Twenty questions November 13, 2017
Jesmyn Ward

Twenty Questions with Jesmyn Ward

Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing the books they most admire, nagging regrets and the occasional hidden talent

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

There aren’t any books out there I wish I’d written. There’s actually a television show I wish I’d written: Taboo, written by Tom Hardy and his father. It’s Gothic and Victorian, but also about colonialism and American and British politics and the transatlantic slave trade. I’ve been thinking a lot about slavery, and about how it enabled our modern world to become what it is. The show acknowledges that, and I adore it.

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now? 

Every few years or so, writers and readers and the publishing industry are convinced that people are no longer reading, that books are dead. Yet the book persists. I hope this is the case twenty-five years from now.

Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?

Many, I hope. Colson Whitehead, Celeste Ng, Jericho Brown and Angela Flournoy, among others.

What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?

Name most women writers. Name most writers of colour or queer writers or writers from marginalized communities, and you have multiple answers to pick from. I think there’s a common misconception that such writers don’t write universal stories. I, of course, think that is bullshit.

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

I’m honoured you invited me to participate, but I refuse to answer that question. If a writer entices people to read, then every bit of praise they receive is deserved.

If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?

I wouldn’t want to live in the United States in any period before the present day. Sometimes I think it would have been fun to live in Paris in the 1920s, perhaps finding my way into Djuna Barnes’s and Gertrude Stein’s social and creative circles.

If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?

In my first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, I was too kind to my characters – I wanted to spare them the pain I saw around me, I didn’t want them to hurt. But I’ve come to understand that the world doesn’t spare people like those that I write about, and I want my fiction to accurately reflect that reality.

Which is your least favourite fictional character?

My least favourite character depends on what I’ve been reading. The most present is Ridgeway from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. He’s such a relentless villain, and he’s so vividly realized.

Let’s play Humiliation (see David Lodge’s Changing Places): What’s the most famous book you haven’t read?/play you haven’t seen?/album you haven’t listened to?/film you haven’t watched?

The most famous book I haven’t read is Moby-Dick. The most famous play I haven’t seen is Hamilton, even though I own the official soundtrack and the remix. The most famous album I haven’t listened to is the White Album. Finally, I have not seen 12 Years a Slave, and now I am thoroughly ashamed.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I’m a decent cook. My mother and my grandmother, both excellent cooks, have complimented my meals. I won’t truly believe I’m any good at it until I make a tasty pot of gumbo from scratch.

Quick questions:

George or T. S.? T. S.

Modernism or post-? Modernism

Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë? Charlotte Brontë

Camus or Sartre? Sartre

Proust or Joyce? Proust

Knausgaard or Ferrante? Ferrante

Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler? Butler

Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Hamlet

Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley? Mary Shelley

Tracey Emin or Jeff Koons? Tracey Emin

Jesmyn Ward is the author, most recently, of Sing, Unburied, Sing