An Interview with the Real Celestial from Tayari Jones’ Novel An American Marriage

Have you read the New York Time’s bestseller An American Marriage? Well, guess what? I happen to know the person for whom the main character was named. And because I love coincidental, kismet-like stories, I asked Celestial to sit down with me to share how it happened. I hope you enjoy this interview:

kg: How did you meet Tayari Jones?

Celestial: It was 2011, and my family has a book club, called Mama Francina’s G.U.I.L.D. It started off as just our small family. We’d meet every quarter and read a book. My aunt made a suggestion, like, “Oh, I’d really like to do something with hats.” Mama Francina’s G.U.I.L.D. is named after her mother, and G.U.I.L.D. is an acronym for Gifted, Uplifted, Inseparable, Literary Descendants. We started that in honor of my grandmother and did a hat-tea sort of situation. 2011 was our second meeting, and Tayari’s Silver Sparrow was our selection.

We had invited Tayari as a surprise and she sat among the guests with the hat on, kind of over her face. No one knew she was the author or in the audience. She and I had brief conversations up to that point because I was responsible for booking her flight and hotel stay.

The day of, she was seated at my table. After the reveal and after she signed some books, she said to me, “Your name is really pretty, and I really like that. I think I’m gonna name a character after you.”

I kind of thought, oh that’s cute. I didn’t really think anything of it because people say stuff about my name all the time. It was like one of those moments, like you say that, but…

Celestial and I share a yeah, whatever girl glance.

kg: Right.

Celestial: But then later, she sent a proof copy to my aunt and my aunt told me, “She did name the main character after you.” So, I was super excited.

kg: So, your aunt gets the proof copy, reads the book, and tells you about it. But you don’t read the book until…this year, right? 

Celestial: Yep. I was like in disbelief and then when she made Oprah’s Book Club list and the NYT’s bestseller, then it really was like oh my gosh! So, it started off like, I’m gonna save it. It’s gonna be a good “rainy-day read.” Then, it turned into I don’t know if I wanna read it. Like, I don’t wanna ruin the fantasy of what it is. I held off and did not read it until this year (2020).

kg: Then when you read it, what did you think? Did you know what the topic was?

Celestial: I knew the topic only because she was at the Savannah Book Festival shortly after the announcement was made about her making Oprah’s Book Club selection. So, my aunt’s other book club, U.S.G.I.R.L.’s heard that she’d be there. I tagged along. She (Jones) talked about how the story came about and that sort of thing, but I still couldn’t not bring myself to read it. 

kg: Okay, so you already told me this before, but remind me. You’re there (Savannah). The book is out. Your name is in the book. You already met her before, but then you froze up?

Celestial: I was awestruck. It was so goofy. I kick myself. I can’t even remember saying two words to her. We took a picture and she spoke and hugged me. But I was kind of like, “Hiiii.”

I guess because one of the other things she said at the fancy hat book club is that she was going to be an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

kg: Wooow.

Celestial: She said it for Silver Sparrow, but to see it come to fruition…when you see someone speak something into fruition like that, it’s like whoa.

kg: She did all of the things she said she was gonna do!

Celestial: Yeah. And it’s something I aspire to do, so it was a full-circle moment. I think I was a bit taken aback by all that.

kg: Yeah. That’s a bit much. I can see how it’s on another level, like on some spiritual type stuff.

So, you read the book this year. What I want to know is…my name is very common. I can see “Kathy” all over, but I’d still be excited, like look y’all! This character’s name is Kathy! But your name is so unique. How was it reading your name over and over again, but knowing it’s not you?

Celestial: It was really surreal. I guess knowing that it was in the book because the person had met me and wanted to use it…that was the part that was kind of like whoa. It was pretty cool. I loved the book. I was a little on the fence about Celestial, the character, but I read the book in one day. I woke up about two o’clock one morning. I couldn’t sleep. I said you know what? Let me just read it. Let me dive in and see what happens. I think I was done by four or five o’clock that evening.

I was just blown away. It’s like every other page she had those lines that kind of gut punch you. It was an experience. I don’t even know that I could put it in words.

kg: What did you think about Celestial? Because she was a piece of work and kind of put herself in some situations.

Celestial: How deep do we wanna go? Cause I don’t want to give any spoilers.

Spoiler alert

kg: It’s up to you.

Celestial: Initially, I was a little perturbed. I kind of felt a way with her decision to deal with the best friend (Andre) while the husband (Roy) was in prison, especially because she knew he was innocent.

kg: Right.

Celestial: I struggled with that. She was just leaving the man high and dry. As a woman of forty-four, I get it. I get that it would be hard to be on the outside and not have companionship and physical needs met and all of that, but especially considering the way this country is set up…I just really struggled with that, initially.

I think when it turned for me is when he (Roy) got out. I struggled with how she treated ole boy (Andre) then because I was like you’re playing two sides. You want the best of both worlds and you can’t have it. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. You’re putting these people in this bad position. Even though everyone is an adult. The best friend (Andre) knew what he was doing.

It just was such a mess. I try my best to stay out of mess and drama. For me, that kind of stuff is stressful. I just felt like she was putting herself in these horribly, horribly, complicated situations. But when it turned for me was when she was willing to sacrifice herself. I thought maybe she’s not quite as bad. There was a line in that section. Her mother had said something like love looks like these other things.

“A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones

kg: That’s some grown woman stuff. You had to have lived through some things to understand that part.

Celestial: Yes. That was kind of the turning point, and then when the guys started fighting over her…

kg: Yes. Part of what makes this book so good is not just the story, the imagery is really clear. And that part was one of those parts when I could see them fighting, but in my mind it seemed so ridiculous though that these grown men would be out here under a tree…fighting…for a chick. But I could see all of that.

Celestial: I get it. You know how the male ego is.

kg: It could totally happen

Celestial: Right. It was realistic. I could see that happening, especially with the brother fresh out of jail and if I was in there for some mess I didn’t do? And you pushed up on my woman? I get it.

kg: I really feel like the best friend (Andre) was more wrong than Celestial. But the best friend and Celestial were closer than the best friend and the husband (Roy), know what I mean? So, it was an easy decision.

Spoiler over

kg: Are there any similarities between you and Celestial?

Celestial: Well, I do sing. And I can’t remember if Tayari would have known that. So, that kind of blew me when I read that. That’s really the only similarity that I can see.

kg: Good. Lol That’s a good answer. Anything else you want to tell me? Do you have any other thoughts about having a character named after you?

Celestial: I am very grateful. But there’s something someone said to me after the book came out that was kind of funny. I shared with my coworkers that the book was coming out and I’d met Tayari, blah, blah, blah. This was after it hit the NYT’s bestseller list. My coworker was like, “Wow. Your name is forever etched and out there,” and I didn’t even think of it like that. Someone immortalizing your name like that is really, really cool.

kg: It is!

Celestial: That was one thing that hadn’t even dawned on me, or I hadn’t even thought of it in that way, until she said that. And that was really dope.

I’ve already thanked Celestial for her time during our interview, but I also have to publicly express gratitude for her sitting down with me on New Year’s Eve 2020 to discuss her experience.

There’s so much inspiration in every part of this experience, and I hope it inspires you in some way! If you want to read a non-traditional love story, then check out Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage.

Celestial Holmes is a blogger known for her Lovecraft Country reviews on Black with No Chaser. You can also read her own account of having a character named after her in What’s in a Name: Meeting Tayari Jones.

Small Business Saturday

It just dawned on me that I’m kind of a small business. I mean I do have a product that I’m trying to sell, aaand the holidays are coming up. What could be better than the gift of self-reflection through story. We all have that one person we want to send a hint to, so I’m sure you know someone who should read The Unhappy Wife. Even if they don’t like paperbacks, you can gift through Amazon. Did you know that? Anywho, if you haven’t already, order it here!


Requesting Presents but Requiring Presence

Blue Satin Sashes

WillowRaven asked me to write a short based on her artwork, “Blue Satin Sashes.” Although fiction/flash fiction is not my genre, I took her up on the offer and wrote the following 171 words. Hope you enjoy! And go check out the other artwork on her blog.

Presents. That’s all they ever cared about. Where are the presents? What did you get me? They never asked how she was doing. They never even pretended to care. Maybe it was her sister Mattie’s fault. She rarely prompted the children to ask questions dictated by social etiquette. How are you Aunt Lillian? How was your ride this time? Why didn’t Uncle Andrew come with? No. There would be no personal questions. Like stair steps, Mary, Margaret, Mildred, Minnie, and Milton would line up with their grins spread wide across their faces to receive the lavishly wrapped gifts that she brought. Even Mattie seemed to eagerly await Lillian’s boxes, but not her presence. Maybe it was Lillian’s own fault. She felt it important to visit at least once a year on Christmas, especially since Mattie’s husband had fallen ill to smallpox several years prior. Lillian figured this was the least that she could do. And because her sister didn’t have much money, she thought presents might lighten the mood. But she wasn’t sure how much longer she would keep it up, especially when everyone seemed so ungrateful.

The Red Sweater (fiction)

Ever since I’ve retired, I’ve taken up several hobbies. Crocheting kept me busy in my early 60s. By the time Christmas 1995 rolled around, I was able to crochet everyone in my family a nice scarf. I made a small cute one for the baby. Well, she’s not a baby anymore. Her name is Tina. She’s 20 and in her second year at community college. I made a purple one for Tanya, Tina’s older sister. She’s going on 25. The best one I made, I like to call it “my masterpiece,” was a bright red, two-strand, chunky cowl for my only daughter, Therese. Sixteen rows, a few slip-stitches and half-double crochets later, and there it was, “my masterpiece.” Therese doesn’t know this, but she almost didn’t get it. I was so proud of that thang that I thought long and hard about keeping it for myself.

After I mastered crochet, I settled on learning how to needle point. You know the library gives what they call continuing education classes to anybody in the community. All these years, and I had to wait until I was retired and nearly 70 before I found out. Every Wednesday, Elder Helpers would pick me up at 10 A.M. sharp and take me five miles to the library. I spent two hours a week with the group learning how to work the pattern. All I needed was my different color yarn, a pattern and a needle. By the end of the few weeks, I had made me a nice pink and yellow butterfly. Gave that one to Tanya, so she could hang it up in Tayler’s room; that’s her baby.

Now that I’m almost 80, I decided to take up knitting. The library didn’t have the class, so I signed up at Michael’s. It wasn’t too far. The classes last ‘bout two and a half hours. I guess I took to needle point and crochet so good that knitting didn’t seem to be too hard for me. Learned just in time too cause Tina called the other day and said she’s expecting a little boy. I got so excited I called up Elder Helpers to ride me to the park every Saturday so I can work on this little, red sweater for him. Oh dear, I dropped one of my knitting needles.

“Here, ma’am,” a middle-aged man picked up the fallen knitting needle.
“Thank you, baby,” she replied. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
I wiped away the tear that nestled in the corner of my right eye. I knew if Pam saw it, then it would start a fight. She never understood why certain triggers made me well up with emotion. The sight of the small, red sweater reminded me of the stillborn baby my first wife and I had to bury. His name was Reginald, Reginald Junior. We were going to call him RJ. She had miscarried twice before, but this time there was hope. The doctors promised that if she relaxed and stayed off of her feet, then everything should go well. We were so hopeful.

Shelley made it all the way past 24 weeks. We figured it was safe to start buying things. We painted RJ’s room red and navy blue. Shelley’s dad came over and helped me put together a cherry-wood, four-in-one crib. It was supposed to be one of those beds that stays with him and converts into a toddler bed and then a full-size bed with a headboard. RJ would have it for a long time.

Towards the end of November, Shelley’s best friend gave her a baby shower. The Thomas the Train theme helped to finish the rest of the room’s decorations. RJ had sheets, a blanket, curtains, a nightlight, lamp, and even a carpet. The mini-train set that Shelley’s dad put together was set up on a circular table off to the side. Shelley’s mom had tucked a special gift that she’d been working on deep into her emergency hospital bag. RJ had everything a little boy might want.

Shelley was 30 weeks. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was December 1, 2000. We just knew that we would be bringing RJ home that day. Shelley said she felt different. But I didn’t know what she meant. Her face was so swollen that she was unrecognizable. She couldn’t hold any food down. I grabbed the emergency bag and drove us to the hospital. What happened next is a blur. It began with the doctor admitting her for an emergency C-section and ended with RJ being born, but not breathing.

We more than cried. We held each other close. We held RJ’s lifeless body. We wailed that day. And when Shelley was finally able to rest, I reached into the emergency hospital bag and found the special gift from her mom: a small, knitted, red button-downed sweater, just big enough for RJ. We buried him in it.

“Are you crying?” Pam asked.
“No. It’s my allergies. You know it’s pollen season,” Reginald answered.
I know he’s lying. Every time we pass by a baby stroller, baby, baby store, or anything baby related, he breaks down in tears. If we’re watching a movie and there’s a baby in it, then he sobs. I told him a dozen times that if he cries one…more…time…I’m out. He told me all about losing the baby, but that was fifteen years ago! Even his wife, what was her name? Sherry or something, even Sherry left him because he couldn’t get over losing their child. That’s what he told me anyway. All I know is as soon as we get back to his condo, I’m packing up all of my stuff and leaving. Six months of his out of control emotions is enough.