An interview with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for the novel "Salvage the Bones," her second. The 35-year-old author, who gave a moving speech at the ceremony about why she writes what she writes, will be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this weekend on the panel "Fiction: The Dream Deferred" at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Ward has been a New Yorker, a Californian and a Michigander, but it's rural coastal Mississippi that she returns to, and that is at the center of her literary universe.
In Sunday's Times, Ward talks to Carolyn Kellogg about where she came from, and how she almost gave up writing to go to nursing school.
Below are additional excerpts from that conversation. We start in 2008, when Ward, after earning an master's degree at the University of Michigan, was commuting to New Orleans from Mississippi to work as an instructor, teaching mostly composition.
Jesmyn Ward: My first novel, "Where the Line Bleeds," was dead in the water. I almost gave up. I thought, "Maybe I should stop this." Because I was making –- instructors don't make anything; it's criminal how little they’re paid. I was really struggling. And I thought, "Maybe I should just quit all of this and do something that would give me a steady, higher-paying paycheck like nursing, that I know I could go back to school and do." And I was, I was really close to that.
But then I thought, "I'm just going to give it one more try, and apply for some fellowships, and see what happens." I applied for the Stegner fellowship and I applied for Provincetown, and at the same time I applied for the fellowships I was looking into nursing programs. During that winter, when I was waiting to hear from people, and that spring, that's when my novel was accepted for publication by a really small publishing house out of Chicago called Agate, which publishes a lot of African American literary fiction. And then I found out that I'd gotten a Stegner. It was amazing, like winning the lottery.
I lived in San Francisco and did the Stegner fellowship for two years, and it was amazing. From fall 2008 to spring 2010, I was there. When it came time for me to apply, again for jobs, in 2010 ... I began applying for jobs. Then I got the Grisham Writing Residency at the university of Ole Miss. Part of the residency is that they give you a fabulous large old house to live in, which is actually right down the street from Rowan Oak, Faulkner's house.
CK: I understand you're working on a memoir now?
JW: The memoir is about a particular time in my life, from 2000 to 2004, when five young black men from my community [the towns of Delisle and nearby Pass Christian] died in different ways. First was my brother, who was hit by a drunk driver and killed in October 2000. The second young man committed suicide ... he shot himself. The third young man was in a car accident; the car that he was in hit a train, and he was sitting on the passenger side and was trapped. The fourth young man was shot and his murder has never been solved -- somebody was waiting for him when he got home one night and shot him. The fifth young man died of a drug overdose -- he had a heart condition so the drugs made him have a heart attack. The book is asking why an epidemic like that -- of young black men dying, which is something I feel people associate with urban landscapes -- would happen in a place like the place where I'm from: Rural, southern, poor. I feel like it's very outside of the preconceived notions that people have of epidemics of young black men dying.
The [tentative] title, "The Men We Reaped," comes from a Harriet Tubman quote. ... I love it so much I hope that I am able to use it. I hope it's not an Internet quote:
We saw the lightning and that was the guns
And then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns
And then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling
And when we came to get in the crops it was dead men that we reaped.
The memoir is complicated because the structure is very different [chronology-wise] from anything I've ever written. When I think about the memoir, when I think about telling the story, the end for me is my brother’s death in 2000. That's the moment of greatest hurt for me. ... I know it's problematic and I know I'm making the reader do a lot of work. ... I can't conceive of it any other way. It has to end with my brother. I have to make it work.
CK: What's your process? When you're working on a book, do you get feedback from anyone?
JW: I wrote the first draft of my first novel at Michigan, and then I wrote the first draft of "Salvage the Bones" at Stanford. So I workshopped the entire thing. With the memoir, I wrote a first draft and sent it out to people -- my friends from the Stegner program at Stanford and friends from grad school at Michigan, good readers who can understand what I'm trying to do. ... 15 people total. And then I sent it to my agent and my editor; they've given me a ton of revision; that's what I'm working on now.
CK: You're a writer and you teach writing. What teachers influenced you?
JW: The first writer that I think of immediately that I studied with at Michigan is Peter Ho Davies. He was really important to me, tackling that first novel. Just writing it. Part of why I wrote my first novel is because I wanted to know if I could do it. I think without his encouragement, without the deadlines he set for me, and without him bringing things about my prose to my attention, and giving me feedback -- about the way that my dialogue was working, the way that varying my sentence length was working, being aware of the rhythm of what you're writing -- without that, I don't think I'd be able to complete that novel. It's a better novel for his feedback that he gave me. ...
Also, I took this class with Nicholas Delbanco while I was at Michigan; it was an imitations class. We were reading Faulkner, reading Virginia Woolf, reading James Joyce, reading Hemingway, reading Ford, reading Malcolm Lowry, and attempting to mimic their styles. Write our own work, these exercises, then mimic their prose styles. That class was very important for me -- I wasn't successful at any of my imitations [laughs], but I think that class was important to me because it taught me that you could learn from great writers in that way. You could come into your own style by being conscious of the way that other great writers write, being conscious of their styles and how they tell a story. Imitating that. And that could lead you to your own way to tell a story, your own style.
CK: You were at home in Delisle, Miss., when Hurricane Katrina hit. How did that affect you?
JW: Katrina! Katrina silenced me for two years. I wrote a 12-page essay on my experience in Katrina, and that's it. I didn't write anything for like two, two and a half years after Katrina hit, because it was so traumatic.
I didn't realize until afterwards, until I climbed up out of that hole and began writing "Salvage the Bones," that it had done that to me. I think part of the reason is that it changed the landscape here, the way that it ripped the landscape away. It was so all-encompassing. Before Hurricane Katrina, I always felt like I could come back home. And home was a real place, and also it had this mythical weight for me. Because of the way that Hurricane Katrina ripped everything away, it cast that idea in doubt. It made me doubt the concept of home. Because of the way that that storm just demolished everything. That's what was behind the fact that I couldn't write for those years.
People ask me about staying here. They see that I've been other places and I've done different things. I think they assume, and rightly so, that I wouldn't want to come back to a place like Mississippi, which is so backwards and which frustrates me a lot. ... It's that responsibility I feel to tell these stories about the people and the place that I'm from. Even though this place has changed a lot since Katrina, there's something at the heart of it that hasn't changed. There's something about this place that remains the same, even though these hurricanes come and go. This isn't the first big awful one that we've had; the last big awful one was in 1969 when Hurricane Camille hit. This happens once every 30 years. ... There's something about this place that doesn't change, even though the hurricanes can do the kind of damage that Hurricane Katrina did. Maybe it's my family. Maybe it's that sense of community and belonging that I feel when I'm here, that I don't feel when I go anywhere else. Even though there's lots in the outside world that I've seen and has intrigued me and I appreciate. I love San Francisco, I love the Bay Area. But then, there's something here that keeps drawing me back. At least for a while, I feel like I need to live right here as an adult. That's important to me: That I'm here in the community, in the place that I write about, that I'm able to be here.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Jesmyn Ward. Credit: Tony Cook