Robert Jones, Jr.: Writing to Answer the Question, "What About Love?"

Author Robert Jones, Jr. discusses the inspiration that led him to write his debut novel and how he stayed focused on the heart of his story during the writing process.
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Robert Jones, Jr. was born and raised in New York City. He received his BFA in creative writing with honors and MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Essence, OkayAfrica, The Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin (Facebook/IG/Twitter). Jones was recently featured in T Magazine's cover story, "Black Male Writers of Our Time." The Prophets is his debut novel.

Robert Jones Jr._credit Alberto Vargas RainRiver Images _cropped

In this post, Jones discusses the inspiration that led him to write his debut novel, how he stayed focused on the heart of his story during the writing process, and more!

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Name: Robert Jones, Jr.
Literary agent: PJ Mark at Janklow & Nesbit
Book title: The Prophets
Publisher: Putnam
Release date: January 5, 2021
Genre: Historical fiction, African-American fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: The Prophets is the story of two young men in love and enslaved on a cotton plantation in 1830s Mississippi and how that love transforms everyone around them.

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What prompted you to write this book?

As an undergraduate student in college, Africana studies was my minor area of study. During that time, I had read many historical works about the African diaspora, especially African-American experiences, and I was struck by the dearth of information about Black queer people prior to the Harlem Renaissance. If Black queerness was represented, it was only ever represented in the context of rape and sexual assault. As a Black queer person myself, that, of course, prompted a question: What about love?

It wasn’t until my first semester of graduate school in 2006, however, that I had the courage to write the story myself when my fiction tutorial instructor, Stacey D’Erasmo, challenged the class to go out into the world and find objects that characters in our potential novels and stories might possess. Strangely, I found a pair of shackles near trash cans on the street and understood that to mean that my character was enslaved. And since, at that time, there had been no stories about Black queer people during American antebellum slavery, and because Toni Morrison said, “If you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it,” I began the terrifying journey of writing what would eventually become The Prophets.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I first put pen to paper for what would eventually become The Prophets in the fall of 2006. The completed novel will be published and available to the public on January 5, 2021. That’s a span of 15 years. The central idea never changed. It was always going to be about two young Black men in love during antebellum slavery. What did change was the structure of the story and the plot, both of which I experimented with until I found one that allowed me to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it, covering all the points I wanted to cover, and giving the characters all the space that they demanded.

(4 Ways to Write a Compelling Character)

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

This is my first novel, so the entire publishing process was a learning experience. I had to research to determine what my next steps were after completing a manuscript draft that I thought was in good enough shape for someone to see. That was how I discovered that I needed a literary agent. Then, I spoke to my friends who had previously been published to determine how to obtain a literary agent. Kiese Laymon (Long Division, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America) recommended PJ Mark at Janklow & Nesbit and after meeting with him and two other agents, I decided to work with PJ. After about another year of revisions, the book went to auction (another process I was completely unfamiliar with). It was all very enlightening and interesting, and quite fun to be honest.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The very first time a character spoke to me was extremely surprising. You hear writers say that all the time, but you think that they’re making it up as part of some kind of writerly flight of fancy. But once, in the middle of the night, I woke to scribble down something that I heard a voice say in a dream. The next morning, I read what wrote and it was a direct address to the reader, a narrative perspective that I had not considered and which solved a particular problem I was having with the structure. After that, I learned to listen more closely to the voices and stopped dismissing them as entirely the result of an active imagination.

(NaNoWriMo and Finding Your Creative Flow)

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Living on this planet, in this realm, in this spacetime and existence requires a grace that we often deny ourselves and others. I hope that readers will be inspired to recognize the humanity in themselves and others and live up to the great responsibility of what that means after reading The Prophets.

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If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Wordsmiths: Please keep writing. It’s difficult to know if your work will connect with an audience, but success should be defined less by the number of people who have read your work and more by the impact it has on those who did. Writing is such a sacred practice and engaging in it helps to elevate your own consciousness and those who read it are encouraged in their compassion. Writing is a great service to the world. Please never stop writing. 

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