Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Algonquin Book Club: When Judy (Blume) Met Tayari (Jones)

Tayari Jones & Judy Blume at Barnes & Noble

I was thrilled to discover that the Algonquin Book Club would be at my neighborhood Barnes & Noble webcasting a discussion between Judy Blume, (Are You There God, It's Me Margaret?) and Tayari Jones, whose newest book is the luminous Silver Sparrow.

The room was filled with quite a diverse crowd; young and older, women and men, publishers, editors and readers. But the one question that everyone seemed to have was "How do Judy Blume and Tayari Jones know each other?" Judy has sold over 80 million copies of her books, many of them young adult classics, and Tayari is a relatively new writer, whose latest book is her best known.

The answer is that in the recent past, Tayari was speaking at the Key West Literary Seminar, pondering a change in publishers for her next book. A woman she didn't know came up to her and said she heard that Tayari was looking for a new publisher.

Tayari thought "Why are people talking about my publishing situation?" The woman took her over to Elisabeth Scharlatt, the publisher at Algonquin Books, and then left. Elisabeth asked Tayari "How do you know Judy?", to which Tayari replied "I don't know anyone named Judy." Elisabeth informed Tayari that the woman who just introduced them was none other than Judy Blume!

Judy and her husband invited some of the new authors to dinner that night and Elisabeth was there too. Judy joked that she was a matchmaker, mating a "wonderful young writer to a wonderful publisher." And that is how Judy met Tayari and Tayari became an Algonquin author.

Tayari said that the trajectory of her career changed when this happened, but she was ready. "You have to be ready, and I had something worth sending, Silver Sparrow."  This came at the right time in her life, when preparation met opportunity.

Silver Sparrow tells the story of James, a man married to two women who each have a daughter by him, born just four months apart. The second wife and daughter know about the first wife and daughter, but the first wife and daughter are in the dark regarding wife and daughter number two.

Judy asked why Tayari gave away the secret in the first sentence, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." Tayari believes that it is more interesting that one woman married a man, knowing he was already married. She says that all stories are about secrets, like Romeo and Juliet, and that's what keeps us turning pages. She says that there are two important things, what is the secret and what happens when the secret comes out.

We learned that Tayri uses a manual typewriter to write her stories; actually, she uses six of them, and they each have names. The pink one is 'Tuscadero', named after Fonzie's girlfriend from Happy Days, who always wore pink. The deep purple one is named 'Jeannie' and 'Andre' is a 1919 one she bought on Ebay.

The subject of categories, or classification, like women's fiction, chick-lit and YA, came up. Judy says "I hate them!" Tayari brought up a good point, that it is not necessarily that the classifications themselves, but the way people perceive or react to the classifications that matter. If people reject a book out of hand because it is "chick-lit" or YA, it is not the classification that is wrong, but their perception that that category is a lesser one that is wrong.

The discussion was delightful and informative, and I hope that my neighborhood Barnes & Noble can host another one soon. You can get more information on future webcasts at Algonquin Books Blog here. And you can watch the entire discussion here.

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