Monday, May 2, 2011
Tayari Jones talks about Silver Sparrow
I first met Tayari at an Algonquin reading at AWP. To say I was enthralled listening to her read is putting it mildly, but what I loved even more was how spirited she was, how generous (this woman sets off sparks.) I took an instant liking to her--and to her novel, Silver Sparrow. Her debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, about the child murders in Atlanta, is being made into a film and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Washington Post. Silver Sparrow, about a bigamist, about daughters, about love and loyalty, is the number one indie pick for June. Tayari is also an associate professor at the prestigious MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University.
Thank you so, so much for being a part of my blog, Tayari.
I love the secret that is at the heart of Silver Sparrow: two daughters share a bigamist father. What’s the backstory behind this idea? What sparked the writing?
I feel like I should always start by saying my father is not a bigamist. But that said, I do have two paternal sisters who didn’t grow up with me. I have always been interested in this idea of sisters who don’t grow up together. Me and my sisters are ten years apart in age, and they are not secret, but there is still this divide. I have recently realized that all my novels involve a sister who is far away. In a way, isn’t that the fantasy—that somewhere our there, you have a sister, an ally, but you just don’t know it. Of course, in this story there is so much between the sisters that the idea that they will be friends is unrealistic, but the impulse to try.. Or the burning curiosity to know.. who can resist that?
The structure of the novel is as complex as it is riveting. What made you decide to tell the novel from two voices? What problems did you encounter in the writing process?
Since the sisters have two different worlds—one lives in the shadows and one lives what she thinks is a normal life—there was no way a single narrator could get the job done. My idea was to use FOUR narrators. I wanted both wives and both daughters. But then I decided that the daughters could tell their mothers’ stories. The biggest challenge as a writer was making the voices different. The girls have SO MUCH in common that they have a lot of the same speech issues. And they even have the same dad so they share a lot of references. I wanted it so when you turn to the first page of Chaurrisse’s chapter, you immediately know that you aren’t with Dana any more. I had to revise and revise and revise to get it right!
Silver Sparrow has this indelible sense of time and place—so much so that Atlanta seems to be a character itself. What made you choose Atlanta during the 80s as your setting?
Well, first off—I am a Georgia Peach! I was born in downtown Atlanta and most of my work is set in my hometown. The city is changing so much with “urban renewal”, etc. So writing about the city as it was, feels sometimes like an act of preservation. Many of the settings of the novel aren’t even there anymore. And many of the places aren’t the sort of settings that would be immortalized in literature; I mean who cares where seventeen year old black girls hung out in 1987? Who would erect a commemorative plaque? Me, I guess.
Besides being an incredible writer, you also teach. How does teaching inform your writing (and vice versa?)
Teaching really cuts both ways. The plus side is that always talking about writing, means I am always thinking about writing. Working out the kinks in my students stories really helps me be more conscious in working out the challenges in my own work. But the down side is that talking about writing is not the same thing as writing. I get hardly any work done in the school year. I feel so lucky though—next year, I will be at the Radcliffe Institute on fellowship. No teaching for me, just writing.
The ubiquitous question: What are you working on now and how is it a different challenge than Silver Sparrow?
The new book is historical and I have never written anything that has happened before my lifetime. It’s set in the 1930s. I don’t want to say too much because I am superstitious, but I am so nervous about this challenge. I worry that my ambition may be greater than my ability. When I was in high school, there was this huge sign in the lobby that said, “Not failure, but low aim, is sin.” I am trying to keep that in mind.
What are you reading these days?
Pictures of You, of course.