Jesmyn Ward (The Bat Segundo Show)

Jesmyn Ward appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #463. She is most recently the author of Salvage the Bones.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Testing the limits of his fury towards the Bush family.

Author: Jesmyn Ward

Subjects Discussed: Smoothies, fruit, bad franchises, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, what it means to be a mother and a woman, Medea, America’s lack of mythology vs. Greek mythology, life within a poor community, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an author’s responsibility to community, the regional limitations of contemporary American fiction, being made angry by comments relating to Katrina, Pat Robertson, Barbara Bush’s insensitive comments about Katrina, FEMA and Michael Brown, novels of ideas, the physicality of characters, sinewy muscles, stomachs in fiction, close third person vs. first-person perspective, bad models of womanhood in the natural world, language, China as an anagram of chain, words as tokens of physical identity, present stigmas against figurative language, collisional rhythm, Outkast and Deuteronomy, finding an incidental rhythm, when to resist feedback that gets in the way of a natural voice, violence in fiction, creating a ferocious and multidimensional dog in Salvage the Bones, being surprised by the middle, pit bulls, Manny as a conflict generator, the mysterious ghostly mother, Hemingway’s iceberg theory, sexuality and promiscuity, unstoppable emotional forces, not glossing over the truth, describing trees with limbs, paradisaical cesspools, keeping a natural environment alive, and finding the right details to depict impoverishment.


Correspondent: You have Esch reading this Edith Hamilton book, especially Medea. And you also point out near the end that mythology won’t entirely help you out in a fix. Esch says that she is stuck in the middle of the book. And aside from Hamilton, I have to ask, did you draw on any other inspirational mythology when you were creating this book? Was there a point when you abandoned mythology at all like Esch? I wanted to start off here from the origin.

Ward: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t draw from any other mythology. I don’t think. Greek mythology, that was the thing in this book. I think in my first book I did — well, if you consider some of the older tales in the Bible mythology. I drew from some of those in my first book.

Correspondent: Do you consider them mythology?

Ward: Well, they are tales that explain how the world became what it is. So in ways, I think it is. But did I use any other sorts of mythologies in this, in Salvage the Bones? I don’t know. I don’t think that I abandoned it. I think that mythology’s important to her because it’s helping her understand what it means to be a mother and what it means to be a woman. So therefore, like even though she turns away from it, she still can’t help but go before the storm. To come back to that story and read more of Medea. Because see, she’s searching. And in there, she’s found something. She can’t figure out what it is. But she’s found something.

Correspondent: But it’s interesting that you would have her cleave to mythology in America, which is a nation that is constantly in search of its own great mythology. The Great American Novel. We’re Number One. You name it. I’m wondering if this mythological concern was in some sense related to, well, whatever American identity that Esch and her family had.

Ward: Well, I think she feels very much like an outsider. I think that the culture that she is from, that she lives in a small world — you know, a poor black community. I mean, I feel like they think they’re outside of that. They exist outside of that American dream. And so, in ways, they have to look elsewhere. And Esch, particularly, she finds that she is even more isolated than that community that her family is. Because she’s this only girl who grows up in a world full of men. So she really has to look outside what is easily available to her or in front of her in order to find some sort of kinship.

Correspondent: This leads me to wonder. Have you read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful ForeversWard: No.

Correspondent: Because your book, on a fiction level, reminded me of this great journalism book. Which I think you would love and I’m just in total admiration of. It basically deals with this inner life of the people who are poor, who are collecting trash on the edge of Mumbai. And your book reminded me very much of this response to typical First World guilt or what not. That instead of actually pitying or looking down upon these people, your book is very much about giving all of these characters a great inner life. They do live. And it’s important to remember that they live. And I’m wondering where this impulse came from. Whether this idea of allowing Esch and her family to live was in some sense a way for you to counter any accusations of “Well, I’m responding to politics” and so forth.

Ward: Well, I think that I write about the kind of people that I grew up with, and the kind of people that are in my family and about the place that I’m from. I mean, I’m from a poor rural Southern community that — at least in my part of the community, which is mostly black. And you know, our family’s been there for generations. And I have a very large extended family. I’m related to almost everyone in my town. And so, for me, it’s like writing about the people that I’m writing about — you know, I feel that it’s a responsibility. Because I’m writing about my people. Even though my path is very different from most of the people I grew up with, I still consider myself — you know, that’s still my place. And those are still my people. So for me, that’s what this is. I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider who’s speaking out for the rest of the people inside my group.

Correspondent: Sure. I totally understand that. Do you think that this is going to be how it’s going to be for your fiction career? That you have to respond to this responsibility of speaking for this group of people? Because nobody else will. Or, in fact, one might argue that maybe American fiction, or regional American fiction, isn’t actually hitting that particular territory. What do you think of this?

Ward: I mean, I think that for the foreseeable future, as far as my writing life is concerned, I intend to write about the place and the people that I come from. Because part of the reason that I do so — I mean, part of the reason that I wanted to write about Katrina is because I was uncomfortable and made angry by the way that I heard others speak about people who didn’t evacuate from the storm. About people who stayed. About poor people who were caught in the maw of that storm. And I wanted to write against that. And so in a way, I do think that the voices of the people that I write about, or even just the people that I write about, that they’ve been absent in the conversation, in the national conversation. And that’s part of what I’m trying to do by writing about them. Introduce their voices into the conversation so that people pay attention and people aren’t so quick to write them off as worthless or stupid or all the other crazy things that I heard after Hurricane Katrina.

Correspondent: Are there specific things that really pissed you off?

Ward: Well, I heard this one woman. She’s from Atlanta too, which is close enough. It’s six hours away from where I live. And she said that the reason that Hurricane Katrina had hit us and done so much damage is because we were sinful. That we were in a sinful place. Like, for her, it was very much about — you know, she was approaching it from a religious standpoint.

Correspondent: The Pat Robertson-like charge.

Ward: Yeah.

Correspondent: “Well, they brought it onto themselves.”

Ward: Yeah. So we deserved it because of our proclivity for gambling and drinking and all the rest. And then other people that I encountered said that, one, they couldn’t understand why people stayed. Why people would stay and try to survive a hurricane like that. And, two, that they didn’t understand why people would return and try to rebuild. Because what’s the point if global warming just means that there are going to be more storms, there are going to be just as powerful as Katrina and more of them are going to hit that part of the United States. And that comment really made me angry. Because that person was from L.A.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Ward: That person was from California, which has its own.

Correspondent: These bicoastal buffoons.

Ward: So I just heard commentary like that. And it just made me really angry. And I wanted to counter those. I really felt that our voices were absent from that. Especially that conversation. You had what’s her name. It’s Bush’s mother. Remember when she said that crazy stuff?

Correspondent: Barbara Bush.

Ward: Yeah. About the people from New Orleans. Like this was like a vacation for them. Because they got to go ahead and stay in the Astrodome. Like really? Are you serious? Just so far removed from the reality of these people’s lives and their struggles. Just so far removed. Comments like that just made me realize how, when people said them, it’s like they didn’t recognize our humanity at all. And that really made me angry, and made me want to address Hurricane Katrina in the book.

Correspondent: Well, this seems as good a time as any to confess to you, Jesmyn, that at the point where they are scrambling for their boiled eggs and their packages of ramen, and there is of course the depiction of the carton of bones in the fridge — and then they say, “Oh, well, FEMA and Red Cross will help us out.” At that point, I thought I had a maximum level of anger towards Bush and Brown. And then I read that. And I became even more furious towards them.

Ward: (laughs)

Correspondent: And you’re talking here about anger. And you’re talking about it in a very calm manner. And this book is extremely focused, I would say. So what did you do to not get so caught up in this understandably furious impulse and actually focus in on the book? Was it really the inner life of these characters that was enough for you to counter any socioeconomic, political responsive bullshit?

Ward: I think so. Because I feel that my book will fail if my characters are not alive on the page. There have been great novels of ideas, right? But, for me, the kind of writer that I am, I can’t write those novels. And I don’t think that they would be successful novels.

Correspondent: Why do you think you can’t write a novel of ideas? Or that the ideas are best represented in the environment that you set down?

Ward: I don’t know. It’s just not my style. What comes naturally to me is telling a story that’s invested in people and in the characters, and making them live on the page.

The Bat Segundo Show #463: Jesmyn Ward (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Téa Obreht

Téa Obreht appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #421. She is most recently the author of The Tiger’s Wife, winner of the Orange Prize and finalist for the National Book Awards (to be announced on Wednesday: check out Reluctant Habits and our Twitter feed for live coverage from the floor that evening).

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Pondering a future in which writers are trained by Carl Weathers.

Author: Téa Obreht

Subjects Discussed: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” how much one needs to know about tigers, being a National Geographic nerd, research and laziness, readers who have different takes on a story, clumsiness, musicians who become butchers, precise metaphors within The Tiger’s Wife, having the illusion of knowing what you’re doing, talking in first person plural, storytelling and The Secret, regularly arriving at the wrong formula, the elephant scene, deathless men, finding inspiration at the Syracuse Zoo, why brains need to sit with ideas, working in a faux Balkans world, finding verisimilitude for faraway places within common present-day incidents, sharing earbuds on Walkmen and iPods, immediate points within life that connect you to stories, family members who avoid writers, writing what you know “at the moment,” trigger points, similarities between Underground and The Tiger’s Wife, Emir Kusturica, gypsy film soundtracks, learning English from Disney films, legends particular to Belgrade, the Kalemegdan fortress, film as a greater influence for dialogue than real life, Howard Hawks, bad cinematic trilogies, the Qatsi Trilogy, treating fiction as something fabricated, relationships between truth and fabrication, humor bridging the gap between magic and realism, laughing over awful events, Shoah, The Gulag Archipelago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Master and Margarita, finding a humorous path to the real, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, bonding emotional with a book, whether death is inherently funny, Fawlty Towers, coffee grounds as personal mythology, thick Turkish coffee in the Balkans, parrots that quote poetry, legends that tend to spring up about English Bull Terriers in Belgrade, Kipling’s The Jungle Book vs. the 1967 Disney film, mythological animals, the rosy Disney view, reading from a non-American standpoint, being shocked by Kipling’s imperialism when discovered later in life, the dangers of embedded narrative, academics obliged to find silly interpretations in order to keep their jobs, mythology that is tied to a specific place, learning everything from Disney, American mythology, cowboy hats and immigrant stories, unnecessary suburban symbolism, hostile reviews from women, being confused as a YA novelist, paying attention to reviews, good art and polarizing people, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, critics who see things that the author never intended, standing by work, having doubts about early work, the inevitability of a few clunkers, deleting pages, overexposure and overexplaining, the possibility of Obreht turning into Smeagol if she wins the National Book Award, becoming corrupted by attention, J. Robert Lennon, insulating one’s self from attention, Sunset Boulevard, the importance of humility, defending the pursuit of writing and the need for books in a terrible economy, Richard Powers’s “What Does Fiction Know?”, the Occupy movements, and fiction as a form of help.


Correspondent: I must confess that Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” was in my head on the way over here the entire time. And I have you to blame for that.

Obreht: (laughs) Thank you. I keep hearing it on radios now. Like whenever I do, I get embarrassed.

Correspondent: Really? You get embarrassed? You get shamed?

Obreht: I don’t know why. Because I get really into it. It’s pertinent now. And then I get embarrassed about myself.

Correspondent: Do you get sick of tigers now that you have dwelt upon them quite heavily and you have to constantly talk about them?

Obreht: You know, I don’t think I do. I think it’s just getting more and more entrenched into what I do every day. Every email I send has a tiger picture attached to it that’s pertinent to the conversation.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Obreht: I’m sure that at aome moment a big break will come and I’ll say, “I never want to see any feline again!” And I’ll kick cats as I go down the street. No, not really. Not really.

Correspondent: (laughs) Violence is welcome on this program.

Obreht: (laughs)

Correspondent: Even hypothetical violence. So you have to become a tiger expert, I presume? Have you been reading up on cats and the like?

Obreht: You know, I studied tigers a little bit for the writing of the book and went and sat in zoos a lot. And I’m a total National Geographic nerd anyway. So it came naturally.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about nerdom. National Geographic nerdom.

Obreht: Yay!

Correspondent: How much do you have to know about tigers to know about them? Or do they exist within the wonderful theater of the mind? What’s up?

Obreht: I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind. Especially when you’re dealing with fiction. I mean, there’s only so much you can know. And then there’s only so much of what you know that you can transmit before it begins to be clinical. So I think research, while it helps, can sometimes destroy you. And I was very happy to take a little bit of what I knew and run with that and let a thousand imaginations bloom about tigers.

Correspondent: Wow. So you’ve learned this fairly early on. A lot of writers have to wait decades before they realize sometimes, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t read every book on a subject.” You’ve actually managed to avoid that from the get-go. To what do you attribute this extra wisdom?

Obreht: Laziness. (laughs)

Correspondent: Laziness? Oh, I see. I see. Practical temperament concerns. (laughs)

Obrhet: No. I think I’m always terrified — I think a lot of students that I have had at Cornell have been terrified of not making their intentions known in their writing or not having something clear in their writing. I’ve always been terrified of the exact opposite. I’ve always been afraid of letting too much be known too quickly or hitting the reader over the head with something. Because I know that used to be one of my flaws. So I’m so overly cautious about it that I think that it sometimes cripples me. I think that there are some things that I could research a little more heavily or whatever I write about them.

Correspondent: Being too explicit about stuff. Like. Such as?

Obreht: Such as? I don’t know. I think that such as a particular kind of character interaction or…

Correspondent: Such as?

Obreht: Such as — well, actually I’m thinking about my short story — for some reason I can’t think of an example from the book, but my short story, “The Laugh” — there’s this tension between the two main characters. One is the husband of a recently deceased woman. And the other is his best friend, but also someone who was interested in the deceased wife. And I was terrified of laying this out too quickly and immediately and explicitly at the beginning of the story. Because it would totally break the tension. And so in an early — in the first five drafts of the story, it wasn’t clear at all. And people were like, “Why is this happening?” And I was like, “Well, he likes her! Or used to and now she’s dead.” So, for me, it’s always this holding back and then trying to ease into being okay with the information being there.

Correspondent: Is this one of the chief concerns when you’re going through this endless rewriting and endless revising? To find that tonal balance that really strikes between what the reader needs to know and what the reader needs to infer?

Obreht: Absolutely. And that’s one of the great endeavors of the short story — this negotiation between the reader and the writer and how that information is being transferred. And you can transfer information in a way where the reader knows. Like the implication is already there and all you have to do is trigger it with that one word for the reader’s neural pathways to open up in that particular direction. And it’s so much fun.

Correspondent: You sound like a drug dealer. Dopamine hits or something. (laughs)

Obreht: I do use a lot of caffeine! (laughs) But as a reader, I enjoy seeing how that happens. You know, how I came to the same conclusion as anther reader. That was one of the great exercises of workshop. How did you get to this place with this story? And I got to a completely different place? Or how did we arrive at the same place? Where was the information that led us both there? I love that as a reader. So I enjoy that as a writer as well.

Correspondent: But if you’re constantly revising to get that precision, how do you keep yourself in surprise? Because that, of course, is very important to maintain the life of a story.

Obreht: Oh, that just comes normally. Because I have no idea what I’m doing! (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. The big thing that nobody really understands. That writers really don’t know what they’re doing often.

Obreht: Yeah. Exactly. You know, you stumble into things. And you’ll be 75% of the way through something and suddenly it’s like, “Oh, I changed my mind! Actually, this is going to happen because it feels more normal, more natural.” Then you have to backtrack and shift everything. (flourishes with considerable exuberance, nearly knocking an object over)

Correspondent: (reflexes kicking in, saves object from falling off table) Almost knock things over.

Obreht: I’m gesticulating here!

Correspondent: No, no, no. If we knock something over, it will make this conversation 300% better.

Obreht: That’s awesome.

Correspondent: It’s already going very well.

The Bat Segundo Show #421: Téa Obreht (Download MP3)

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