Oprah Winfrey has revealed the latest addition to her book club: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. As expected from the big-hearted media mogul, Jones’s tale is a richly human and timely story.
“I love this title because the novel redefines the traditional American love story,” Winfrey said for the announcement. “It’s really a love triangle and places us inside a world that a lot of people don’t know about, but impacts all of us in really big ways — you’ll see what I mean. And I think you’ll come away with greater empathy and understanding. Even if you don’t, it’s just a great read.”
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Jones shares what it was like to hear the life changing news from Winfrey herself, and what she hopes readers will learn from the novel about survival and empathy — and larger societal issues like mass incarceration.
“I think [Oprah] likes a human story that sheds light on an issue, but an issue in which the people come first,” Jones, 47, says. “I think she likes a story — I call them ‘Trojan horse books’ — where you come and stay for the people but you learn something, too. The people sneak the issue into your heart.”
Set in the New South, An American Marriage is a love story about three people whose lives are forever altered after Roy is wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to 12 years in prison. His independent wife, Celestial, knows he’s innocent. She is left to drift on her own before finding safe harbor with Andre, her childhood friend and best man at their wedding.
“I hope this novel is a heartbreaker and a heart healer,” says Jones. This is her fourth book.
The author explains she was thrilled and shocked when she learned that An American Marriage was selected as a book pick by Winfrey.
“This is so beyond my wildest dreams, I never considered [I’d be selected],” she says. “I am not a person who gets a call from the Oprah offices and assumes it’s my lucky day.”
See below for the full interview.
How was the call with Oprah?
I live in Las Vegas, I’m driving and [I get the call]. I was stunned. She sounds just like Oprah… I was so stunned I got the nervous giggles and I couldn’t stop, so I pulled my car over in this kind of seedy part of town… Oprah’s talking about my book and I’m so happy, but homeless people are tapping on my window asking for money. I’m like shooing them away and they’re like tap, tap, tap. I’m making faces at them and Oprah is just talking. It was a lot… I felt like the luckiest person in the world.
What did Oprah say about your book?
She said that she had shared the book with the young ladies at her school in South Africa. I think they had a manuscript copy, not a [finished] book. They would pass around pages and argue about Andre and who should do what. The idea of her sharing it with the young people she cares about, it was a moment.
Have you met her in person?
I had to come to the studio to be photographed with her and I did meet her. [Being in] her presence is amazing. When you meet Oprah Winfrey, you [feel like] you’re experiencing history. Even if it means standing there with your mouth open, you are witnessing history. She’s amazing and she’s so kind. She was so down to earth and she put me at ease.
What inspired An American Marriage?
I did all of this research on the subject of mass incarceration [at Harvard during my fellowship], and I read really upsetting, troubling books. I learned a lot, but I didn’t have what I needed to write a novel…So I went home to visit my mother in Atlanta. While I was home I went to the mall… and I overheard a couple arguing in the food cart. The woman was beautifully dressed, cashmere coat, the whole nine, and the guy looked ok, he looked fine. But she looked fantastic… They seemed to be from different walks of life, but it was also clear that they were in love and that they were in trouble.
What did they say to each other?
I heard her say clear as day, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he said, “I don’t even know why you’re even talking about that because this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.” I was intrigued because not knowing him I still felt fairly confident that he wouldn’t have waited for seven years. I was like, “You’re right girl,” but I knew, too, that he was right. [It’s not likely that] this beautifully-attired woman would be wrongfully incarcerated for seven years because it really is a gendered phenomenon. So they were talking to each other, but they were not speaking to the same issues. She was saying, “This is about reciprocity” and he was saying, “No, this is about the differences in our power and position, relative to this issue.” And I was like here we go, there’s my book, I got it.
What do you want readers to learn from the novel?
Everyone in this novel is trying to do what is right for themselves, what’s right for each other, and what’s right for society. That’s a massive undertaking and they make mistakes, but their hearts are all good. The takeaway from this novel is really a question of empathy. Empathy is a really the key to freedom… You never suffer so much that you can no longer have empathy. Once you care about other people, then you are free.
How does the book relate to the current political climate?
I keep going back to two things: empathy and truth. We’re in a crisis right now about what is true. We’re also in a crisis right now about caring for others, caring for people whose experiences are not like your own, and also being able to admit a mistake. Roy is wrongfully incarcerated — what happened to him had to be undone. It’s about making amends as individuals and society making amends. We have to be able to make amends to one another.
How do you feel about the state of racial awareness and injustice in America today?
We are in a strange moment. We’re in a moment of both heightened awareness and denial… More people are speaking up and speaking out, but other people are digging in their heels. So it’s a very exciting moment and a troubling moment.
When you first started writing could you have envisioned a Trump presidency?
No, I don’t think I could have. I am stunned everyday by what’s going on in our country… We’re arguing about things that I thought we had settled years ago. But I do believe that we’ll come together as a nation and move ourselves forward. I believe this, but it’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of listening, a lot of resistance, and a lot of reading.
What gives you hope?
Young people give me hope about our future… Young people are going to save us, but [as older people] we have to make sure that we take care of them, that we mentor them, that we’re responsible towards them.
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Why did it take you six years to write An American Marriage?
I never will spend six years on a book again. I thought this book was trying to kill me. I was like, “What have I done to you, book, that you’d treat me this way?” I think because I was asking a question that I didn’t know the answer to: How do we balance our desires and our responsibilities? What do we owe one another? I kept asking myself what does Celestial owe Roy? [But I didn’t think about] what does Roy owe Celestial? [Roy] has suffered so much and was trying to get something back, but he never thought of what he had to give. Because I didn’t ask the right question, I couldn’t get the right answer. So I spun my wheels for a good two years asking the wrong question.
Why did you originally have misgivings about the title?
[I told my editor] I feel like that title is about some white people in Connecticut getting a divorce. And he says, “Why do you think that what happens in Connecticut or what happens to white people is more American than what you’re writing about?” I [said], “I don’t know, I just had never really been spoken of as American without the word ‘black’ in front of it.” [Later] he called me [and] said, “Look, you have to tell me. Do you feel the title doesn’t fit your book? Or is it that you’re afraid of the implications of such a large title? Are you afraid to claim the title for these characters?” … [He said,] “I’m going to beg you to reconsider, because this is an American story, these characters are Americans, and this is an American problem. He said, “Just take my hand on this, take my hand and step into the title.”
How do you feel about the title now?
That was the best decision I made in the whole process of writing this book.
An American Marriage is on sale now.