Robert Jones Jr.’s much anticipated debut novel, “The Prophets,” tells the story of two Black enslaved men who fall in love on a cotton plantation in Antebellum Mississippi. Jones earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Brooklyn College, and is the founder of the blog Son of Baldwin, which discusses race, sexuality, and gender. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
JONES: “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw, a 2020 National Book Award finalist. Her short stories are about Black women and their relationship to the church. This is the kind of book I needed at this moment, when everything seems to be coming undone. This feels like a grandma’s hug.
BOOKS: What other books have you found like that?
JONES: I’ve returned to Toni Morrison’s “Jazz,” which is not one of her most popular ones. I tracked down a first edition so I would feel like I had bought it the day it came out. She describes New York in a way that makes the city itself seem like it is alive and breathing.
BOOKS: Is she the writer you’ve read the most books by?
JONES: It’s a five-way draw: Morrison, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Octavia Butler. I’ve read their complete works.
BOOKS: When did you start reading Baldwin?
JONES: Not until my first year of undergrad in 2002. I read his last essay, “Here Be Dragons,” for a class. It blew my mind. Here’s this Black, queer writer who was writing like this in the ’80s. After that I devoured everything he wrote. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is my favorite, followed by “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” which is prophetic in describing how Americans’ refusal to face their past keeps the country from growing up, and I say that as the Capitol was just stormed.
BOOKS: What other Black, gay authors were pivotal for you?
JONES: Wallace Thurman, who is little known because he died of TB at 32. He was writing way before Baldwin. His first novel was the 1929 “The Blacker the Berry,” which talks about the preference toward lighter skin in the Black community.
BOOKS: How did you discover Octavia Butler?
JONES: When I was working at the Scholastic Store a co-worker recommended her because I was a comic-book reader. I didn’t understand the point of science fiction because it doesn’t have pictures. I need to see the aliens. But I read “Kindred,” and said, “Whoa.” I moved on to her Parable series, which scared the bejeezus out of me.
BOOKS: Do you still read comic books?
JONES: I do. I still adore Wonder Woman. I have a Wonder Woman mouse pad, a lamp, and pencil box. I’m really looking forward to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s forthcoming comic book on Wonder Woman.
BOOKS: Has your taste changed as a reader?
JONES: When I was younger I read a lot more works by non-Black authors. I read and loved Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Margaret Atwood. I’m a huge Harper Lee fan, and “Go Set a Watchman” is on my TBR list. I also have every Michael Cunningham book. But now I gravitate to Black and marginalized authors. I’m interested in perspectives other than what Toni Morrison called the master narrative.
BOOKS: What’s been on your TBR list for the longest?
JONES: Damon Young’s memoir, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.” That has been on my list since it came out a year ago. I let other things jump in front of it, but I can’t help it. Next up is Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half,” Raven Leilani’s “Luster,” Ijeoma Oluo’s “Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America” and Bryan Washington’s “Memorial.” I’m telling you the stack is up to my hips.
BOOKS: Are you a library user?
JONES: Librarians are some of my favorite people in the world. A librarian actually saved my life. I grew up in Bensonhurst when there was a lot of racial violence. I was being chased home from school, and a librarian pulled me into the library, locked the door, and kept me there until it was safe to go home. Also Batgirl, one of my favorite superheroes, is a librarian.