Author Jesmyn Ward. (Mike Stanton )
Jesmyn Ward was struggling. Despite two master's degrees and five years of work experience, her job situation was difficult: She commuted an hour each way to a low-paying college teaching job. In her writing career, things were even worse. She sent out stories and got back rejection letters. Her agent tried and failed, and tried and failed again, to sell her book. "I almost gave up," Ward says. In the spring of 2008, she thought, "Maybe I should stop this. Maybe I should just quit and do something that would give me a steady, higher paycheck, like nursing."
Yet on Nov. 16, 2011, the not-quite nursing student's "Salvage the Bones," a novel about a poor African American family whose rural Mississippi home stands in the path of Hurricane Katrina, won the National Book Award for fiction. Because of the award's prominence, her publisher Bloomsbury ordered an additional 50,000 copies the very next day, tripling its print run.
That turn of events would have been impossible to predict three years earlier, when, while researching nursing programs, Ward sent out applications to two prestigious writing fellowships. It was a long shot: Nine hundred writers applied for the five fiction spots in Stanford's Stegner Fellowship program — one of which Ward got.
"It was amazing, like winning the lottery," she says. Before she completed the two-year program, where she drafted "Salvage the Bones," she saw her first novel, "Where the Line Bleeds," published by Agate, a small African-American-focused publishing house. "I didn't think any of that was going to happen," she says. "I was overjoyed when it did."
Ward, now 35, grew up in DeLisle, a rural town near Mississippi's coast that served as the basis for the setting in "Salvage the Bones." It is her lodestone; when I talk to her on the phone, she's there, staying at her mother's house. "People ask me about staying here. I think they assume that I wouldn't want to come back to a place like Mississippi, which is so backward and which frustrates me a lot," she says. "The responsibility that I feel to tell these stories about the people and the place that I'm from is what pulls me back."
Her mother, who worked as a maid, saw promise in Ward and encouraged her academic achievements. With law school in the back of her mind, Ward did her undergraduate degree at Stanford in English, concomitantly earning a master's degree in communications. She returned home, hoping to find a job in the South, and came up empty-handed. Desperate, she took a holiday job in a clothing store in an outlet mall. "I hope that I never have to work in a place that sells large quantities of jeans ever again," she says. "Jeans are rough! It used to kill my hands. I know that sounds prissy — I'm not prissy at all. But it did, it killed my hands. It was awful."
That prompted a turn to New York. "It wasn't something I had envisioned for myself. I felt like I was at a dead end here at home because I just couldn't make anything work, and I thought I should go there to try my luck," she says. Ward waited until she had a real line on a job, and then she began with a four-day trip to interview before committing to the move.
It was during those four days that disaster struck. Her younger brother Joshua, 19, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. She was devastated. Although her voice shakes when she talks about him, she is determined to tell her brother's story, and the story of the community environment that made it possible. Tentatively titled "The Men We Reaped," it is a memoir that turns on the deaths of five young black men in DeLisle, and will be her next book.
"I was so miserable, that grief and that loss were so fresh," says Ward, who moved to New York City in early 2001. "My time in New York really clarified things for me. I thought, what could I do with my life that would give it meaning? And writing was that for me." Although her job at Little Random, a division of Random House, was technically in publishing, it mostly consisted of plugging figures into spreadsheets. In 2003, she left for the well-respected creative writing program at the University of Michigan, where she earned an MFA.
All those years away from DeLisle, which included a recent John Grisham fellowship at the University of Mississippi, and she kept going back, in summers, for intermittent breaks, to find nearby jobs in the South. She passingly mentions driving, and there were also Amtrak trips, but flying doesn't come into it. That's because one beautiful day in New York she came up from the subway in Midtown Manhattan — it was Sept. 11, 2001, and she saw the smoke, and the towers collapsed, and then she spent four hours walking to get to her place in Brooklyn. It took three kinds of therapy and a book festival engagement to get her back into the air.