Jesmyn Ward Answers Eleven Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! The past few years, I’ve read fiction and non-fiction books examining the effect that Hurricane Katrina has had on New Orleans and its inhabitants. Jesmyn Ward’s book, Salvage the Bones is about Esch, a pregnant 14-year old, and her family’s struggle to survive the storm. Here is what Jesmyn had to say about reading, writing and surviving Katrina.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

My name is Jesmyn Ward. I’m from Mississippi, and I began writing seriously toward the end of my undergrad college career. A few years after graduation, I committed to writing and applied to a MFA program. I write some literary fiction and some creative nonfiction.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

It depends on where I am. I like to write at home, and I work wherever I’m most comfortable. That’s usually a sofa or a single chair. I find myself avoiding all the desks I’ve ever owned, but I still purchase/build/borrow a new one everywhere I go. I might listen to some music to get me in the mood to write, but I can never listen to music while I write because it muddles the rhythm of my prose. I have to hear it.

 People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?

I wanted to write a story about a boy in love with his pit bull, and a girl who’d grown up in a world of men. The question of what kind of people they would be intrigued me. It wasn’t until I sat down to seriously begin working on the book that I realized they would live through Hurricane Katrina, a storm I felt bound to write about because I’d survived it.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

Writing my own books has changed the way I read. I read as if the work needs to be workshopped, but if the book is good enough, after twenty or so pages, I don’t read like that any longer. For that reason, I often find myself reading young adult or children’s books, which I feel unequipped to critique. I read the Hunger Games trilogy recently, and I really liked that.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

I can’t read while I’m writing. Too much of what I read will find its way into my work, I’m afraid. So I mostly avoid it. Unless I want to shock myself into being ambitious. Then I’ll read some Faulkner and feel inadequate and dive back into my work.

If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; Cane, by Jean Toomer; Death in Spring, by Merce Rodoreda; His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman (this should count as three).

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

I’m horrible at choosing titles. I struggled with the title for Salvage the Bones for a long time. I had several tentative titles before I chose “Salvage the Bones,” and I wasn’t even satisfied with that until I saw the title on the cover of the book. Then it worked beautifully.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?

I read a lot when I was growing up. It was my way to escape. I never thought I could be a writer because what they did seemed so impossible, so amazing. It wasn’t until I entered high school and read the Color Purple that I thought that I, a black, poor Southern girl, could write a book.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?

Unless I’ve been commissioned to write a short story (this has happened once or twice), I can only work on one thing at one time. I have to be able to concentrate fully on one thing, especially when I’m working on longer pieces of work, like books. I have to be able to immerse myself in that world with no reserves, no part of my writerly self obsessing over some problem point in another narrative.

Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?I love Skeetah’s and China’s characters. They’re such a strange pair, and their relationship is so singular. They fascinate me. Even more than the members of their family and their friends, they really are outsiders who exist in their own world, operate by their own rules, have an encompassing love. That intrigued me from the moment I discovered them in a writing exercise.

What’s next?

I’m working on a book of creative nonfiction, a memoir, that concerns a particular time in my life, from 2000-2004, when five young black men from my community died in different ways, the first being my brother in the year 2000, who was hit by a drunk driver. I’m trying to understand why an epidemic like that would happen in a small, rural, Southern town like the one I’m from. I’m trying to answer the question of why.

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