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.