February 19, 2010

Edward P. Jones Reads

Edward Jones’s reading last night was fabulous ~ of course!

I was bit late getting there, as I had to pick up the twins and take them home to be babysat by their grandmother before rushing back. Most of the auditorium was full so I stood at the back, planning just to stay there. A writer friend came in and stood beside me, but then someone waved us to two chairs toward the front, which, embarrassed, we took.

Ah, the reading. When Edward Jones reads, he is very serious, and he cocks his left arm up to hold down the pages on the podium, while his right hangs at his side. His voice has just a touch of an accent ~ it feels like D.C. combined with the south. When he spoke his character’s lines, his voice swelled and deepened. The audience sat rapt. Funny things that brought laughter from the audience were quickly followed by more sobering things.

First he read from some historical work set in the world of The Known World. It was a nuanced and tender portrayal of a man who believes he should not be a slave and of a woman who also believes that but takes a more practical view of things. The man is owed $500 from the woman and her husband, but he is arrested for his general cockiness and put in jail. The woman and her husband buy his freedom, but the man still insists they owe him the full amount and that he is free. The woman tries to get him to act like he’s supposed to so he doesn’t get in trouble, but by the end he’s lost a leg and she lets him go with a horse and most of his money. A fabulously realistic and heart-rending ending.

Then he read part of a story about a woman on a bus in D.C. Her eyes fog and then she goes entirely blind while on the bus. A kind homeless man helps her home, and at the end of the story she looks in the mirror and thinks about how alone she is and how much her beauty has meant to her.

Then someone asked the question: Why did he choose to write about slavery and did he do much research? He answered that what prompted the historical writing was that he remembered a fact he’d learned in college that black people owned slaves. Then he said that what you have to know when you begin writing is what’s in your character’s heart when they get up that morning. You don’t need to know all the historical fact. He said, say you were going to write about Benjamin Franklin at the Continental Congress. You know he might have had eggs for breakfast and that he was probably served by a maid. There was probably a newspaper that he read. When he went outside, the streets would smell like horse shit. Men would be riding horses and women would be riding in carriages. He said that you don’t need to know how a carriage was made then, and you already know from what history you’ve had and documentaries you’ve seen pretty much all you need to know. What’s important is what’s inside your character, what they need and want.

Then he hesitated a moment and said that if there were no more questions we were done. Oh, how I wanted someone to ask a question! And I didn’t have one ready at hand. He then went to sign books.

What I’m Reading Today: Rusty Barnes’s “Harry, Giselle and Joyce” at Fictionaut. Wonderfully poetic and strange ~ it defamiliarizes the everyday. Very moving.

PS I’m thrilled to be a chicken scratcher! My story “Revelations” is up at Fried Chicken and Coffee. Warning: It’s a bit dark.

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