Craft Capsule: Every Novel Is a Journey

by
Tayari Jones
2.6.18

This is the twenty-fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.

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Last week I wrote about how I came to make Roy the protagonist of my new novel, An American Marriage. The decision was frustrating because I came to this tale seeking to amplify the muffled voices of women who live on the margins of the crisis of mass incarceration. So imagine how hard it was for me to make the Roy’s story the main color of the take and relegate Celestial’s point of view to a mere accent wall. It nearly killed me. I was prepared to pull the novel from publication.

Luckily, I had a craft epiphany.

Roy is a great character. He’s like Odysseus, a brave and charismatic man returned home from a might battle. He just wants to get home and be taken care of by a loving wife and sheltered in a gracious house. His voice was very easy to write because he is easy to like; his desires and decisions make it easy to empathize with him. He is a wrongfully incarcerated black man. What decent person wouldn’t root for him?

Celestial was bit more challenging. She’s ambitious. She’s kind of stubborn. And most important, she isn’t really cut out to be a dutiful wife. Back when she was the protagonist of the novel, I used to say, “I am writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated…” and everyone would expect the novel to be about her fight to free him. And it wasn’t. It was about her decision not to wait.

On the level of craft, it just didn’t work. For one thing, you can’t write a compelling novel about what someone doesn’t do. (There is a reason why Bartelby doesn’t get to narrate his own story.) Second, as I wrote last week, Roy’s crisis is just too intense and distracting for the reader to care about any other character as much.

So, what to do?

I foregrounded Roy. He is the protagonist and readers find him to be very “relatable” (my very least favorite word in the world). I took Roy on the journey, and I invite readers to accompany him. As the writer, I came to the table understanding that the expectations put on women to be “ride or die” are completely unreasonable; furthermore, there is no expectation of reciprocity.  But rather than use Celestial’s voice to amplify my position, I allowed Roy the hard work of interrogating his world view, and the reader, by proxy, must do the same.

The result is a novel that was a lot harder to write, but the questions I posed to myself and my readers were richer, more complex, and I hope, more satisfying.

 

Tayari Jones is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. She is the author of four novels, including An American Marriage, forthcoming in February from Algonquin Books. Her website is www.tayarijones.com.