Getting Rilke with Tayari Jones

We all want someone to talk to, who understands us, and maybe that’s why generations of writers, readers and searching souls have responded so strongly to Rainer-Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Remembering how nice it was to read the first time, we thought we’d return to the text to unearth those searching queries, and ask some of our brightest stars today to either answer questions drawn from the text or write a letter to their teenage selves. Today, we have Tayari Jones (, whose debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, about coming of age during the Atlanta Child Murders, received the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award and is being adapted into a film (Kickstarter campaign here). Her second novel, The Untelling won the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices. And her highly-anticipated next book, Silver Sparrow, which focuses on a girl who discovers her father has another family, and will be out from Algonquin in the Spring (Judy Blume described it as “excellent” on Twitter yesterday). Here are Tayari’s answers to some eternal questions.

Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or, what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)
There are really two reasons that I write. That I write at all is for a selfish reason—it brings me great pleasure. When I have spent the day writing, I feel good about myself, like I am doing what I am meant to do and the thing I enjoy most. But the reason I write the stories I choose to write is more because I think that these stories are important, that there is something of value in knowing what happens to the people I write about. If I wasn’t a writer, I wouldn’t be anything. People always tell me that this can’t be possible, but it is. It’s like asking me what I would be if I weren’t a person.

What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks is the most important novel to me. This is the book that showed me that a novel about an ordinary woman living her ordinary life is art, is important and from that I decided that ordinary people are important, too. Just think how that opened up the “what to write about” questions. Stories are every where, you just have to be open to them. Another important book is a collection of poetry, Mercy by Lucille Clifton. The poems there slay me. She can cram the entire world into a three-sentence stanza.

Who has given me the greatest experience of the essence of creativity?
Sadly, I don’t think that has happened to me yet, which is probably good, because after that, I suppose my journey would be over.

If you could not send a reader all of your books, which one would you recommend first?
LEAVING ATLANTA. It’s my first book, written before I knew anything of the world of writing, when I knew only my own heart, before I worried about publishing or reviews. I wrote it one day I was looking for a little lost boy and I recalled a memory that I had somehow buried—that thirty kids were murdered in my hometown when I was ten years old. So LEAVING ATLANTA is a book that I was born to write, so start with that one.

Where is the place in which you most love to write?
I love to write in hotels. I find my own possessions very distracting. In a hotel room I have only what I need, the things around me are quite impersonal and do not pull me for my work. I write best when my own stories are the most interesting thing in the room.

What is the value of solitude to a writer?
Solitude is the ideal condition for writing, but I don’t like to over emphasize it because solitude comes about with privilege. A lot of people can’t afford a room of their own. I would never say, then, that they could never write. It will just be harder for them.

What advice would you give to a young person, or your younger self, about love?
Think of love as a verb, not a noun. It’s something that you get to do, so go do it. It’s not someone that you go and get. You can’t own a verb. And, a verb can’t own you. Love as a verb is all about action, about doing the damn thing.

What is the value of sadness to a writer?
Sadness is not any more valuable than any other emotion. That’s just something sad people say to cheer themselves up. Seek textured complicated emotional states. Don’t do anything unless it is spiked with joy. When you are sad—and it happens– try and learn something if you can. But mostly try and move past it. Don’t wallow there. Suffering will not make you noble or beautiful.

What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?
I loved “A Paen” by Edgar Allen Poe. This is sort of weird and morbid, but I loved the idea of a mourning lover. Sometimes I would identify with the speaker, so bereft. It was such a testament to the breadth and scope of the love that the speaker seemed ready to die himself. I envied that passion. But other times, I would imagine myself the cold beautiful beloved, even in death able to inspire such elaborate pain. (I should say that I am happy that I outgrew that.)

In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?
Be the one you want.

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