Author Tayari Jones has been keeping a big secret about her new book “An American Marriage” for a very long time, at least it has seemed that way.
In October, Jones got a phone call that changed her life. Oprah Winfrey was on the line, telling her that “An American Marriage” had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. But there was a catch. She couldn’t tell anyone until the book was published months later in February.
“So you have to sit on the secret a long time,” Jones, a 47-year-old Atlanta native, said in a phone interview.
It’s something authors dream of. An Oprah endorsement guarantees instant sales. This week, “An American Marriage,” which tackles big issues of race, loyalty and love, ranks No. 2 on Amazon’s chart of the Top 20 Most Sold & Most Read Books of the Week.
And since Winfrey relaunched her book club online in 2012 – it ran for 15 years to coincide with the “Oprah Winfrey Show” – she has been more selective, picking fewer books. Only one was named in 2017 – “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue.
Winfrey, apparently, has been waiting for months, too, to tell readers about Jones’ novel – out Feb. 6 – and is betting big. Her Harpo Films company is attached to produce the adaptation of the book, too. In a video announcing the book’s selection, she said she read the book in galley form, before it went to print.
“It’s so juicy,” she said. “Every chapter, it’s, ‘Will they, or won’t they, and how’s this going to end?’ It’s one of those books I could not put down. As soon as I did, I called up the author and said, ‘I gotta talk to you about this story.’”
“An American Marriage” tells the story of Celestial and Roy, a recently married black couple living in modern-day Atlanta. Everything seems to be going their way. Celestial is getting recognized for her work as an artist. Roy’s career as an executive also is thriving. But when Roy is arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison, for a crime he didn’t do, everything changes. Celestial, the newlywed, has some big questions to answer.
“It’s really a love triangle,” Winfrey said in her video. “It places it inside a world that a lot of people don't know about, but that affects all of us in really big ways. ... I think you’ll come away with greater empathy and understanding.”
Besides Winfrey’s stamp of approval, “An American Marriage,” published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, has garnered praise from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Jones normally lives in Brooklyn and is on the MFA faculty at Rutgers University in Newark. She is spending the 2017-18 year in the Bennett Fellows Program at the UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute to work on her fifth novel.
She’s the author of “Leaving Atlanta,” a story set during the infamous child murders of 1979-81 and “Silver Sparrow,” about the relationship between two sisters, one who carries her father’s last name and the other his shame.
Jones talked to The News & Observer from a Boston hotel while resting between stops on her extensive book tour, which includes a stop at Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books Feb. 19.
Q: OK, tell us about the moment Oprah called and said she wanted to make you the Oprah pick? Did you scream? Is that instant book sales?
A: Well, it’s not instant sales, because they told me about this in October. It’s complicated. First, they have to take pictures for the (March) magazine. Then they have to print regular copies of the book like everything is normal. Then they have to print the Oprah Book Club copies. Then they hide those about 100,000 copies somewhere. Then they have to get the bookstores to order the books sight unseen without knowing the title. They are sent to the bookstore in plain brown boxes and told not to open until a certain date.
Q: Let’s go back to the actual call.
A: I received a phone call at 9 at night. I was driving my car. A voice said in surround sound, ‘Hello, This is Oprah.’ She has a distinctive voice. She waited patiently a good 45 seconds for me to go through, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it.” Then she said she had read my book in manuscript form and wanted to use it for her book club. And would I like that? I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“There’s so much that has to be done for Oprah’s Book Club. So much that has to be coordinated. People at Algonquin Books did so much legwork to make this launch a huge success. This is a team effort. I wrote the book, Oprah brought the magic and the countless others brought good old-fashioned elbow grease.
Q: It seems like you are taking on more complex subjects. How have your grown as a writer?
A: I think what I’m doing is more topical. What was important for me when I wrote my earlier books was giving the family structure the significance of any other topic. As an African-American novelist, there’s so much expectation to pull from the headlines. I want to give more space to our family stories, our everyday slice-of-life stories. This story is more overtly engaging with the kind of structural challenges of African-American life.
Q: Why did you decide to take on mass incarceration?
A: I was interested in mass incarceration, not because of any personal experience. It’s just as a black American, this problem is always in the air. I grew up understanding that prison could come and get you. You didn’t have to earn your way into prison. I decided I wanted to explore this in my work.
The mistake I made in trying to write the book is that I was taking on mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is not a plot. It’s not a story. It’s not a conflict. It’s an issue. And I’m not a sociologist. So I think when I was trying to write to an issue, I couldn’t get anything done. I had to think about one individual incarcerated. Then I could open it up to a story that could be surprising, engaging, funny and romantic. I use the skills I used in my earlier books. I could use the skills I already had when I realized that every incarcerated person is a part of a family.
Q: How has the plight of black men influenced your writing?
A: So much of the cornerstone of the way that black culture understands itself is about the plight of the black man. The challenge really is to think the plight of all black people, which is just something we have not been trained to do. And I like to write about the lives of black men rather than their plight. I don’t think that we do them service to reduce them to their suffering all the time. They suffer but they do live, laugh and love. One of the challenges in writing this book, even though it’s about wrongful incarceration, is to remember, people have a full life. They are not just their struggles.
Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at email@example.com.
▪ Tayari Jones will talk about her novel, “An American Marriage” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $26.95) at 7 p.m. Feb. 19, at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.
About Oprah’s Book Club
Oprah Winfrey had a book club on her talk show for 15 years. She brought it back in 2012, after the show had ended. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed was the inaugural book. Others include “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd, “Ruby” by Cynthia Bond, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” by Ayana Mathis and “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue.