Pulitzer-winning novelist visits campus

Andrea Wilson

Prizewinning novelist Edward P. Jones’s description of his qualifications to tell one of the most celebrated stories of the year sounded simple: “just being a big liar.”

Jones’s literary work, however, is far from simple. His best selling novel, “The Known World,” which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, explores the complexities of the relationships between slaves and their owners in an imagined county in the antebellum South.

Jones appeared on campus on Feb. 3 as the first artist in the University’s seventh annual Literary Festival.

“Fiction is all about trying to tell the biggest lie in order to tell the greatest truth,” Jones told the audience, who gathered in the Villanova Room on Feb. 3 to hear him read from his acclaimed novel, “The Known World,” and from two of his short stories.

The author claims to have done no research for his historically set novel, saying research is overrated as a novelist’s tool.

Jones explained that he had been forming the epic in his mind for about 10 years while he worked a completely unrelated day job. When he initially set out to write the novel, he intended to do historical research but never followed through.

If he had done research, he would have felt required to share all the facts he found with his reader, preventing him from telling his own story, he said.

The novel instead uses invented facts and figures and imaginary places to lend authenticity to the narrative.

The unassuming writer, who spent the 10 years prior to the publication of his novel writing for a tax trade publication, said his writing is not always on his mind, as one might expect.

“There are days when it’s no more important to me than cleaning the kitchen sink,” he said, although he admitted that creativity is difficult to stifle.

“The creative part of the brain works no matter what,” he said. “It can’t stop, because you are compelled to write. You can’t stop.”

In addition to the Pulitzer, “The Known World” has won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The author was also recently awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship to continue his creative work.

Jones received his undergraduate degree from the College of Holy Cross and his master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Virginia. He has taught at various American universities, and resides in Washington, D.C.

The Literary Festival will continue with appearances by a diverse group of artists, including novelist Karen Tei Yamashita, Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, performance poet Sekou Sundiata and rocker memoirist Jacob Slichter.