Jesmyn Ward is a BookExpo veteran, who has attended the show multiple times, in connection with her bestselling titles Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury), which won the 2011 National Book Award, and her memoir, Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury, 2013), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Last year, she edited a collection of poems and essays, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (Scribner, 2016). She is returning for Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner, Sept.), her third novel, and this morning will speak at the Adult Book & Author Breakfast.
Ward describes Sing, Unburied, Sing as “a cross between a road trip and a ghost story.” It follows 19-year-old Jojo, his toddler sister, Kayla, along with their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, as they travel by car from their farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi across the state to pick up their white father on his release from prison. “They’re heading north,” Ward explains, “but to the reader it’s almost as if they’re traveling back in time.” Jojo and Kayla live with their grandparents, Pap and Mam. Pap is trying to teach Jojo to be a man while running the household and caring for Mam, who is terminally ill.
For Ward, who was born and raised in rural DeLisle, Miss., her birthplace is always an essential character in her writing. With Sing, Unburied, Sing, she says, “One question I’m trying to answer is, what does it mean to live in the New South, this place where history bears so strongly on the present, but where we may not be so conscious of that? How does Jojo navigate that, in a place where that history is weighted so much? Also, Leonie is failing her children—her father is raising her kids because she can’t. What does it mean to be a mother? How, once we age, do we forgive ourselves for what we did in our youth?”
As with Salvage the Bones, Ward says, the Jojo character “visited” her. “As a writer, I discover character first. These characters pop into my head. With Salvage, a 15-year-old girl started talking to me. Here, this 13-year-old boy popped into my head and started talking. I could see him—he had curly black hair, and was at that stage, growing out of his childhood body, feeling awkward. I wanted to write about Jojo because I was curious what it was like for a preteen to come of age in the contemporary South.”
Ward, who since 2014 has been a tenured associate professor of writing at Tulane University in New Orleans, is also the mother of two young children. “I think that being a parent has expanded my writing, expanded my understanding of my characters, and has added a depth and richness to my work,” she says. “Having kids deepened my idea of parenting and all the anxieties that come along with it.”
As for today’s breakfast, Ward admits to being the most in awe of “Stephen King, because “he’s had such a long career and his writing runs across many genres,” she says. “But if I could chat with anyone, it would be Claire Messud, because I think she could tell me how to get better as a writer as I age.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Jesmyn Ward will appear at the Adult Book & Author Breakfast, in the Special Events Hall.
Today, 10–11 a.m. Ward will sign at the ABA Members Lounge booth (721).
Today, 2–2:45 p.m., Ward will sign at the Simon & Schuster booth (2620, 2621).