This is the twenty-first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.
Like most thoughtful people, I have noticed that the world is on fire and I want to use my skills to help extinguish the flames. To this end, I set out five years ago to write a novel that addresses the injustice of wrongful incarceration. I applied for and received a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute and I became a dedicated researcher. I learned a lot, so much so that I got angry just watching Law & Order, my ex-favorite television show. I was informed, “woke,” and motivated, but I couldn’t write a novel because I had no story. The problem was that I was trying to write to the issue, and I can only write a story that is issue-adjacent.
I know I have a novel when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer. When it comes to wrongful incarceration, I am not torn. The state should not imprison innocent people. Full stop. Also without ambiguity: The prison system is cruel, corrupt, and in desperate need of reform, if not abolition.
So where was the novel?
The answer revealed itself in a food court where I spied a young couple. She was dressed in a lovely cashmere coat. He wore inexpensive khakis and a polo. They were clearly angry, and clearly in love. I overheard the woman say, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” He shot back, “What are you talking about? This shit wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.”
Just then, I knew I had a novel. The reason is that I understood that they were both probably right. I didn’t know him, but I couldn’t quite picture him waiting chastely by for seven years. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine her behind bars. But did he have a right to demand her loyalty when both seem to agree she would be in no position to demand the same? Was this question moot since she would not likely face this challenge? Was this a kind of privilege? Could she mitigate this privilege by waiting like a modern-day Penelope? Should she?
So we have a couple with a conflict, and at stake between them are issues of reciprocity, duty, and love. Yes, there is the injustice of mass incarceration. And yes, this injustice is fueled by racism and prejudice. Neither of them doubt this, and neither do I. But the question of “will you wait for me” is foremost on his mind.
The result is my new novel, An American Marriage. Roy and Celestial are newlyweds, married only eighteen months, when Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. When he is slapped with a twelve-year sentence, the questions of desire and responsibility are at the center of the characters’ lives. As a writer, I was genuinely torn: Roy needs Celestial to be a link to the life he left behind, and Celestial loves her husband, but she has only one life. I wrote this novel not only to satisfy my heart’s curiosity as to what they would do, but to also satisfy the part of my mind that wondered what should they do.
I realized that my passion for the issue of incarceration was the reason that I couldn’t write about it directly. A novel is not me, as a writer, telling the reader what I already know. And an honest novel is not about me pretending to take on “both sides” of an issue about which I have a clear opinion. I had to start with my issue and then walk away from it until I found the thing I didn’t know. To truly challenge the reader, I had to challenge myself as well.
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.