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Discovering the Unknown

Edward Jones tells standing-room crowd the basis of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Only a week after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Edward P. Jones moved out of Arlington to escape noisy neighbors. On Monday night, a week after his move, he returned to Arlington, to a crowded library ready to welcome him back.

A standing-room-only crowd of 275 packed the Central Library auditorium on April 19 for a reading and question-and-answer session by Jones, this year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction for his novel “The Known World.” Set in fictional antebellum Manchester County, Va., Jones’s first novel is an imagined exploration of freed black men who owned their own slaves.

The story is based on a remembered fact from his college days, but “I didn’t do any research,” Jones told the audience. “I can’t reiterate this enough: I did no research.” After the 1991 publication of Jones’s first book, the short story collection “Lost in the City,” the germ of the novel came to him, and Jones collected a shelf full of history books to use as reference, taking a few pages of preliminary notes.

But that research never happened, and neither did a trip to visit a friend in Southern Virginia. “When I got started, I knew I didn’t want to use those notes,” said Jones.

Instead, he held the characters and geography of Manchester County in his head, shaping the novel for a decade. He created characters, their histories and the intersecting paths they would travel through his story. After losing his job in 2002, he put his ideas to paper.

Audience members praised the depth of characters and histories, which many said led to questions about research. But it was purely a matter of invention, said Jones. “People find it hard to believe that other people have imaginations.”

<b>THE RESULTING NOVEL</b> “asks a deceptively simple question: What happens to people when all they know, their whole world, is shaped by institutional injustice?” said Margaret Mulroney, Marymount University history professor, introducing Jones on Monday.

In the process, Jones also questions the possibility of free black men and women in such an atmosphere. In Manchester, Jones read, “free black men knew they were slaves with just another title.”

“That [black slave owners] existed is well known to historical scholars such as myself,” said Mulroney. But for most readers, Jones’s novel is the introduction to “another face of America’s greatest tragedy,” said reference librarian Diane Gates.

“People were interested in how it played out in an imaginary world,” said Ann Friedman, county director of libraries. While the historical quirk of the novel draws in readers, it is the world they find in the novel that keeps their attention, she said. “It’s the complete world that played out in the book.”

As an African-American writer who produced a Pulitzer Prize winning novel while living in Arlington, Jones also serves as an inspiration, said Nicholas Pelzer. Facing a shelf of daunting research, Jones instead said to himself, “Just write it,” said Pelzer, a native Arlingtonian. “He won the Pulitzer his first time out of the gate. Since he’s from Arlington, I have no excuses now.”

<b>WRITING A CONVINCING</b> antebellum world without months of research was deceptively easy, said Jones. “One thing I’ve learned, if I say it’s 1850s Virginia, you’re going to believe me until I say something that contradicts that.”

That meant maintaining an internal consistency, he said, without letting characters suddenly “talk like it’s the 20th century.” But as the god of his own fictional world, Jones said he felt free to create characters and events as needed, without tying each and every fictional fact to a line in a history book.

That was not to say there was no link between the world of “The Known World” and present day America, he said. In fact, a story about black slave owners was inspired by the culture wars of the early 1990s.

“I was rather horrified that all these black conservatives were coming out of the woodwork and singing the praises of Ronald Reagan,” Jones said. “I said to myself, these were the kind of people, if it were still legal, who would own slaves.”

But “Known World” is no political parable, he said. “I didn’t want to slam them. That’s why you can’t find any one-to-one correspondence” in the book.

<b>WINNING A PULITZER</b> hasn’t really sunk in, said Jones. He was in the process of moving when the announcement came, and has spent the last week settling into a new home in the District. “I really haven’t been able to embrace all of this yet,” he said. “Maybe there will be a day in a month, two months, three months, when I will be able to get up and pat myself on the back.”

Audiences always ask about his reaction, he said, but he’s not sure what answer they expect, “as if I’m going to say it was the worst day of my life.” Satisfaction with the work is more important, he said. “I look back and I’m happy that I don’t flinch at this sentence, and this paragraph.”

Jones’s next writing project will return to the form that first earned him publication: the short story. “Lost in the City,” his first book, is a collection of short stories set around the Washington area, inspired in some ways by James Joyce’s “Dubliners,” Jones said.

“When I went to college, I discovered people’s idea of Washington was very limited: government.”

Following in Joyce’s footsteps, he said, he hoped to bring to life other areas of the life in the District.