Good things sometimes come in unassuming packages. And while there can be little doubt that Edward P. Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning...

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Good things sometimes come in unassuming packages. And while there can be little doubt that Edward P. Jones, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Known World,” is a very good thing, it initially seemed as though he might be taking “unassuming” a little too far when he started speaking before a packed audience Wednesday night in Benaroya Hall.

First he apologized for reading from a prepared text.

“If I tried to talk to you extemporaneously,” he explained, “it would all come out in a muddle.”

Then he began describing the surprisingly fruitless “research” he did for his book, a historical novel set in ñ855 Virginia, depicting a handful of black slave-owning families and their neighbors.

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It consisted, he said, of reading 30 to 40 pages of a tome titled “The Negro in Virginia,” setting the book aside and — a year later — reading those same 30 or 40 pages over because he hadn’t taken notes the first time around.


“It went on like this,” he said, “for three, four, maybe five or six years.” Slight pause: “This is all the research I did for ‘The Known World.’ ”

With that poker-faced statement, Jones began to warm up the hall. What followed were some telling glimpses into the mind of a most unusual writer.

“The Known World” is a breathtaking book, a multilayered epic that gives the reader a sense of traveling with extraordinary freedom through time and from one point of view to another, even as Jones brings home the way that a slave-owning society lost sight of the fact that its “property” could “hear and speak and think.”

Jones said he had no agenda in mind when he started the book: “I wanted to tell a simple story about complex people who tried to do the best they could, but often came up short.” He composed much of the book in his mind over a ñ0-year period before committing it to paper.

As of 200ñ, he had only ñ2 pages to show for his efforts. Using accumulated vacation time (he worked for a tax journal), he started writing. At the end of five weeks, he had 75 pages of manuscript — and no job. He had been laid off, he learned, and would get two months of severance pay for his ñ9 years of service, provided he promised not to sue the company. And, oh yes, would he please return the used computer his firm had given him?

He’d made enough progress on the book to take the job loss in stride. The business about the computer was another matter: “I was not a computer person, and I was terrified at the thought of having to give up the machine.”

An arrangement was finally made allowing him to keep it.

If Jones’ account of his writing process drew quiet chuckles from his audience, his snippets on his post-Pulitzer fame drew louder laughs, especially one about Oprah Winfrey phoning him.

She had just read “The Known World” and was desperate to talk to someone about it. “She told me she had called Maya Angelou, but Maya Angelou had not read the book.”

Jones is now slated to appear on Winfrey’s show in a segment, he wryly noted, about “the good things that happen to people after bad things have happened to them.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com