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In ‘Salvage the Bones,’ Jesmyn Ward Tells Personal Story of Hurricane Katrina

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“Salvage the Bones,” a new novel by Jesmyn Ward, tells the story of a Mississippi Gulf Coast family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in the U.S. now six years ago this week. Ward, who grew up in Mississippi, was home for the summer in 2005 and survived during the devastating storm with her own family.

“Salvage the Bones” is Ward’s second novel. Her first, “Where the Line Bleeds,” tells the story of two twin brothers growing up in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, the setting for all of her fiction and based on her own hometown. Ward received an MFA from the University of Michigan and has just started as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama at Mobile.

I spoke to her today by phone:

[Read a transcript after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds as though Katrina, the power of it for everyone, including your own personal experience, compelled you to write this? How did this start?

JESMYN WARD: I was home during the storm. The storm occurred during the summer between my last year of my MFA program and then my first year teaching at the University of Michigan and I decided to stay for the storm instead of heading to Michigan, which wasn’t a good idea.

JEFFREY BROWN: No.

JESMYN WARD: Not at all. The storm was really terrifying and harrowing, and afterward I felt like that was something I needed to write about.

JEFFREY BROWN: You did it through the experience of one family, so it’s a small story within the much larger one.

JESMYN WARD: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about this family.

JESMYN WARD: So I discovered one of the main characters, the brother — his name is Skeet, or Skeetah — and his pit-bull in a short story that I wrote. Even though I wrote about him and his dog in that short story, I was fascinated by the character and I wanted to spend more time with him, but I couldn’t figure out how to do that, right? So I just sort of put his character on the back burner and tried not to think about him. But then I had also been sort of thinking about writing about a girl, sort of a young woman who is growing up in a world of men, and that characters is Esch, and that’s the main character in the novel, and the novel is told from her perspective. And so as I was sort of thinking about Esch, then Skeetah and his dog popped back into my head, and then it suddenly occurred to me that they were brother and sister.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ah, you started filling in the family picture.

JESMYN WARD: Yes, yes, so that was a happy surprise. When I realized that they were brother and sister, then I thought, ok. It’s like the rest of the family came to me. So the mother died when they were young and their father raises them and they have two other brothers, an older brother named Randall and a younger brother that they call Junior. They sort of live this hard scrabble life, and they are sort of isolated from the rest of the community because of where their house is and sort of where their property is. They are sort of surrounded by woods. Once I began writing about them and those characters, I knew that they were the characters that I needed to stay with through that storm.

JEFFREY BROWN: You told it in an interesting way where each chapter represents one day leading up to and then the actual day of and day after the hurricane. Was that a device that you hit on at that beginning? Or how and why tell it that way?

JESMYN WARD: It was a device that I hit on at the beginning. I wanted to compress the time. I wanted to tell a story and have that occur in the course of over just a few days. When I was thinking like the structure of the novel, around how long I wanted it to be, well, I thought it will probably be around 12 chapters and then it suddenly occurred to me that it would probably be interesting to have each chapter be a day, so that it way can be like more compressed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, you also have the inherent building of drama up to the hurricane, right?

JESMYN WARD: Yes. I mean it’s very useful because it creates a lot of tension.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read the personal statement that you wrote that accompanies the press copies of the book. You are very clear and upfront about gleaning things from your own family’s experience. What is it that conveys the most from that experience and why is fiction the best way to tell this story?

JESMYN WARD: I think that fiction has a certain power. Even though, you know, these characters and the places where they live and the lives that they lead are very particular, I feel like there is always something human and universal about this story. That’s why I write fiction, because I want to write these stories that people will read and find universal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your personal statement you write so movingly of your mother and her work as a maid and how hard she worked. And then in the book, there is no mother. The mother character is gone.

JESMYN WARD: I think that she still is an important presence in the book her sort of residual presence, her ghost, like her loss, it still haunts Esch throughout the entire novel, and part of what she is working out through this novel is she’s trying to figure out what she thinks about motherhood and what she thinks about being a woman and what all these things mean to her. So even though she’s not in the novel physically, I think she’s definitely there spiritually, I guess, for that character, for that narrator.

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