The book explores the effects of mass incarceration on a romantic relationship
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Credit: Nina Subin; Algonquin Books

Tayari Jones was driving one day in October, and got a call — from Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey broke the news that the author’s novel, An American Marriage, would be the next selection for the esteemed Oprah’s Book Club. The announcement was formally made many months after Jones first learned of the honor, on Tuesday, the day of the book’s release. (Purchase it here.)

American Marriage centers on Celestial and Roy, newlyweds with an exciting future that’s abruptly put on hold when the latter is wrongly sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The book shifts perspectives between the two as it intimately tracks the effect the distance has on their relationship, and what happens when Roy is let out early, with Celestial having found comfort in another man.

“The novel redefines the traditional American love story,” Oprah said in a statement. “You’ll come away with greater empathy and understanding but even if you don’t, it’s just a really great read. It’s the perfect book to read along with a friend or family member. You’re going to want to have someone else reading it because it’s so juicy.”

An ecstatic Jones hopped on the phone with EW to discuss what it felt like to get a call from Oprah Winfrey, the significance of the book being honored in this way, and just how long she had to keep the secret. Read on below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did you hear the news?
TAYARI JONES: I write for O Magazine. I do reviews, and sometimes they’ll call me for a last-minute assignment — maybe someone’s backed out — and I’ll do stuff like that. So I thought that they were calling me to ask me to do an assignment. I saw the number from the O offices, and I was like, “Hey, what do you need?” And it was Oprah!

Oprah Oprah?
Yes. Yes! Oprah herself! And I was driving. So it came through my bluetooth; Oprah was in surround-sound. She said, “Hi, this is Oprah.” Like anyone, I would know that voice anywhere — I knew it was Oprah. I pulled over.

I think anyone would.
I put my hazards on and I pulled over. And honestly, the details are fuzzy. [Laughs] But she said, you know, “I’ve chosen your book for my book club, I’ve shared it with my girls, we were arguing over who was right and who was wrong in the plot.” She said that she really wanted to do this book because she enjoyed it, it was successful, but it also engaged in an issue that she cares about, which is incarceration. But I feel that she was also really drawn to the love story. It’s just a wonderful feeling when you talk to a reader and that reader really gets you — and then that reader is Oprah Winfrey? It doesn’t get any better.

You’ve talked about how you wrote this novel, which is very political but also rooted in human conflict, as “issue-adjacent.”
You shouldn’t aim for the middle. If you’re going to err, you need to err on the side of the human story. The issue of wrongful incarceration is so huge you don’t have to worry that you’re going to miss it. You’re not going to miss it. You don’t even have to hit that note all that hard for it to resonate throughout the text. When it comes to your political convictions or your ideas, if you have faith that what you believe is true, it won’t get lost in the story.

This is book is being selected, in part, because of the way you talk about mass incarceration. How does it feel, that endorsement of your approach?
I think that it proves what we all know: people care about people. Issues are made of people. When we lose track of the people to elevate the issue, we actually lose track of the issue. People are always going to be the way in for anything you want to talk about: The way in is people.

Obviously, when Oprah picks a book, it kind of blows up — you’re going to have a bigger audience.
I am so delighted, I’m looking forward to it. I’m taking each day as it comes, and I’ve also known about this since October. So I have actually been making a real point to shore up all of my existing relationships because when your life changes, you still need your friends more than ever.

Has it been agonizing, keeping it in for so many months?
I have never kept a secret this long. If it wasn’t for my beloved publicist Michael McKenzie, who was kind enough to let me call him pretty much every day for the last four months, I don’t know what I would have done! It was like, people would ask, “Whatcha doing?” You have to say, “Nothing…” and kind of run out of the room.

It must feel good to finally be out there.
Oh my goodness. I have never been happier. I’m relieved, I’m excited. I’m all the things. I’m having all the feelings.