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Q&A with Anita Gail Jones - The Peach Seed

The Peach Seed

We are excited to welcome Anita Gail Jones to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release The Peach Seed released on the 1st of August 2023.

By Aiden Simpson

Fletcher Dukes and Altovise Benson reunite after decades apart—and a mountain of secrets—in this debut exploring the repercussions of a single choice and how an enduring talisman challenges and holds a family together.

On a routine trip to the Piggly Wiggly in Albany, Georgia, widower Fletcher Dukes smells a familiar perfume, then sees a tall woman the color of papershell pecans with a strawberry birthmark on the nape of her neck. He knows immediately that she is his lost love, Altovise Benson. Their bond, built on county fairs, sit-ins, and marches, once seemed a sure and forever thing. But their marriage plans were disrupted when the police turned a peaceful protest violent.

Before Altovise fled the South, Fletcher gave her a peach seed monkey with diamond eyes. As we learn via harrowing flashbacks, an enslaved ancestor on the coast of South Carolina carved the first peach seed, a talisman that, ever since, each father has gifted his son on his thirteenth birthday.

Giving one to Altovise initiated a break in tradition, irrevocably shaping the lives of generations of Dukeses. Recently, Fletcher has made do on his seven acres with his daughter Florida’s check-ins, his drop biscuits, and his faithful dog. But as he begins to reckon with long-ago choices, he finds he isn’t the only one burdened with unspoken truths.

The Peach Seed

Hi Anita! I’m Aiden, I just wanted to say before we start how incredible your book The Peach Seed was! It really is an honour and privilege to have the opportunity to speak with such an incredible writer.

Hello Aiden! The honor and privilege are all mine. Thanks so much for taking the time to read The Peach Seed and give me this wonderful opportunity to discuss it.

While this may be a simple question I’d love to know how you’re feeling? With this being your debut novel I’m sure there is a lot of excitement and also maybe some nerves about having the novel finally be released.

After more than a decade working on this project, I'm feeling beyond elated! The feeling is surreal, and also bittersweet. My mother, father and sister, Mrs. Irene Gaines Jones, Mr. Silas Jones and Bettye Jean Jones, PhD, were huge champions of my efforts as an artist. They all passed away in the 90s. I feel deep sadness at their absence in the flesh at such a momentous time. The Peach Seed is dedicated to their memory, and —although it is not the story of our family—the spirit of my life with them from childhood is woven into my invented narrative. My sister always told her graduate theater students to stay in the process of life—it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

A quote I love from the novel comes from Fletcher’s sister Olga: “We’re all storytellers, Mr. Miller”. I’m aware of your background in multiple forms of writing, such as visual arts and your love for writing and drawing children’s stories. Did you always know you wanted to be a storyteller and writer?

I was curious as a child, and our parents nurtured creativity in my sister and me. I have always been drawn toward writing, visual art, making things, with interests in many things so I was never bored. I didn’t know words such as “storyteller” defined what I was doing. I wasn’t fond of that adult question, What do you want to be when you grow up because I didn’t know how to specialize—or why I needed to. During college, I envied people with one, passionate interest; people who seemed to know exactly what career path to take. Fortunately, by staying in the process, through writing, storytelling and visual art I built a gateway into a multi-faceted artistic expression. And this process of birthing a novel—including the hard work of promotion—provides the chance to put all those skills to work. Finally!

Following on from that question, did you find yourself wanting to incorporate these visual elements you love into the novel through the small imagery of the peach and chess pieces throughout the text as well as the written imagery of the monkey seed?

Very much so! That’s the beauty and magic of writing a novel; it’s an opportunity to pour varying interests into the world you build as you walk a mile in your characters’ shoes. I relish doing the research required to have that construction come from a place of truth.

The peach seed monkey proves to be a significant symbol for multiple characters, serving a different spiritual purpose for each. What is the significance of the peach seed monkey to you and what made you decided on its inclusion as a significant component of the text?

Back in the 1960s Mr. Paul Herns, an elder cousin on my mom’s side, gave me and Bettye, each a peach seed monkey he had carved. The tail on mine broke and in 1997 when we lost Bettye to a tragic plane crash, I found hers—which I hadn’t seen since childhood—nestled in her jewelry box. It was intact even though she was gone, and had beautiful rhinestone eyes! What a surprise that was. Here was this stunning little charm, silently holding stories that I could never fully know because the players had all passed on. My actual family never built a rite of passage tradition around the monkey as my fictional Dukeses have. Little known fact: for years the title was Peach Seed Monkey— evocative and intriguing and served the project well for those reasons—but I always knew I would never publish a book rising out of Black culture with monkey in the title because of the sick connotations for Black people. So at the dawn of writing this story, I decided to listen as the little monkey worked its way into the story. Together the little monkey and I answered the age-old question that launches story: What if?

The novel shifts setting and time period fairly often, yet despite the differing periods the connections between the past and present characters, and the history of the peach seed monkey, are seamless. Did you have any difficulties in constructing and maintaining a narrative that constantly relies on and refers to different periods of time?

This presented challenges, for sure, especially as the story grew and I added more and more POVs— too many more! About five years in, I realized I had taken the project as far as I could with my limited skills—not having an MFA in writing or any formal training at that point. And so I sought help; a very crucial step for anyone: knowing when to seek help. For me this came from the gifted writer/teacher/editor A.J. Verdelle. Her revision pedagogy helped me manage and shape the narrative. One of the first major editing decisions we made was to eliminate the POVs of the women. (A MOUNTAIN of work!) This tightening and narrowing gave the project clarity through solid direction and, in addition to solidifying characters and themes, helped manage my shifting time periods. Ss Verdelle says over and over, clarity is not negotiable. I’ve been very fortunate throughout this process to get help from gifted editors, including my agent, Steve Ross, whose literary prowess helped, as he said, dress the manuscript in its Sunday best (!) before shopping around for a publisher. And then, the erudite Retha Powers at Henry Holt & Co. picked it up from there and here we are.

It is an understatement to say that the characters in this novel feel both incredibly well developed and realistic. Did you take inspiration from the personalities and characteristics of people you know, or was it all from your own imagination?

This project began with a question for my father that came after he had passed away, so I was on my own for the answer. My dad was born in 1921 in southwest Georgia, a place where Black men of The Greatest Generation lived in what James Baldwin called “the teeth of the Southern terror”—and yet—they were leaders in their families, churches, communities when the domineering culture and the US government through actual laws and policies considered them less than human. I wanted to know how they did this, and turned to fiction for an answer. As Baldwin wrote in his book, No Name in the Street, the answer is that they were heroic — less in the large things than in small ones, less in public than private. In my invention of the story’s multi-generational protagonists—Malik, Fletcher, Siman and Bo D—my goal was to infuse them with the spirt of my father and other men I knew whose lives embodied the hero. 19th century short story writer, Guy de Maupassant said: “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist”. And to that I add: through imagination fiction takes this further by giving life to those who never existed.

Is there a main takeaway or message that you want to have lingering in the minds of readers after finishing the text?

As readers, we see ourselves—good, bad and ugly—values, actions, fears, etc—reflected in stories. A novel has a beautiful chance to make characters who never existed be our guides into very real worlds of history that might otherwise never be known; lost to lies and evil revision. I hope this book comes to readers everywhere whose minds, hearts and souls are open to change inside carefully crafted reflective moments; fictional moments of high drama and emotion —where a character is most human and vulnerable, showing a full range from ecstasy to despair—provide the optimal opportunity for readers to connect with a character. It is there that fiction’s miracle plays out: a reader can have their mind, heart and soul opened; they can find respect—which literally means to see again. In this way, fiction helps change the world.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading every page of The Peach Seed, as a final question is there any chance you can give a sneak peak into what you plan to write next?

I signed a two-book deal with Henry Holt, and the second book is waiting in the larder: a manuscript I began many years ago and set aside—proof that it pays to save everything! This story takes us back to the fashion world of 1985 New York City and will be the POVs of women protagonists. I’m excited to dive in soon and explore the connections I want to build between the second book and The Peach Seed.

The Peach Seed

Anita Gail Jones is a visual artist, professional storyteller and writer, born and raised in Albany, Georgia and lives in Northern California. Anita’s debut novel, The Peach Seed, set in southwest Georgia, was a 2021 Top Ten Finalist in the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Retha Powers at Henry Holt & Company acquired World rights from Steve Ross at Steve Ross Agency in a two-book deal. Anita and her husband, Rob Roehrick, founded the Gaines-Jones Education Foundation, awarding need-based college scholarships to Black students in southwest Georgia and the San Francisco Bay Area in memory of her mother, sister, and father.

Anita's Instagram: @anitagailjones


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