PW: How did you get the idea for a historical novel, The Known World , after writing a contemporary work, Lost in the City?
Edward P. Jones: The seeds for The Known World were planted over 10 years ago. When I started writing the book in 2000, I had about 26 pages of chapter one done and a few pages of the section where the sheriff realizes he might know where Moses is hiding. In a certain way, I didn't know it would be a full-length book, but I stuck with it. The story carried me along with it.
PW: How did you get the idea to use a black man as a slave owner to address some of the ironies of slavery as an institution?
EPJ: That idea was what kept me interested in this project. I guess the real beginning of that choice grew from my reading of a small book about a Jew who had joined the Nazis during World War II. In college, I came across a book which spoke of blacks having slaves, and it was a shock, just the idea of it.
PW: How can one become an owner of human beings without suffering the corruption of the soul and spirit?
EPJ: I developed that idea once I did the revisions. It all came out then. You know, once you cross that line, you are the same as the others, no matter what race you are. No matter how much good you want to do, once you step over that line, into the role of master, you become the very thing you despise. You are subjugating other human beings.
PW: What inspired you to become a writer?
EPJ: I always loved reading. When I started reading black writers, I discovered two books that had a great impact on me: Ethel Waters's His Eye Is on the Sparrow and Richard Wright's Native Son. I felt as if they were talking to me, since both books had people in them that I knew in my own life. I was shocked to learn black people could write such things. A memorable moment for me occurred when I finished Ellison's Invisible Man, turned it over and saw the picture of the author. I was amazed that a black man had written something like this.
PW: Getting back to your new novel, why did you include vignettes about the brutality of slavery?
EPJ: To highlight the inhumanity of the whole situation of slavery. I didn't want to preach. It was my goal to be objective, to not put a lot of emotion into this, to show it all in a matter-of-fact manner. But still I knew I was singing to the choir. In a case like this, you don't raise your voice, you just state the case and that is more than enough.
PW: How much research did you do?
EPJ: Doing too much research can get in the way of a novel. Since 1992, [I've been] reading books on slavery, but at some point, I decided I'd absorbed enough and trusted what I had in my head about the characters and their world.
PW: At the book's core, you are saying something significant about the will to survive.
EPJ: I was trying to find out how these people survived in these horrifying conditions. I think one way the slaves survived was through the strength of their families. In many ways, we are facing the same problem: the unraveling and destruction of our families and the consequences of that. Families indicate we have a love for something beyond ourselves and that is the key to our survival.
PW: What do you think of some of the current popular trends in African-American literature?
EPJ: I refuse to write about ignorance, despair and weakness, [or] about people going to clubs and doing dumb things. I don't want to write about "you go, girl" people. I want to write about the things which helped us to survive: the love, grace, intelligence and strength of us as a people.