Novelists Tayari Jones and Jennifer Egan share the stage at the Brooklyn Book Festival
You know a novel’s going to be good if book club readers come to blows over it.
Such is the case with “An American Marriage,” Tayari Jones’ moving novel about an artist who splits up with her husband while he’s wrongfully incarcerated.
Aside from causing a brawl at a Los Angeles book club, it has earned a wide readership and wide acclaim.
Oprah selected it for her book club last winter. Former President Barack Obama put it on his summer reading list. It was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction last week.
On Sunday at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Jones said it’s “a thrilling experience” to have so many people read a book of hers.
She spoke at an event called “Tayari Jones and Jennifer Egan in Conversation” at St. Francis College Founders’ Hall in Brooklyn Heights. Lisa Lucas, director of the National Book Foundation, led the discussion.
In “An American Marriage,” Roy and Celestial are newlyweds when he’s sent to prison for a crime she knows he didn’t commit.
‘What about her dreams?’
When Jones was writing the book, when she told people about the plot, they assumed the story line would be “one woman’s brave fight to free her man,” the author said.
But that wasn’t the direction Jones wanted to take.
“I was really examining the question of, ‘What about her dreams?’” she said of Celestial.
“Is it more selfish for her to want to live her life, or is it more selfish for him not to want her to live her life?” she said.
Readers find women characters likable if they’re self-sacrificing — but “I really wasn’t that interested in the nuances of sacrifice,” Jones said.
“I wanted to talk about something a little different, about how can you balance your desire with your responsibility? How much of love is responsibility?
“What do we owe one another just in general? And then, what do we owe one another in times of crisis?” she said.
In the novel, Celestial feels guilty about focusing on her career instead of looking after her incarcerated husband and falling in love with her childhood friend, Andre.
Jones herself felt guilty about writing the novel the way she did, she said. It took her six years to finish working on the book.
‘Experiential research’ for ‘Manhattan Beach’
Egan, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” talked about the “experiential research” she did for her most recent work, “Manhattan Beach.”
The main character in the New York Times bestseller is Anna Kerrigan, the first female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
Egan said that from 2005 to 2010, she interviewed “elderly people with very good memories of the era I was interested in,” including a World War II diver and women who had worked at the Navy Yard during the war. The reminiscences they shared with her gave her a “memory bank” to draw from when she began writing the book in 2012.
“It was as if I had formed a bunch of memories that weren’t mine,” Egan said.
One thing she found out in her research that surprised her was how many people had encountered gangsters.
A gangster named Dexter Styles plays a key role in “Manhattan Beach.”
Like Jones, Egan is thrilled that so many people have read her latest novel.
Some readers have confronted Egan about a woman in the book who plans to have an abortion, then decides not to. These readers are disappointed that the character made a choice that isn’t “progressive,” Egan explained.
But Egan wants her characters to behave in unexpected ways, she said.
She sympathizes with pro-choice advocates — but “in the end, I throw my lot in with the unexpected,” she said.
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