Almost everything about Tayari Jones' new novel, Silver Sparrow, is cleaved into two halves. It is the story of two sisters, Dana Lynn Yarbor and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon.
Though they live in the same city, the sisters have different last names and lead very different lives. The one thing they share is their father, James Witherspoon, but even the way they know him is very different.
The opening line of Silver Sparrow is, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."
And while Dana, who narrates that opening, knows that she is not James' only daughter — that her mother is not James' only wife — Chaurisse does not. And when these two secret sisters find each other and become friends, they lose as much as they gain in the process.
While the book is fiction, that's an idea that can spark waves of curiosity from readers.
"It's funny," Jones tells All Things Considered's Michele Norris. "When it comes to memoir, we want to catch the author in a lie. When we read fiction, we want to catch the author telling the truth. I would like to say that my father is not a bigamist."
Which is not to say that it Silver Sparrow doesn't have roots deep in Jones' biography.
"I do have a sister — I have two sisters. They're not secrets, though. They're about 10 yrs older than me, but they didn't grow up with me. They're my father's daughters and they have different last names and we live different lives," Jones says. "We don't have that web of secrecy between us, but I've always felt that I had a sister just outside my grasp, and so I started thinking about this idea of sisters and secrets and then I was in a bar once with some friends having happy hour, and someone mentions one of those stories you hear all the time about a man dies and two wives show up at the funeral. And so when I thought about that and I mixed it with my own wonderings about my own family, boom, this came together and a story was born."
She notes in the novel how common this situation actually is — so common that many churches have smelling salts for the widow who discovers at the funeral that she's not the only wife.
Jones says that the notion that a father can be a different person to two of his children rings true, even when you strip away the shock and melodrama of bigamy.
"Even more common than that is this idea of what I used to call half-siblings until my nephew said, 'Don't say half.' He said, 'There are no half-people. My mother's your sister; she's not your half-sister,' " she says. "I was giving a reading in Florida and a woman had me sign her book, and she said that on Father's Day she had written on her Facebook status something like, 'Happy Father's Day to the greatest dad in the world.' And she had seen her sister's Facebook page, and her sister had written, 'I never had a father 'cause the coward wasn't there.' It's the same man. What does that mean?
"In talking about this book I've had to get all new language, because the impulse is to say legit daughter, but all people are legitimate. That's one thing this book has taught me is everybody, every person is legitimate."
What does the title, Silver Sparrow, mean to her? Jones explains by breaking it into two parts.
"Chaurisse thinks of a 'silver girl' as a girl who is better than she is," Jones says. "When I was growing up I would have called [that kind of girl] a 'fancy girl' — a girl who is lovely and popular and smart, all the things that your adolescent self feels that you are not."
Chaurisse, Jones says, doesn't think of herself as privileged. But then, there's no way she could possibly know that another girl — so like her — could exist with even less.
"She doesn't know that her father has a daughter that lives in the shadows and feels unprivileged. She thinks she lives an ordinary life," Jones explains. "She thinks she's just an awkward teenage girl. And then she meets this 'silver girl,' Dana, who she thinks is just the most beautiful person ever."
"Sparrow" comes from a more traditional source.
"I took sparrow from the hymn 'His Eye Is On The Sparrow' — being the sparrow is the least among us," Jones says. "Because I think that's what Dana is, she's a silver sparrow."
James' decision to keep two families requires Dana and her mother to remain essentially a secret, but he loves both daughters and takes care of each. Jones says she did everything she could to make him complicated. He's seductive, but deeply flawed. And he stutters, sometimes so violently that his whole body moves when he tries to speak. Jones says that attribute was one of the first things she knew about the character.
"A man like him, to have two women, it would be such an interesting thing to say: 'How could he get two women?' " Jones says. "And I realized, the same way you get one woman, you get another one. And it also made him interesting because I didn't think he should be so suave. Like, he's not a lady-killer. I wanted each of his relationships to come from genuine human interaction and need. Like real need. He loves both of these women. His crime is that he loves them simultaneously."
The young Tayari Jones didn't know she was going to be a writer, and it wasn't until she left home for college that her eventual career path became clear.
"I was kind of an invisible girl when I was young. I was more like Chaurisse in my novel. I never felt particularly special. I mean, I didn't have low self-esteem, but I never felt sparkly or that I had anything to say. And I went to Spelman College and I met the president of Spelman at the time, Johnetta Cole. And she had heard that I was a writer, and she once said to me, 'How's the writing?' and it was like someone had touched me with a magic wand. And then I started taking my writing more seriously," Jones says. "The most amazing person I had ever seen in real life said that I was a writer. So I became known for it, and people started asking me, 'What did I think about this or that thing? Would I be willing to write for the school paper?' It gave me value. I felt that I had something to contribute through writing. And I couldn't help but think, 'Wow, what would happen if someone went to teenage girls in high school and said: You know, you have more to worry about than who's going to take you to the prom. Because you have something to say that matters.' "
As her Twitter followers might well know, one of the author's literary loves is Toni Morrison, whom Jones views as an influence on her own work. But as a teacher, Jones says she doesn't think so much about the potential impact her books might have on the next generation of writers. She's more conscious of her influence in the classroom.
"I take mentoring very seriously and I am on the board of an organization called Girls Write Now, where we match teen girls and writing mentors because it changes their lives," she says. "Our girls all finish high school; 100 percent of them are going to college. The writing and the mentoring really has changed their lives. It's amazing."