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The Alchemy Of Words And Music: Tayari Jones Talks With Lara Downes


I first read Tayari Jones’ 2018 novel An American Marriage on a plane, cover to cover. It seemed like half the people on that plane were reading it too. So were President Obama, Oprah and anyone who follows The New York Times Best Sellers List. It’s a beautifully written book, a portrait of a complicated couple and their navigation of an American tragedy. There’s an operatic plot to this story of race and class, inequity and injustice, but our attention stays focused on the love duet that is being sung at center stage, the intimate human relationship of two small people in a big, loud world.

Tayari has that special gift shared by the greatest writers and musicians, the ability to illuminate the importance of the smallest things: the inner voices of a chord, the tension of a fleeting dissonance, the span of the silence between the notes. Tayari and I talked about crafting stories, in words and music, to focus on what’s at the center, what Tayari calls “a little tiny bird heart just fluttering away” — a heart that’s powerful enough to animate a bird and let it fly.

I asked Tayari to share with me some music that she loves, music that inspires her. Her choices are delightful, from the O’Jays song that broke her heart when she was a little girl to those exhilarating flashes in Rossini‘s William Tell Overture when the tiny piccolo shines amid the roiling orchestra, and we lean in to listen to its meaningful moment.

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