MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
Almost everything about Tayari Jones' new novel, "Silver Sparrow," is cleaved into two halves. It's the story of two sisters. One is named Dana; the other, Chaurisse. They have different last names. They lead different lives. But they share the same father, and they live in different parts of the same city.
Their father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist, which by definition means that he's a complicated man. And this is a complicated, heartbreaking and very rich story about how secret sisters find each other but lose as much as they gain in the process.
Tayari Jones joins us here in the studio to talk about her latest book.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. TAYARI JONES (Author, "Silver Sparrow"): Thank you.
NORRIS: Now, I feel like we should clear something up right at the get-go because I bet a lot of people who read this book or read about this book and wonder if you yourself have a secret sister.
Ms. JONES: That's so funny. You know, when it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. And when we read fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth. I would like to say that my father is not a bigamist.
NORRIS: So this did not spring from your own family history. Where did the story come from?
Ms. JONES: Well, you know, I do have a sister. She's not a - I have two sisters. They're not secrets, though. They're about 10 years older than me, but they didn't grow up with me. They're my father's daughters, and we have different last names, and we live different lives. We don't have that web of secrecy between us, but I've always felt that I had a sister that was just outside of my grasp.
And so I started thinking about this idea of sisters and secrets. And then I was in a bar once with some friends having happy hour, and someone mentioned one of those stories you hear all the time about a man who dies and then two wives show up at the funeral. And so when I thought about that and I mixed it with my own wonderings about my own family, boom, this came together, and the story was born.
NORRIS: You note in the novel how common this is, so common that most churches have smelling salts for the widow who thinks she's the only wife when the second wife shows up.
Ms. JONES: Oh, it happens all the time. But even more common than that is this idea of what I used to call half siblings until my nephew said don't say half. He said there are no half people. My mother is your sister. She's not your half sister. And I realized that so many people have fathers who have other children, even if it's not simultaneous and in a bigamist relationship.
Or I was giving a reading in Florida and a woman had me sign her book, and she said that on Father's Day she had written on her Facebook status something like, you know, Happy Father's Day to the greatest dad in the world. And she had seen her sister's Facebook page, and her sister had written: I never had a father because the coward wasn't there. It's the same man. So what does that mean?
NORRIS: Help us understand the title of this book. What does "Silver Sparrow" mean?
Ms. JONES: Well, Chaurisse thinks of a silver girl as a girl who's better than she is, kind of a - when I was growing up, I would have called a fancy girl, a girl who's lovely and popular and smart, all the things that your adolescent self feels that you are not.
NORRIS: And we should say Chaurisse is the daughter who was able to live in the open...
Ms. JONES: Yes.
NORRIS: ...as the daughter of...
Ms. JONES: She is the accepted daughter. And talking about this book, I have to get all new language because the impulse is to say legitimate daughter, but all people are legitimate. That's one thing this book has taught me is that everybody, every person is legitimate.
But Chaurisse, she doesn't think of herself as a privileged person. She doesn't know that her father has a daughter that lives in the shadows and feels unprivileged. She thinks she lives an ordinary life. She thinks she's just an awkward teenage girl.
And then she meets this silver girl, Dana, who she thinks is the most beautiful person ever. So that's where I got silver from.
And I took sparrow from the hymn "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," being the sparrow is the least among us, because I think that's what Dana is, she's a silver sparrow.
NORRIS: And she's always looking at Chaurisse...
Ms. JONES: She's always...
NORRIS: ...with envy.
Ms. JONES: With envy and with fascination because she wants in. She doesn't -she wants in to that family. She wants to be a sister.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about James.
Ms. JONES: OK.
NORRIS: He is - he's an interesting character. He is a bit of a Lothario. He's very seductive, but he's also deeply flawed and, as we said, very complicated. He stutters, and sometimes so violently that his whole body moves when he tries to speak. Is that the way he first entered your imagination? Did he stutter when you first heard him in your head?
Ms. JONES: Yes. My - that was one of the first things I knew about him, this stammer, because I thought a man like him to have two women, it would be such an interesting thing to say how could he get two women? And I realized, it's the same when you get one woman, you get another one. And it also made him - it made him interesting because I didn't think he should be so suave, like he's just, you know, a lady-killer. I wanted each of his relationships to come from kind of genuine human interaction and need. Like real need. He loves both of these women.
His crime is that he loves them simultaneously. But it's not that he seeks to use anyone or have notches on his bedpost. He actually has two wives.
NORRIS: I follow you on Twitter, so I know that you love Toni Morrison.
Ms. JONES: I do.
NORRIS: You talk a lot about her influence on your work. As a writer and as someone who teaches writing, are you always conscious of the potential impact that you have on the next generation of writers?
Ms. JONES: I am interested in my impact on young writers, mostly about what I do in the classroom, not so much my books. I take mentoring very seriously, and I'm on the board of an organization called Girls Write Now, where we match teen girls and writing mentors because it changes their lives, and that's what I really think about is helping other young writers find their voice because art, writing, story changes people's lives. And this is what we have to give, and we should give it.
NORRIS: Did it change your life?
Ms. JONES: Oh, no doubt. I was kind of an invisible girl when I was young. I was more like Chaurisse in my novel, and I never felt particularly special. Me, I didn't have low self-esteem, but I didn't feel - I never felt sparkly or that I had anything to say. And I went to Spelman College, and I met the president of Spelman at the time, Johnnetta Cole. And she had heard that I was a writer, and she once said to me: How's the writing? And it was like someone had touched me with a magic wand. And then I started taking my writing more seriously.
NORRIS: I'm a writer. Someone said I was a writer.
Ms. JONES: Yes. Not someone, Johnnetta Cole said I was a writer. The most amazing person I had ever seen in real life said that I was a writer. And so I became known for it, and people started asking me: What did I think about this or that thing? Would I be willing to write for the school paper?
It gave me value. I felt that I had something to contribute through writing. And I couldn't help but think, wow, what would happen if someone went to teenage girls in high school and said: You know, you have more to worry about than who's going to take you to the prom because you have something to say that matters.
NORRIS: So you decided to spread some of the fairy dust yourself.
Ms. JONES: It's very important, and my organization that I work with, Girls Write Now, our girls all finish high school. They - 100 percent of them are going to college. The writing and the mentoring really has changed their lives. It's amazing.
NORRIS: Tayari Jones is the author of "Silver Sparrow."
Tayari, thank you very much.
Ms. JONES: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.