NBA Winner Jesmyn Ward on the Importance of Indies, Salvage the Bones & More

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At this year’s National Book Awards ceremony, fiction winner Jesmyn Ward thanked Mississippi independent booksellers — Square Books, Lemuria, and Pass Christian — for helping Salvage the Bones, which is set in post-Katrina Mississippi, find its readership.

Ward’s novel was hailed early by independent booksellers and was a September 2011 Indie Next Great Read. Stan Hynds of Northshire Bookstore  in Manchester Center, Vermont said, “Ward writes with a power and depth of feeling that is both rare and exhilarating. Her novel about 12 days in the life of a poor black family living on the Mississippi coast as a hurricane gathers in the gulf displays the gifts of a writer with exceptional skill and no fear. The characters seem almost to claw their way off the pages, so vividly has Jesmyn Ward created them. This is a novel of flesh and blood, heart and soul, dreams and terrors that I will not soon forget.”

George Gibson, publishing director of Bloomsbury USA, recognizes the role the indies played in putting Ward’s novel in the hands of so many readers. “We are enormously grateful to independent bookstores everywhere for championing Salvage The Bones; you’ve played a huge role in its success, proving yet again the ability of the independent community to elevate a book,” he said. ”Please join us in enjoying the reflection of the NBA award, for it rightfully shines on you. May Salvage the Bones be a big success for you, and may the holiday season this year be bountiful.”

BTW recently spoke to Ward about the significant role independent booksellers have played in advocating for her work, as well as about her Mississippi background and her upcoming memoir about the loss of her brother and four other young African-American men in her community.

BTW: What is your connection to Lemuria Books, Square Books, and Pass Christian Books?

Jesmyn Ward: I signed for the first time at Lemuria Books a few months ago, and I appreciated the fact that the bookstore does everything it can to be a community center for Jackson in the way that the best booksellers are. I love the folks at Square Books. Richard Howorth has been a great advocate for me and my writing, and he and his staff have worked very hard to introduce and include me in the literary community that surrounds Square Books. Visiting that bookstore feels like visiting family. And Pass Christian Books is also special to me because its owner, Scott Naugle, has also been a huge advocate for my writing and work, and like Richard, believed in me from the beginning. Pass Christian Books has a great story: they were wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, moved to another physical location in DeLisle for a short time, and now operate online only. They encountered hardship and survived. They’re scrappy fighters, and I love that.

BTW: What sort of role do you think independent booksellers played in finding an early readership for Salvage the Bones?

JW: With big reviews becoming more and more scarce and newspaper readership and circulation shrinking, I think independent booksellers have become more and more important in helping books find an audience. Independent booksellers, along with librarians, were among the first to rally around Salvage the Bones, to see the book’s potential, and commit to finding it an audience. A bulk of the book’s buzz began with independent booksellers, who all had lovely, generous praise for the book. I think bookstore patrons saw the real passion the booksellers had for Salvage and responded to that.

BTW: What led you to write a novel about a Mississippi family and a pit bull in the “maw of Hurricane Katrina”? 

JW: Mississippi’s my place, my home. I write about Mississippi families because I love the people that live in the place that I come from, and I want to see them represented on the page. I specifically wanted to write about a family that faces Katrina because I thought it was important to write about the kind of family that others stereotyped as stupid or ill-informed or foolish for their decision to prepare for and remain in their homes when they received warning about this hurricane.

BTW: Were there other books about Hurricane Katrina or struggling families that you thought about when writing Salvage the Bones

JW: In the early stages of the writing process, I thought about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying as a reference for another struggling family: doing so kept me aware of the varied tensions that could be present, of the layers of desires and needs and love and hate that could exist, the conflicts. I also thought about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple because I needed that reference of another poor black girl speaking her truth, telling the narrative.

BTW: On your blog you say that not that long ago you began considering entering a nursing program and plotting your leave from writing. What turned that around? 

JW: One person said yes. I faced so much rejection, and I was tired of fighting to write what I wrote and trying to find publishers or people in power who understood what I was trying to accomplish and saw some beauty in it. Specifically, Doug Seibold at Agate Publishing purchased and published my first book, Where the Line Bleeds. And soon after, the second person said yes: Eavan Boland at Stanford University, who granted me a Stegner Fellowship. I needed someone to say yes, and that finally happened.

BTW: What will your next book be about? 

JW: My next book is a memoir, and it should be coming out sometime next year. It’s about a specific time in my life from 2000 – 2004 when five young black men from my community died: the first was my brother in 2000, who was hit by a drunk driver. The book is telling something of these young men’s lives, asking the question of why an epidemic like that would occur in a small, rural, Southern town, and then using my life and my family’s life as context to find some sort of answer for that question.