This August, Atlanta-born, Brooklyn-based author Tayari Jones arrived in Las Vegas. She’s here as a Black Mountain Institute Shearing Fellow, which means she’s spending the academic year working on her next book. Right now, Jones is on a six-week, 35-event book tour. She spoke with Las Vegas Weekly from her stop in Boston. She returns to UNLV in March.
Your fourth novel, An American Marriage, came out in January, and it was recently chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. How did it feel to get that call? I was driving my car, coming home from Downtown. She called, and it came through the car’s system. It was Oprah’s voice in surround sound. I said, “Hello,” and she said, “Hi, this is Oprah.” I think she’s accustomed to the shocked reaction. She waited for the giggles to subside and then got down to business about the Book Club. I’m a person who has never even won a raffle. I will never forget that moment.
Entertainment Weekly describes your new book as “an essential contemporary portrait of a marriage … [that] gorgeously evokes the New South as it explores mass incarceration on a personal level.” Those are some heavy topics. What were the challenges in writing An American Marriage? The biggest challenge was that it’s a love triangle. Celestial is legally married but found love with boy next door. How could I write this novel and be fair to all characters? I had to balance the issue of wrongful incarceration, with the page-turner of a love triangle.
How do Atlanta and Brooklyn compare with Las Vegas? Vegas is similar to Atlanta—it’s a place where people who don’t live there think they know something about it. People don’t know about the complexity of lives in Las Vegas. When I tell people in Brooklyn that I’m from the South, they think I came on Underground Railroad.
How do you like life in Las Vegas? It’s been terrific. I did grad school in Arizona, and I do really like the Southwest. I enjoy the Strip, I will say that. I’ve been to Cirque du Soleil [shows] about five times since I’ve been here. I really like hanging out in the Fremont area; it’s exciting how it’s becoming such an arts hot spot.
What’s your daily routine as a Black Mountain Institute Fellow like? I wake up super early and have coffee at PublicUs. At 7 a.m, I’ll write in the Black Mountain Institute library until 9, when everybody comes in. Then I’ll go into my own personal office and get some work done. Then I try to get people to go to Cirque du Soleil with me. There are two types of people: people who like Cirque and people who don’t.
How does it feel to finally get so much recognition for the good work you’ve been doing all along? It’s funny—I had trained myself to not want what I don’t have. To get this huge amount of recognition, I have to adjust and change my mind and think about the writer that I am. It’s been a real thrill and also rewarding that my longtime readers are taking ownership of moment with me. Five hundred people came to my event in Atlanta. We were celebrating together like old friends—it was like we all had made it.
Do you have any favorite books that take place in Las Vegas? I really enjoyed Chris Abani’s book, The Secret History of Las Vegas . And Larry McMurtry’s The Desert Rose .
What’s next for you? I’m working on a new novel set in Atlanta, of course. I’m superstitious, so I’d rather not say more.
Anything else you’d like to add? When I applied to Black Mountain Institute, I had no idea that this was going to happen—that I would be going on a massive tour. BMI made it possible for me to take advantage of my moment. I will always be grateful to [retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice] Miriam Shearing, who endows the fellowship that I have.
Jones will participate in the Believer Festival, April 13-14. For more information, visit festival.blackmountaininstitute.org.