is going to go before I sit down and start working," he explains. "That’s probably why I do a lot of things in my head. The way the world works, you never know when you might end up one day in a dungeon where there’s no paper available."
There’s one downfall to his method, however: "One of the problems of thinking it through all the way to the end is you second-guess yourself every other day."
Although Jones’ nonlinear storytelling makes his mental gymnastics seem all the more remarkable, for him it’s merely organizational origami. "I always thought that you try to kind of ball it up and not have it all in one straight line," he says. "You just had to pluck out the numbers and if you line the numbers up sequentially, you would come out with a linear story. It just so happens that I take those numbers, one through 10, and sort of ball them up there on the page."
Readers won’t find many autobiographical tidbits about Jones in his fiction; he’s saving those for his golden years.
"Although the second stories in both collections ["The First Day" in Lost; "Spanish in the Morning" in All Aunt Hagar’s Children] have a little bit of my own life in both of them, everything else in those collections is all made up. Maybe it’s good that I do that because one day when I have less of a brain, less of an imagination, then I can start using stuff about friends and my own life. But if I start using that stuff up now, once I get to the point where I have less of an imagination, what will I do?"
Jay MacDonald recently moved from Mississippi to Texas.