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Black Slaves, Black Masters 

Known World author at CPCC Literary Festival

Irene Honeycutt, founder of the Central Piedmont Spring Literary Festival, likes to tell the story of how she discovered author Edward P. Jones when, by chance, she caught Jones' appearance on the Jim Lehrer show.

"As soon as he (Lehrer) started interviewing Edward P. Jones, my ears perked up," she recalls. "He responded so well and seemed so at ease with the questions. I became interested right away in him because of that, but also because of the topic of the novel."

Always looking for good additions to the annual festival, especially authors who add an unusual perspective, Honeycutt says, "If I'm not surprised, nobody else is going to be."

As luck would have it, Honeycutt checked Jones' book tour schedule on the Internet and discovered he was to be at Park Road Books in Charlotte that very week. She went to the signing and introduced herself. As a result of their meeting, Jones agreed to appear at the festival.

Jones, fresh from having won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, will read from his novel, The Known World, on the third day of the festival, Wednesday, March 24, starting at 11:30am. A question and answer session will follow. The Known World is a Southern novel with all the trademark storytelling elements: the wonderful detail, rich, engaging characters and a compelling story. In this case, the story involves an ironic twist of fate -- free blacks and freed slaves who in turn buy their own slaves.

Jones explains how he reacted when he found out that some blacks once owned slaves in the US. "I first heard about it, almost in passing I suppose, when I was in college a long time ago. I was rather surprised. You sort of come along in life thinking of slavery as black and white. It was quite a surprise -- that people would take part in a system that was oppressing their own people."

Jones took his time creating the book. "You know, people -- most people anyway -- think of writing as the physical act of sitting in front of a typewriter or computer," he says. "For me, all of those years were taken up in thinking about all of it. I only did about a total of 12 pages of writing in all those 10 years of thinking it all up.

"I kept putting off doing the research," he adds. "Even though I wasn't doing the research, the other part of my brain was creating the world that was in the novel. At the end of 10 years, I had some vacation time from a day job and I decided, well, I would start the research in earnest. But I looked at all of the books on the shelves that dealt with the subject of slavery and felt that I just didn't want to do that. So I just dived and starting writing what was in my head."

Jones' first book, Lost in the City, a short story collection, was short-listed in 1992 for the National Book Award. Jones, who was educated at Holy Cross College and earned his MFA at the University of Virginia, has taught fiction at Princeton University, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland.

Jones says reactions to The Known World from the black community have been positive. "There are people I've heard from secondhand who have been sort of put off by the subject matter," he says, but adds, "Every single black person I've talked to who's read the book -- and that's the important point -- they had no problem with it."

He pauses and says thoughtfully, "You're taught from an early age you're not supposed to judge a book by a cover or a one-line description of it. The people who have read it have not had any problems with it."

Jones maintains a modest view of the novel's impact. "I didn't have any agenda, so I didn't have any lessons I wanted people to learn," he explains. "I just had a story with these people and that's all I had. So I just hoped that people would read it and be moved by the people in the book, the good and the bad. That's about it. There's nothing that I would want people to take away from it except having read it and been touched by everything that's in it."

Jones is diplomatic when asked about his influences and inspirations: "The list is rather long in a lot of ways and so once you get into naming somebody, the problem is you're judged on the people you name -- not on the people you may have just inadvertently forgotten about."

But he adds that as a reader, "I started with black authors when I was young. Black authors from the South and then just about every Southern writer that I came across. And then once I got to college, I sort of branched out to people in other countries like Chekhov and James Joyce and any number of other people, so the list is rather long.

"I suppose the only thing I can say is whoever is out there who has written well -- that's been the inspiration," he says. He also adds, after expressing concern about writers in a country "not really known for readers," "I know I wouldn't be here talking to you if I hadn't discovered a love of reading when I was very young."

The 12th annual Central Piedmont Community College Spring Literary Festival offers events from Monday, March 22, through Wednesday, March 24, most in Pease Auditorium on the Central Campus with additional events at the Southwest Campus and Levine Campus. Keynote speakers, in addition to Jones, will be poet Linda Pastan and playwright Alfred Uhry. Other speakers include local poet/novelist Tony Abbott; journalist, author and CL contributor Frye Gaillard; documentary filmmaker Steve Crump, novelist Kevin Douglas and CPCC president Tony Zeiss plus performances by the Georgia Sea Island Singers. All events are free. For more information and a complete schedule of events go to www.cpcc.edu/literary or call 704-330-6666.

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