Jesmyn Ward: By the Book

Any favorite Mississippi or Louisiana authors you’d like to recommend?

There are so many: Ernest Gaines, Natasha Trethewey, Donna Tartt, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker and Robert Olen Butler are just a few I love.

Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?

Carson McCullers’s “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” The richness of her characters was so impressive and instructive. I loved that they had such complicated interior lives and poetic vision, but then spoke to each other in language that was real and true.

Which writers – novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets – working today do you admire most?

Again, there are so many: Jacqueline Woodson; Colson Whitehead; Celeste Ng; Natalie Bakopoulos; Justin St. Germain; Molly Antopol; J. M. Tyree; Michael McGriff; Quan Barry; Kevin Young; Jericho Brown; Clint Smith; Daniel José Older; and Kima Jones are a few.

What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?

I’ve almost completed “The Girl Who Drank the Moon,” and it’s good in the best of ways: full of adventure and compelling characters and mystery and surprisingly poetic language. And it’s pushed me close to tears more than a few times. I think I’ll find myself reading more children’s literature as I work on my next novel, which requires me to read a lot about slavery. I need the lightness of children’s lit.

Which genres do you avoid?

None. I read everything. When I say everything, I read everything: children’s literature, Y.A., science fiction, fantasy, romance — I read it all. Each genre fulfills a different need I have. Each book teaches me something.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or several simultaneously? Morning or night?

Physical books are still my favorite, but I own an e-book reader. They’re convenient for travel. I read several books simultaneously, which means I read much slower than I do when I tackle one book at a time. But I guess I have a lot of reading needs right now. And as I have two children under 4, I read any moment I can get. Unfortunately, the bulk of my reading happens after my children fall asleep. If a book is very good, well, I resign myself to getting only four or five hours of sleep, and I read until 3 a.m.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I read everything, so no one should be surprised at anything they find on my shelves.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

When I graduated from college as an undergraduate, my father gave me Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” It was a beaten-up paperback in 1999, and it’s even more battered now.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

My favorite fictional hero is from my childhood: Aerin, from “The Hero and the Crown.” I read it when I was 8, and then again and again throughout my childhood and adolescence. The heroine is a woman who has felt unloved and alien her whole life and yet comes of age, confronts her demons and saves the world in the end. As a nerdy 8-year-old bookworm, how could I not love her forever? My favorite villain is Ms. Coulter from the “His Dark Materials” series. Her evil is so seductive, wrapped as it is in maternal feeling. It’s hard for me to answer this question with examples from adult literature because I don’t think about adult literature in terms of heroes and villains.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

This is when I became a reading glutton. I loitered in the library and picked books off the shelf by random. I read a lot of British children’s literature by accident — “The Secret Garden”; “A Little Princess”; “Five Children and It”; the Narnia series, etc. — so much so that I confused American spellings and British spellings until I was in high school. I also read a ton of books about witches. If the word “witch” or the name of a witch was in the title, I read it: “The Witch Family”; “Little Witch”; “The Witch of Blackbird Pond”; and “Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.” And finally, I found myself drawn to books about independent girls: “Harriet the Spy”; “Island of the Blue Dolphins”; “Julie of the Wolves”; “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”; “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”; the “Pippi Longstocking” books; and the “Anne of Green Gables” series are a few. I still think about those heroines all the time. Reading about them helped me to discover the kind of person I wanted to be.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“The Half Has Never Been Told.” It’s an essential book for anyone who seeks to understand the America we live in now.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

You’re killing me. O.K. One, William Faulkner: he’d be an enjoyable drunk. Two, James Baldwin: he’d temper Faulkner’s drunken foolishness while being vivacious and witty. And three, Octavia Butler, because toward the end of the night, I’m pretty sure she’d make several surreal, revelatory pronouncements that would blow our collective mind.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I’ve been trying to finish “Swann’s Way,” by Marcel Proust, for years. I get around halfway through, take a break, and then have to start all over again when I return. It’s not that “Swann’s Way” isn’t good; I simply don’t have the time or mental focus to finish it right now.

Who would you want to write your life story?

I don’t want anyone to write my life story. I did it in “Men We Reaped,” and that was harrowing enough.

What do you plan to read next?

“The Unnatural World,” by David Biello; “Who Rules the World?,” by Noam Chomsky; “Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded,” by Sage Blackwood; “The Cooking Gene,” by Michael W. Twitty; “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” by Ocean Vuong.

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Source: New York Times

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