When Jesmyn Ward took the stage with Ayana Mathis, each novelist glanced around the warm, lush Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland and toward the hundreds of faces turned in their direction.
“Here we are,” said Mathis, “two black women on a stage, two writers able to talk with each other; it’s really a beautiful thing.”
Bathed in applause, Mathis acknowledged that this wasn’t their first public duet. When contacted about staging a conversation, Ward, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, requested Mathis, whose debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” garnered an Oprah Book Club selection in 2012.
Seated comfortably, each in boots and black trousers, the pair gave an intimate master class in the craft of fiction, part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series produced by the Cuyahoga County Public Library.
Mathis, 45, began directly, opening her black Moleskine notebook to a page of jotted questions. She asked Ward about place and the centrality of Mississippi to her fiction.
“Place determines everything about character,” Ward said,” how people see themselves, see their place in the world. . . When I talk about place I’m talking about the history of the place.”
Ward, 41, a Southern writer who made a deliberate decision to return home to the Gulf Coast to live and work, said it was important for her to learn that wealth was once so concentrated in Mississippi that half of all U.S. millionaires lived in Natchez County in 1850.
“It deepens my understanding of how invested slave owners and white plantation owners were in the institution of slavery,” she said.
“It was foundational history,” said Mathis, who grew up in Philadelphia.
“Foundational, exactly,” Ward replied. “It allowed them to build what they saw as an idealized version of society for themselves. I feel that, that past, and it allowed me to make my characters richer.”
Mathis, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., observed that Americans have a contentious relationship with poor people. Ward responded, “I grew up poor, my family has been poor, both sides. All those generations in southern Mississippi have lived in poverty.”
“I’m reacting in some ways to the negative, preconceived notions people have about poor people: they are spoken about but never spoken to,” Ward said. “One reason I am so attracted to writing first-person point-of-view is because then the characters speak for themselves.”
“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” affirmed Mathis, whose own fiction focuses on characters who otherwise might go unremarked. She brought up William Faulkner, who, like Ward, created a fictional rural Mississippi county populated with poor folk.
Ward said that she revisits “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom!,” soaking up Faulkner’s lyricism.
“But I don’t think he serves his black characters well,” she said. “They are not given the rich interior lives, and I am very aware of that. He doesn’t allow them the same humanity and complicated quality that Faulkner’s white characters possess. I am always thinking about my characters — I feel them, feel for them, and I feel conscious of the ways black characters are short-changed in his work. I don’t know if readers who aren’t writers notice this.”
Both women spoke about their aversion to outlining fiction; how they find the characters they create surprising them, chuckling about its almost mystical coloring. “The process of writing the rough draft is very intuitive,” Ward said. “It’s as if the character is next to me telling me things. . . I feel real sympathy for children made to bear adult burdens. I tell stories about them because I am very interested in how they survive, how they are marked.”
Ward has said once she discovered how to enter “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” with Pop and JoJo slaughtering the goat for the boy’s 13th birthday, the writing flowed. Her next novel is set in New Orleans – her first venturing outside Mississippi – in the late 1830s, early 1840s during the domestic slave trade. She said she has its beginning in hand.
Both Mathis and Ward tell stories of family and young people, for whom sympathy is easily extended. Ward said she had to pause in writing “Sing” one-third of the way in because of her hostility to Leonie’s failings as a mother. Ward realized that she needed to pause to better understand the wellspring of Leonie’s pain, and made it concrete in the death of Leonie’s brother.
“There were times when I still disliked her,” Ward admitted, “but I love her. Leonie’s great character flaw is she can’t sit with her loss, can’t sit with her grief. So she lashes out, uses substances.”
Mathis observed dryly that readers judge mothers harshly; “fathers are allowed to go out more.” She then asked Ward if she saw her writing in the Southern Gothic tradition.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” started as a road story, Ward said, but once she began researching Parchman Farms, the Mississippi state penitentiary, she realized she needed to make the boy inmate Richie a ghost. “He had to have some of the power he’d been denied in life,” she said of this character’s agency, “so ok then, we’re going to have to make a ghost story work.”
As far as genre, Ward said, “There is so much suffering. Part of what Southern writers are struggling against is the past, our obsession over the past. History has its weight on what we see. Southern Gothic might be writers trying to wrestle with the veneer of gentility, over the crime of slavery,” she said, “what made southern life possible started with the genocide of indigenous people, the crime that enabled that civilization to flourish.”
Each book, Ward said, teaches her how to write it: “Writing ‘Sing’ made me feel like I had taken a seat at the table and now I am loathe to let it go.”