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Cherie Jones' Debut Novel Sees Characters In Paradise Put Through Hell

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House" is a story set in Paradise and lives plunged into hell. It's the name of a neighborhood in Baxter's Beach, Barbados, where one night, the labor pains of a baby being born and lost on the beach lead to a burglary, which winds up killing a visitor from London, who's married to a former local, and sends two men, friends on different paths, into the tunnels below the beautiful, blue beachfront.

"How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House" is a debut novel from Cherie Jones, who's an attorney in Barbados and has already won awards for her short fiction. She joins us now from St. Philip, Barbados. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHERIE JONES: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: I have to begin with the question that I assure you John Grisham and Scott Turow still get. Are you a novelist who got sidetracked into law or a lawyer who saw literary possibilities?

JONES: (Laughter). No, I'm afraid at heart, I am a writer. It's something that I've been doing since, you know, as long as I can remember, really. I just - it wasn't a viable - or at least I didn't think it was a viable career option for me when the time came to make a choice. So the study of law, I think, this is something that good art students do here. And I followed that path. And I think I'm quite competent at it. But yes, at heart, I'm a writer.

SIMON: I want to ask you about Lala, the major character.

JONES: Yes.

SIMON: We meet her - when we meet her, she's about to give birth. Oh, my, what a story. She braids hair on the beach and loves it. What does she find in that tactile, artful braiding of human hair?

JONES: I think for women of Afro descent, braiding hair is much more than simply what's on our heads. It's a very serious form of self-expression. It's very calming, both for the person who's doing the braiding as well as the person whose hair is being braided. And I think that it's an exchange of sorts. There is an art to it. But I think it's just - it's much more than just braiding.

So I think for Lala, it's something that she's passionate about. It's her calling, her vocation. It's how she expresses herself. And then I also imagined that because of her circumstances and what she endures at the hands of her husband, I think that it's also a very comforting practice for her.

SIMON: Yeah. And I got to tell you, I rather like Tone, who is a hustler, but if I might put it this way, an honest hustler.

JONES: (Laughter). Tone is my absolute favorite character in the novel. Yes, he is. And he's had some, you know, some awful experiences. While he does engage in some lawbreaking and some of the choices that he makes are not choices that we would typically regard as good, I do think that at heart he's a - he is a lovely person. And I think that comes out in the novel.

SIMON: I got to tell you, you get the cop stuff so well.

JONES: (Laughter).

SIMON: That comes from being an attorney?

JONES: No. Unfortunately, I can't pin that to my being an attorney. My practice is very much corporate.

SIMON: Oh.

JONES: I...

SIMON: I'm a little disappointed now.

JONES: For most of my career...

SIMON: I got to tell you.

JONES: (Laughter).

SIMON: Look; you're a true novelist, but please permit me one more lawyer-novelist question.

JONES: (Laughter) Sure.

SIMON: Do you think your career as an attorney helps you understand as a novelist that everybody, even those we might consider to be reprehensible, is entitled to a vigorous defense?

JONES: Yes, definitely. That's something that was drummed into me from, you know, my days at law school. And that perspective, I think, also helps me in my writing because what happens is what - you know, there's the initial stage of just trying to write everything down, what I'm hearing from the characters that speak to me. But when I'm crafting this story, what I'm doing generally is asking lots of questions. So I want to find out what the motivation for a particular action is. Why would they have made this or that choice? And I think that really comes from my legal training. But I think the ability to ask the right question is something that really helps me when I'm trying to develop characters in my writing.

SIMON: Cherie Jones - her novel, "How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House" - thank you so much for being with us.

JONES: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.