Jesmyn Ward’s novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is our first pick for the new PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter.
When Jesmyn Ward was a young girl growing up near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she said she didn’t see herself or other young people of color reflected in literature. She grew up to write those books herself and has won two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “genius” grant doing so. Her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” tells the story of a rural Mississippi family haunted by its personal past and the larger history of the place.
Below, Ward shares the best writer’s advice she’s ever received, her daily writing routine, and more. Here are 5 questions with Jesmyn Ward, in her words:
1. What is your daily writing routine?
I try to treat writing as part of my daily routine: I write for at least two hours, five days per week. I tend to write at home, in a room I’ve set aside for the task. I don’t work well in cafes or busy, loud spaces, although I wish I could. It would mean greater flexibility for me. Instead, I wake early and drink tea and write or revise through the morning (sometimes before my kids wake up, and sometimes after they head off to school. I drink a lot of English breakfast tea.)
2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?
That’s a hard question for me to answer. As a child, I was drawn to books with spunky heroines: “The Hero and the Crown,” “Harriet the Spy,” “Julie of the Wolves,” “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “The Secret Garden,” “Anne of Green Gables,” “Pippi Longstocking,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” and “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” are a few of the books I loved as a child. They broadened my ideas of what was possible for me, as a girl. And they also taught me a little about how complicated human beings can be.
3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?
I recently read a collection of stories called “Boondock Kollage,” by Regina Bradley. The stories follow multiple characters through the South, through the past and present. I loved reading that book: the first time I read the opening story, I was breathless and incoherent. The characters and the texture of the landscape were so familiar, yet so novel; I’m so sad that the book hasn’t received more attention.
4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?
I worked with several writers at the University of Michigan: Nicholas Delbanco, Peter Ho Davies, Eileen Pollack, Laura Kasischke, and Thomas Lynch, who told me the same thing over and over again: Persist. Read, write, and improve: tell your stories. Accept rejection until you find acceptance, but don’t become disheartened, stop writing, and remove yourself from the conversation. Remembering that advice has served me well.
5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?
Characters come to me first; they always do. With this book, Jojo arrived one day. I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing. I do know I’d just finished a rough draft of “Salvage the Bones,” and I was searching for a new novel to work on, a new story to tell. And Jojo came to me, this 13-year-old mixed race boy, and I wondered what life was like for him. I wondered what it would be like for a boy like that to wrestle with his identity, with the past, with the history of the South, which bore down inexorably on him and his family, intimately. I knew it was over when I found Jojo out in the woods, and he was not the same boy he’d been when he first arrived. He’d grown; he’d changed in some important way. It was then I understood he’d wrestled his way to a new personhood. To the kind of reprieve a character earns at the end of a story.