Edward P. Jones
Edward P. Jones grew up in Washington, D.C., where his mother worked as a dishwasher and hotel maid to support Jones and his brother and sister. Though she couldn't read or write herself, Jones's mother encouraged her son to study, and eventually a Jesuit priest who knew Jones suggested he apply for a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. There, Jones discovered the odd fact that in the antebellum South, there had been free black people who owned black slaves.
"It was a shock that there were black people who would take part in a system like that," he later told a Boston Globe interviewer. "Why didn't they know better?" That question stayed with Jones for more than 20 years and would eventually inspire his first novel, The Known World. After graduating from Holy Cross with a degree in English, Jones moved back to Washington, D.C., and began writing short stories, aiming to create a portrait of his city in the mode of James Joyce's Dubliners. He attended writing seminars, then earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Virginia, but he felt that neither writing nor teaching was a reliable enough source of income. He took a day job as a business writer for an Arlington, Virgina, nonprofit, and held it for almost 19 years -- during which he published his first short-story collection, Lost in the City, which was nominated for a National Book Award. He also began planning his first novel, composing and revising chapters entirely in his head. Jones had just taken a five-week vacation to start writing the book when he found out he was being laid off, so he lived on severance pay and unemployment during the few months it took him to finish his first draft. The Known World was published in 2003, 11 years after Lost in the City. "With hard-won wisdom and hugely effective understatement, Mr. Jones explores the unsettling, contradiction-prone world of a Virginia slaveholder who happens to be black," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times Book Review. Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post Book World called the book "the best new work of American fiction to cross my desk in years." Though some reviewers have praised the author's impressive research, Jones insists he made almost everything up. During the 10 years he spent thinking about his novel, he accumulated shelves full of books about slavery, but ultimately he read none of them, choosing instead to write the book that had already taken shape in his mind. The depth and detail of Jones's fictional Manchester County has been compared with William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; Martha Woodroof of National Public Radio also noted similarities to Dickens, in that Jones spins "a densely populated, sprawling story built around a morally bankrupt institution." Despite all the attention he's earned, Jones seems unwilling to assume the role of celebrity writer. "If you write a story today, and you get up tomorrow and start another story, all the expertise that you put into the first story doesn't transfer over automatically to the second story," he explained in an online chat on Washingtonpost.com . "You're always starting at the bottom of the mountain. So you're always becoming a writer. You're never really arriving."