Gayl Jones, the highly acclaimed author who was first “discovered” and mentored by Toni Morrison, has disappeared from our sight twice. The first time was after a stellar launch as one of America’s boldest and most distinctive literary lights, after two brilliant novels (Corregidora and Eva’s man) released by Morrison at Random House, and a slim but oh so amazing collection of stories (White Rat), when she went into exile in France, from the end of the 1970s to the end of the 1990s.
She and her husband had rejected the racism that surrounded them, and Gayl had made the decision to leave her work in academia and her very promising career as a writer, as well as her friends and supporters in the literary community, and to live in Europe.
I was very, very lucky that in 1997, less than two years after taking over as director of Beacon Press, Gayl approached me. She hadn’t been in touch with anyone in the American publishing and had no intention of showing me or anyone else any new work at the time; in fact, she was asking me at withdraw his two novels (they had been added to Beacon’s visionary Black Women Writers series in the 1980s, after briefly going out of print). She didn’t want those two books to be her only novels in print, she said, because they both featured negative portrayals of black male characters.
I understood that, but, on the other hand, I shared the point of view of a large part of the literary community: these were canonical works of American literature, not just women’s literature or black literature. As Toni Morrison said when she posted Corregidora, no novel about a black woman could ever be the same after this book – and of course, she included hers. Above all, I loved and appreciated these books, and I couldn’t imagine Beacon or the whole culture losing them.
I freaked out a little, then offered Gayl to give me a new job to post instead, one that would present a different perspective on black men. I didn’t really think she would be okay with that.
To my great surprise, she responded quickly by sending me the manuscript of her novel The healing. And soon after, before we could even post The healing (which we did, with great success; it was a National Book Award finalist), she sent me a long manuscript for a book called Mosquito and a poem the length of a book, Song for Anninho. We published everything she sent, with great pride, and the accolades kept pouring in. The central characters in these books were strong, passionate black women, but they also featured portrayals of intelligent, sensitive men.
Then Gayl’s husband died and she disappeared a second time, and again for almost two decades. His phone number and email address also disappeared, but over those years I continued to send him letters (and of course, we sent royalty checks!). I never quite gave up hope that she would ever respond, and after many years she began to send very brief, handwritten responses. The thaw began in earnest when I sent her back the last manuscript she had sent me, just before her second disappearance, the monumental track record. I had also had a scan done for her, and I asked her in another of my handwritten notes, for the fourth or fifth time, to consider letting us publish it. The problem was that my copy was almost 100 pages missing from the middle of the 1,000 page original.
Gayl apparently had an old computer, with very limited memory. She started retyping and revising the manuscript, but the machine kept running out of memory, so she sent “parts” to various services that would store the files and ended up with seven “volumes”, which she m would send one by one. . By the time she got to the fourth volume, I was able to persuade her – again by US mail – to let us publish the book. We signed it, I made some minor editorial suggestions and we published track record in the fall of 2021, again with great success, honestly, even more, and this one was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
In the meantime, Gayl began sending me more manuscripts, a total of five more, which we released one by one as we finalized edits, designs, and rolled them off the press. Beacon is about to launch The bird catcherwho Weekly editors was just hailed with these words in a star-studded review: “Jones continues his wonderful run after last year’s Pulitzer runner-up track record with the gloriously insane story of an artist who keeps trying to kill her husband,” and which the great minds at Powell’s declared “Pick of the Month.” Here, Gayl moves from 17th-century Brazil to 20th-century Ibiza (and various American cities) for a very modern account of black Americans in exile.
I find each of Gayl’s books to be such a different and engaging experience, and I enjoy each one so much and recommend each one to you, but if you’ve never read Gayl’s work before, The bird catcher is a very good starting point. And we have a spectacular collection of fictional shorts coming this spring called Butter and another novel, one told by a male character, next fall titled The Unicorn Woman. Wherever you begin on your journey of discovering Gayl Jones, I hope you discover all the gifts of her work and appreciate them as much as I do.