On Wednesday night, Jesmyn Ward joined the likes of William Faulkner and Jonathan Franzen when she won the National Book Award for fiction. Her novel, Salvage the Bones, is a searing portrait of a poor African American family living in coastal Mississippi during Hurricane Katrina. Ward took a moment to talk to EW about her big win and share some of her favorite books that inspire her as a writer.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did any part of you think you would win?
JESMYN WARD: Not at all. I did not. [Laughs] You know, I’d written an acceptance speech just in case, because I figured I had a 20 percent chance of winning, but I did not expect to win. Actually, as they were announcing the winners in each category on Wednesday night, I just kept telling myself to breathe. I was mentally preparing myself to smile and clap and be happy for whoever won, and I just knew that was not going to be me. When they read my name aloud, I don’t think it registered until my publicist grabbed me by the shoulders, said my name very loudly, and shook me. That’s when it hit me that I’d actually won.
In your acceptance speech — which was lovely and touching — you said you were inspired to become a writer because the loss of your younger brother inspired you to create something permanent. Do you feel like the award, in some ways, makes your novel more permanent?
Definitely. I definitely feel that way. It’s funny because later that night, there’s an after party with drinking and dancing. All that time, my characters from Salvage the Bones kept flashing through my head. I kept thinking about them. This is going to sound weird, but I was happy for them because I feel like they were being recognized and they were being seen, and that this meant that the audience that would read their story and live with them would be even larger. So in a weird way, I was happy for my characters because they gained this audience.
Do you also feel that the setting of your novel — a poor, rural, predominantly African American community — is also getting a new kind of recognition?
Yes. I love where I’m from. I love the landscape because it is so beautiful, and I also love the people of my community, the people whose stories I’m trying to tell. While I’ve said that there are plenty of things I dislike about the South, I can be clear that there are things I love about the South.
Did the people back home gather to watch the livestream of the ceremony?
Yeah! A lot of my family lives in the same area. They were all at different houses across the street and down the street from each other watching the webcast. Right after they had announced that I had won, people ran across the street to my sister’s house and watched me give my speech, so it was very a much a communal thing.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I always have problems with choosing, so can I say two? [Laughs] The first was The Secret Garden, which I discovered when I was in fourth grade, and read over and over. Now as I’m older and I think back on it, I think the reason I loved it is that the heroine in that book is singular and she’s stubborn, and she was so different from other girls that I’d encountered in literature. I also loved this fantasy book called The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. I loved that book! It was one of those books that I discovered when I was eight years old. Then I just read it over and over again as I grew older. When I look back on my reading habits when I was really young, I was really drawn to stories about strong girls who in some ways are outsiders. That’s definitely what those characters share. They’re both outisders who find their strength during the course of the book. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I see now that I was very drawn to stories like that.
What’s a book that in some way cemented you as a writer?
You know, I haven’t been asked that before. I think that the first book that made me think that I could try to be a writer – or that made me aware that a young black woman from the South could write about the South — was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which I read for the first time when I was in junior high. Because I saw something of – not myself – but the experience of the people around me reflected in that book, because it’s set in the rural South and these people are poor, and just seeing that she could do that made me think, “Maybe I could do that.” It just made me realize that it might be possible.
What’s a book you always go back to and read every year or so?
I have two answers for this one too. The first is The Hero and the Crown! [Laughs] Still. Even though I read it for the first time when I was eight, there’s something about that story that I just love on a purely escapist level. Then, the serious fiction that I read over and over is Faulkner. As I Lay Dying, I reread that often. That’s the first work of Faulkner’s that I read that so amazed me and that I responded to emotionally and viscerally. I admired it so much, and I think that’s why I keep rereading it. That book just works so well. I’ve only read Absalom, Absalom! once, but I might want to revisit that one because it completely just blew me away.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
I read the last Harry Potter, and I cried for at least the last 70 pages. Awful! I was curled into a ball and I just kept sobbing. It was embarrassing. I was loud, and I just kept wiping tears away so I could see the page. That’s awful, but it’s true! [Laughs]
What’s a book that you always recommend to people?
When I read Absalom, Absalom!, I remember being really excited about it and telling all my friends they had to read it, especially my writer friends. Also, Death in Spring. That book made me cry, too. I remember getting to the end, and it was just so heartbreaking and so beautiful that I began crying at the end of that. After I read that, I thanked my friend for giving it to me and I started recommending that. It’s beautiful. It’s difficult, but it’s worth it, especially in the end.