Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner


Image of Jesmyn Ward

On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.

Jesmyn Ward reading the opening of Sing, Unburied, Sing.

[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.

[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.

[JA]: And have you always written about this place while you have been in DeLisle or near it, or have you ever written about it from afar?

[JW]: Sing, Unburied, Sing is the only book that I’ve written about Bois Sauvage while living in my hometown on the Mississippi Gulf coast. When I wrote my first novel I was living in Michigan; when I wrote my second novel, I was living in California in the Bay Area; when I wrote my memoir, I was living in Oxford, Mississippi—so again, away from home. Most of the books that I’ve written, I actually wasn’t at home. To write about that place while I was living elsewhere in some ways was a relief because I always felt a strong sense of homesickness whenever I was out in the world. And so, to write about this fictionalized version of my hometown allowed me to be there, in a way. I have friends who are writers who said they can’t write about the place they’re from while they’re living there, but I’ve never had that problem.

[JA]: So in the opening passage that you read Pop is slaughtering a goat, and I was struck that at the beginning of Salvage the Bones, there’s a dog giving birth to puppies. What is it about the characters’ relationship to animals that draws you to writing these opening scenes with the animals and people in very close connection?

[JW]: You know, Salvage the Bones—it took me a long time to find the right beginning for the book, to find the right moment to enter this story. I am normally a very linear writer. I have to write from the beginning all the way to the end. I have some friends who don’t; they write around; they write the ending; they write a third of the way through, and then go back towards the end, and my brain just doesn’t work that way. It took me a while to find the right spot to enter this story. I don’t even know how I found it—suddenly, I was in that shed, I was there with the dog who was giving birth. And it just seemed like the right moment, maybe because I think that the act of giving birth is often hopeful and imbued with a certain sense of promise and potential. This moment with the animals worked so well in Salvage the Bones, and so I thought, “Well, maybe I should write about animals in the beginning moment of Sing, Unburied, Sing.” But again it took me a long time to figure exactly when and where that moment would be. Because Sing, Unburied, Sing is about death, loss, and the afterlife, maybe it would make sense to begin with this moment of slaughter.

[JA]: Speaking about the afterlife in Sing, Unburied, Sing, having a ghost as one of your characters was a new thing in that book. I wonder if you could tell us about the process of developing that character and developing the rules surrounding Richie, the ghost.

[JW]: So when I began writing Sing, Unburied, Sing, I knew that there would be an element of magic there. I knew that I wanted Mam to have these powers, and I wanted Jojo to have certain psychic powers.  For a long time I had wanted to write something that incorporated elements of magic and the supernatural. But I just didn’t. I don’t know if I was afraid to, or I just felt like in literary fiction that was frowned upon and that’s why I didn’t do it. But with this book, I just decided to commit to it. But I was not aware of the fact that there would be ghosts. Another thing that I knew from the beginning: the characters were going to take this road trip to Parchman Prison. Originally, I just thought this would be a roadtrip novel. And then I began researching Parchman Prison because I knew nothing about it. I found out that kids like Richie existed. Richie is this kid who was thirteen years old when he was sent to Parchman Prison for a very minor crime. In the 40s, when you were sent to Parchman Prison you were basically re-enslaved. Parchman Prison used to be a working plantation. There, the inmates were guarded by other inmates with guns and overseers on horses. When they broke rules they were beaten. If they tried to escape and they were killed by a guard (and all the guards were inmates with guns), the inmate, guard with the gun, was given his freedom.

When I found out that children like Richie existed, I was so horrified by that fact. Not only that this was a fact of history but also that I was ignorant of it. I grew up in Mississippi, I took Mississippi history, and yet I never knew that that was the case. I thought it was so awful that kids like Richie existed, and that they’ve been erased from history, silenced, that I thought “I have to write a character like this, I have to write about a child that’s been sent to this place.” But I wanted that child to have agency and voice, which children like him had been denied in life. And the only way that I could figure out how to do that was by making him a ghost. And that’s how I discovered that I was writing a ghost story in addition to a road trip. Then I was scared.

[JA]: Ghosts are scary!

[JW]: Ghosts are scary and I had never written anything like that before. I knew then that the afterlife and the world of the afterlife would need texture. There would have to be rules. I had to figure out, okay, who can see Richie, and what are the rules of the afterlife,what is the existence like for him as a ghost and what can he perceive in the afterlife?

[JA]: Do you mind telling us how you came up with the title for this book?

[JW]: This is always such a hard question for me to answer! I’m really bad at titles. One of the professors I studied with at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is Peter Ho Davies, and one of the things that Peter taught me was that you should try to have a working title for your novel in progress from the very beginning, and then he told me that as you work your way into the novel, your ideas about what the title will be will change. And it should change because your understanding of who the characters are and what the novel is about and what is at the heart of the novel—that will change as you write your way into the book and as you discover more. And so, I did that. And I can’t remember [what the title was]—whatever it was, it was terrible. I did that with Sing, Unburied, Sing, but by the time I got to the fifteenth/sixteenth draft, I didn’t have a for-sure title. Nothing seemed to fit. I had been generating a list of possible titles as I went along, and so I probably had like 30 titles. I would just try them on and if it didn’t seem right, I would discard them. I really like titles that are very active—that have an active verb. Titles that command. That address the reader in some way. In the book there is a sort of divine order in the afterlife expressed through music, and I thought, “Maybe I should use the word ‘sing’ in the title, as a sort of command.” But then I thought, okay, I need to be directing this towards someone. And so I thought, I want it to apply to everyone—the living and the dead. What word could I use? Then I came up with “unburied.” Then I plugged “Sing, Unburied” into Amazon to try and see if someone already had that title. No one did, and so I thought, okay I can use this, but then there was something about the musicality of the title that wasn’t there yet. And I thought, what if I repeat the word “sing”? “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” And it seemed to work.

[JA]: Moving back in time a little bit to your first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, about these two twins, twin brothers. We meet them when they’re just graduating from high school, and their primary struggles throughout the course of the book are getting jobs, but also dealing with their parents—the mom has been gone a long time but comes back, and the dad is failing to recover from addiction. So they have it hard, these kids. But I’ve read that you’ve said that you felt like you were too much in love with your characters and protected them in some ways in the first book. I wonder if you could tell us about that realization about that treatment of characters and how you’ve tried to adjust that as you wrote your second novel.

[JW]: That is something that I realized I did after the book was out in the world. I thought back to when I wrote Where the Line Bleeds; it was my first novel, I didn’t know what I was doing. I took a couple years off after I graduated undergrad and I worked. And while I worked, I wrote nothing. When I went back to school at University of Michigan and was studying to get my MFA, I thought, “Okay, if I don’t write a novel here, I will never write a novel,” because I am not the kind of writer who can work a 40 hour week job and also produce novels at the same time. Writing that first novel I realized that I loved my characters and that they reminded me of people that I grew up with, people in my family, people in my community. And I think that when I was writing that story, the story wanted to go to darker places, that there were harder, darker things that could have happened to those characters, plot-wise, that would arise out of the choices that they’ve made or didn’t make. But because I loved them so much, and because they seemed to be reflections of a lot of people in my family and people I grew up with—the twins especially have characteristics of my brother—I couldn’t let the narrative take on a life of its own. I wanted to protect those characters because they reminded me of people that I loved, and so I didn’t let the narrative take on a life of its own. I sort of stifled it; I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them. And I didn’t realize that I did that until a couple years after publication.

After hurricane Katrina, after I lost a lot of people close to me, I was looking at my family and looking at my community and realizing how difficult life was for so many people whom I loved. If I am going to make the commitment to write about these people, who could be members of my family or members of my community, then I have to be honest about the circumstances of our lives. I can’t protect them because nobody protects us, and hard things happen to people I love all the time. So I realized I had to be honest. If I’m gonna take on that responsibility I have to be honest about the circumstances of our lives.

[JA]: Are there any other lessons from the first novel, or even the second novel, or the third novel that you’ve carried forward?

[JW]: I feel like each book that I’ve written teaches me something. With Where the Line Bleeds, I learned about the fact that I have to let the narrative take on a life, and I think that I also learned that I am not comfortable writing from the third person perspective. With Salvage the Bones, I learned that I am comfortable writing from the first person perspective, and I also learned that I could tell a story that had a very tight structure—Salvage the Bones is told over twelve days and each day is a chapter. In my memoir, I think that I learned that my stories didn’t need to have a straightforward, linear structure, and that I could tell a story with a sort of odd, unexpected structure. I could tell a story in a way where it jumps back and forth in time. And then with Sing, Unburied, Sing, I think I learned that I could research and then incorporate my research in a way that felt organic to the story—I didn’t know that I could do that before I wrote that book—and also that I could tell a story from multiple perspectives because I hadn’t done that before either.

[JA]: I wonder if you could take us back to the readerly child that you were and say something about what books meant to you as a kid, when you first started thinking about writing, and when you actually did start doing some writing, and what that felt like.

[JW]: My family didn’t have money for books. So I was a library kid. But the town that I live in is so small that we don’t have a local public library, so I depended on my school library— the elementary school library, the middle school library—for my books. I checked all of them out. I remember being in second grade and all the other kids in my class, they hated reading. We had to do these reading comprehension projects—they hated doing them. I just remember one day realizing that everybody else hates reading. But you know what? I love this! I articulated that to myself at a very young age, but I continuously found myself drawn to books where the main character was a girl, some young, scrappy girl. I loved books like Pippi Longstocking and The Secret Garden and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Hero and the Crow and Anne of Green Gables. If a girl was the main character, I was going to read it. Also if there were witches involved, I was right there. And all the librarians when I was younger, they didn’t really give me much direction. So I just perused the shelves and checked things out and just, like, devoured them. And back then books were magical, and it seemed like there was something magic about what writers did.

But when I was young, I didn’t think I was capable of that kind of magic. So when I first started attempting to write, I began with poetry. Poetry seems more manageable, much shorter. So I started writing poetry when I was in sixth grade. I wrote this terrible poem for Arbor Day but my teachers really liked it and they asked me to read it. And I got a pretty positive response from everyone. And so I think that was the first time that I thought, “Maybe I can do this thing.” I was a terrible poet for much of my formative years. Then I got to college and I realized that I was a terrible poet, and I decided to redirect my attention to fiction because I felt like maybe I had a little bit (not a lot) more understanding of what you need in fiction to write a good story, than I did in poetry. I had no idea what was going on in poetry. 

[JA]: What is one thing you would like young people to take away from their reading of Sing, Unburied, Sing?”

[JW]: One idea or one thematic concern that I keep returning to again and again in my work is this question of how do children who have to bear adult burdens survive and how do they hopefully thrive in spite of having to bear those adult burdens. I think that that’s one thing I would want teenage readers to take away from Sing, Unburied, Sing—the fact that you can thrive in spite of the fact that you might have to bear adult burdens before you should. There are multiple things that shore you up and help you to survive and thrive in spite of that. You might have a very difficult home life, you might have parents who are failing you in one way or another, and the system might be failing you in some ways. But you can survive and thrive in spite of that.

[JA]:: What gives you hope as a writer?

[JW]: I think a lot about my parents and my grandparents and great grandparents—and I am very aware of how much more difficult their lives were. Because they’re black and because they lived in Mississippi in the 30s and 40s and 50s and 60s. I think about how they still expressed themselves creatively through art, through gardening, through cooking. How they still did their best to help their children and other people in their families thrive and survive, and it was still important to them to help their community survive and thrive. I think that I would feel as if I were disrespecting them and not honoring their legacy if I did not acknowledge the role that hope played in their lives.

[JA]: So, question about Faulkner. Is Faulker, who also wrote about a tiny patch of the US South, a meaningful reference for you?

[JW]: Yes. But it wasn’t always true. I read Faulkner for the first time when I was in high school. I think I read one of his short stories and I thought, “Why do people love this? I hate this. This is overly complicated, I don’t know what’s going on.” I just didn’t get it. I remember specifically thinking that because this kid in my class was like, “Faulkner is my favorite writer.” Then we read a short story and I thought, “God, you’re so pretentious.” So I didn’t get it when I was in high school. Then I went to college and I read him again, and I still didn’t get it. I better understood what was happening, but there was no visceral reaction, no response to his work. Then, I graduated and I was in my early-to-mid twenties and living in NYC and I read The Sound and the Fury and I still did not get it.

[JA]: But you kept trying!

[JW]: I did, I kept trying. I was like, “This is really impressive!” but it just didn’t spark a response. I don’t know why. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally and developmentally. I don’t know! It wasn’t until I went to Michigan. I was 26 or 27. I read As I Lay Dying. I remember opening it up and reading the first couple pages. Then I just closed it, and I was like, “Goddamn. This is amazing. Maybe I should just quit, because I can never do that.” I recognized everything about that South that he was writing about. And I just had this immediate, very emotional reaction to his work where I felt that deep love and also the hate that I feel for the place that I’m from.

When I was still in school and I did various fellowship programs, sometimes I would get pushback from my peers when they would say, “I don’t understand, these people are hardly educated, how are they expressing themselves, why are they using this language, why are they expressing themselves in this way?” My reply was to point at Faulkner and be like, “He did! If he did it, why can’t I do it?” I love his work, but I do feel like he fails his characters of color. Because they’re not complex people, they don’t have rich interior lives. There’s a big difference between the lives that they lead and how they are written, while his white characters are fully realized and complicated and complex and they evoke very strong emotional responses in his readers. His characters of color are often flat and they don’t evoke that kind of a response. That’s another thing that he taught me.

[JA]: I know that you’re heavily invested in research now for the novel that you’re currently working on. Anything you’d be comfortable sharing about the book that you’re working on and how you’re digging into that material and how you’re building that world?

[JW]: It’s killing me. I’m at the half-way mark right now. I am writing a novel set in the early-to-mid 1800s in New Orleans during the height of the domestic slave trade and it follows an enslaved woman as she is sold south from the Carolinas, marched to New Orleans, and then auctioned off. I knew close to nothing about slavery before I began working on this project. So I’ve done a lot of research. I am still researching. I’ve never worked on a project like this, I’ve never written a book where I needed to research so much. I began reading and then I discovered that it was good to learn and to attempt to begin to gain my bearings in this world, but it was also an easy way to procrastinate and to push off diving into the work and beginning. After two years, I thought, “You know what? Probably time to write something.” And I don’t know everything yet, but I’ll just research as I go. As I get to a place in the book where I don’t know, then I’ll try to find that information. But if I continue to research in the hopes that I get to a place where I’m like, “I’m knowledgeable about this,” then I’ll never start because there is so much information! There is always another book to read, another perspective to find. So that’s what I am working on now, I am reading as I go. It is very difficult.

[JA]: Well, I think that there are many people in this room that will be cheering you on as you go through the process of writing this next book and we wish you lots of hope and fun and endurance.

[JW]: Thank you.

Jesmyn Ward is the first woman and first person of color to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice, for the novels Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Her memoir, Men We Reaped, deals with the loss of five young men in her life.

Jennifer Acker is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Common and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World.

Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner

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