The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 31, 2013

Panic at the interview: Unprepared moments with a big-time writer

By Tanner Kent
The Free Press

— When the voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi, this is Tayari Jones” — I knew I was in trouble.

The voice was none other than that which belonged to a writer whom the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called “one of the most important writers of her generation.” Salon.com called her latest effort a “masterpiece.”

I, however, was only 75 pages into “Silver Sparrow” — the aforementioned masterpiece that explores the lives of two teenage daughters caught in the middle of a father’s deceit — and had received precisely zero advance warning that we would be speaking.

The week prior I had requested an interview with the writer who is featured in today’s Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University. When I received an out-of-office reply, I unwisely bumped “Tayari Jones research” to the bottom of my to-do list. 

Conversely, sometime between the out-of-office reply and the moment Tayari called my phone, “Interview with a mid-sized southern Minnesota daily newspaper” unexpectedly jumped to the top of hers.

I was caught off-guard, to say the least.

Naturally, I tried to buy time: “Well, geez, Tayari, golly, I can’t believe it’s you. Ummm. Ummm. Where are you calling from?”

She responded politely that she was at home in New Jersey and recently returned from Paris.

(At this point, the erudite observer would have launched a question about the writer’s relationship with Atlanta. Tayari was born there and it serves as the setting for much of her writing — including her breakthrough novel “Leaving Atlanta” which is set against the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders — yet, she no longer lives there herself.)

OK, so the first question didn’t help. But I figured my second question would provide a humorous segue into wordier territory: “So, hey, Tayari, how much arm-twisting did it take for us to get you to Minnesota in the middle of January?

Again, Tayari was polite. Her agent handles appearances, she said.

(At this point, with both of our geographical locations firmly established, the learned observer might have asked Tayari how much mostly white, mostly European, mostly middle-class Minnesotans might infer about race from her novels. Though fiction by genre, much of Tayari’s work attempts to draw direct links between larger social movements involving race and the actions of everyday people.)

I’d really like to say I recovered, gathered my wits and proceeded to ask a series of poignant, thoughtful and challenging questions to close our conversation. Rather, I asked a series of questions that were none of those things.

Thankfully, Tayari suffered my awkward stammerings with aplomb and delivered some interesting insights about her writing nonetheless. Among them:

— On the importance of history in day-to-day life: “When I went to (President Barack) Obama’s inauguration in 2009, it was one of those rare moments that was nostalgic even as it was occurring. ... But think of it: Every day, something historic is happening. People think of it as their lives, but not moments in_history.”

— On the dichotomous nature of her characters in “Silver Sparrow”: “My goal as a writer is not to condemn people, but to take their situation and illuminate them. You don’t have to forgive a character to understand them.”

— On advice for struggling writers: “We are blessed to be able to write at all. Honor that blessing. ... Let go of your literary reputation and your future, and just write.”