After his first novel, The Known World, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature last year and he was given a $500,000 McArthur "genius grant," Edward P. Jones began feeling the prickly heat of the national spotlight.
It's not a place he's comfortable with. People want him to give talks, but he doesn't do speeches, he says. Reporters ask him to explain how he crafted this long, complex book in his mind over 10 years before putting anything on paper.
"They want you to peel back your brain and explain how it works," the reluctant star last night told an audience of about 275 at the Authors! Authors! program in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater. The program is sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
But Jones, 54, tries to comply. He struggles to explain his gift for keeping dozens of characters and a compelling story line in his mind.
"I write because I cannot help it," he says.
Jones, whose mother, Jeanette, never learned to read, read quietly from his novel. It is set in ante-bellum Virginia and peopled by some who own humans, some who are owned, some who wouldn't think of owning, and some who can't afford to.
The Washington, D.C., native seems modest, even humble; he understands that people love his book - several book groups attended - but not why they want to learn about him.
He explained that he gave up on a task he had assigned himself before he could begin writing - to read stacks of books about slavery. As it turned out, he said, his tale focuses on relationships, not historical detail, such as the fabric of a woman's dress or the design of the cabin belonging to Elias, a slave who whittled a doll for his daughter late one night.
"I realized that my job was to present to you Elias the man. And your job as the intelligent reader was to build the cabin."
And at that, the audience of intelligent readers applauded.
The next author in the series will be Thomas Cahill on April 5.
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