STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The artist who unveiled President Obama's portrait this week said his art depends in part on chance. He made his name painting people he met almost at random on the street. Next, we meet a novelist who says she owes her newest book to a chance encounter. The writer's name is Tayari Jones, and her much-noticed novel began with a meeting in a mall. She told Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR's Code Switch team how she came to write "An American Marriage."
KAREN GRIGSBY GATES, BYLINE: Tayari Jones was on her way to Harvard. She'd gotten a fellowship to study race and incarceration in preparation for her next book. Months later, she knew a lot about the criminal justice system and how it affected black men's lives, but none of that information moved her to write anything. Then she went home to visit her mother in Atlanta and took a trip to the mall just to walk around and clear her head.
TAYARI JONES: And when I was there in the mall, I overheard a couple arguing.
GATES: Something about them caught her attention.
JONES: The woman was beautifully dressed, and the young man, he looked fine. But she looked great. And she said to him, Roy, you know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years. And he said, I don't know what you're talking about. This wouldn't have happened to you in the first place.
GATES: And right then and there, the seed for "An American Marriage" took root. It's the story of a young African-American couple, Roy and Celestial Hamilton. They meet at their historically black college and marry after graduation. He's a rising corporate executive. She's an artist. And they're still newlyweds when Roy is unjustly accused of a terrible crime. Tayari Jones says how Roy struggles against his fate is, for her, a new telling of an old story.
JONES: This book, in many ways, was inspired by "The Odyssey." I feel like Roy is like Odysseus. He has this huge challenge, and he has to travel this journey and face all these obstacles. And he just wants to find a clean home and a faithful wife waiting on him in the other end.
GATES: Jones says originally she was writing Celestial's story, but as she wrote, it didn't feel right.
JONES: I realized that I was trying to show the reader my thoughts. And that's not how you go with a novel. With a novel, the reader has to go on a journey along with your character.
GATES: But which character? Jones decided to change focus. She put away her first draft and started again.
JONES: So now this is a novel about Roy, who's done everything right, who has been wrongfully incarcerated, and all he wants when he gets out is to have his wife back.
GATES: Roy is a pragmatist. His solidly working-class parents love and support him. They don't live a fancy life in tiny Eloe, La., but they're supportive of their child's desire to spread his wings. Celestial, Roy tells readers, is from Atlanta and sticks close to home. In the audio edition of the book, Roy, actor Sean Crisden, explains he was not wedded to his birthplace.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO BOOK, "AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE")
SEAN CRISDEN: (Reading, as Roy) I, on the other hand, departed on the first thing smoking, exactly 71 hours after high school graduation. I would've left sooner, but the the Trailways didn't stop through Eloe every day. By the time the mailman brought my mama the cardboard tube containing my diploma, I was all moved into my dorm room at Morehouse College.
GATES: At Morehouse, he becomes brother close to Andre, who happens to be Celestial's best friend from childhood. Andre will become both friend and complication after Roy is imprisoned. Jones says she worked hard to make her characters more than symbols in this book.
JONES: I think at its heart, this story is a love story. And this is what gets complicated because when you're in love, love is not about symbolism. It's about the individuals.
GATES: Somebody found these individuals pretty compelling.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
OPRAH WINFREY: Hi, everybody. Now, you all know I love a good book, and I've been waiting to tell you about this one for months.
GATES: Oprah Winfrey introduced readers to her February book club choice via her new YouTube channel.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)
WINFREY: I love this title because the novel redefines the traditional American love story - it's really a love triangle - and places it inside a world that a lot of people don't know about but impacts all of us in really big ways.
PEARL CLEAGE: When she says I like this book and I think you would too, it's really her loaning her audience to us for the purpose of getting them to read that book.
GATES: That's playwright and author Pearl Cleage, and she knows better than most the effects of an Oprah anointment. Cleage's first novel was an Oprah Book Club pick in 1998. She also taught a young Tayari Jones when Jones was a freshman at Spelman College. Cleage says she knew then Jones was an atypical freshman.
CLEAGE: She came up to me after class one day and said, these people are not serious. I'm not getting what I want to get out of this class. I need to have more. And I said, well, that's because they're not going to be writers. You're going to be a writer.
GATES: At the young student's request, Cleage gave extra assignments and blunt critiques. They paid off. Cleage says she's enjoyed watching Jones's work deepen and mature over the years and is especially appreciative that Jones has created black women in her fiction that are three-dimensional, not mere stereotypes.
CLEAGE: They are certainly people who are up against challenges when we meet them, but they're also fully rounded characters who are capable of joy, who are capable of complex family relationships and who are very open to the reader.
GATES: Jones creates these characters not on a sleek laptop, but on typewriters. She feels they give weight to her words.
JONES: I have about 12 typewriters, but my favorite one, really, is a Smith-Corona from the '40s. The '40s was a really excellent time for typewriters.
GATES: And she has another old-fashioned habit.
JONES: I am a letter writer. I probably write a good five or six letters a week. I write to all kinds of people, and I will say that hardly anyone writes me back.
GATES: No matter. Jones's own letter writing served her well when she used letters to keep Celestial and Roy connected after he goes to prison. She reads from Celestial's first missive.
JONES: (Reading) Dear Roy, I'm writing this letter sitting at the kitchen table. I'm alone in a way that's more than the fact that I'm the only living person within these walls. Up until now, I thought I knew what was and wasn't possible. Maybe that's what innocence is, having no way to predict the pain of the future.
GATES: Letters were far from perfect, Jones says, but they were what the couple had to work with.
JONES: They have to figure out how to make a life together on little pieces of paper.
GATES: The characters in "An American Marriage" have to piece together a lot by the book's end, and Tayari Jones hopes her readers will figure out some things, too.
JONES: I really hope that people who read this book will find themselves unsure which character they identify with the most. And I just want readers to walk away thinking, this situation is more complicated than I thought.
GATES: And maybe think about that a little more. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEEM THE CIPHER'S "INTERLUDE")
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