“I felt entrusted with this story by these ancestral voices who said to me, in no uncertain terms, we actually endured this, the least that you can do is witness it and share our testimony.” Author Robert Jones, Jr. talks with host Mary Laura Philpott about his new book The Prophets on NPT’s A Word on Words.
You may have seen Robert Jones Jr. in the New York Times T Magazine feature “Black Male Writers of Our Time.” Perhaps you’ve read his own writing in the Times and in other publications, such as Essence and The Paris Review. One thing’s for sure: anyone who has spent any time at all in bookish conversations or media over the past year has seen and heard the glowing reviews for his powerful first book, The Prophets, which became an instant bestseller. In this episode of A Word on Words, host Mary Laura Philpott gets to know the writer behind the debut novel that took the literary world by storm.
Mary Laura Philpott: Hi, Robert.
Robert Jones, Jr.: Hi, Mary Laura
Philpott: Before we get going, let me thank you so much for being a part of our special Zoom season here. Will you let us know where you’re joining us from?
Jones: I am joining you from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York on a rare sunny day.
Philpott: I can see that sun coming through your window. It looks wonderful. OK, I know this is sort of unfair to do with a book like The Prophets, which is in so many ways larger than life, but for those who have not had a chance to read it yet, could you give us a short book report version of what’s going on here, who we’re reading about — where and when and why?
Jones: The Prophets is a story about two young men named Samuel and Isaiah, and they are enslaved on a plantation in antebellum Mississippi. What’s a little bit different than the standard slave narrative or slave story here is that Samuel and Isaiah are in love with one another. And this story sort of explores how that love transforms, angers, and inspires all of those around them, whether slaver or enslaved. And there’s also a bit of ancestral voices that come to life in this book and take us back a little bit earlier than the slavery period to explore where the lineage of Samuel and Isaiah may come from.
Philpott: Perfect. Before we get further into The Prophets, I’d love for you to talk about your path as a writer. What’s the first thing you ever remember writing?
Jones: I was about six years old. And my father, two years prior, had bought me my first comic book, which was Wonder Woman. And I was so enthralled by that book — and of course by Lynda Carter and the TV show — that at age six, I decided to write my own Wonder Woman story with me as her sidekick. And that was the very, very first thing I ever wrote. And that is where I fell in love with writing.
Philpott: What has your professional journey been like as an adult, as a writer?
Jones: Well, it took me a really long time to get to the professional writing part of my life, because for so many years, I didn’t even think of myself as a writer. I didn’t have the support systems that would let me know that writing was not a frivolous endeavor, that it was something other than a hobby. I grew up in a blue collar family who believed that, you know, you needed a nine-to-five job with a steady paycheck and good benefits and a good retiree program. And writing doesn’t really offer that
Philpott: Right. Everything that is the opposite of writing.
Jones: Right. And so I did not think of myself as a writer, not even when I began to professionally write. It wasn’t until maybe the publication of this book that I said, okay, I am a writer. And what led me to finally pursue writing as a career was an Oprah Winfrey show that I saw when I was about 31 years old. She had a guest on there who said, you know what your purpose is, you should be following that purpose. And, you know, that spoke to the little voice inside me that always knew that I should be writing but that I was doing everything other than that. I said, okay, well, what’s the next step that I have to take to become a writer? I discovered that the next step I had to take was to go to school and actually study the craft. And so at age 31, I went right back to school as a freshman at Brooklyn College, and I enrolled in the English department. And that is where I learned what writing was really about and studied it with fervor. I graduated, went to grad school, learned some more. and got my first job as a professional writer at my alma mater in their communications and marketing department.
Philpott: There are a lot of writers out there who started in a marketing department somewhere. How long did you work on The Prophets?
Jones: Fourteen years.
Philpott: Fourteen years. Wow. How did it come to you originally? Where did it start for you?
Jones: Well, as an undergrad, I was an African Studies minor. So I majored in creative writing, but minored in Africana Studies and was reading so many wonderful works by all of these Black luminaries — from Zora Neale Hurston to W.E.B. DuBois and so on. And it struck me, it’s kind of odd that prior to the Harlem Renaissance, with Wallace Thurman writing a book called The Blacker the Berry in 1929, there’s absolutely no mention of black people anywhere. They just pop up, sort of, in the Harlem Renaissance. And there’s nothing before then. And that was curious to me — like, where are they, where were Black people prior to that? So I started scavenging and and scouring the canon, looking for examples, and only could find them in the context of sexual assault or rape culture. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, there’s a scene or a sentence where she describes a white slave owner who is raping a male slave. And then in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, there’s a scene where a character, Paul D, is sexually assaulted by an overseer. And my question was, what about love? And because Toni Morrison herself said, “If you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it,” my first year of grad school, I started writing it. That was 2006.
Philpott: Speaking of Samuel and Isaiah and their love story: For all the love in this book — and there is so much love in this book — there is also so much pain and abuse of power. It’s a story that is in many ways, steeped in trauma and — forgive me for being a mom here and being like, are you okay? — but what was it like for you, psychologically speaking, to dwell in the time and space that this book occupies, to dwell in that story for so long?
Jones: It was rather difficult, in many ways. One of those ways was how much it reminded me of times that we’re living in. I know that I was writing about the 1800s, but I’ve found so many commonalities in the anti-Blackness, in the violence against Black people, that it was a bit traumatizing to come to the conclusion that although times have changed, so many things have remained the same.
So what I did quite often was take breaks, and that’s probably why it took me so long to write this book. I would meditate. I would go for long walks. I would visit the botanical garden. I would go hang out with my nieces and nephews and hear children’s laughter, things to sort of restore me. But then at the same time, I felt a bit of guilt about walking away from this story, because I felt entrusted with it by these ancestral voices who said to me, in no uncertain terms, we actually endured this, the least that you can do is witness it and share our testimony. And that’s what kept me coming back.
Philpott: That balance seems important — taking care of your own human body and human mind while you’re telling the story of other human bodies and human minds. When it comes to historical fiction, I’m always interested in where writers choose to gloss over or romanticize elements of the past. Was it one of your goals in telling this story to shine a bright and unforgiving light on the past?
Jones: Yes. Part of the reason I think so many of our, for lack of a better term, sins seem to follow us around in this country and others, is our refusal to reckon with our past in a way that we can all heal if we just tell the truth up front — restore and then heal and move forward. We always want to get to that last part before doing the work of the things that lead to that part. So this was kind of me shedding a light on the ways in which we, as human beings, as Americans, abused power and the ways in which we treat one another in ways that are just simply inhumane.
We have to do the work of reconciling, and that’s some difficult work. It is difficult and it’s hard work, because it’s hard to hear that you’re not innocent and you’re not perfect. It’s just hard for anyone, right? But I think it’s time. We’re now in the 21st century, and we’re still dealing with things that happened in the 1600s. We still have that legacy, and it’s really, really time that we dealt with those things.
Philpott: You mentioned comic books earlier, and I’m interested in something that I heard you speaking about during a stop on your book tour. You were in conversation with writer Maurice Carlos Ruffin, and you were talking a little bit about good and evil, and I would love to hear some more of your thoughts on good and evil and how they co-exist often in the same person.
Jones: Yeah! In particular, this is where I learned the lesson in writing about Paul, who is the plantation owner. I realized that my impulse was to write him as a purely evil villain. And then I realized, I’m not writing a comic book. This is not Superman and Lex Luthor, right? These are people that I’m talking about, real-life people. I have to respect them as human beings, even the ones that I might not like.
It was very difficult for me to get in the mind and then the spirit of Paul to say, what would make a human being treat another human being in the way that Paul does? In order to get the answer to that question, I had to ask Paul: What happened to you? What was your life like? What do you like, what do you dislike? What makes you happy? I had to talk to him as a real person, and it felt somewhat like a betrayal to my own ancestors, but I realized that if this book was going to be authentic, then I had to go there. So Paul and his wife, Ruth, and his son, Timothy, and his overseer cousin, James, I had to approach them all as people and understand that this was the biggest lesson for me, really — that anyone who has power, that has dominion over other people, is going to abuse it, no matter who they are. That is the lesson that Paul and his family taught me. So when we get to someone like Amos, who is a religious figure, a Black enslaved character on the plantation, you begin to see, yes, whoever has power is going to abuse it.
Philpott: Yeah. You look at those dualities and ambiguities in people — and in places. I mean, the way you described the land they’re on and the house — how nothing is purely beautiful or ugly. The way you’ve got it all wrapped in there together makes for so much more richness in the story. It is one of the things that I’m never going to forget about this book.
I’m trying not to give anything away here, but there are references and story framing techniques here that draw heavily on the Bible. I’m guessing that is from an upbringing that was rooted in Christian traditions?
Jones: Indeed. I had a very unusual spiritual upbringing in that, on my mother’s side, the family is Nation of Islam. On my father’s side of the family, we are African Methodist, Episcopalian, and Southern Baptist. So it was a really rich and interesting experience growing up. I come from a mother who is… she would not call herself a feminist, but she absolutely is, because she rejected both [religious traditions] on the basis that she should not be considered secondary because she’s a woman and that her body is her own and she makes decisions about her own body. And there is no one — man nor duty — that should make that decision for her. And that sort of freed me, because when I began to get older and encountered the idea that my queerness made me an outsider in both of those practices, I needed a space in which I could reject them.
But then there’s also such beauty — again, we have the beauty and the ugliness — there’s such beauty in these practices. When I used to go to church as a child, watching the choir sing and watching parishioners catch the Holy Ghost and bowing to our neighbors to say, God loves you, all of those things were lovely. But I could not inherit them, because I had this other thing about myself that they saw as sinful. So when I’m writing The Prophets, I’m bringing all of these elements in. I’m looking at how these ideas about what is sinful came to be, at least for Black Christians, because as you know, the book goes a bit earlier to a pre-colonial African society to see actually how we were practicing spirituality prior to Christian missionary work. That was very interesting for me.
Philpott: It’s neat to hear you talk about your mom and dad and religious traditions, how you responded to those.
Your writing is so widely admired by so many other writers. I just saw Roxane Gay tweeting about it the other day.
Jones: That just absolutely blew my mind. Absolutely blew my mind. I am so grateful and thankful to her for that.
Philpott: I love the blurbs on the back of the book, too. You’ve struck a chord with so many people. Ocean Vuong is a person we’ve had on the show and a great writer, and I loved what he said. He wrote, “The Prophets reaffirms for me literature’s place as both balm and scalpel for the mind and soul.” Would you agree that that’s an important dual function for literature, as balm and scalpel?
Jones: I do. I remember Toni Morrison once saying that fiction is not fact, but it is truth. And sometimes books can actually obscure truth. That was such a hard concept for me to pull together. But once I began writing this book, I understood. Maybe Samuel and Isaiah, as such, did not exist, but certainly somebody like Samuel and Isaiah existed, and their story has never been told. This is a way to tell it in a way that is conducive to the human spirit — because human beings love stories. That is how we gather information, how we remember information. And I think the function of literature, if done properly, if done with the right intentions, can be that balm and that scalpel that Ocean talks about. Ocean, of all people! One of the greatest writers I have ever read, one of the kindest people I know. I am indebted to him for those kind words. I really, really am, truly.
Philpott: You’ve been on a virtual book tour. How has it been? Any highlights or reflections on this journey so far?
Jones: It has all been quite wonderful. I was doing a tour in Western Australia, where they handled the pandemic a little bit differently than we did here in the States. They have zero COVID cases, so they can gather in person. So I was actually talking [remotely] to an audience of people at a bookstore, and that was the very first time that I had an audience. At the end of the talk, they applauded. That was the first time I had heard applause in regard to the book. And I broke down into tears. I was just like, this is the first time I’ve heard applause. And it was just wonderful. That has been the highlight of this entire tour. And it’s so hard to pick a highlight, because as you said, I’ve spoken to Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Deesha Philyaw and Mateo Askaripour and so many other great writers, that it has just been quite a blessing. Quite a blessing.
Philpott: Can we talk about the acknowledgements section at the back of this book? I absolutely adore it. It goes on for so many pages. There are so many people… I think I saw Janet Jackson thanked in there! You seem to have such a strong sense of being part of a creative heritage.
Jones: I do. I am descended from, as I call him, “the first Robert.” I am the sixth generation Robert, because there has been a tradition in my family to name the firstborn son Robert after the first Robert, who was an enslaved man who did not make the passage from England to the United States. When my father’s family settled in Savannah, Georgia — and I still have family there to this day — his younger brother, Frederick, named his firstborn son Robert. Every Robert down to me — my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather — has been named Robert. And that, for me, is not a burden, but such a tremendous responsibility, to ensure that I am doing my ancestors right.
I include in those ancestors people like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and so many other great Black writers. I realized that I’m writing in a tradition that begins with maybe Phillis Wheatley, where it was illegal for my ancestors to read or write. And I’ve carried that with me when I’m writing anything, but particularly when I was writing The Prophets. It was really important for me to thank everyone who has ever supported me, who has ever loved me, who has ever encouraged me, who has ever inspired me — for them to be thanked in this book. And my husband, who was reading a little bit about the publishing industry as I was on this journey said, you know, your acknowledgements page should only be one or two pages at most. And I was like, that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a chapter unto itself, because I have so many people to thank, including Janet Jackson.
Philpott: [laughs] I love that you made it a chapter unto itself. It’s wonderful. And it’s almost sort of, not a bookend, but to me it interacted with the sections in the book where ancestors and and gods are speaking to us from other times.
Jones: There’s a shout-out to my fourth grade teacher, who was the very first person to tell me, “You are a wonderful writer.”
Philpott: It’s good to have a teacher like that in your life. Do you have a sense of what you want to create next?
Jones: Before The Prophets was sold to my publisher, I was 40 pages into a second novel — which, I think I will always write from the perspective of the Black lens, but this novel currently takes place in 1980s New York City. It’s much closer to my own experience. That’s really all that I know about it so far. I’m waiting for the characters to tell me who they are and what they’d like to talk about. Once I’m done promoting The Prophets and my brain is no longer in The Prophets mode, I could actually return to this very small manuscript and maybe excavate it a bit more.
Philpott: Well, the way things are going, you may be in Prophets-mode for quite some time, but I can’t wait to read whatever comes next from you.
Last thing we do here is a little lightning round, where you I ask some quick questions, and you say the first thing that comes to your mind. Super easy. First one: Do you typically read one book at a time or multiple books?
Jones: One at a time.
Philpott: Are you typically writing just one thing at a time, too, or can you juggle multiple projects? When you were writing The Prophets, could you also write non-fiction and other things at the same time?
Jones: Yes, but I had to actually stop thinking and writing about The Prophets to cleanse my mind and then go to write about the other things. I would much rather write one thing at a time.
Philpott: Okay. Where do you write?
Jones: I guess the better question is where don’t I write, because I write everywhere. On the subway, on the bus, in the park, in my office… Wherever the inspiration strikes is where I write.
Philpott: Love it. Can you listen to music when you write or do you need silence?
Jones: That is such a good question. Generally, I need silence, but when I need a particular kind of inspiration, if I want particular rhythm or I want a sentence that’s going to feel a particular way, I listen to music. Particularly with The Prophets, I was listening to a lot of gospel and blues.
Philpott: What about a book makes you recommend it to a friend?
Jones: The sentence level. Ocean Vuong, for example, whose sentences are dreamy and rich and lovely. It’s what’s working on the sentence level, for me, that will make me recommend it.
Philpott: Here’s a pandemic question. If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
Jones: Ghana, because in Ghana right now, particularly the LGBTQ members of the community are fighting for their lives and for their rights. And I would like to stand in solidarity with them.
Philpott: Thank you so much, Robert.
Jones: Thank you, Mary Laura, for having me.
This transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Robert Jones, Jr. Recommends
Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour
The Sexy Part of the Bible, by Kola Boof
These Ghost Are Family, by Maisy Card
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, by Deesha Philyaw
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, by Dawnie Walton
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin
Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
Paradise, by Toni Morrison
Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor
The Temple of My Familiar, by Alice Walker