“I follow the characters,” Edward P. Jones consistently replied when asked about his writing process. As the 2010 Morgan Writer-in-Residence, Jones fielded many questions about his works and his writing life, igniting lively reading and discussion of his works throughout our department. He found a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the Carolina literary community; readers were eager to get to know the quiet, retiring man who has won a Pulitzer Prize and produced critically acclaimed major American works.
Edward P. Jones was born in Arlington, Virginia, in 1951, earned his BA at Holy Cross College and his MFA at the University of Virginia, and now teaches periodically at George Washington University. His first work, the story collection Lost in the City (1992), won both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and a Lannan Foundation Grant; and his second book, The Known World (2003), won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize. The Known World tells the remarkable and little-known story of free black people who owned slaves—in this case Henry Townsend, whose freedom was purchased by his parents in pre-Civil War Virginia. In 2006, Jones published another short story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, which chronicles life in the Washington, D.C., black community where Jones grew up and currently resides. With the appearance of this work, Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post declared, “Now there can be no doubt about it: Edward P. Jones belongs in the first rank of American letters.”
Jones’s work is indeed extraordinary. Randall Kenan, Creative Writing faculty, describes him as a “literary Dr. Who.”: “He bends time, he warps time, he folds time, he braids time. And he gives us characters of such depth and mystery and humanity; he is like a new Chekhov. Jones has made the historical African American connection between North Carolina and Washington, D.C. (a back-and-forth migration that began well before World War I) his central territory, and what a garden he has grown there.
The centerpiece of Jones’s week-long residence was the public 2010 Morgan Writer-in-Residence Reading on March 24 in Carroll Hall. Daniel Wallace, Creative Writing faculty, introduced Jones, describing him as “the least ambitious writer I’ve ever met, but he writes the most ambitious books I’ve ever read.” The audience was captivated as Jones’s unassuming presence was eclipsed by his rich voice reading remarkable passages from his novel and a short story. He pulled listeners into his fictional world with seemingly little effort—but with the power of his language. Following the reading, he fielded audience questions with his characteristic candor and directness, conveying undoubted authenticity in his responses.
Complementing the first-hand experience of listening to Jones, a panel earlier in the week offered a lively conversation about perspectives on Jones’s work: “Talismans: Folklore and African-American Letters.” Sharing insights from their own intersections with Jones’s work, panelists proposed multiple ways to read his texts. Those participating were Randall Kenan and Rebecka Rutledge Fisher, English and Comparative Literature faculty; and Bill Ferris, History and Folklore faculties and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South.
A primary goal of the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program is to give our Creative Writing students access to significant writers of our time. Jones was generous in providing many opportunities for student interactions. He was available for two Q&A sessions open to all Creative Writing students, and he visited several classes during the week. Daniel Wallace’s Senior Honors Fiction students introduced him to NC barbecue in an evening gathering. For these young writers, about to graduate, spending time with Jones throughout the week was part of the capstone of their Creative Writing minor.
At least two graduate classes were also studying Jones’s work this semester. He graciously met with students in Professor Rebecka Rutledge Fisher’s class (African-American Theory and Poetics) and Professor Jennifer Ho’s class (Race in Contemporary American Culture), and said afterward how much he appreciated the students’ familiarity with his work and their thoughtful discussion of it.
Another goal of the Morgan Program is to extend literary outreach into the community. Fulfilling that goal, Jones visited a creative writing class at East Chapel Hill High School. The students in Jennifer K. Taylor’s class (creative writing minor 2003), were well-prepared and asked excellent questions non-stop for the entire class period.
All of these experiences were possible because of the generosity of Carolina alums Musette and Allen Morgan of Memphis, Tennessee, who launched the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program in 1993. In the years since, the Program has enriched the literary experience at Carolina and in the Chapel Hill community by bringing numerous writers to campus, including, most recently, Joan Didion, Tim O’Brien, Robert Hass, Alice McDermott, and Mark Strand. The department is pleased to add Edward P. Jones to this impressive list, and we express our continuing gratitude to the Morgans for their vision and support.