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On Being a 2nd (or 3rd) Generation Writer

Originally published in the debut issue of Poets & Writers Magazine (previously known as Coda), this essay was written by memoirist and fiction writer Kaylie Jones, who is the daughter of novelist James Jones, author of the groundbreaking World War II trilogy From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle. At the time of this essay's publication Kaylie Jones had just published her first novel, As Soon As It Rains. She has since gone on to publish five novels and, just last year, the memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me.


James Jones was not the first published writer in my family. George Washington Jones, my great-grandfather of Cherokee descent, tackled no less a subject than the trials of Christ in his first book. My father, the second generation writer in his family, chose a less lofty topic, and narrowed the fictional scope down to an army on the eve of world war, proposing as his theme that institutions destroy their best men. The scope of my first novel is narrower still; it deals with one young person’s grief over the death of a parent.

I have friends who are second (or third) generation writers or entertainers—children of the successful who have chosen as I have to “follow in their parents’ footsteps,” a horrible expression people will throw out as they pat you on the back. They do not realize that, frequently, having footsteps to follow makes walking more difficult.

On the other hand, a word here, an introduction there, is inevitable. Yet the second generation writers I know are reluctant to capitalize on privileged encounters and choose rather—often to the detriment of their careers—to achieve on their own merits, not the merits of a parent who has already hacked a path through this treacherous terrain. The successful predecessor may have removed some of the thorny underbrush, but the camouflage is gone as well. Every move is in the open, which leaves little room for the luxury of mistakes.

Very few writers are accorded “star” status. The notion is virtually antithetical to the trade. But it does happen, and it happened to my father, practically overnight. Yet he maintained throughout his life the enormous commercial success of From Here to Eternity had simple been a matter of luck—the book had been written in the right place at the right time. He was terrified of being corrupted by its success, and moved to Europe so that he might continue to write without being influenced by the spotlight, and by the New York literary establishment.

It soon became apparent that there was a price to pay for celebrity, and for escape. Growing up in Paris, I remember “reviews” of his later books appearing in American magazines and newspapers that found more significance in his choice of shoes than in his sentences. He shrugged them off. Analyses of his character and wardrobe, rather than his work, revealed more about the critics than they did about him. Still, I became painfully aware of the pitfalls of celebrity, and the lumps he took for it were a lesson to me. The pitfalls are inherited along with the advantages; they tend to cancel each other out.

My father used to say to me, “Jesus, I hope you don’t decide to be a writer.” (He wasn’t calling me Jesus; that’s just the way he talked.) And, only half in jest, “I should’ve written more screenplays, goddamnit. We’d be rich now. I was a stubborn jerk.”

The New York literary network hasn’t changed much since my father’s day; it is just more flagrantly cloying. They are dark days indeed when Russell Banks's Continental Drift or Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates are buried in the back pages of reviews! Familiarity in the “scene” rather than experience on the page seems to be today’s currency.

My father didn’t teach me how to be a first generation networker; by default, I guess, I’m a second generation stubborn jerk.

Kaylie Jones is the author of Lies My Mother Never Told Me, a memoir published by Harper Collins in August 2009. Jones’s father was the novelist James Jones, author of the World War II trilogy From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line, and Whistle. Her first novel, As Soon As It Rains, was published in 1986. Her second novel, Quite the Other Way, was published by Doubleday in 1989. Jones taught fiction workshops at the Writer's Voice from 1988 to 1996, before becoming involved in the creation of the MFA Program in Writing of Long Island University's Southampton campus, now the SUNY Stony Brook MFA Program in Writing. Her third novel, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (Bantam, 1990) was adapted as a Merchant Ivory Film in 1998. Celeste Ascending was published by Harper Collins in April 2000 and her latest novel, Speak Now, was released in hardcover by Akashic Books in October 2003. Her novels have been translated into many languages including French, Dutch, German, Japanese, Italian, Polish, Turkish, and Spanish. Currently, she chairs the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, which awards $10,000 annually to an unpublished first novel. In the last eleven years, nine of the winners have been published to critical acclaim. Kaylie Jones is represented by LJK Literary Agency.

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