Interview with Jesmyn Ward

Posted by Goodreads on September 1, 2017
In the few years since her award-winning 2011 novel, Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward has established herself as one of the most vital authors of her generation. She followed up that book with Men We Reaped, an account of her youth in DeLisle, Mississippi, and the violent deaths of several young black men close to her (including her brother), as well as The Fire this Time, a collection of writing on race that she edited and contributed to.

With her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, she returns to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the fictional town of Bois Savage. Told in alternating chapters by Leonie and her 13-year-old son, Jojo, the novel soars with a polyphony of voices, human and animal, living and dead—including those of the ghosts of a former child prisoner, Richie, and Leonie's murdered brother, Given. When Jojo's white father, Michael, is released from Parchman Prison in up-country Mississippi, things turn even darker and prophetic.

Anderson Tepper spoke to Ward by phone about returning home, the presence of history in the South, and the legacies of William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, among others.

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Goodreads: Hello, Jesmyn. I wanted to ask you first about the powerful sense of place in your work. When did you realize you wanted to write about your own community and write about it from within?

Jesmyn Ward: I started to seriously learn how to write when I was in my teens, and I knew from then that I wanted to write about the place I came from. I suffered from homesickness throughout my twenties and early thirties, and so I wanted to come back home. It's always easier to leave a place like this than it is to return.

So, yes, I feel like I spent years trying to figure out how to write about this place and live here as an adult. I've been back for around five years, and so far it's been good. Sing is the first book I've written at home, and it seems like it was a good thing for the book. A lot of the figurative language and imagery are informed by where I'm from, so it helps to be here.

GR: In an interview a few years ago you said you were working on a book about "what it means to be a multiracial family living in the New South." You weren't sure what that meant at the time. I'm wondering what you've discovered. Did your characters surprise you in any way?

JW: There are always multiple things that surprise me during the writing of a book. With Sing, at least as far as Jojo's parents, Michael and Leonie, are concerned, I feel like they're aware that they're failing him and his sister, Kayla, but feel powerless to change. That's one thing that I did not know about them before I began.

I think about Michael's family, and I feel Michael's father, Big Joseph, is as close to a villain as I've ever written. But even with him I feel that a part of him knows the way he's reacting is not right. But because of how he's lived his entire life and how the people around him live, I think he can't move past that. That surprised me, too, because I didn't expect to feel any sympathy for a person like that. But then again, I don't want any of my characters to be villains. I want them all to have texture. I feel like even with the most distasteful characters, the reader should be able to identify at least one thing about them that broadens their understanding of who that person is.

GR: Your characters are all so richly drawn. What made you decide to use alternating narrators—Jojo, Leonie, and then later the ghost of Richie—to tell the story?

JW: In the early drafts of the book I only used Jojo and Leonie. Then after my editor read it, she said, "Have you ever thought about letting Richie have some chapters?" I had intended to do that when I first started, but for some reason I think I was afraid.

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GR: Yes, it's quite a leap—Richie opens up a whole other dimension to the book. He first appears to Jojo after they've picked up Michael at Parchman Prison, which is where the past and present converge for these two families. Did you know that you wanted to have the trip to the prison become such a pivotal event in the book?

JW: Yes, in the beginning this was a novel about a journey. I was thinking of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and thought it would be interesting to write about characters traveling through the modern South, where all these horrible and wonderful and strange things happen to them. That's what I began with: a road-trip novel. And I guess I was also using Faulkner as a model for how to write a story using multiple first-person perspectives. But then I began to research Parchman Prison because I knew nothing about it.

GR: It's a real prison?

JW: Yes, it's a real place, with a real history. I read this book all about it called Worse than Slavery by David Oshinsky. I learned that little black boys as young as 12 and 13 were charged with petty offenses and sent there. Once I read that, I immediately thought, One of these kids has to be a character in the book; he has to speak. I was just so horrified and shocked. And I thought if this character is going to be present in the book and not just a memory, then he has to be a ghost. It changed my idea of the story. In the beginning I didn't know if Given was real. I thought maybe he was just a hallucination of Leonie's when she was high [on crystal meth]. Once I realized that Richie was a ghost, I thought Given could be an actual ghost, too.

GR: Along those lines, Goodreads member Cathy writes, "Sing, Unburied, Sing has elements of magical realism that reminded me of Toni Morrison's Beloved. What influenced you to include the supernatural in this book? Is your style as a writer evolving or did you just need spirits to be able to tell the stories of the past effectively?"

JW: I think both are true. I wanted Richie to be able to speak in the present and move with the characters in the present because I feel that history does that, especially here in the South. Writing Sing, Unburied, Sing made me grow and develop as a writer. Introducing the supernatural into the story required that I develop skills I didn't have before. I'd never engendered a world and a logic that goes along with that world. When I was writing the version of the afterlife in which Richie existed, I had to do that. That was a big challenge for me.

GR: Goodreads member Nakia wonders in what ways your approach may have been different in writing this book, after the success of Salvage the Bones and the departure into nonfiction with the memoir and essay collection.

JW: As writers, I believe we're constantly growing and evolving. When I decided to begin working on Sing, Unburied, Sing and dive back into fiction, I had grown as a writer because of the things I'd done in the interim—the books I had read and the books I had written.

I also have to say that writing Sing was difficult for me because I was working full-time and I was also a new mom. I was already fairly disciplined about my creative process, but I think that having children and working full-time demanded that I be even more disciplined. Sometimes it's easier when you're writing fiction to tell yourself, "I'm not feeling it today; the inspiration just isn't there." But through the years I've realized that if you want to write books, you can't do that!

GR: That brings up a standard Goodreads question: How do you write and where? Do you have a routine?

JW: Yes, I do. I'm not a coffee shop writer, a writer who works well in public. I think I'm just too easily distracted. I write at home. I have a room I've set aside and made into a low-budget library with IKEA bookshelves. I tend to write there, although at times I've written all over the house. It just depends on which room I'm most comfortable in that day. I set my alarm and wake up early in the morning. I try to write at least one to two hours a day, five days a week.

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GR: Goodreads member John is curious about whether you are ever frustrated by the labels put on books, especially the separation between "African American" and "Southern" literature.

JW: Well, I think that sometimes that separation is useful because readers are looking for certain things, and categories can help them find what they're looking for. In the same way that genres let you know where you can find a sort of type of book, I think in some ways categories can be useful. But it can also be frustrating because it can feel like your work as a writer is being reduced in some way—being pigeonholed into these categories.

When I think about my writing, I think that it's not just about black people or certain people. It's about human beings who are struggling with very real dilemmas. They're struggling with grief, with love, with all these things that all human beings experience.

GR: Yes, just as Faulkner had his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, I think you've created a whole world in Bois Savage where these universal themes play out.

JW: Well, that's great because that's exactly what I'm trying to do!

GR: Speaking of Faulkner, who were some other Southern writers who were influences on you? Reading Sing, I was reminded of both Richard Wright's Mississippi stories and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

JW: Yeah, those two writers are very important to me and my work. I love Zora Neale Hurston's use of language. I think that has marked my work in many ways. I still think about some aspects of Richard Wright's nonfiction, particularly his autobiography, where he's writing about being a young boy and being so hungry that he'd go outside and put his mouth over the water spigot and fill up his stomach with water so he wouldn't be hungry anymore. There's something about that image that has stuck with me all these years.

Also, I think about Alice Walker's work a lot, especially her earlier books and the strength of the voice. I also love Carson McCullers, though I don't know how much my work resembles hers. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is a beautiful book—a little surreal, I think. Maybe some of that surrealism influenced my work in some ways.

GR: What have you been reading lately?

JW: I've been doing research for my next novel. It will be set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade, in the early 1800s. It's a total departure for me, so I've been reading a lot of books on slavery. The latest is called The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward Baptist.

I find that when I'm writing literary fiction, I can't read literary fiction because I don't want it to influence my work. I've also been reading a children's book called The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I read it and sink into this fictional world and remember why I loved writing and reading so much as a child.

GR: Goodreads member Abbey is interested in your inspiration beyond the world of books. She writes, "Salvage the Bones holds a special place in my heart for the way it portrays the black experience in America in such a multilayered, unstereotypical way. Like the film Moonlight, it breaks through barriers of understanding of black culture. Who are some other artists in different mediums whose work moves you in this way?"

JW: I loved Moonlight! It's such a beautiful movie. I wrote an article on the emergence of Southern creatives about a year or so ago, and for that article I was watching a lot of TV. I watched Atlanta and episodes of Queen Sugar. I think about how both those shows are exploring black people's lives in the modern South and capturing complicated portraits. They're beautiful, too—and even funny.

GR: Lastly, a big question from Goodreads member Aisha: "Since your books deal with heavy subjects such as generational poverty and racialized oppression, how do you maintain a positive outlook in these troubling times?"

JW: That's a difficult question to answer. But if the work I'm doing gets people talking and breaks down barriers so we're able to see each other as human beings, then I feel like I've done something good. I hope that the work I'm putting out in the world is helping. Also, people talk about self-care. Though I do think self-care can be a luxury, I also think it can be as simple as reading a good book in which you can sort of tune your brain off and enjoy whatever you're reading. Or watching a show like Atlanta that makes you laugh. Or anything that takes you out of your head for a while so you're not so bogged down by the grim reality.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Teresa (new)

Teresa McEwen Rebecca Sckloots
The Immortal cell of Henrietta Lacks

message 2: by Bethany (new)

Bethany Broadbent I just finished Salvage the Bones. It was heartbreaking, honest and wonderfully written. I am so glad to read this interview and see that a new work of fiction is out! Jesmyn Ward is now on my list of authors to watch!

message 3: by Aidil (new)

Aidil Azhar Amazing story.
I like it.

message 4: by Gerard (new)

Gerard Joseph Thank you for a lesson that you made

message 5: by Everson (new)

Everson my thanks goes to jesmyn ward your work of art sounds to be very interesting having just read the first introductory paragraph

message 6: by Ehsan (new)

Ehsan Khan Thank Goodreads for presenting such an informative and amazing interview. It encourages me to read and write more.

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