Today on the blog, JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, interviews #JRWC11 author, Tayari Jones about her third novel, Silver Sparrow. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families – the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. Of Silver Sparrow, Kirkus Reviews says, “Jones beautifully evokes Atlanta in the 1980s while creating gritty, imperfect characters whose pain lingers in the reader’s heart.”
I had the great pleasure of meeting Tayari Jones in 2008 at the Key West Literary Seminar. Tayari and I had each been invited to speak and read at this gloriously supportive and celebratory conference for readers and writers. The theme that year was New Voices. I remember thinking: Tayari Jones may be considered a “new voice” today, but soon her work will be celebrated far and wide. Her reading moved me to complete stillness. To me, she writes with such pure intent, thoughtfulness, and clarity. It’s like her heart and her mind and her voice are all perfectly integrated, all working in unison. I am both envious and grateful, wishing I knew the secret to writing with such power and so grateful that her stories are now part of me. They can be part of you, too!
Gigi: Tayari, I enjoyed every page of Silver Sparrow. The entire story seems constructed around secrets – secret sisters, secret love, beauty secrets, family secrets, secret stashes, secret promises, mother-daughter secrets – and how, so often, we put our secrets on display despite our best efforts to conceal them.
Tayari: Thank you so much for being such a generous reader. This book took a lot out of me so I am so grateful to hear that it connects with you. The thing about secrets is that we all have many many secrets and by secrets I mean things that we keep private. And yes, our secrets are often revealed but sometimes we end up taking our secrets to our graves. I am a little on the fence on the subject. Deception, of course, is terrible, but aren’t we all entitled to private thoughts and feelings?
G: Oh yes, I think we are most definitely entitled to our private feelings and thoughts. I imagine Miss Bunny took a few secrets to her grave. Still, I’m astonished at the complexity of the story in relation to every character’s secrets, and how you revealed them over the course of the story. Can you tell me a little about how you layered all of these secrets? Was it sort of organic – occurring as you moved deeper into the story? I’m imagining that some secrets surprised even you, the author.
T: Yes, there was one secret in the book that surprised even me. When I wrote the chapter in which the secret was revealed, I thought.. Well, look what we have here. That explains a lot! I am a writer who does not outline. As a writer, I like to have the same breathless feeling as a reader, eager to see what will happen next. It’s what keeps me going. For me, writing the first couple drafts is very organic, but in the revising, I get more deliberate. I write the third draft with the awareness of knowing all the secrets already, so I can give hints and such.
G: Early in the book, Dana’s father, James, tells her, “Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.” Dana’s mother, Gwen, tries to reset the encounter by taking Dana to “surveil” on James Witherspoon’s other family, who have no idea about Gwen and Dana. Gwen then tells Dana, “You are an unknown. That little girl there doesn’t even know she has a sister. You know everything.” Gwen draws a distinction between secret and unknown. What is Gwen’s goal in taking Dana to watch the other family?
T: I think Gwen wants to make sure that her own daughter doesn’t start to think of James’s “legitimate” daughter as some larger than life figure. She needs Dana to see that Chaurisse is not better than she is, just more privileged. This is the real gift that Gwen gives her daughter. She wants her to see that it’s just society that says she’s a dirty secret.
G: Silver Sparrow is so rich in setting. Its cultural, historical, and social details keep your readers totally engaged. For example, Gwen Yarboro and James Witherspoon meet on the day of Dr. King’s funeral. Mary Woodson, of the 1974 hot-grits assault on Al Green, comes into Laverne’s beauty shop to get her hair done. For me, your characters’ interactions with events of the times really enriched the setting of the book. How did you make those selections?
T: Well, for me history intersects with our real lives all the time. It’s not a writerly device for me. My first novel, LEAVING ATLANTA, is about my experiences growing up in Atlanta during the city’s child murders in which thirty children were killed. This is history, but for me it’s also as simple as memory. If James and Gwen met in Atlanta in 1968, leaving out the death of Dr. King would be a willful omission. I teach in an MFA program and I am always urging my students to set a story in a specific year and figure out how the moment in history affects the story. People think this is only important when you write about the distant past, but it is true for every story. I love looking in the almanac for the year the story is set to make sure I didn’t leave out anything good.
G: Why did it work best to tell this story in the 80s as compared to the 21st Century?
T: I decided to set the story in the 1980s because I was a teenager in those years. Part of my work as a writer is to leave a fictional history of a world I know to be real.
G: There are so many interesting references in Silver Sparrow: to a Judy Blume book, to Richmond, Virginia, to Opelika, Alabama, Debarge, Smokey Robinson, and so many more. I love that an author from Atlanta would refer to Richmond as a metropolis. Often, these little details are revealed with such affection that they feel to me like tributes. Are some of these references important to you even beyond their usefulness as markers of time or place? [btw – I will always be grateful to Opelika for having a 24-hour Starbucks. On our way to the Final Four in Houston this past March – Go Rams! – Opelika saved me at a crucial driving point.]
T: Opelika has a 24 hour Starbucks? Times they are a changin’. I always love Opelika because my uncle married not one, but two women from that town. I always imagined it as the place where lovely women are born and raised. When I mention details in a story it’s because they feel true to me. I don’t plan them out or check them off on a list. If they are tributes it’s because these places matter to me as a person, not just as a writer.
G: My favorite character in the book is Uncle Raleigh. He’s so silent, but so strong. You know his mind is always working overtime. Still waters run deep, deep, deep with him. How did your portrayal of Raleigh change and grow as you drafted, revised, and completed Silver Sparrow?
T: Good old Uncle Raleigh. He is a character who came in whole cloth from my imagination. He doesn’t remind me of anyone I know in real life. What really surprised me was when I realized that he is also the uncle of my protagonist in my second novel, The Untelling! In the opening of that novel, Aria mentions her grandmother, Lula. Well, Lula is Raleigh’s mother. But since Raleigh, like Dana, is a silver sparrow, he doesn’t know his extended family.
G: Another secret! Wow, that’s a huge revelation. I read and loved The Untelling several years ago, but you just moved it back to the top of my reading stack. What is it that makes Raleigh so lovable?
T: I think that people identify with or “like” Raleigh because he has such a big heart. We learn to love characters by watching them love and he so loves everyone in the novel.
G: You split the book into two halves, giving each sister half the book to tell her story so that the reader may have the complete story of this family. Here’s what happened to me as I read: I loved Dana and Gwen first. I wanted them to get everything they wanted. When the second half started from the perspective of Chaurisse, I didn’t want to like her or her mother. But you started telling me Laverne’s story, through her daughter’s voice and, so, I softened my heart toward Laverne and Chaurisse. As Chaurisse described Dana becoming bolder and bolder, my heart was racing. It would have been so much easier to only tell one side of the story. I think by structuring it this way, you really did give all parties involved a legitimate claim. Did you experiment with other structures?
T: I have received mail from readers who are confused as to who they are “supposed” to like. To me, this is the biggest compliment. I really want to tell a whole story. A point of view switch is the most radical thing you can do in a story and I believe you should only do it if it is entirely necessary. In this story it was. There is a 50 foot wall between Dana’s life and Chaurisse’s. The only way to see the entire world is to get a look from each side of the wall. It just had to happen.
Even though Gwen worked so hard not to make Laverne and Chaurisse mythological creatures, there was no way to avoid it. So they became like Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsister in the minds of the reader. So I had to show Chaurisse’s world. Or else it would end up like an afterschool special. You know, the poor outcast kid who is really the most amazing kid ever. And then there’s the popular privileged kid who is the worst person in the world. I really hate that dynamic. The funny thing is that all teenagers feel they are the outcast kid. They can never see their own privilege, no matter where they are on the ladder.
G: You used jewelry from Dana’s grandmothers – Flora’s earrings and Miss Bunny’s brooch – as important symbols for Dana. How did Dana’s possession of this inherited jewelry influence how Dana felt about herself and her family?
T: I pulled from my own experience there. I have no family heirlooms. As with many African Americans, my family achieved middle class status as a result of the civil rights gains in the 1960s. So my grandmother didn’t have any jewelry to hand down. When I would read stories about diamond rings or gold bracelets handed down, my heart would break. I have nothing of my grandmothers but a ragged scarf she tied around her head at night. My sister has a tin ladle that Grandmother used to use to serve punch on Sundays. I so loved Dana that I wanted her to have this thing I did not. It was so meaningful to her.
G: Before reading Silver Sparrow, I had heard the social labels “redbone” and “bourgie” but hadn’t understood them. To me, terms like redbone and bourgie feel like secrets, too. Or, maybe, just unknown to me. I’m not sure I can frame this into a big, important question, so I’ll start with a little question: Was Laverne’s Pink Fox anniversary party bourgie?
T: It’s funny, I don’t really consider the language in my book to be inside baseball, just as I am sure that when white writers talk about their lives they don’t consider themselves to be speaking in a secret code. When I was a kid, I read books all the time that didn’t use language or reference events that really had anything to do with my life. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret was my favorite book although I had no idea what a Bar Mitzvah was. I think the difference is that I approached books not expecting to see myself on every page and I wasn’t weirded out by that. I just read, learned, and kept reading.
G: Right, that’s an important point. I don’t feel weirded out, but more like..oh, here’s something new to me. I crave that experience in reading or listening to music or looking at photographs, for example. I think part of why people seek to fill their lives with poetry, literature, art, or music is to learn more about our world and to invite the exterior world to shape our interior world. I think about this idea of a layered understanding or experience of any given work quite often, and with all sorts of art: movies, paintings, music, even gardens. Maybe, what I was trying to get at is identifying the many layers of storytelling at play in Silver Sparrow.
T: When I was in Durango, a very well-meaning gentleman just about broke my heart. He said, “Is the family you’re writing about black?” I said that it was. He said, “That’s okay. I’m going to buy it. I grew up reading science fiction, so I am used to reading about things outside myself.” I signed his book with a shaky hand. In his mind being African-American is like being from Mars. But he did buy the book, so maybe there is a win in there someplace.
On to your little question. “Bourgie” is just a shorthand for bourgeois. So was Laverne’s party bourgie? Well, Laverne sure hoped so. Most people use the term pejoratively, but I grew up pretty bourgie, so I am reclaiming it!
G: Algonquin has sent you on an incredible 30 or 40 city book tour! Silver Sparrow has been highlighted by More, NPR, O, Poets & Writers, and many many more fine media outlets. How are you holding up? Are you sleeping and hydrating? Have you let yourself enjoy this tremendous celebration of your work?
T: The tour has been a blast. The best thing is that I have reconnected with almost every boyfriend ever had. Even my third grade sweetheart! (He’s sorry about that whole incident with the maypole.) It’s been fantastic to see hard work pay off in this way. This book has been a long road in the making. I feel both blessed and lucky.
G: I read that you hired your own publicist to help promote Silver Sparrow. How did you select your publicist? What advice do you have for other authors considering this step?
T: I love Lauren Cerand, my independent publicist. (www.laurencerand.com) She and I have worked together for the last five years. She is very good at working with the team at my publisher with the goal of maximum exposure for the book. But also, an independent publicist can help you think about what you want long term, which goes beyond just book sales. A good indie publicist also serves as a sort of career coach.
For other authors, I recommend that you interview the person before you hire her. You have to really click.
G: As a tribute to the events and music in Silver Sparrow, I made you a playlist: http://pl.st/p/22289106955.
T: Gigi, were we separated at birth? I made one, too! http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2011/06/book_notes_taya.html
Tayari Jones has written for McSweeney’s, the New York Times, and The Believer. Her previous novels are Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, winner of the Lillian C. Smith Award. Jones holds degrees from Spelman Collge, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers-Newark and blogs on writing at www.tayarijones.com Silver Sparrow is the third novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” by the Atlanta Journal –Constitution. #JRWC11