2011 National Book Award Winner,
Fiction

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward, photo credit: Tony Cook

Salvage the Bones

(Bloomsbury USA)

Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on Salvage the Bones being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. Do you remember your original idea for the novel?

Jesmyn Ward: My original idea for the novel germinated with Esch, the protagonist who tells the story. I wanted to write about a girl who grows up in a world full of men, and from the beginning, I heard that story in Esch’s voice.

BAJ: How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?

JW: The finished book corresponds pretty closely to what I first had in my mind. Since I begin each book I write with some idea of what the end is, and because I write in a linear fashion, writing Salvage the Bones was pretty straightforward. For me, the problem was figuring out how to enter the story, and then to chase that to the end. There were plenty of surprises along the way, but the end was what I’d envisioned in the beginning.

BAJ: How did the writing of Salvage the Bones compare to the work you’d done previously?

JW: I like to believe that as every day passes, I become a better writer, so in general, I think Salvage is a better book from my previous work. The characters are more active, more alive, have more agency, and are more complicated. My previous work was also hindered by my inability to separate the love I bear for the community that inspires my characters and my characters. I loved my previous characters too much to hurt them adequately, to have them endure drama, to feel real pain and deprivation. When I wrote Salvage the Bones, I found I could not spare my characters. It was a real revelation for me when I realized I could not spare them because reality does not spare the people of my community.

BAJ: Mississippi is one of the few places on earth where a story like this could happen, and you render the people and place in such a lyrical, compelling way. What role does setting play in your writing?

JW: Place is very important in my work. I’m honored to be a part of that legacy of great Mississippi writers, from Faulkner to Welty to Wright to Moody, all whom were marked by living here. Place informs character: it influences how characters see the world, how they experience and react to each other, how they speak about their experiences, how they understand the stories of their lives. This was most apparent to me when I was writing through Esch’s voice; everything about the way she is attempting to navigate and understand her place in the world is suffused with the rhythms and terrors and sublime beauties of Mississippi.

BAJ: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

JW: I don’t have a reader in mind as I write, unless it’s myself; it sounds trite, but I do think that when I’m writing a first draft, I’m simply writing the book I want to read. I have another reader in mind when I revise, and that reader knows nothing of Mississippi, probably thinks we’re provincial rubes, and may not have wanted to read the book initially. That’s the reader that I want to

BAJ: What is your revision process?

JW: I write one full draft straight through, chapter by chapter. Then I give the manuscript to my writer-friends, and after they read and give me feedback, I go through the manuscript again, correcting for one concern, whether it’s character development or tension or clarity. I do that for each concern; this allows me to keep one thing in my head, and concentrate on one thing at a time in the manuscript. If I try to juggle more than one, I inevitably neglect something or fail in parts.

BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start?

JW: At the beginning of Salvage the Bones, I knew bare facts about the main characters: for example, I knew Esch was the only girl who grows up in a world of men, and I knew that Skeetah was her brother, that he was obsessed with his pit bull, and they would face Hurricane Katrina together. I didn’t know that Esch would be pregnant, that she would use classic Greek myths to understand her place in the world, that she would use China in the same way, that Skeetah’s sense of loyalty and love would be tested. These were all surprises in the text. As I wrote more, I learned more about the characters and was further immersed in their world: they took on lives of their own, really.

BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while writing Salvage the Bones?

JW: The biggest surprise was the way that Esch connected to Medea, the way she saw the terrible savagery of the Grecian sea all around her in rural Mississippi. She’s so smart and perceptive in some ways, so naïve in others. That mixture was astonishing.

BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?

JW: When I’m three quarters of the way in a manuscript, I always panic. Everything is so complicated and conflicted at that point, and it’s difficult for me to imagine how the major questions of the piece will be resolved. As Alice LaPlante says: how can I surprise and convince the reader? Even though I always write through that panic and reach an end, however clumsily, each time I reach that ¾ point, finding my way to the end always seems impossible.

BAJ: Salvage the Bones evokes the tragedy of Katrina in a variety of powerful, nuanced ways. What was it about that event that moved you to write?

JW: That storm silenced me for two and a half years. I watched it unmake the world, rip away the landscape, scatter so many people in my community. To know that the world I loved, my home, could be taken away from me in a matter of hours, was devastating. What did my writing matter? And then, I saw signs of hope. Signs that said that the sense of belonging I’d felt at home could return as people returned after the storm and began to rebuild. I realized we were survivors, and that was worth writing about.

BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?

JW: This Didion quote expresses it perfectly: We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Writers must find stories, new and old, and tell them, over and over again, to help readers (and ourselves) find some meaning in the world, some beauty, some art, some reason, some order.

BAJ: This is the 62nd year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about your book being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?

JW: I’m so honored to be included on the list of finalists and winners. I read many of these writers when I was a teenager in high school and later as a young adult and again as an adult, and each time I read them, I was in awe. How could I not be? Faulkner and Welty and Ellison and Porter and O’Connor and Oates and I haven’t even included the poets or the young adult or nonfiction writers! Didion and Alexie and Stevens and Bishop and Rich and Ai and Clifton and Komunyakaa and my new favorite, Nikki Finney, are only a few who’ve written work that I love and that enchants me, again and again. It’s such an incredible honor to stand with these writers that I regress to a teenager struck speechless with admiration every time I’m reminded of the fact that I now have a place on that list. Those authors have written such great works that it’s impossible for me to narrow my choices down to a few that I reread: I’ll continue reading and rereading all the writers on this list for the rest of my life, hoping to grow and learn as I do.

 

Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories.  His work appears in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories.  In 2006, he was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35, and he is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard. www.bretanthonyjohnston.com

Photo credit: Tony Cook