Edward P. Jones' Tales of 'Aunt Hagar's Children'

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The Author Reads His Work

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"I made a great effort... to present characters who originated in the South," Edward P. Jones says of his latest book. Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer
Edward P. Jones

"I made a great effort... to present characters who originated in the South," Edward P. Jones says of his latest book.

Jerry Bauer

Edward P. Jones On...

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Edward P. Jones' portrait of Washington, D.C., is a mix of the real and the supernatural. It's a place where grandparents struggle to raise grandkids. And it's where the devil — wearing a purple tie and two-toned shoes — swims across the river.

Jones, a D.C. native, won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World, a tale of black slave owners in the antebellum South.

His latest published work is a collection of short stories called All Aunt Hagar's Children. His hometown is more than the setting for these stories ... it reads more like a major character.

"It just so happens that I was born and raised in Washington," Jones says. "Had I been born in Chicago, or San Antonio, the streets and places would have figured into whatever I wrote. Just so happens that it's Washington, D.C."

Excerpts from the Interview with Edward P. Jones

Debbie Elliott spent more than an hour with Edward P. Jones, covering a great deal of territory. Here are some highlights of Jones' remarks:

On the Name Hagar:

"In the Bible, it's Abraham's concubine, his slave. The phrase, "all Aunt Hagar's children" is one my mother used for black people. The novel I wrote, The Known World, was going to be titled Aunt Hagar's Children, because when I started it, it was going to be about the black people that the slave owners owned. But as the years went ahead ... the original title didn't work. So I never throw anything away, and I found a use for that title here."

"...the other things she would say, people weren't black at that time, they were 'colored.' So it was either 'colored' or 'all Aunt Hagar's children.' It was just a phrase she used ... it's along the lines of what Penny says in the title story. She says, 'All the bad things they do to all Aunt Hagar's children.' That's sort of the same way my mother would've spoken those words."

On Blacks Who Moved to Washington

"I think a lot of them came and found a good life, a lot of them came and found a sort of hell. So my whole thing was that they take different paths at the end. So for one of them it works out, for the other it does not. And I think that's probably the case with most of the people who came from the South to Washington. I'm sure it was the same for my Mom ... I think life was rather hard for her, and there weren't a lot of things very good along the way. I think she took pleasure in her kids, but there were a lot of other things that weighed her down."

On Growing Up in Washington

"By the time I was 18, we'd lived in about 18 different places [in Washington, D.C.]... On 10th street, we were there for a year or two, I believe. We were there when Kennedy was assassinated. All the places were horrible. You couldn't depend on any heat in the winter. A lot of times we went to bed with coats on top of blankets."

On Sunday Dinner, Growing Up

"We had, if it wasn't chicken, it was sometimes a roast. And string beans at times. [My mother] made a very, very good sweet potato pie. I haven't tasted any like that since. After I was about 12 or 13, we got a TV. Some Sundays, we'd go out to see my brother, in Laurel, Maryland. He's been retarded since he was born, so some Sundays were taken up most of the day seeing him, then we'd come back and have dinner. Quite uneventful."

On the Civil Rights Era

"I don't recall any adults talking about civil rights. Perhaps they were aware of that, but didn't talk with children. In the summer of 1964, my sister and I went to South Ballston, Virginia, to stay with my aunt and her kids. They passed the civil rights bill that summer, my cousins were so happy because now they could swim in the pool. Well, we had pools [in Washington]. We didn't have those kinds of problems, so it was no big deal for me and I couldn't understand why it was a big deal for them. In the black neighborhoods in Washington, we had everything we needed. The adults, I know they encountered problems, but at least with my mother, it wasn't something she talked about."

On D.C.

"I've been back since 2004. I only moved from Arlington, across the river, because the apartment building where I lived, there were people above me who made noise. Management never told them to put down rugs, so I was desperate for quiet. Although I'm not on the top floor, I do have carpeting. I did have problems with people in this new place last year, but that's quieted down now. One day, when I move again, I'll move to the top floor. So from my apartment in Arlington, I could see Washington. It was always nice to be near home. It's nice to be living here. I can't say it's a great difference. Maybe it's because I'm older and it would've made more of a difference 20 years ago."

On D.C. and His Old Neighborhoods

"Well, there's no one I know in those places anymore, there's no reason to visit, so I really don't go to them very often. If I'm in a car, going someplace ... but just to go to a particular neighborhood, you can't do that unless you know someone, and can knock on their door and sit and talk. Well, all those people are gone now, so I don't do that."

"I think I would feel a lack, I suppose, if I were living far, far from Washington. I remember I was in grad school in 1981. I was in Charlottesville. I was visiting this guy who had cable. The local news from Washington was on — for some reason the camera was focused on a street downtown — and I was overwhelmed with this feeling of homesickness. I had never experienced that before. So I think it's important to be in Washington, near Washington, but as far as getting up and walking around every day, that's not in me."

On Developing Characters

"I've never been comfortable with the idea of using family and friends in stories. Which is why it takes me longer than something else. Because you make them up out of nothing. Doing that is harder. In Aunt Hagar's Children, as in Lost in the City, there are 14 stories. The second story in each volume is about a girl going to school for the first time. Each of those stories is just a tinge of something that happened to me. All the others are people made up out of my imagination. My hope is that I can continue writing for a long time. If I started writing about friends and family now, when I get old I wouldn't have used my imagination much and wouldn't know what to do anymore. There might come a day when I won't be able to imagine people anymore, and I'll just have to rely on people, things that I know."

On How He Works

"I don't wake every morning and an idea comes to me and say, 'I will build characters around this idea.' What happens generally is someone will say or do something and you have to build a world around that first idea, that first notion. In terms of something political or social, that's not really me. I believe in certain things, I feel certain things and all of that comes through in the writing, not on any surface level, but somewhere embedded in the story. So I will say certain things here and there. But the story for the most part will be about people, not an idea."

"... My mother was a very gentle and quiet person, timid at times. There aren't any women in any of the stories that I say, 'That's my mother.' I do use a certain voice at times that I would say is my mother's voice ... the very title, 'Aunt Hagar's Children' or 'come day, go day.'"

"There's certain things you can lay out and explain your reasons for, but in other stories, there are things you cannot say because you'll be taking a road that the story is not about ... There's a story in Lost in the City called 'The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed.' You never find out why she was killed because the story is about the night and her friends. I could have explained why this man is murdered in 'All Aunt Hagar's Children,' but the story would have taken a different course. I was on another course, which is that this man has to come to terms with who he is and learn to grow up."

On Avoiding Stereotypes

"If you've read enough in your life, then you've read things where people have not done it well. And you know that's something you want to avoid. You know when you see it. Although looking at your own work and seeing those is harder than in someone else's work. You have to depend on the knowledge you've accumulated over all the years of reading. So I think, there are people therein who do [what] this country thinks black people do, for the most part. There are people who do things that aren't very nice to each other. But my thing has always been that no bad person was ever born that way and the thing you have to do is find the moment or moments when that person turned off the good road and went on the bad road. When you can find those moments and tell them as detailed as possible, then maybe, maybe you can avoid the stereotype."

"I often say that one of the stories I'd like to write would have the beginning 'We never get over having been a child,' because that's so much of where it all happens; it all begins there. The sad thing for a lot of us is that we live our lives and can't remember the moment where things began for us and because we can't remember that moment, we continue living sad lives."

"It's a simple statement: We start out as children, good and bad things that happen to us, some of us get over bad things, some of us don't."

On Inspiration

"The imagination is a weird, weird thing ... I woke up that morning [before writing the title story from Lost in the City] and there was this woman singing. That came out of nowhere. I don't know what will happen next week when I wake up or next year when I wake up."

On 'Truth' in Fiction

"The thought is that you have to compose something that the reader can see. Seeing makes a story believable. My philosophy is that fiction is a bunch of lies in order to tell a greater truth. The more believable the lie is, the better. ... I'm not sure I know what it is [the greater truth]. I'm not the best person to analyze my work. There was something I had in mind. I'm not old enough, perhaps, to know what it is."

On Reading His Own Work

"I was worried, with Lost in the City that once it was out there I would open up a page and flinch. That hasn't happened, and didn't happen with The Known World. Hopefully that won't happen with Aunt Hagar's Children... and not wince and ask myself, 'How could I write something so idiotic?'"

On Comparisons to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison

"You try not to let that lead your life. ... I remember the first reading I gave with Lost in the City. I came over from Arlington by bus to the bookstore. The store was packed and the reading went well and there were all these questions and I was the center of attention. At 8 p.m., when it was done, I got on the Red Line [of Washington D.C.'s Metrorail system] and I was alone. And I got to Rosslyn, across the Potomac. I waited there for the bus to take me to my apartment building. And again I was alone. And I think it was good that that happened. I was supposed to go out for dinner with friends, but something fell through. So I think it was good that I was alone and whatever applause there was died out as I made my way back to my apartment. So all the things they say, it's all nice. But you're quite aware that no mater what they say or give you, you can't take them tomorrow and write a good paragraph or a good page. It just doesn't happen."

...If you take that and puff yourself up too much, you become the type of person who won't be able to do the same things anymore — which is something my mother probably taught me without saying that. She would've never put it into those words, but you sort of learn by example. And I probably learned that from her."

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All Aunt Hagar's Children

by Edward P. Jones

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