Author and professor Jesmyn Ward joins The Stacks to discuss her latest novel Let Us Descend. She reveals how the book came to her, and how audience plays into her writing process. We also learn why Jesmyn changed her normal writing process for this book, how she writes to the center of emotions in her fiction and how her level of success impacts her ability to write.
The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Severance by Ling Ma. We will discuss the book on November 29th with Mitchell S. Jackson.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:09
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host, Traci Thomas and joining us today on The Stacks is the legendary author, Jesmyn Ward. We have covered some of Jesmyn’s past work on this very show, but today, we get to discuss her brand new novel Let Us Descend, which is also an Oprah Winfrey book club pick. The book is a reimagining of American slavery told you the story of one girl. It’s a beautifully written heartbreaking magical realism tale of grief and survival. Jesmyn is a two-time National Book Award winner as well as a MacArthur Fellow and the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction. We talked today about how this story came to her how writing letters descend differed from her previous projects, and how she writes through the pressure of past recognition and accolades. There are no spoilers on today’s episode. Remember our November book club pick is severance by Ling Ma. We will discuss that book on Wednesday, November 29. With Michel Jackson. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. And if you haven’t yet, please take a moment to leave the stacks a rating and a review on Apple podcasts we are trying to get to 2000 reviews, we’re so close. So please, please, please take a moment to leave us that review. Alright, now it is time for my conversation with Jesmyn Ward.
All right, everybody. This episode today is thrilling for me I am so excited to welcome novelist memoirist, great American writer, Jesmyn Ward to the sacks. Welcome, Jesmyn.
Jesmyn Ward 2:49
Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here. Virtually. It’s good to be here.
Traci Thomas 2:54
Yes. I told you this just now. But I’m just gonna say it to people at home because I think I just need to get out in the open. I have never been as nervous for an interview as I am to talk to you. Because you are a brilliant writer, and you’re so smart. And I feel like there’s so much depth and layers to this book. Let Us Descend that I’m like, nervous that I’m gonna sound like an idiot. I’m like, I don’t know that she’s so smart. So I’m just putting that out there. And I’m inviting you to make me look good. In about 30 seconds or so can you just tell folks about Let Us Descend?
Jesmyn Ward 3:30
I can try. That’s always I feel like one of the hardest questions that people ask me when they say you know, can you tell us about your book in like, two sentences. Um, so Let Us Descend follows an enslaved a young enslaved woman as she is sold south, like from the Carolinas down to New Orleans, and basically marched to the slave pens of New Orleans, where she is then sold and then his bought to the sugarcane plantation. So that’s like the bare bones of what happens in medicine. But that’s not all that happens and let us descend because along the way, as she makes this descent into this hellish landscape, at the same time, she sort of, I don’t know like pierces the veil between worlds and she is introduced to like the world of spirit that that is all around us and all around her.
Traci Thomas 4:43
Yeah, you did good. Okay. We have we have the rest of this interview to talk about the book in detail. I just like to give folks a sense of it because when they listen, the book will have just come out. A lot of people maybe haven’t read it yet. I want to know why you wanted to write a slave narrative why that was interesting or exciting to you, right?
Jesmyn Ward 5:01
Um, so what happened I, you know, it’s it’s unlike anything else that I’ve ever written, you know, I’m most of my fictional work and my creative nonfiction work is like, firmly rooted in the presence sort of and references the past, but it’s mostly rooted in the present. But so I was so around seven years ago, I was pregnant with my son, my, my second child, and I work in I teach at Tulane in New Orleans, right. And so I have a bit of a commute takes me around I live because I live in my hometown in Mississippi. So it takes me around an hour and a half and 30 minutes to get into New Orleans. And so back then, this is in 2015, I was listening to a lot of NPR, I listen to NPR on my way to work. I hadn’t discovered podcast yet. I love podcasts. I listen to podcasts, mostly. But I was listening to NPR and it just so happened that that that year, was the celebration of like the 300th, sort of like a year of New Orleans history. And so as part of that celebration, the local NPR station out of New Orleans called WWNO, you know, was was actually producing, producing the show called TriPod, which is, at that time was all about, like, little known aspects of New Orleans history or the history of the region. And, you know, so like, one day, I heard a show about, they were doing a show about, like bullfighting in New Orleans, right. And then it just so happened that on the on this particular day, that and I was on my listening on my morning commute, that they were doing a show specifically about the domestic slave trade and slave pins in New Orleans. And I, I mean, I knew that that was part of the history of the city, right. But like, so my dad has siblings who were born in New Orleans, and who lived in New Orleans their whole lives. When I was a teenager, my dad actually moved over to New Orleans. And so when we would go visit him, we would, you know, stay with him in different neighborhoods, you know, in and around New Orleans, like he lived here at an apartment out in Jefferson. So I felt like I, I wasn’t totally familiar with the city, but I felt like that was my city, you know, that I grew up with, or grew up in partly, and so it was very shocking to me that I knew nothing of slave pins. I didn’t even I didn’t know that there were dozens throughout the city, I didn’t know that they were actually called Save slave pins. I didn’t know, you know, like just how horrible and brutal they were. And then I was like, particularly shocked when the historian that the journalists was interviewing said, and again, this is round seven, eight years ago, the historian said that back then, that there were only two markers in the city of New Orleans, where there were slave pins were slave pins had been, and one of them was in the wrong location. And that I think, beyond anything just really horrified me. Because I was like, suddenly aware of how you know, of how enslaved people had suffered so much, you know, and particularly in that place in that location. And that all that suffering, that pain that they’d gone through at that moment in their lives had been erased, like erased from the landscape, erase from our collective memory. And that seemed very, very wrong. And so I remember tearing up a little bit, you know, as I when I heard that, and I was like, But wait, no, no. What if I write about it? Like, what if I do my little part, you know, and write about it, and try to bring it back into our, like, collective consciousness? What if I do that? And and from that first moment that I thought, this is something that I could write about? I knew I wanted to write about a woman. I don’t know why, but I just knew that I wanted to write about a woman. So that is where the story began.
Traci Thomas 9:25
Okay, I have so many follow up questions. First of all, I guess, is that how these things happen for you, like you just know, you just know like, I’m gonna write about a woman or you just know this is the next story or or do you have these moments of like, other NPR stories or other inspiration that you want to write about? And just some of them just stick?
Jesmyn Ward 9:47
No, I mean, generally, when I get an idea for a book, there’s something about the need to write that story or that urge to write A story that settles me on it from the very beginning, you know, I don’t immediately know everything about the character or even the world that I, that I’m writing about. But I do know that I want to follow this particular person. So like with salvage the bones, the the, the idea that that are the person that that started me on the journey of like writing that book, the seed for that book. That was, that was ash from the very beginning, right, I was like, Wow, I wonder what what it would it would be like, for this girl who’s grown up in a world full of men, right. And then the hurricane came, sort of immediately after that, but the hurricane came after that, you know, God would sing unburied sing, I wanted to write JoJo came to me first, I was like, I wonder what it would be like, and you know, and often I get these ideas. When I’m driving, or when I’m doing something, I often get my ID while I’m driving, which is sort of weird to say. But when when a character comes to me like that, it’s always like, I’m in this like, weird, not meditative space. But like this weird space where I’m semi concentrating on doing something manually. And my mind is free to just sort of cast about I guess, for ideas, or, I don’t know, I just sort of think that makes sense.
Traci Thomas 11:32
I get mine when I’m taking a shower. It’s always in the shower, where I’m like, we’re like a question for an interview will come to me. It’s like I’m, I’m, it’s something that I’m always thinking about, like, how do I want to talk to this person about this thing? But a lot of times when I sit down at my desk to do it, the questions are like, how did you do this? And then I take a shower, I’m like, Yeah, I hear the good stuff. So I totally get that. Because it’s like you’re occupied with something else. But your brain is still working and like floating, right, but you’re not like, I feel like sometimes when I try to focus, I can’t focus, right. Another thing you mentioned in that earlier answer was about, you know, doing your part to tell this story. And how do you think about audience? Who is your audience? Does it change for you book to book? Or do you have a sense of who you’re writing for always?
Jesmyn Ward 12:25
I don’t think it changes from book to book, I think that from the beginning of my writing life, really, like I’ve always been aware that at the same time that I’m writing for the people I love and the people that I come from, you know, like, like, at the same time that I’m writing for, like, my family, my extended family, my community, you know, Mississippi southerners, right? At the same time that I’m writing for them, slash us. I was also aware that hopefully, you know, like, fingers crossed that people outside of my community and my family and extended family would also encounter my work. So I was always aware that I was writing for and other you know. And, you know, I, I tend to think about audience more when I’m revising, just just because of issues of like, just because I’m, you know, always concerned with issues of clarity. Right. And, you know, am I giving the reader enough? Am I giving them too much? Do I need to, you know, add more take away? Do I need to develop things? Right, clarify. But when I’m drafting, I try not to think about audience and I just, I yeah, I really try not to think about, about audience, for me, you know, writing that rough draft, and doing like the, the sort of large level, like, the earlier revisions, where I’m very concerned with like structure and, you know, like a big issues. I’m definitely not trying to think about audience, then I’m just trying to like immerse myself, sort of India in the story.
Traci Thomas 14:19
And then when you do start to think about audience and you are thinking about clarity, and like, if you’ve given us enough and all of that stuff, is that something like how do you figure that out? How do you know if you have is there some, is there something that like it makes sense to you? Or is that when you then lean on like your editor like Kathy Belden, right my editor here, how much of it is like outside handing a section over to someone versus you being like, you know, what, this is the fix, right?
Jesmyn Ward 14:45
So I, you know, after I complete a rough draft, I just let it sit for like a month, right? And then I come back to it. I read it all the way through Whoo. And while I’m reading it, I am writing down things that I notice, you know, things that I need to work on in revision, right. And normally I get, I had, there may be at least 10, if not more, and 10 is probably on the low end, but at least 10 big things that I have to do in order in revision. And so then what I do is I then go back to the beginning of the book, and then I just concentrate on like the first thing on the list the whole way through the book. So that’s one revision, I cross that off, and then I go to the second thing, and that’s the second revision. So I revise as much as I can over and over and over again, until I can make my way through that list. And normally, what I do at that point is, I then beg my friends who are writers to look at it. And so then I’ll send them, you know, send it to them. And they’ll take two months, three months with it, look at it, send me you know, comments back about, like, what’s working and what I can, what I can work. And so then I, you know, read all their comments, and like, synthesize that, and then come up with another list, right, based on their comments. And then I’ll go through and do multiple, multiple revisions based on that. And so normally, after I do that, that’s when I finally bring it to Cassie, right? Because I feel like I’ve done all the work that I can do to it at that, you know, right at that time, right to get it to get it together, and to not embarrass myself when I sent it to her. And then she takes, you know, three months with it. And then she gets back to me. And then that’s the big revision and for every book except salvage the bones, that that big revision like that, that one, which is like the first of the revisions that I’ll do with her, that one is always like, really, it requires a lot of work. But she’s a great editor. And so I am grateful for it, because I know that she’s helping me to, you know, transform the book into get it closer, I think to this vision that I have of it inside of my head, right. But funny enough with let us descend, it didn’t happen that way. And I think the reason that it didn’t, that I did not my process did not remain the same is because this book took me longer to write, like than any book that I’ve written, right. So before I even said one word down on the page, I like read for two years in research because I, I knew nothing about American chattel slavery, I knew nothing. And so I read for two years, and I would have continued to like read and not write. But then, after reading for two years, I got to this point where, where I realized my you know, because I was in contract for this book, and I was like, oh, right, no, like, my, my submission date is coming up soon. And I have nothing. And so I was like, Well, you know, like, I understand that I will have to continue to research as I write, but I have to start writing, I have to get something down on the page. So I started. And that was really difficult. And I wrote like, bad beginning after bad beginning. And then, you know, like, as you know, because I’ve written about it. Three years ago, my partner died, you know, and that silenced me for a while, right? And I have no there was, there was a moment where I thought maybe I’m not going to finish this book. Like maybe I’m done. Like, maybe I’ve written all the books that I’m ever gonna write. And, and so I sat with that in this was in 2020. So I sat with that for a while, you know, my, he died at the beginning in January of 2020, you know, the, the very beginning of the year. And so, you know, this is somewhere around, I don’t know, may that I was feeling that way because I hadn’t written you know, since he, since he passed away. And so, but I was like sitting with that, like in the in the at the beginning of the summer during the summer. But then I, I just felt very strongly that and I feel like this was him, letting me know, too, right? Like it was a combination of what I knew about him and him also communicating with me that that is the last thing that he would want his loss to do. To me, you know what I’m saying? Like, that’s the last way that he would want, you know, like his leaving to affect me he would he wouldn’t want. He wouldn’t want my grief that I felt for him to silence me. And so I thought, Okay, well then I got I have to get, I have to do this. And so then I dove back into the writing of it of the novel. And in a way it was almost like starting all over again. And so I, I picked up where I had stuck where it stalled out, I had stalled out at like, Chapter Three or something. And then I, I wrote all the way through to the end. And, and then I did I, you know, I made my list and did multiple, multiple revisions, and then I looked up and it was like, it had been like, six years since I started, you know, like the book, right? And, and, and, and I was debating, like, getting it to my friends, but it was around like, April, I think of 2022. And then I was just like, you know, what, you know, like, if I get it to my friends, now, they’re gonna have it for the summer, they’re gonna get back to me with, you know, with with revisions, you know, that things that I think about our vision in the fall, then that’s going to take me throughout the whole, it’s gonna take me the whole fall, right to go through revision after revision after revision. And I just sort of want to not like, I just felt like, I’d been sitting with it for so long. Yeah, that I just needed to send it to Kathy, you know, and I and I told her when I sent it to her, I was like, you know, it’s not normally where my manuscripts are, at this point, because I haven’t had that extra round of revision with, you know, with like, multiple, my first my group of first readers like giving me feedback. So I sent it to her. And that first revision, oh, Lord. It was rough. It was really rough. It required me to rewrite like the first three chapters. And I’d never had to do that before. But it was, but But you know, Kathy, is Kathy Kathy is, you know, not only is she one of my best friends, but she’s also the best editor. For me, you know, like, she’s the best editor I’ve ever. She’s, I love her.
Traci Thomas 21:57
She’s a dream.
Jesmyn Ward 21:58
Right, and so she so, you know, all of her, you know, questions and suggestions, suggestions for revision, they were spot on, right. And I and I, and I understood that and so I just, I knew, like, at that point, okay, I just, I have to put in the work on my end, right? To like, really sit with sit with her, you know, sit with what she’s telling me. And, and just work through it, you know, and be nice. Ruthless in a way, I think clear eyed and ruthless in a way. But it so I did on my end, I put in the work. And it transformed the book, it really did.
Traci Thomas 22:36
Okay, this is a sort of nosy question. And you can just tell me no, but who are the people that are your friends in the first group of readers.
Jesmyn Ward 22:46
So they’re mostly people who I went to school with. So, like some of the people that I went to school with, at Michigan, and when I was going to University of Michigan, I was in the MFA program there. So two people, two different people that were my class Elizabeth Stout, and Natalie Bakopoulos. And then the rest of the I have a few other folks I sent who I send my work to, and they were in- and I was a Stegner Fellow with him. So Stephanie Soileau Sarah Frisch. One of my friends, Ammi Keller, I usually send my work to her too. And she also gives me feedback. This round, when I was thinking about sending it to the My first group of readers before I decided not to, I was actually going to ask in Regina is probably going to, you know, my cousin is probably going to be angry with me. But I was gonna say, and I was going to ask Regina Bradley, who I love and who had become really close with I was going to ask her to read the first draft. I also have another friend Kristen Kieffer, who I’ve become friends with and so I was going to ask him to perhaps read an early draft of it. So it’s just a combination.
Traci Thomas 24:04
I’m just always so nosy to know which writers or friends who, like I love acknowledgments because I’m like, Oh, I get to see. And we haven’t really talked about the book at all, because I just like that excited to ask the process questions, which usually I do later. But I do want to ask you about the relationship of this book to Dante’s Inferno. I know that it comes up really early in the book, I have, you know, the Ark copy where I think in the note, maybe Kathy mentions it or something. So I sort of was thinking about Dante’s Inferno as I was reading the book, because I was told to think about it, but I’m wondering, you know, and that’s where the title comes from. It comes from the scene really early on where this tutor is talking about Dante’s Inferno. So I’m just wondering, like, how that played into your thinking about the book, Why Dante’s Inferno Oh, just any insight to that sort of piece of this story?
Jesmyn Ward 25:03
Yeah. So I read, I read Dante’s Inferno. Actually, I never read it in school, you know, when I was in high school, not an undergrad, not in gret, not in grad school, actually read Dante’s Inferno, on the advice of one of my friends. He’s a journalist. Now, his name is Daniel Burke. And I read, you know, we, we were like young 20 Somethings working in publishing in New York City. And he just asked me if I’d read it one day, and I was like, Oh, I’ve never read it. And he suggested that I read it. And so I read it. And I can’t remember, I think we may have talked about it a little bit. But it I think the, the poetry of it stuck with me. And the power of the imagery stuck with me, even though I didn’t revisit it, you know, like for years and years. And so right when I was thinking about Atlantis, and thinking about her journey, because somewhere in those two years of reading, I had discovered, you know, the fact that New Orleans was like, the capital of the American, you know, of the domestic slave trade, right? Once transatlantic slavery was was was banned, right, like New Orleans became the capital of the, of the American slave trade. And that at that time, for various reasons, right, so many enslaved people were being transported south to the slave markets of New Orleans and then sold in the slave markets to work in the lower South, right? And plantations in the lower lower South, right? Cotton, mainly cotton and sugarcane. Right. And so, I and I remember being like, not really knowing how, like how she was going to end up in the slave pens of New Orleans. But then once I read about the Georgia, about Georgia men, and about the fact that at one time, people from the Upper South were like, marched south to New Orleans, I was just so taken aback at how arduous that journey must have been. Yeah, how it might have resembled a descent into hell, right? It especially because, you know, just like, Temperature wise, weather wise, the fact that you’re walking south, and that the walk, I mean, you’re walking hundreds of miles, right? To the slave pins, it just immediately called, like, call to mind, a descent into hell. And then the inferno, like popped into my head. And, and I thought, what if, you know, like, what if anuses journey? You know, because this is something of a descent into hell, like, what if it could reflect the infernal or what if the inferno could like, inform her descent into this hill, in a way, right, and, you know, and then started thinking about, like, you know, the fact that she was the daughter of this plantation owner, and, you know, what if his children had a tutor, and so, and because I was like, trying to figure out ways that I could, I was trying to open myself to the reality right into the fact that, you know, that she has a complex inner life, right. And so, I was asking myself, okay, so, what is that? What is that complex inner life? Like? What as that complexity, what aspects of a person out what are going to be the aspects of a personality? You know, because I recognize, like, the need for her to be a fully sort of realized rendered, you know, complicated person. Right. And I think that, that that can be a danger sometimes, I think, especially when we’re writing about enslaved people, I think, because we’re all we’re always, I don’t know, I think that, that their experiences have been sort of flattened in, in our, in our ideas about them, I don’t know, like, they’ve been reduced. And so my part of my job, I feel like in my, in my responsibility and telling her story was to complicate her into make, you know, and to render her as like vividly as I could on the page. And so, that’s one of the things that I sort of that sparked for me, right, this idea that she would that you know, in part because her mother is a storyteller. She loves language, she loves stories, right? And so, she, she’s so you know, eavesdropping on her, you know that her siblings tutor right? That would feed something in her right. This is her way of like, getting of sort of fishing beauty for herself. Right. And so I don’t know, and I, so I sort of sort of worked for it from there and I pulled the infernal off of the shelf. And I, I didn’t read the entire, I didn’t reread the entire book again. But I just sort of I read parts of it, you know, as I was sort of searching for ways that I could, like, incorporate, incorporate the infernal into her experience and into her sort of understanding of outcome, because I wanted it to inform her understanding of what she was enduring, right in the way that I think literature informs all of our understanding of, of our lives, right, and helps us navigate our lives. And so I wanted that book to be that to operate in that way for her to.
Traci Thomas 30:51
Yeah, something that I have always really loved about your work. And it’s sort of hard to articulate, but I’m going to try is that there’s something about the way that you sort of take human emotion and like distill it down to the core, and then sort of like, spin your stories out of that. And I know that again, is like, very heady and weird, but that’s what it feels like to me. When I read your work. I feel like I’m reading someone, you know, who’s lived a life and taken their experiences and taken the world as they see it. And like sort of purified those emotions or those experiences and then created fiction or nonfiction from that. And I’m wondering, like, how you think about bringing emotion or like, like, this book is so much about grief. Right? And like, there’s other other books that you’ve written Are you know about about like, Maybe fear or anxiety like I think that that’s so heavy in in Sing unburied, sing that sort of, like, unknown feeling. And so I’m wondering how you think about feelings? I don’t even know if this is a question. But when I finish her books, I’m always like, how did she make grief feel like that? As for a reader?
Jesmyn Ward 32:09
No, I think that it does make sense. I, you know, I? I think that in so in, you know, I’ve been in a lot of writing workshops. And so I think that one of the things that. Let me see. So there’s gonna be a long winded answer. And I’m sorry, I apologize for that.
Traci Thomas 32:31
I could listen to you talk about anything, so just have go off. Okay.
Jesmyn Ward 32:34
So when I so when I think when I first began writing or trying attempting to write short stories, when I was in college, that you know, I was writing really unsuccessful short stories, short stories that were more like, extended scenes, because I had no idea how to plot anything, right? Or how to structure what plot meant, or, and how to do it, or how to structure stories. So really, they were like, yeah, just my short stories were like, extended scenes. And what I realized, I think, like, dimly realized when I was writing them, that part of what I was trying to do was I was trying to capture an emotion. You know, like, I was trying to capture a character’s, like, the emotions that that a specific character was feeling at a specific moment in time, as they are, you know, living through something, right. Like, that was what was drawing me to the moments that went to the people that I was attempting to write about, right. And so then all my years and workshop workshop after workshop after workshop, I think, I think taught me first taught me to be aware that that was what I was trying to do, right that, that I was really like, invested in writing about people’s experience, like experiences and writing and their emotions and what they were feeling in them in these moments where they’re dealing with, like, you know, I recall, like one of the first serious short stories I wrote was about a teenager on his way to the hospital. His girlfriend was given birth. And he’s like driving over the bayou. Right. And like I said, it was just a scene, right? I mean, really, but what I was interested in was like, how this person would be processing? Birth, right? I mean, this is this is sort of a universal, like experience, right? And I was, I was really interested in how he would be feeling in that moment. And so anyhow, I think all those years of workshop really taught me to I think really seriously about character, to sit with the character to be aware that emotions are complicated characters are complicated. And that also that, like, I may be writing about a character in a certain moment, but that character is bringing everything that is occurred in their life before that moment to that moment, they’re bringing their own way of like, thinking about everything that has happened before in their life in that moment, they’re bringing their own particular references to that moment, their own particular like allusions to that moment, you know, the ways that they think about like family and love and friendship, and all those things, like they’re bringing all of that, to that to that moment. And so as a writer, like, I have to be aware of all of those things, in order to understand and I think, fully render them as, like, complex people in that moment, I have to be aware of, of all of that. And so I don’t know, I think that often the big things that my characters are struggling with, as far as, like, their emotions are concerned, like, those are things that I’m actually obsessing over or struggling with, at that time, you know, and then that it finds its way into my work and into my understanding of the characters in a way probably because, you know, whatever I’m obsessing over, like, that’s what’s bringing me to this moment in this character anyway. Right. So like, so we’re to salvage the bones. When I was working on salvage the bones, I was, you know, had just lived through Hurricane Katrina, I was very aware of how of death, right of loss of how a natural disaster could come in, at any time. And like, you know, and and take away the landscape that you love and the people that you love, right. And, and so and I think I was thinking a lot at that time about like, asking myself, so what do you do with that? Right? Like, what do you do with this? With this knowledge? Right? What do you do with this? You know, this fear that you’re that you’re feeling this fear, like twinned with love for this place, that you’re always in danger of losing? Right? Like, what do you do with that? And so, I think that the characters, while they may not explicitly say that, I think that, you know, they’re wrestling with that in their teenage in, you know, as teenagers Yeah, in some way in salvage, the bones was seeing unburied seeing, I had moved back home. And so I think that at that time, like, you know, is fighting this fight with myself, or having that this fight with myself is gonna sound weird, that I’ve had my entire life, right, where, on one hand, I love this place very, very much. And on the other hand, I can really despise this, this place, right. And I was wrestling with it, and like, what it means to live and work and, like, live and work and love, hear with the weight of the history of this place, right. And then also at the same time to do all that, with, you know, to do all that and recognize that this is the modern south, this is the new South. And so what does that mean? Right? And so and so, you know, like, I was bringing, you know, those emotions to sing unburied sing, and it found its way into into those characters too, because they’re sort of wrestling with the same things, but in just different situations. And then with, with lettuce descend, right? Of course, it was my grief is my grief that really brought me back to the work right. Right, you know, the love I felt, or that I feel, you know, like, for my partner, the realization that he want me to use my voice and, and I think that part of what I was like, working through on the page is like, as I was trying to figure out what my life would be without his physical presence, right? My characters in some way are dealing with the same thing like that’s the under that, I think, really thinking about grief and thinking about loss and like working through struggling through my own grief, which I still struggle with right and my own loss. For me it was the key to to beginning to understand in us and the world that she lived in and what she carried you know, like throughout her days, right? And I mean, it just, it made sense to me because I felt like, you know, if there was one thing that our, you know, ancestors struggled with, and one thing that they all knew it was definitely grief, it was definitely lost. It was definitely right, you know, losing people that they loved in various ways, right? Death and being sold away from each other, and families being split up. And so I don’t know, for me that was like, that was the emotional key that I needed to stop thinking about. And us as an alt, really all of the enslaved people that I read about to stop thinking about them as tight as archetypes, and begin thinking about them as like, real people who struggles with the same things that we all struggle with. I don’t even know if I’m sorry, if that didn’t answer your question. But no,
Traci Thomas 40:57
it does. It does. Okay. It does. Yeah. And then my other question of sort of about how you write, and this is the total opposite end, I think of the spectrum is like, I always describe your sentences as very lush. I feel like you write lush sentences. And I’m wondering how you think about sentences? Yes. Because I know that you do. When I read your words, I’m like, this is thoughtful. This isn’t just like, this isn’t just like, she went to the store. Like, if she’s going to the store, it is going to be the best sentence, there’s gonna be four sentences about her going to the store that make you feel like not only are you in the store, but you know exactly what store and the ground the linoleum tile feels a really certain way. And like, so I’m wondering how you how you think about sentences. I know, like when I talked to KSA years ago, he said that he has a refrigerator for his sentences where he’ll like write a sentence like, Oh, that’s a good sentence, I’m gonna put it away and use it later. Which I thought was really, it had never occurred to me because I don’t write I just read. So I only really think about writing as far as like, the finished product, but because your sentences are so fantastic. How are you thinking about them?
Jesmyn Ward 42:09
Okay, so, you know, of course, right? Like, I was a reader before I was a writer. Right? Right. And so when I was a kid, you know, like, what brought me to reading was just that experience of immersing myself in another world I loved right, wasn’t paying much attention to language, I don’t think. But then once I got a little older, you know, high school, definitely, by the time I was in high school, I be gained to find that. I liked figurative language like I, I love simile, I love metaphor, I love I love language that is lush, I, I love poetry, right. And I love poetry, like poetic prose. And when I begin to attempt to write, um, you know, I was a bad poet, before I began to move I ever wrote any prose at all, like, I was a, I was a pretty, I was a very, you know, in love with poetry, and wrote bad poem after bad poem. But, you know, but I was like, expressing but like, really exploring my love for language right through that. And so when I began writing prose, you know, I wanted simile, I wanted metaphor, I wanted, you know, figurative language, I wanted really beautiful imagery, I realized that I was paying attention to the rhythm of the line, right? In the same way that you have to pay attention to the rhythm of the line and poetry, right? Like, I was going through sentence by sentence and sometimes repeat reading them to myself out out loud, you know, or saying them to myself as I’m out loud as I’m composing, in order. So, I could, like, hear my way towards like, what the Senate’s wanted to be. And, and even though that was not the in fashion, when I was, you know, in my went to, like, when I was in school and studying writing and in my 50 million writing workshops, where, where then the, what was accepted, and I think pushed as like good prose writing was very lean, very clean. Not a lot of metaphor, not a lot of similarly, you know, no, no adverbs at all right? Like, just very like spare straightforward writing, but that wasn’t me and so I so I continued to write you know, towards What I found beautiful, and I just I tried to do it as well as I could write, and I just sometimes I failed. But I just kept trying and trying and trying and trying, as I evolved as a writer, and so yeah, so even now, like I still, I’m always thinking about the line and about end in a way sometimes, when I’m, even when I’m writing the first draft, you know, it feels like I am constructing the book line by line by line, because that is the way that I’m approaching it. Now I don’t there’s no, I don’t have a refrigerator for my sentences, like ESA. But, you know, for me, it’s really about sort of immersing myself into the story with that character, and opening myself up to them in the moment. And hearing them right, but at the same time I’m hearing them, it’s almost as if I have to conscious like, to consciousness is right. So I have this part of myself, that is they’re submerged in the story with the character in the moment, that is hearing them say these things. And at the same time, I have this other consciousness that is aware of the line, like aware of the words and the rhythm, and, you know, and the imagery and you know, all the things that you have to be aware of, I think when you’re, you know, when you’re constructing language, and so I’m sort of working from those in those two awarenesses I’m holding both of them and working from them. At the same time, does that answer your question?
Traci Thomas 46:53
Yeah. I mean, there isn’t a real answer. It’s just what works for you how you do it, like Yeah, you know, I feel like that’s If I learned anything from this show. It’s like there’s so many different answers. And this next question is one of my favorites. And this one gets the most different answers which is how do you like to write Where are you how many hours a day? Is there music or no? Are there snacks and beverages? Candles? Rituals, like set the scene?
Jesmyn Ward 47:16
Yeah, so I do like candles. I’m a sucker for a candle. I don’t like a particular brand or anything. I just like them. And so sometimes I I don’t know there’s something about having fire near you when you’re writing that is very soothing to me. And I don’t know, I guess enables me to create a little ritual around writing. I also I drink a lot of tea.
Traci Thomas 47:46
Jesmyn Ward 47:48
I love it. I love English breakfast, breakfast tea. I also love Chai.
Traci Thomas 47:58
You’re speaking my language.
Jesmyn Ward 47:59
I drink milk and sugar. I do milk and sugar.
Traci Thomas 48:03
I like this for us.
Jesmyn Ward 48:05
I am sorry. And I and I so for the past I don’t know probably like 10 years. I’ve been stuck on Fortnum and Mason tea. I feel very bougie but I like order it special.
Traci Thomas 48:17
Do you know what about Harney and Sons? Do you ever do Harney?
Jesmyn Ward 48:21
I’ve done Harney and Sons sons before.
Traci Thomas 48:23
I love them too. Yeah, love Fortnum and Mason. And also there’s this Canadian brand that I’m obsessed with. Called, oh gosh, no, I can’t think of the name. They’re my favorite. They’re like very bougie it’s imported from God. Now I can think about their close Sloan Sloan tea. And they have some phenomenal black teas. I’m gonna say you do have this one called. Got a royal no something Palace, something. Something really fancy. And it’s like, it’s like English Breakfast meats, like an earl grey, but it has like almost like a minty sweet undertone. I can’t even explain it. I had it once in New York at a cafe and then I hunted down the cafe, like tried to order online to see if it would tell me the brand like did this whole thing. And I finally found it’s called heavenly cream. That’s what it’s called. I’m sending you some tea. And please do, please. Anyway, sorry. I just get so excited when people drink tea and not coffee. No.
Jesmyn Ward 49:28
I mean, I do drink coffee, but I tried to limit it because because because I feel like it’s something that I should only drink when I really need it. You know, like so when I’m on book tour. I’m like, Okay, I’m just gonna talk all the coffee right? When I’m home and you know, I I love tea. So yeah, so I’ll drink tea and and I normally work from home. But here’s why. Because I actually I can’t write the music. It’s easier For me to write when I am in a quiet place, because I have to hear the line, like I have to hear the words I have to hear the sentences, I have to hear the, the paragraphs, like the Be aware of the, I have to be able to hear and recite and like be aware of the rhythm of the paragraphs. And so I need quiet so I don’t work with music. And I just, you know, sit in my quiet room with my tea and sometimes with fire. And, and I and I write I and and here’s the other thing that I know, this differs, you know, with, according to the writer to but I, I try not to read literary fiction when I am writing fiction, right. But I’ll read poetry, I’ll read nonfiction, straight nonfiction, you know, creative nonfiction, when I say straight for nonfiction, I mean, like, you know, history and stuff in Yeah, you know, stuff like that. Um, but I read that and I will also read, I’m always reading, you know, like, romance and ya and sci fi. And, you know, like, I love that stuff. Horror, I’ve tried to read a few horror novels. Um, but yeah, so I like, you know, I read in other genres, outside of the genre that I’m writing in, because I’m afraid of undue influence, right. Like, I’m afraid of like, reading someone’s work and like, liking it so much that it finds its way into my work like their prose. Yeah, so so I’ll read everything else, but I won’t read literary fiction when I am right. Do you read fiction?
Traci Thomas 51:37
Do you enjoy reading literary fiction when you’re not writing?
Jesmyn Ward 51:41
I do. I do. I like I love. I love like Lauren Grace work. I love. I teach like Brian Washington’s work. I really love his work. Yeah, I, you know, my friend, Christian Kiefer, like I love his work. There was a book that I was for a brief moment, I had a I did a book club with literati. And so there was this, this book that I had, you know, the the folks in my book club read by a writer named Chanel bins, I think, Gosh, called the gone dead. I think that’s what it’s, I think that the title of it. And I loved her work. I mean, it’s the only suddenly book that I’ve read by her but yeah, I do. I love literary fiction. You know, because often it’s like, you know, the as writers, they are doing the things that I love about you know about fiction, right? As far as like the pros, and I don’t know, so yeah, I love that or fiction.
Traci Thomas 52:47
What’s the word? You can never spell correctly on the first try? Um, let me think. Hmm. Or are you a really good speller?
Jesmyn Ward 53:01
Oh, I’m not. I am not. I am not a speller. I probably admit, I can’t think of a particular word, but I struggle with I E, or E I, you know, so like, every word. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I’m always misspelling receive every time I write it. Yeah. And I think you know, what’s funny, is I think I read, you know, when I was a kid, I read children’s books that were written by British writers. And I think that sometimes I as a kid that I read the British versions of the books, which which had the British spelling. And so I think that that has hampered me as an adult, as a writer.
Traci Thomas 53:50
Yeah, like adding a U to colour or something.
Jesmyn Ward 53:53
There’s a little fuzziness, I think, interests sometimes when I’m spelling.
Traci Thomas 53:59
So when we’re talking right now, it’s September, this book has not come out yet. Let us descend. But your last two fiction books were National Book Award winners. And you are like such a celebrated writer. I know so many people, myself included, who looked to you as sort of like one of our greatest living novelists and one of our greatest living writers. And I guess this question is really like about the humanity and you is like, what does it feel like? putting out a new book, knowing that there is like anticipation and pressure for you? Is that Is it harder for you as you’re writing? Is it harder for you as you’re preparing for this? Is it is there some sort of responsibility? Like, I just think about like, I know me it would make I would be paralyzed by that sort of stuff. And so I’m, and sometimes I talk to writers, and they tell me like, I don’t think about it, it doesn’t affect me whatsoever. So I’m just curious for you. Because, I mean, not only are you one of our great American writers, but you’re also one of our great black women writers, you know, and like that is meaningful, I think for so many people For me and so many other black women readers like so I’m just wondering how that pressure if at all sits with you if it fuels you if it terrifies you like any and all of that kind of stuff.
Jesmyn Ward 55:11
I think that it’s I think that it does terrify me in many ways. So after after salvage the bones won the National Book Award. I saw Nikki Finney was the poet who won that year for head often split, right, beautiful collection. And Nick, so Nikki Smith and her family sort of adopted me at that National Book Awards because I was so sure that I would lose that no one from my family was there. I didn’t even ask anybody to come right because I was like, I don’t want to ask y’all to take off work to come up here to watch me lose. So my my Lok, my bookseller, who was also my friend, my local bookseller, who was also my friend, he was there as a surprise, like the publishers invited him. My publisher invited him Bloomsbury. So it was like a surprise that he was there. But like that was it, you know? So anyhow, after we, you know, so that’s part of the reason that, you know, that I think Nikki and her mom and dad were, like, so nice to me, because I was, I was like, you know, this is just a child who was sort of alone in that situation. So they’re like you can, and we were, I was sitting like, right next to her table to like, my table was an excerpt that we were all the way in the back, right of the of this huge, like, beautiful hall. So I think, you know, she was like, we have to adapter. So anyhow, so after salvage the bones won the National Book Award. And after Nikki Finney won for head off and split. I went to a do a WP like that in the spring afterwards. And Nikki was there too. And we ran into each other. And we were in we had a conversation, and we were talking and she said, So how was how was your writing then? And I had, I was struggling, I couldn’t get anything down on the page. And I think that part of the reason that I couldn’t was because suddenly, right, like, there was this expectation of audience like, of having an audience and there was on my part, like, I was wondering, like, Okay, so now like, what do people like, first of all, people will actually read my work now more people, you know, and, and what, what will they want? Will they want more of what I gave them and salvage the bones? What will I it was, I think it was paralyzed? Because I was thinking about audience and like, the audience expectations. And and so I told Nikki that, and she said, she was like, she asked me, she said, so? What was the emotion that drew you to writing? Like, what did you feel before all this? When you sat down? And it was just you in the work? What did you feel? And, and I don’t think my answer to her was articulated at all right. But I think that what I tried to communicate to her was that was that it was really like, love, you know, like, for the people I was writing about, and for the place that I was writing about, and also a sense of responsibility. And like, in a fire, I think like a like a feeling of like, of wanting to push back against all the stories that the world told about us, right? of wanting to push back against that and, and make way for new stories, right? And she said, she said, Hold that. Now remember that, you know, and bring that the next time that you sit down to write, remember that and hold that close to you. And just let that be and write from that place again, right. And I took her advice, and it worked. And so since then, I like the NBA, the National Book Awards that I’ve won any awards that I win, I just bring them to my mom’s house right so my mom has passed them all in her like living room and in the room that I’ve stayed in, in her in her house that I you know, one of the rooms that I grew up in that show with my sister and like she has them throughout her house. And that helps me like I always ask if she doesn’t care, you know, she thinks it’s great, right? But I I just bring everything to her because in my space, you know, like I even hide my books for myself, like all my books are behind those paintings that have propped up against the bookshelf over here. They’re like hidden behind the painting like because I think doing all of that helps me to forget about audience At least when I’m writing the rough draft of the work, right, so that I can, like, you know, sort of, so that I can better cope, I think with that, like, fear that I have around whether or not I’m like, failing, you know, are disappointing my audience, like disappointing, like their expectations about the work. And so in a way, it’s like easier to get away from that. When I’m writing the rough draft, it’s easier to, to cope. Right, and to try to forget, right to pretend that forgetting that it’s easier to do that then, than it is now at this this point, right? Because at this point, you know, like, the pub date is set. You know, I’m already doing, you know, interviews and pre publicity stuff, or publicity stuff, you know, before pre publications, stuff. And so, I will admit that it’s, it’s getting harder to sort of block it out and not think about it. Because I think that there is like this little worry, you know, it’s a little niggling voice in the back of my head that’s like, what about this? And have you thought about this? And what do you think these people are gonna think? And who was you know, what are they going to think and so, right, but, but I and I just, I actually, I told Kat this the other day, but I, I talked to myself all the time, which you have probably gotten in the course of this conversation. So I, so I actually had to give myself a stern talking to when I was in the car by myself the other day, because I realized, like, I was like, very aware all of a sudden, as I’m like, riding along in the car, but what, by myself that I’m like, Wait, you’re like you’re sort of obsessing over the reception of this book, right? Like, the fear is building inside of you. And you’re really worried about, like, what people are going to think in. And so I yeah, I had to give myself a stern talking to you. And I was like, Look, you’ve done everything that you can do, right? At this point, you have put in all of the work, you’ve done everything that you can do. And now it’s out of your hands, right? I mean, the book is being printed, there is nothing more that I can do to the story, right now. And so it is what it is. And I just have to understand that and know that and understand that people are going to perceive the book the way that they perceive it, right. And that’s just something that I have to accept, and I have to stop, let it like making me anxious and making me worry, and I just have to let it be. Whatever it is. I mean, I hope that people love it. I hope that it resonates really strongly with people, I hope it makes people feel and fall in love and changes them and you know, and, you know, inspires empathy and all of those things. But, and hopefully I’ve done the work. So that that is what happens. Yeah. So yeah, I just have to keep reminding myself of that. But yeah, it is. It’s not I wish I could be like Oh, I just don’t think about it. And you know, it’s like water off a duck’s back. But it’s yeah, that case at all for me.
Traci Thomas 1:03:25
Okay, I just have two quick last questions. One is for people who love let us descend. What are some other books you might recommend to them that are in conversation with your work?
Jesmyn Ward 1:03:34
Oh, um, definitely Underground Railroad. Colson Whitehead? Probably Tallahassee coats with water day answer. I mean, I was thinking a lot about those books when I was working on let us descend, I think. Because I was in the middle of like, writing a book about an enslaved person. And I was like, Whoa, there are a lot of people right now. You know, like my contemporaries, you know, like contemporary black writers, black American writers who are writing about enslaved people and, but, you know, Tallahassee, I interviewed him when the water dancer came out, and one of the things that he told me then was, he was like, you know, like, there were so many enslaved people, you know, there were millions of enslaved people he was like, so really, there are millions of stories to sell about enslaved people. So he like, like a swage I don’t know if that’s how I pronounce that word, but he like lessened you know, my anxiety and helped me manage my anxiety about around writing a book like this. But I think let us descend it is in conversation. is in conversation with both of those books?
Traci Thomas 1:04:48
Yeah, for sure. And then last one, if you could have any person dead or alive, read this book, who do you want it to be?
Jesmyn Ward 1:04:55
Um, this is so first Um, she was with me. But it’s an it’s my honest answer. Toni Morrison?
Traci Thomas 1:05:08
Yeah. Yeah. All right. Well, Jesmyn, this has been such an amazing conversation. Thank you. I feel considerably less nervous. I think I did. Thank you so much, everyone, as you’re listening to this episode, thank you. The book is out in the world. Now, when as you’re listening to this, you can get it anywhere you get your books, do get it do read it. It is so good. i It’s like hard to express the kinds of feelings but I think what I said when I reviewed the book was like, it’s one of those books where you’re reading and all of a sudden you’re crying and you’re like, Well, how did this happen? Like you just like get overwhelmed by emotion. It’s just so thank you so much for writing it and thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Thank you, and everyone else, we will see you in the stacks.
Alright, y’all, that’s it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Jesmyn Ward for coming on the podcast. I’d also like to say a huge thank you to Kate Boyd for helping to make this conversation possible. Remember, this month’s book club pick is severance by link Ma. And we will be discussing the book on Wednesday, November 29th with Mitchell S. Jackson. Please take a moment to make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you’re listening to this podcast right now. If you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram threads and tik tok and at the stacks pod underscore on Twitter. And you can check out our website at thestackspodcast.com This episode of The Stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree, our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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