Interview with Edward P. Jones: From MFA to Pulitzer in 22 Years

Edward Jones stands for most everything I believe in when it comes to writers and writing.

Purely an individual, he works how he works and does what he does. It may have taken him a few years to get where he is, but that should be a healthful and happy reminder to everyone out there toiling and sweating and worrying about writing, about making it, about carving out a place in this world.

Jones is antimatter to all the youthful ingenues, the photogenic, the dazzling New Yorker interns, the firebrand ex-junkies, the cross-dressing voodoo doctors who know how to twist the arm of headlines and book review sections and blogs. Edward Jones is none of these. He’s a writer and a storyteller. He’s won an NEA grant, a Pulitzer, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He held down a boring job while working on his first two books. He doesn’t own a car. He doesn’t even want one. Edward Jones is my hero.

Jones has a new collection of short stories out called “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” The stories are fantastic.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Mr. Jones over the phone about his new book and his writing. Much of it pertains to life after the MFA. Some of it is just personal wisdom. Some of it I may not even agree with — Jack and Jill in second person could actually be kind of exciting. I’m proud to feature our conversation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

My new mantra, by the way, is “the colonel, his father, and the ice.”

Lastly, if anyone is in New York on Thursday, Sept. 14, you can see Edward Jones reading at the 6th Avenue Barnes & Noble in Chelsea. I’ll be there.

Can you go into a chronology of how things went for you after your graduate program?

Well, I didn’t apply to teach any place, because I didn’t think I was going to get a job anywhere. I’d only published maybe a story in Essence and maybe one in a literary journal and that was it. So, you know, I didn’t spend two years getting a degree and then think, “Right, everything will be wonderful. Once I get a degree I’ll get a teaching position.” So I just got a job with a tax magazine summarizing newspaper articles and magazine articles on taxes — I’m sorry, I began proofreading — for a weekly magazine that had 120 pages on just about anything you’d ever know about taxes. And then, a few months after that, I started summarizing articles on taxes… And I didn’t get up every morning before going off to work and start writing. I didn’t came back home and start writing.

I was fairly satisfied with the life I had and I suppose I had only gone on to get a degree was because the job that I had before I left for graduate school, which was sitting and calling people all day at Science magazine, that wasn’t all that fulfilling. And graduate school seemed okay. And about, I started doing that job around ’83, and around ’89 or ’90 I started in earnest finishing up the 11 or 12 stories that became “Lost in the City.” A couple of them had already been published and so I went just finished the rest of them that were still in my head.

So you had a few years in between working and completing “Lost in the City” where you were doing some writing? Not much writing?
I really can’t remember — I mean I think I’d probably get up and if there was a mood… I got an NEA grant in ’86 which allowed me to stop going into the office every single day. I stopped the proofreading and just did the summarizing. And so I never went back to going into the office every day, all the way up until when I left Tax Notes in 2002.

I mean, I’ve never been someone to get up every single day and write physically. I work a lot of things out in my head and that works for me. It might not work for anyone else. But, like I said, I started working on the stories that had been written. Eleven or twelve of them had not been written. I started in ’89, ’90, and then I was finished around 1991 and I sent them off to this editor that I knew and they were published in 1992. And I got the idea in 1992 about writing this novel and I spent 10 years thinking of it in my head.

That’s amazing. While you were writing your short stories, did you have a similar experience as a lot of other folks in getting rejections from when you were submitting? Most writers talk about how they stacked up hundreds of rejections before things finally started moving for them…

I don’t think I ever sent anything out after I came out from school. The only thing I did do was apply for the NEA grant. That was all I did. I didn’t send anything to any magazines. I think I had gotten enough rejection letters before graduate school, so that carried me through.

I just didn’t have any confidence in anyone, you know — no offense to the people at the ground level of a lot of these literary magazines, but some guy in college or grad school, comes in grumpy and no matter how good your story might be, he might go “well, I don’t want this story,” and just say “no.” And even when I had finished all the stories — you know one or two of these stories had already been published, but everything else was brand new — my agent had sent them out and no one gave a damn. The only magazine that cared to publish, out of all of those stories that had not been published, was the Paris Review.

It was nice because I knew once I did have the agent and he was going to get stuff out there, I knew I would never again, ever send anything out. And I haven’t. And I won’t.

And after graduate school how long did it take before you got into teaching?
I got offers — it wasn’t anything long term and it wasn’t anything permanent — but I started getting offers after the book came out, American University, and all of that. And I never applied for those positions. They called me, I think, probably because they were only a semester here, a semester there.

I’ve read that you’ve taught at Princeton as well… What were some other places. Was there a particular place that was your favorite so far?
Unversity of Maryland, George Mason University, and University of Virginia, when I was getting the degree and for about a year after the degree. And I think there were about five or six places. They all had something to recommend themselves. At Princeton they only had 10 students in each class, and I suppose if Princeton had been around the corner, I would have taken Paul Muldoon up on his offer to come back in the fall. But I would leave my home — I don’t have a car, don’t want a car — I would leave at 7:30 in the morning, and I would not arrive at my office in Princeton until about 12:30. So, like I said, if it had been around the corner… But, at each of them, you met some students that you liked a lot.

Recently, I mentioned one of your stories here from your collection… I got a feeling from it, along with others from “Aunt Hagar,” that when it comes to writing your stories — and definitely please correct me if I’m wrong — I get the sense that you like to go with where you want to go. You’re not trying to play by rules. I get a sense that you like to experiment…
No. No, I don’t experiment. I go by the stories that I read in my life, which are stories that everybody’s read. I don’t know very much about new stuff. I don’t care to go out there and discover new stuff. That’s just me. So I’m going by the people who publish things before, say, 1980 or so, and that’s going back since whenever the story began. But, no, I don’t like to experiment.

Right now, I’m the guest editor for the anthology, “Best New Stories From the South,” and I’ve come across some good people. And the ones that turned me off almost right away — there’s a guy who wrote two stories in second person. One of them is okay, it holds up. But the other is just so darn phony. It reminds me of standing in the bathroom with the door closed and talking to yourself in the mirror. My sense of this is always — always — that if the story itself, the people and the plot and everything is good enough, you don’t need to go around experimenting… “Once upon a time Jack and JIll went up a hill to fetch a pail of water…” And, you know, you can’t make it exciting by saying “you and Jill went up the hill to do such-and-such.” If what happens when they go up that hill isn’t enough for a story, then you’re doomed, you’re lost. But, I’ve been very happy with some of these — these are very new people, of course, people I’ve never read before. Of the 32 I’ve read so far, I’d say 10 of them are very good and the others are sort of in the middle category.

But, I never experiment. You know, I try to have a beginning, middle, and and end, even if people can’t see that. One of the things I do like to try to do — and that might be experimenting — is I want to create stories that have the feel of a novel, even though they’re within the confines of the pages of a short story.

Okay, and that points to — when I was talking about experimenting, I wasn’t thinking about the post-modern techniques of second person or metafiction or things like that. I noticed things that, at least in my graduate school experience, people tended to discourage, like talking forward and saying this character, years from now, will remember this. I saw a lot of this particular technique in your stories, where you flash forward…
Yeah, I don’t mind that so much, and I guess I don’t really see that as experimenting… And, I wasn’t following him, but we are influenced without even knowing sometimes by what we have read — so like in “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” it begins with the guy who is shot and remembers the day his father introduced him to ice… I’ve come to see that maybe my belief is that a character’s life is one long string from the beginning, from being born, till the end. And telling the story of this person’s life, you can just choose along that line, whatever will enhance the story, whatever will make it real and vivid for the reader.

So, in choosing the story to tell about these characters, are you picking a moment in time that helps show something about their whole life?
Well, in a story, of course, you’re kind of limited. I’m thinking whatever’s pertinent… It’s a been a long time since I read “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” but I would think that the colonel, his father, and the ice, that day he was introduced to the ice was a very important day. The day before, when he had something sweet to eat was not as important. The next day, when he slept, until 7 rather than 6 o’clock in the morning was not an important day. So, like I said you have this long line and there are hundreds and hundreds of events that you can create and introduce, but not everything is important…

Keep reading for Part 2 of the Edward Jones Interview.


If you liked this article at After the MFA, come check out my other web project The Slow Man. I’m talking about creativity, productivity, work/life balance, slowing down and enjoying life with a glass of scotch and a cigar


Comments 8

  1. Armand wrote:

    Thanks for posting the interview! I hope there’s hope for writers with boring jobs!


    Posted 13 Sep 2006 at 4:56 pm
  2. MichaelFischer wrote:

    Ed Jones is my hero too. Can’t wait for part II…

    Posted 14 Sep 2006 at 11:53 pm
  3. Jeffrey Yamaguchi wrote:

    This is an amazing interview. I’m really digging the honesty and the insights from Edward P. Jones on his writing life. Very inspiring. Very nice job, G!

    Posted 15 Sep 2006 at 11:27 am
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    I agree that EPJ is a great writer and inspiring artist, but ugh…MORE self-righteous snark about “photogenic” New Yorker interns? It’s getting old, you guys. I don’t even like Nell or Marisha or Zadie or Karen, but can people give them a break already? And do we really need to hate on a writer for wanting as many interested readers as s/he can get?

    Posted 16 Sep 2006 at 11:08 pm
  5. gordon wrote:

    Thanks for the comment, anonymous.

    As for the snark, sorry it displeased you. But, alas, it is my opinion and I stand by it. No one else expressed that opinion here either, so no need for hand-slapping “you guys.”

    I don’t hate on writers for wanting readers. I don’t even hate on writers that look good, get lots of press, and don’t deliver on the literary goods. The hate won’t stop the madness. I will, on the other hand, do everything I can to underline the point that writers like Jones are way more important and nourishing than the hot ones.

    Thanks again.


    Posted 17 Sep 2006 at 10:34 am
  6. Verity writes wrote:

    This was a great read, and very encouraging for someone who has been slogging away at writing for years, trying to write something authentic, and went on a “serious” two-year University course (in England) in writing where the tutors were only concerned with what was hot, what was sellable and marketable. So, it’s always good to come across writers like Jones, especially since it seems to be a rare occurrence these days.

    Posted 18 Sep 2006 at 11:22 am
  7. Tommy wrote:

    Please post the rest of this interview. Enjoyed it much.

    And if you guys are interested, this interview on Bookworm might be worth listening to. I liked how he decries “Neon Language”. Right on!

    Posted 21 Sep 2006 at 2:39 pm
  8. Dinika Amaral wrote:

    Thank you for this wonderful interview.

    As an aspiring novelist myself, I have only recently discovered Mr. Jones. And, as I work my way through his work, I find myself becoming more and more obsessed — perhaps enraptured is a better word — with the grandeur of his voice! The idea of the resolution of a novel being the star that an author must crawl toward, is now my north star. Thank you.

    Posted 08 Jun 2011 at 3:23 pm

Trackbacks & Pingbacks 4

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    [...] Edward Jones: From MFA to Pulitzer in 22 Years (via Rarely Likable) [...]

  2. From The Glamorous Life of a Writer: Not Writing Much « When one line drops from the sky… on 10 Dec 2009 at 6:03 pm

    [...] life of a couple of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. These have have been extremely inspiring. The Edward P. Jones interview resonated because I feel that I’m more of a traditionalist. That’s not to say that I [...]

  3. From Light and humility « When one line drops from the sky… on 31 Jul 2010 at 2:43 pm

    [...] mother began reading me bits and pieces of this interview it brought to mind another interview with Edward P. Jones at After the MFA. I think I’ve mentioned it in my blog before. But, his interview resonated [...]

  4. From Bibliography « My Blog on 22 Mar 2011 at 4:02 am

    [...] From MFA to Pulitzer in 22 Years,’ After the MFA (13 September 2006 and 25 September 2006): part one and part [...]

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