Ward has been witness to two of the greatest calamities to befall America this century — first 9/11, and then Hurricane Katrina. She was in DeLisle when Hurricane Katrina struck: Seven members of her family made their way, partly swimming, to a truck to try to find safer ground. Echoes of that story surface in "Salvage the Bones," which does a masterful job, in its closeup sibling relationships and deep understanding of the legacy of place, to speak to the damage Katrina wrought and what it meant. It may be a better fictional reckoning of Hurricane Katrina than any other, and do a better job of coming to grips with that disaster than we have yet seen for 9/11. It was that resonance, along with a singular writing style, that made it the National Book Award selection.
Winning the award was a blessing, but also a curse. "I've had trouble writing since I won," Ward admits. "I feel the weight of that list." She now stands in the company of, among others, William Faulkner and Alice Walker, who she counts among her influences. With Faulkner, it's the whole package, "the way it is written, the rhythm of his lines, and his word choice, seems right to me," she says. Like Faulkner, she's using a single Southern town as the center of her literary world. With Walker, it was a specific book, "The Color Purple," which she read in junior high. "It was the first time I read something by a black woman from the South," she says, "that made me feel like it was possible to be a black woman in the South who writes about black people in the South."
The night of the National Book Awards, Nikky Finney, who had just won for poetry, took her aside. "She said, when you sit down to write, forget about all this. When you wrote, do you remember how that felt? Return to that. That's why you're here, because you were able to be in that place and access that." With Finney's advice in mind, she pushes the anxieties of how her next book will be received aside, turns on the Internet-blocking program Freedom and gives herself two hours a day to write. "All I can do in this moment is tell this story to the best of my ability, and try to get it right on the page," she says.
And Ward has returned, as always, to DeLisle. Katrina left the area irrevocably changed. Buildings were swept away; trees were ripped out of the ground, and some that still stand now grow at the angle the wind bent them to in 2005. And yet, Ward explains, "There's something about this place that doesn't change, even though the hurricanes can do the kind of damage that Hurricane Katrina did. Maybe it's my family. Maybe it's that sense of community and belonging that I feel when I'm here, that I don't feel when I go anywhere else. There's something here that keeps drawing me back."