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A whole new 'World'

After years of desk jobs, Edward P. Jones writes a top-rate novel

Once every few years, you come across an artist whose depth of talent you'd never guess from meeting him, whose own explanation of his work can't wholly account for it. Edward P. Jones is one of those artists. His new novel, "The Known World," a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, might be the most unusual novel about American slavery ever written.

"If there's such a thing as a born writer," says Maria Guarnaschelli, editor of Jones's 1992 short-story collection, "he is one. There are a lot of wonderful writers, but when you read his prose, you hear music."

Jones is polite and relaxed, with an unadorned manner of speaking. During his Boston stop on a 16-city book tour, he talked for an hour about his life and writing. He doesn't seem like a man in a hurry. Indeed, at age 53, his progress as a writer has been more patient and purposeful than pyrotechnic. "The Known World," his first novel, comes 11 years after his collection, "Lost in the City," which was also a National Book Award finalist.

"The Known World" is dedicated to Jones's brother, Joseph, who is mentally retarded and has been institutionalized his whole life. It's also dedicated "to the memory of our mother, Jeanette S. M. Jones, who could have done much more in a better world." "Lost in the City" was also dedicated to her, and Jones says, "If I write another book, I'll probably dedicate it to her as well." She raised him and his younger sister alone, in Washington, D.C. She could not read or write, and she worked as a dishwasher and hotel maid to support her family.

Set mainly in fictional Manchester County, Va., in 1855, "The Known World" tells of Henry Townsend, a young man bought out of slavery by his father, who had bought himself out earlier. Henry remains a favorite of William Robbins, his former master, and soon becomes a slave owner himself.

With its numerous characters, the novel moves forward and backward lightly in time, always returning to the developing fate of Henry's family and slaves. The narrative voice makes no judgments, and shows all of life, from comedy to horror. The central characters are Henry and his father, Augustus; the white slaveholder Robbins; Sheriff John Skiffington, who is uneasy about slavery but can't bring himself to get away from it; and Fern Elston, a light-skinned schoolteacher who could pass for white but would prefer not to. Everyone in the novel is in some kind of bondage, and the tragic fate of each is still to be confined, even when they think they are free. Love itself only forges their chains tighter.

In school, Edward Jones was a good student. "I wasn't one to hang out on the streets," he says. "I went home and read. I could read early; that was one of the reasons college wasn't hard for me."

He had read only comics for pleasure as a child, but then: "I discovered books without pictures in 1963, when I was visiting an aunt in Virginia. A friend last year went on eBay and got the book for me after all these years. It was `Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?' by Sir Basil Thomson, a British mystery published in the 1930s. That was the first one. It was a start."

In 1965, Joseph Owens, a young Jesuit who was studying German at Georgetown University and helping out at a church in Northwest Washington, befriended Jones's family. "The neighborhood was very poor," Owens said in an e-mail from Honduras, where he now lives, "and most of the kids did not take school too seriously. But I was impressed with Ed's evident intelligence and determination to get ahead. The circumstances of the family were difficult, to say the least."

Owens was teaching at the College of the Holy Cross a couple of years later and urged Jones to apply for a scholarship there, which he did, successfully. He started as a math major but switched to English after the first semester. In his junior or senior year (he graduated in 1972), he took a class in creative writing with professor Maurice A. Geracht, the first such course taught at Holy Cross. He says, "That was the first real sense that I could do something with writing."

Geracht is still at Holy Cross, as director of foreign study programs. "I remember him very well," Geracht says of Jones. "He was always rather quiet. He also took courses with me in the 18th- and 19th-century novel. He absorbed everything; he was a voracious reader, one of those students who kept up and read everything. He had a good ear for language and could enter into worlds very different from what he had known: the world of Henry James, William Thackeray, George Eliot, Charles Dickens. He had his own voice from the beginning."

After he graduated, Jones cared for his ill mother, who died in 1975. He had been writing stories, and after she died he placed one in Essence magazine, about a young woman in Washington who remembers the Southern country life of her girlhood. In time, other stories would be published in literary magazines, but he still did not imagine writing as a career. "I thought I would do something in journalism or the law," he says.

In 1981, he earned a master's degree in creative writing at the University of Virginia and stayed on for a year to teach. But still he never imagined he would be a professor, nor did he trust the vagaries of a fiction-writer's career. He says, "With a university, you always have to worry about tenure: Will I have a job next year if I don't have tenure? If you grew up `without,' a job was something important. It connects you to the rest of the world and pays the bills. Teaching doesn't have the certainty that a known job has, and writing doesn't, either."

In 1983, he took a job with Tax Analysts, a nonprofit research service based in Arlington, Va., and settled there, commuting to work by public transportation. (He has never owned a car.) He stayed for 19 years. He started as a proofreader, and later prepared digests of newspaper and magazine articles on tax policy. Meanwhile, he wrote stories. In 1992, he sold his collection, "Lost in the City," to publisher William Morrow. He had always admired James Joyce's "Dubliners," and set about writing a cycle of stories about ordinary people in Washington: a girl who raises pigeons, a woman living in a house bought by her son with drug money, a father grief-stricken over his runaway daughter. The book won the 1992 PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction.

He got a few temporary college teaching assignments after "Lost in the City" appeared, but kept his job, while casting about for a new story to write. In the back of his mind was a fact he had learned at Holy Cross: that there had been black slaveholders in the antebellum South. For more than 20 years, that fact had gnawed at his imagination.

He says, "It was a shock that there were black people who would take part in a system like that. Why didn't they know better?" It could make a fine story, perhaps a novel, but by 2001 all he had written was six pages of the first chapter and six of the last. He had been writing the rest in his head.

"I spent all those years going over it again and again. It was my way of remembering," he says. "I would be on a bus, and I would think about a particular chapter. I never took any notes. Sometimes I knew the details, and sometimes only in a general way. But I knew the beginning always to the very end."

Toward the end of 2001, he had five weeks of vacation and decided it was time to start writing. He had accumulated 40 books about slavery, intending to read them all. In the end, he read none of them: "You start reading those books and you come across one interesting fact after another and you want to put it all in the novel." He began writing around Christmastime and finished the first draft by March. In the meantime, he got a call from Tax Analysts telling him he had been laid off.

He says the novel changed little from the first draft to the finished novel. HarperCollins paid enough that Jones had no immediate need to find a new job.

Regardless of whether his novel wins the National Book Award Nov. 19, Jones now knows he's not a summarizer of tax policy but a skilled and talented storyteller with more stories to tell and an audience that wants to read them. With no family of his own, he seems to lead a fairly undistracted life. Teaching offers have come his way, but he has made no commitments. He is writing and has a contract for a new story collection, to be published in the next year or two.

Reading "The Known World," one might wonder how Jones can convey the atmosphere, violence, and moral agonies of the antebellum South, among blacks and whites alike, given his decision not to read the 40 books. The answer appears to be that while he didn't do formal research he had already absorbed every relevant detail that had come his way.

"From the stuff you heard over the years, you got a sense of what life was like in the South," he says, "what the world looked like. I had the characters, and a certain place where the characters lived." As for narration, characterization, and voices, he says simply, "I see the people. Fiction is made-up stuff about people. I always told my students that they should tell it as if they were watching it on a screen. I can simply lay out the facts, and the horror is there."

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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