It’s tough to imagine a writer as gifted as Jesmyn Ward struggling with a book. Her last novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011, and her wrenching 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, was nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
But her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, a luminous, magical realism-tinged masterpiece set in rural, post-Katrina Mississippi, went through quite a few permutations before it finally crystallized into the version you can hold in your hands today. Ward initially envisioned the setting as a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape, for instance. And the ghosts that move through Sing’s pages weren’t always actual ghosts.
The star of the book is Jojo, a lonely, mixed-race 13-year-old who lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, and helps raise his toddler sister, Kayla. His mother Leonie, one of the other narrators, is haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, Given, and struggles with drug addiction and a blinding love for Jojo’s white father, Michael, who’s just been released from prison. Pop, meanwhile, is haunted by his past at Parchman, the brutal, inhuman prison where he met a young kid named Richie — Sing’s spectral third narrator.
Ward spoke with EW by phone from her Mississippi home to discuss Sing, Unburied, Sing‘s evolution, how her teenage love of fantasy and sci-fi informed the book, and how she hopes readers will feel about her resonant, unforgettable characters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you started this book, what came first, the characters or the story?
JESMYN WARD: Jojo. Even when I was writing bad first chapters of the novel that I had to throw away again and again, his character, for some reason, was the clearest in my head.
Was he in a different story or this one?
It was the same story, but a different version. I think I was trying to find my way to the story that eventually became Sing, Unburied, Sing. [Jojo] was so compelling as a character that it was hard for me to focus on the story surrounding him and figure out exactly where he came from and where he should be in the world.
When I first began writing about Jojo, he was in this sort of weird post-apocalyptic landscape after Hurricane Katrina. So he had lost his family, and he met an older man who, I think, was probably the prototypical figure for Pop. But in those first chapters, he wasn’t related to Jojo.
But then I kept writing that chapter over and over and over again, and something about it wasn’t working. And then I sort of clarified what was so interesting about Jojo’s character to me, which was that he’s this mixed race kid growing up in the modern South, so he’s contending with the past and the present all at once. All of that is very personal to him, I guess, because of who he is and where he comes from, and because of his family members. So that was when I clarified, “Okay, that’s the reason I really want to write about Jojo — because of who he is and what he has to contend with.” Once I focused on that, then I found my way to what became the story for Sing, Unburied Sing. But it took me a while to get there.
I see why Jojo stuck with you. I still want to scoop him up!
Yeah. I think that’s part of the reason he was so compelling to me from the very beginning. I cared about him and fell in love with this idea of him so much that I had to return to him. I couldn’t leave him out there in fictional character limbo.
You blend so many themes together so smoothly: poverty, race, drug addiction, grief. Did one of them stand out in sharper relief when you were working on the book?
It’s interesting, because when I’m working through revisions, then I’m thinking about the themes of the work or the questions that I’m asking, and whether or not I’m finding my way to any answers. But I tend not to when I’m writing the initial draft, because for me it really is all about character, and putting this character that you care about in a situation and just seeing what happens from there.
That makes sense. Of course you didn’t have a checklist.
Yeah. I mean, it was important to me to write about that specifically because… you know, I still live in my hometown, which is really small, in rural Mississippi. There are a few middle-class families here, but overall, it’s poor and working class, and at least my part of the community is black. I’ve seen, throughout my life, the way that drug addiction has affected the community and affected peoples’ lives, and really put a strain on families. So I think that in order to stay true to the characters that I’m writing about who live in a place like this, I had to confront those things in the story.
Why did you want to write some sections from Leonie’s perspective?
When I finally got to a place in 2013 when I wrote a good first paragraph from Jojo’s perspective, I was beginning to figure out who Leonie was. At first, I thought his mom was white. But by that point, I was like, “No, she’s actually black, and he lives with his black family, and his dad is white.”
At that point in time, I was thinking about As I Lay Dying a lot. I love that novel, and I love the way, in part, that it’s about this family’s trip through Mississippi. So it’s a novel about a journey, but it’s also very specific to that time and to that place, and to Mississippi.
So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to write this novel about Jojo where he’s on a journey like that, but through the modern South, through Mississippi as it is now?” But then I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll play around with the narrative form a little bit. Maybe this won’t just be a novel told from Jojo’s perspective, but maybe it could be told from multiple perspectives.” Again, because I was thinking about As I Lay Dying.
I try to grow as a writer with every book that I write. So I think I wanted to challenge myself, because I had never written a novel where there were multiple first-person perspectives, and you had to juggle those perspectives, and yet tell the story in a coherent manner. [You have to] be aware of who knows what, and at what time they know the things that they know, and what time they should reveal whatever they know, and how what they know will work in concert with what the reader knows but what the characters don’t know.
NEXT: How Leonie’s phantom came to be…