Tayari Jones may have rocketed to new heights of fame with her latest novel, An American Marriage, but she’s long been recognized as one of the most important storytellers of our time. In addition to An American Marriage, which is a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club pick, she’s the author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. Tayari has been honored with a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, an NEA Fellowship, and many more.
If you’ve read An American Marriage, then you know what Tayari Jones can do within the format of a letter, how much power and poignancy she packs into a single missive. So of course, we invited her to be this month’s letter-writer-in-residence at Ace Hotel New York. As part of our Dear Reader micro-residency, we invited Tayari to spend a night at Ace and, while there, pen a letter to an unknown audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when it will be placed bedside in each hotel room. We caught up with Tayari to talk the breathless anticipation of writing, the joy of manual typewriters, and why she wants to correspond with Harper Lee.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
TAYARI JONES: I’d love to correspond with Harper Lee. After reading Go Set a Watchman, I understood why she never published another novel after To Kill A Mockingbird. She must have felt horribly misunderstood to be famous for a book that lionized Atticus Finch. From everything I’ve read, she was haunted by her own father’s descent into racism and hate and tried to sort it out on the page. The editors didn’t like the ugly stuff and instead urged her to publish only the part that represented her wide-eyed childish love of her idealistic father. And then that sentimental view became her identity. I think I would like to have been her pen pal so we could talk about other things, so she could get out from under the weight of her own complicated success.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I like to feel the same breathless anticipation writing a book as I feel reading it. I wouldn’t want to spoil the experience for myself by mapping out the characters’ trajectories and then following a clearly marked road. Good novels don’t come with google maps or GPS. I write to explore and I am often stunned by my destination.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
When I am writing I don’t think about audience—I need to be intimate with my characters, much in the way that a marriage is between lovers, with no studio audience. However, I do think of audience when I am revising because revision, for me, is all about legibility.
I am not often surprised by who is drawn to my work, but I am frequently saddened by people who confess to have loved my writing despite our surface differences. I’m glad the novels connect across lines of race/gender/sexuality etc., but it breaks my heart that this connection comes as such a surprise.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
The Darkest Child by Dolores Phillips.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I like to compose on manual typewriters. There is something so satisfying about making such a joyous ruckus as I put the words onto the page. Also, my Smith Corona is not connected to the internet.