- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

NEW YORK — On the dedication page of each of his three critically acclaimed books, award-winning author Edward P. Jones shares a piece of his mother:

In his debut collection of stories, “Lost in the City,” Mr. Jones tells us her name and that she’s dead: “To the memory of my mother, Jeanette S.M. Jones.”

In his novel, “The Known World,” Mr. Jones hints at the hardships that littered his mother’s life, lamenting that she “could have done much more in a better world.”

In his new book, “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” Mr. Jones briefly recounts how his mother, like some of the characters in his fiction, migrated North and “found far less than even the little she dared to hope for.”

The author returns in his latest book to the short story, a form to which his HarperCollins editor, Dawn Davis, says he’s drawn. The themes in the new collection, such as the class spectrum, are more wide-ranging than those in “Lost,” which also deals with life in the District.

Mr. Jones talked about a range of topics in a recent interview — from his life after winning the Pulitzer Prize for “The Known World” to receiving a MacArthur “genius” fellowship to sleeping on the floor of his District apartment to his aversion to driving to why he makes sure he tidies his hotel room before checking out.

However, the 56-year-old author is especially moved when he talks about his relationship with his mother, a relationship often framed by hardship while growing up in the nation’s capital.

“She was there, always there,” Mr. Jones says, sitting in the lobby of the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel in Manhattan as jazz flows from stereo speakers and guests stream through.

“I think if she hadn’t been around, I don’t know what kind of place I would’ve ended up in. There was a stability, and it allowed me to become whatever it is I am now. So it’s a small, small thing to put her name on the dedication page every time.”

To many, a mother’s presence in the lives of her children is unremarkable and expected, but Mr. Jones imagines that his mother’s life — even with her illiteracy, dishwasher job and abandonment by her children’s father — could have been much easier had she walked away from him, his sister and their mentally challenged brother and never looked back.

Instead, each of the 18 times she moved to yet another bleak Washington apartment, she took Mr. Jones and his younger sister, Eunice, with her; his older brother, Joseph, has lived in an institution since boyhood.

“When you’re moving around so often, it’s just nice to know that she was always there,” Mr. Jones says. “It was the one thing you could always count on. Even if tomorrow you had to move someplace else, my mother, my sister would be there.”

Sundays were particularly memorable for Mr. Jones. On that day, after the family visited his brother, Mr. Jones’ mother, when she could afford it, cooked fried chicken, string beans and potatoes. Sometimes she’d make a sweet potato pie.

“She excelled at that more than anything else,” Mr. Jones recalls, a slight smile playing on his salt-and-pepper-bearded face. “I haven’t tasted anyone’s sweet potato pie since that comes close to hers.”

Once into adulthood, Mr. Jones earned degrees at the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Virginia. He held various day jobs, including proofreading and writing summaries of news articles for a tax journal.

In 1992, “Lost in the City,” a collection of short stories, was published. The stories, which have been compared to James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” are a collage of working-class Washington, a world away from the marble halls of government and museums.

More than a decade later, in 2003, Mr. Jones’ second book and first novel, “The Known World,” came out. Set in antebellum Virginia, the novel is populated with an astounding range of richly imagined characters, including Henry Townsend, a formerly enslaved black man who becomes a slave owner.

The book was awarded the 2004 Pulitzer for fiction. Also that year, Mr. Jones received the $500,000 MacArthur grant.

He insists that his life has not changed since then.

“I won the thing, but it’s not as if it’s this major thing in my life,” Mr. Jones says of the Pulitzer. “I don’t get up every morning thinking about that. … I do find it hard to connect that person who’s always there [on] the flap on the book jacket, whose face might be in some newspaper, with the person I know I am. It seems like a different human being.”

Ms. Davis, who edited Mr. Jones’ last two books at HarperCollins, says the writer remains as simple as he was when she had to force him to get e-mail because of the swelling anticipation of the release of “The Known World.” Before that, they corresponded by “snail mail.”

“Fame and acclaim haven’t changed his character,” Ms. Davis says. “He’s as humble and as easy to work with as ever. He’s a very simple person.”

The same month he won the Pulitzer, Mr. Jones moved into an apartment near the Washington National Cathedral. He still sits and sleeps on the floor, but not because of any Zen motive; he just hasn’t had time to shop for furniture.

“I would like to have furniture; it would be nice,” Mr. Jones says. “I’m not making any statement about it. I’m not hurt because I don’t have furniture.”

Mr. Jones, who also doesn’t have a cell phone, depends on public transportation and a few close friends to get around town. He enjoys sitting in the passenger seat — and not having to worry about someone stealing his car or about insurance or accidents.

His mother, who had strokes and died in 1975 of lung cancer, doesn’t influence his work, nor did she inspire any of his characters, he says. She was, however, the subject of an essay he wrote in 1994, and she did influence his humanity and compassion for others.

He lives by a simple rule passed on to him by his mother: Treat others as you would want to be treated. Because of that value, he says, when he stays at a hotel, he’s sure to straighten the bedspread as best he can. He folds used bath towels and washcloths and sets them on the sink, puts magazines in their original order and makes sure all trash is thrown away.

“Someone’s mother has the job to come in there and clean up that damn place,” Mr. Jones says, “and even if it’s not anybody’s mother, it’s a human being who’s trying to get through the day, and if you can try to make it a little easier for her … why not?”


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