Portrait courtesy of Jesmyn Ward

Mississippi has birthed a legion of influential literary figures: Donna Tartt, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. Meet the latest author to perpetuate the state’s legacy: the DeLisle, Mississippi-born and -based Jesmyn Ward, whose second novel Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011 and whose memoir, Men We Reaped, topped critics’ lists last year. Here, she chats writer’s block, lessons learned and her attraction to Southern Gothic themes.

My writing is about…
This is a hard question to answer. The most succinct answer would be: my writing is about people trying to find their way.

Themes I’m most drawn to…
As I look back over my books, I figure I write about familial relationships, grief, tragedy, resilience and the savage beauty of the South.

Book I fell in love with as a child…
Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown. It’s a story about a princess whose mother died in childbirth. The princess is despised by her subjects, and in an effort to find something that will help her be of service and maybe persuade her people to like her, she fights dragons. I saw something of myself in her, I think, identifying with her sense of alienation and loneliness and that yearning for purpose. I also probably recognized something of myself in the fact that she was a fighter.

My favorite books…
Change all the time. I just re-read Nikky Finney’s National Book Award-winning collection Head Off & Split, and it made my head explode yet again. I love her. I re-read Faulkner all the time: As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom! especially. And I love the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman; they’re some of the best children’s books ever.

My literary influences are…
I love Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and Carson McCullers and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich and Gabriel García Márquez and Anne Carson and Mahmoud Darwish and others. And of course there are my contemporaries: Mitchell Jackson and Kiese Laymon and Celeste Ng and Justin St. Germain and Jim Gavin and Mike McGriff and Natalie Bakopoulos and Raymond McDaniel and others. Too many to count. I sacrifice sleep and read everything I can get my hands on.

My advice for the aspiring writer…
Read everything. Write every day. And know that you can (and will) be rejected by hundreds, but you only need one person to read your work, love it, and say yes.

Best writing advice I’ve ever been given…
Peter Ho Davies told me that part of the reason that a successful writer is so is because of one’s ability to persevere — through unemployment, rejection, writer’s block and failure. If you give up, if you stop writing, then you’ve taken yourself out of the fight.

When I have writer’s block…
When gas was cheap, I’d drive and listen to music and daydream. Now that gas is expensive and I’m terrified about our planet’s future, I clean my house or take walks, and I think. And then I read something so beautiful and heartbreaking and true that it inspires me, and I begin.

Right now I’m reading…
An anthology called Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History that’s really subversive and beautiful in spots. I’m also reading a collection of poetry by Pierre Reverdy in little snippets because it’s so dense and delicious. And finally, I’m making my way very slowly through a nonfiction title called Black Women in White America, edited by Gerda Lerner, which contains a lot of deeply-affecting first person essays by black women, from slaves to abolitionists to civil rights crusaders to journalists and more.

Favorite time of the day to write…
I like to write in the early afternoon. I wish I had the kind of body clock that accommodates getting up at 5 AM and writing for two hours, but I don’t. Because I have a one-year-old, I work around her schedule, so I write whenever I can.

And favorite time of the day to read…
I actually don’t have a favorite time of day to read. If I had unlimited time, no kids, and didn’t have to work, I’d probably spend 50 percent of my day reading, only taking breaks to eat and use the restroom. I love it that much. I think it’s an addiction.

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