Tayari Jones was a girl growing up in southwest Atlanta at the time of the city’s grisly series of child murders. The killings became the context of her first novel, “Leaving Atlanta” (2002), a coming-of-age story narrated by three fifth-graders.
“The way I was able to get back to 1979 Atlanta was not think of it as a historical moment but just to remember my own childhood,” said Jones, 41, in a conversation with noted writer Pearl Cleage at the Atlanta History Center last week.
The conversation, part of the center’s author lecture series, began with an introduction by Valerie Boyd, a biographer and journalism professor at the University of Georgia, who described the pair as “quintessential Atlanta writers who explore our city not in broad strokes but fine detail.” (Disclosure: Valerie Boyd is a member of ArtsATL.com’s board of directors.)
Jones and Cleage have a long history together. Cleage, who has called Atlanta home for 40 years, was Jones’ first writing instructor at Spelman College. She recognized the fledgling writer’s seriousness and mentored her after class.
Now a New Yorker, Jones has not lived in her hometown for a decade, but it remains her fictional world. Her second novel, “The Untelling” (2005), centers on an Atlanta family struggling with loss, and her latest book, “Silver Sparrow” (2011), about a bigamist limousine driver’s two families, one kept painfully hidden, has won high praise.
Jones, a writing professor at Rutgers University, is a statuesque woman with an energetic personality. Her grasp of her fictional material has always been direct and personal. Her own experience growing up with two half-sisters on the periphery of her life drove her exploration of the relationship between distant sisters in “Silver Sparrow.”
Her process, as she described it, is uncomplicated by research and free of outlines. Like the reader, she said, she wants the story to unfold before her eyes. She doesn’t figure out the ending in advance, or even what happens next until she writes it.
“Stress and fear [are] what makes a story tense and interesting. It’s like romance — you don’t know what is going to happen,” Jones declared. “It’s the unknowing that keeps me moving.”
She described a roller-coaster ride of a writing career. It seemed easy at first. She abandoned graduate studies in English to write, spent three years in the creative writing program at Arizona State University, wrote her first novel in a walk-in closet, got an agent, was dumped by the agent, found a second agent quickly and found a publisher for “Leaving Atlanta” — all in the space of five years. “The Untelling” was published just as easily.
“Silver Sparrow,” however, almost didn’t go to press. Having never experienced the tortuous path to publication that most young writers endure, Jones was stunned, a hundred pages into the book, that she couldn’t sell it. Her previous novels had not done well commercially and were seen as liabilities. But publishers are always hungry to introduce a new author, Jones remarked, and there was even a suggestion that she write under a pseudonym to make a fresh start. “I had to finish the book to prove to myself I was still a writer,” she said.
Finishing became more important than publishing. It became a test of her commitment and self-belief. After completing the manuscript, Jones unexpectedly won a grant she hadn’t applied for. At a reading soon afterward, an admiring woman rushed up to her. She was, it turned out, Judy Blume, the doyenne of young-adult literature. Blume introduced Jones to her new publisher.
“Silver Sparrow” has found an audience. The children of secret families who discovered the book started contacting Jones in gratitude. Because there is no polite name for these children, some have taken to calling themselves “silver sparrows.”
The title, like the book itself, rose up from a knockdown. Jones’ original title, “The Silver Girl,” had been taken by a more prominent author, so she was asked to choose another. She looked inside her book, to the biblical allusions and the metaphor of silver for beauty, and found a name that struck a chord.