By Erik Kristman
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Erik Kristman, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jesmyn Ward about her book Sing, Unburied, Sing (Schribner), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
Jesmyn Ward tells stories that will haunt you. She is a two-time winner of the National Book Award for Fiction and is currently a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction for her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing. In Sing, Ward tells the heart-wrenching story of a Mississippi family whose past and present lives are tearing them apart. Unburied spirits arise to tell stories untold.
The creativity found in Sing, Unburied, Sing is astounding in not just its veracity, but also its delivery. From multiple points of view, including a ghost’s, to entire stories told in italics, I spoke with Ward on the process of creating the spellbinding literary labyrinth that is Sing, Unburied, Sing, as well as her upcoming novel.
Erik Kristman: My favorite part of Sing, Unburied, Sing is how each character is a storyteller. Leonie tells the story of Given, Jojo the story of Richie, Richie the story of Pop. This is inviting to the reader because the stories of each character quickly become the lore of the world. The way these stories are delivered, though, is incredibly experimental. I wondered how the italics for Pop’s story worked its way into such prominence in the novel.
Jesmyn Ward: You know, trying to figure out how to incorporate Pop’s stories into the present-day narrative from Jojo’s point of view was actually very difficult. It was something that I had to work at for a while. From the beginning, they were in italics. There was something about the italics, like letting Pop’s voice speak in those italicized sections, there was something about keeping them in italics that worked.
After I wrote the first draft I revised ten or twelve times and then showed it to my editor. She said, “Well, this isn’t working as well as it could. Have you thought about maybe changing the italicized sections? Like trying to incorporate them more into the story? Maybe take them out of italics and give them more context beforehand to lead into those sections.” And I tried! (laughs) I played around with those sections a bit but it wasn’t working. Changing those sections, taking them out of italics, giving them more context beforehand… it weakened Pop’s voice.
I threw those sections back out, put them back in italics, and tried to do more transitions leading into those sections so the reader was more aware of the fact that Jojo was thinking again about this story, and for some reason he’s not saying why. I don’t even think he understands why he’s drawn to it again and again. He’s drawn to the telling of it. I tried to balance it through the narrative. I had to look at every chapter where Pop tells this story. Every Jojo chapter, I made sure that we spent enough time with Jojo in the present so that the flashbacks of the past into Pop’s voice worked. So that no chapter is lopsided, there’s balance there.
I will tell you something that I haven’t told anyone else: originally there were no Richie sections but there were bits that were told from Richie’s point of view and they were… also in italics? And that just definitely didn’t work because it was just too jarring for the reader. When I was working on the rough draft and figured out who Richie was and that Richie would be a character in the story I thought, “maybe I’ll write some sections from his point of view,” and then my editor came to me and asked, “have you ever thought about writing some of this from Richie’s point of view and taking it out of those italicized sections?” It wasn’t easy, but I think it worked. It made the story. It worked better.
EK: The multiple POV approach to each chapter I believe is really tested much later in the book by the Richie sections coming into fruition. The Richie sections came in around 130 pages into the book, right?
JW: I think as soon as my editor suggested it to me it felt right. I don’t think you should be afraid to make your meter work for you a bit because, you know, we’re writing literary fiction, right? And in general, I don’t know, I just think that it’s allowed and part of the form. It felt right.
I revise a lot and I tend to revise in a way that other people may think is slow or doesn’t make sense. What I do is I just focus on one thing in each revision. That’s the reason why I have so many. Like, say, in one revision I’ll just work on Richie, like Richie as a character, characters interacting with Richie, Richie’s chapters, I just concentrate on Richie throughout the entire draft. I go from the first page until the last page and just do that because I feel like if I try to just move chapter by chapter and completely revise everything that needs to be revised in each chapter, I’m going to miss something.
I will say that I actually had some trouble because I wasn’t really aware of how often I was using italics in the novel. I was using it in the larger sections told from Pop’s point of view and Richie’s point of view in earlier drafts. But I also would sometimes when characters in the present moment thought about past moments and things that characters said to them in past moments. Sometimes some of the dialogue was in italics too and that was problematic because some of the dialogue in the past was in italics, and also sometimes when characters thought something in a vocal way, like explanations, those would be in italics. I was overusing italics and complicating things. I think the text in some places was too difficult to read because I wasn’t giving the reader some sort of template so that they could understand — so when she’s using italics, this is what’s occurring — that needed to be clearer and more purposeful. That was another thing I had to go through that I had to address in the revision.
EK: There is this gradual learning curve I noticed that goes throughout the book that ultimately leads up to a complex final scene with the character Mam, where the entire cast is brought together for this collective, cluster of catharses.
JW: That was a really difficult scene to write. At least in the first couple drafts and revisions, I thought, “Oh my god I have ruined this.” I just thought I wrote a scene that failed. I had written scenes where multiple characters were present but… I don’t know, I felt like in that scene there were too many characters, there was too much going on because it’s this moment where there’s this perfect storm of characters and their characters arcs are all coming to fruition. And then also time. Past and present collide in that moment, life and the afterlife, there’s just so much going on that I thought, in the first… I don’t know how many drafts, I thought I’m not doing this well. I did a really substantial rewrite of that chapter later on in the revision process. Something around the sixteenth revision. When I am writing the rough draft, I try not to think about any of this. I have multiple books on writing, multiple books that break writing down to its craft components, you know, I teach creative writing, so I have all of this knowledge of the “building blocks of writing” in my head, but I feel like if I keep that all in the forefront of writing, especially when I’m writing a rough draft, I won’t write that first draft because I’m not opening myself up to whatever it is that’s out there that inspires us to tell stories.
EK: On a recent PBS interview you did, they said briefly at the end of the interview that you are writing this new novel about New Orleans in the 1800s and the slave trade.
JW: It’s really slowly coming along. I mean, I basically had to take a break from writing it when I went on book tour for Sing in September. I know some writers like Nikky Finney, the poet, she writes — it doesn’t matter where is or what she’s doing — every day she’s waking up at a certain hour very, very, very early in the morning when it’s still dark outside and she’s writing. I wish that I was a morning person and I could wake up at four a.m. and work too, but I can’t think. I can’t access my creativity that early in the morning.
So anyhow, I had to take a bit of a break from it and now I’m returning to it, still doing some research for it, but still in the early chapters of it. In part because it’s a very different book from what I’ve written, I learned how to research and how to incorporate what I’ve learned from my research into fiction when I wrote Sing, but now working on this novel - it’s completely different because it requires so much more research. I definitely think I’m challenging myself because I am a little afraid. I’m questioning whether or not I’m going to be able to do this, and do it well, and of course I feel that responsibility to do it well because of who I’m writing about.
EK: Was there a similar sense of responsibility when writing Sing?
JW: Yes. In a way I listen to myself speak and think, oh god, you’re ridiculous, you know? Because it sounds so pretentious, “Oh it’s so hard to sit with this subject matter.” I realize on one hand how ridiculous it sounds — but it’s true. It is difficult psychologically to sit with these characters in this moment, and to recreate what was basically torture. It’s psychologically taxing and so again – its taking me much longer to write this rough draft because it’s hard to sit for an extended amount of time with these characters and render that experience physically on the page.
EK: Is that responsibility to write these difficult subjects where your fears and anxieties stem from?
JW: Yes, I think that that’s true. What I am writing about is peoples’ experiences, the experiences that children had at Parchman Farm. Now I’m writing about the experiences of men, women, and children when they were enslaved. These are really heavy, weighty subjects and yeah, they’re difficult to write about. I think there’s an added anxiety to it because of what I said earlier, this awareness that I have about the fact that in my writing— and again I might sound pretentious and lord I hope not —I’m bringing these people, these characters that I write about, into the public imagination, into a place that they’ve been erased from. That’s important and I feel a certain sense of responsibility to do a good job as a writer, to write them compellingly, and make them real for the reader so that they will stay with reader when they are done with the book. There’s also this pressure that that even though I’m making these people up, they’re based on real people that suffered in very real ways. I think that adds another weight too because I want to honor that, I want to be aware of that, and I don’t want to trivialize that. I think that all of those things come together and make writing more fraught for me.
Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, and the Strauss Living Prize. She is the winner of two National Book Awards for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011). She is also the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Media for a Just Society Award. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi.
Erik Kristman is a New York based writer and musician. His work can be found in various publications including The Last Magazine, VICE, and LA Fashion Mag. Prior to beginning his MFA at The New School, Erik was selected to perform research on underground music scenes at Cambridge University. He is currently working on his first novel. Read more here: Kristman.co