Author Interview: Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets is a singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence. We spoke with author Robert Jones, Jr. about the inspiration for The Prophets, his time as a bookseller, and more!

“From his innovative restructuring of the Bible through the lens of America’s history with slavery to characters that leap off the page with colorful grace and dignity, Jones masterfully weaves a narrative that serves as a warning from the past, a prophecy for the future, and a testament to the present. His writing defies all great American novels that have come before, and in doing so becomes one of the greatest I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I can’t wait for everyone to be as spellbound by this book as I am; it will stay with me forever. ”

Gage Tarlton, bookseller at Flyleaf Books

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

In all the works I had read about the antebellum slave period in the United States, never had I really ever come across anything about Black and (what we now call) queer characters and that felt to me like an omission that I wanted someone to fix. I realized that I might be the one to attempt to do so when, while in grad school, my fiction tutorial instructor assigned a project in which we were tasked with finding objects that a character in a story or novel we were thinking about writing might possess. I happened upon a pair of shackles on the street. Touching them, I was struck by their weight. Then it dawned on me that this was a kind of sign. That object confirmed that the Black queer character trying to make their way into reality was indeed enslaved and was trying to get me to tell their story.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

I think listeners might be surprised by King Akusa, and the arrangement of her marriages and relationships. They are unlike the binaries we’ve become accustomed to here in the West.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

Let me tell you: I had a list of dream narrators that I wanted and Karen Chilton was on that list. I can’t believe she agreed to do it. When I first heard her speak, I have to admit that I shed tears. Ms. Chilton’s voice is so rich in tone and timbre. Her sense of rhythm and inflection is impeccable. There is love and anger and humor in her voice. I found her ability to inhabit that various points of view uncanny. The truth is that I heard a voice in my head while writing this book and Ms. Chilton captured that voice and gave it life. I am utterly overjoyed by her performance.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I enjoy listening to some of my favorite reads on audio, particularly the works of Toni Morrison. I find her voice quite soothing and I love her pronunciations and the emphasis she puts on certain verbs so that they sound like their action.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

I love booksellers! I actually used to work at the Scholastic Bookstore so I understand how challenging, how under-appreciated, and how rewarding the work of booksellers is. Indie bookstores are where my love for comic books (and thus my love for storytelling) was nurtured. Like libraries, indie bookstores serve a crucial role in the distribution of collective knowledge in the communities they serve. These sites become meeting places where one can listen to and engage writers and thinkers. I have a particular and special love for the Black-owned indie bookstores, where works by Black artists are showcased in ways that push back against mainstream marginalization or minimization.

Anything else to share with us?

Although The Prophets deals with heavy subject matter, I hope readers find value in it. In particular, I hope they really appreciate narrator Karen Chilton’s interpretation of the text.

Header photo by Alberto Vargas/Rain River Images

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