Skip to main content

For Anesthesiologist, Easing Pain And Erasing Memories Is All In A Day's Work

Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo specializes in pediatric anesthesiology and treats about 1,000 children a year, including premature babies. His new memoir is called Counting Backwards.


Other segments from the episode on November 28, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 28, 2017: Interview with Dr. Henry Jay Pryzbylo; Interview with Jesmyn Ward.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Here's how my guest describes his work. He writes, (reading) I am an anesthesiologist. I erase consciousness, deny memories, steal time, immobilize the body. I alter heart rate, blood pressure and breathing, and then I reverse these effects. I eliminate pain during a procedure, and I prevent it afterwards. I care for sick people, and I have saved lives, but it's rare that I'm the actual healer.

That's from the opening of Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo's new memoir, "Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes On Anesthesia." He specializes in pediatric anesthesiology and estimates he treats about 1,000 children a year from micropreemies (ph) to teenagers. He's dealt with benign conditions, like the removal of a skin mole, as well as potentially fatal ones, like clipping a cerebral artery aneurism and heart transplants. He's also an associate professor at the Northwestern University School of Medicine.

Dr. Przybylo, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book is called "Counting Backwards." So why do anesthesiologists ask patients to count backwards from 100?

HENRY JAY PRZYBYLO: You know, I'm not sure. I searched the Internet and everything to try and find the answer to that, and the closest I can come to is that around 1940s, we came up - medicines were developed to induce anesthesia that were given through veins - IV - and they were extremely quick-acting. And I think sometime, some anesthesiologist somewhere just wanted to see how long it would take and asked the patient to start counting backwards from a hundred, realizing they never made it out of the 90s before they were anesthetized, and I think that just stuck.

GROSS: Why not count from one, two, three, four, five, as opposed to 100, 99, 98?

PRZYBYLO: Because I think you have to think a little bit. You can slur the counting upwards, but counting backwards is a little more difficult. And I even make it a little bit more problematic and difficult for the patient because I say, OK, count backwards from a hundred by sevens. They might make it to 93. They never make it to 86.

GROSS: Wow, OK. But you have children who you're working with.

PRZYBYLO: The children to go to sleep by mask, so they're breathing, and I talk to them about my piggy gas story and - you know, when we're slowly going to sleep. And in the mask, usually, there's some odor, some bubble gum or cherry to start with and a little bit of laughing gas to try and take the edge off, and then we introduce the sevoflurane, the anesthetic gas.

And I tell them, the smell is changing, and we're taking an imaginary trip to the zoo, and my favorite animal of all time is the piggy, but piggies are a little bit stinky and then ask them how many they count, and are they big or little, and do they have straight tails or curly tails? By the time we get to curly tails, they're fast asleep.

GROSS: So you write in your book, I put people into a coma, and the medications I administer cause paralysis. I read that, and I was thinking, please don't tell me that right before you put me under.


PRZYBYLO: I don't. I never tell them that.

GROSS: So are you - you're putting patients in a coma. What's the difference between the anesthesia-induced coma and sleep?

PRZYBYLO: We go right through the sleep patterns. And that - if you were to check the electrical activity in my anesthesia, there's very, very little electrical activity, where, in sleep, you have different phases of which includes dreaming. So while you're asleep, your brain is still functioning, and you're still having dreams. In anesthesia, that doesn't happen.

GROSS: So you're not having dreams, but did you say your brain isn't functioning?

PRZYBYLO: Well, it's doing the basic functions from the lower parts of the brain that are giving you heart rate and blood pressure and breathing, unless I have given the paralysis. But in terms of the upper brain functions, no, you have no sensibility for anything that's going on.

GROSS: So what is it that causes the paralysis, and what degree of paralysis are we talking about, and why are you even doing that?

PRZYBYLO: It's a complete paralysis, and it goes way back, hundreds of years ago, to the poisons discovered in Central and South America - the curare, wurare, I believe it was when it was first discovered. And for instance, if you're doing a very, very delicate procedure, the best that comes to mind right away is if a neurosurgeon is clipping a brain aneurysm, there cannot be a millimeter of movement, otherwise the outcome could be dramatically changed. So to prevent that patient moving under any circumstances, you give them a drug that paralyzes them for a period.

GROSS: Do you worry that they won't come out of it?

PRZYBYLO: Oh, never, never. The - and while I can't fully explain how a lot of my anesthetics work, you know, 40 million times a year, people receive anesthetics, and they wake up. It's a rare one who doesn't wake up. It's a rare one who doesn't come out of the medications that I give them.

GROSS: And you also give a drug that prevents people from remembering anything that happened during the anesthesia.

PRZYBYLO: Correct. You know...

GROSS: So what kind of drug is that?

PRZYBYLO: You know, it's mother's little helper. I think the Rolling Stones wrote the song about it. It's a Valium-like drug. But there's a little bit of a difference here. And let me pull back just a moment for you - that when I give my gas anesthetic, it's an all-in-one anesthetic. It does everything. It - include inducing the coma, preventing the memories, stealing time - when you're not necessarily going to give that gas anesthetic, when you want to use a different technique, then I can go to the benzodiazepines, the Valium-like drugs, and I can use that to prevent memory.

GROSS: But people who take Valium for anxiety - is that killing their memory?

PRZYBYLO: Well, it depends what dose they're taking. You know, this - there's the one sleeping drug called Ambien that has had a lot of following in the press over the years, and it has the ability to prevent memory so that you can - the people are sleepwalking and sleep driving. So that patient gets into an accident or gets stopped, and the police are saying, what's going on? And that person will never remember doing the driving, doing the sleepwalking. It just doesn't register.

GROSS: I see. I remember when I had my tonsils removed - and this was a long time ago. And it was back when all children had their tonsils removed.

PRZYBYLO: Yeah, we're still doing a lot of that today.

GROSS: Are you? OK. So I had ether.


GROSS: And I still remember the smell.


GROSS: And, in fact, I really believe this. I may be wrong, but I lived in an apartment building when I was growing up, and one of the kids at the other end of the floor - after I had my tonsillectomy, that kid had their tonsillectomy. And I remember smelling the ether in the hallway. Is that even possible?

PRZYBYLO: Oh, you sure did. The gases - the ether - the beauty of it is that it worked. I mean, in the 1840s, they fell out...

GROSS: But I mean, in the hallway of my apartment building, after the patient came home...

PRZYBYLO: Absolutely. What happened was - the first ether that was used was what we call very soluble. It just got into every part of the body, and it took a long time for it to get out. On the other hand, the sevoflurane that I'm using today is very insoluble. It goes straight from the lungs to the brain, does its work, and so that - it doesn't take long before that smell is gone. And by the time the kids leave the hospital, there's no issue. But I can understand why you have that.

GROSS: Hmm, OK. So one of the developments you write about is ultrasound, which can target specific nerves. So how do you use that as an anesthesiologist?

PRZYBYLO: The ultrasound is like a pack of cards - the probe that you take. And you put a gelatin on the end of the probe, and then you just rub it along the skin, and it gives sound waves to give you pictures of what's beneath the skin. So you can see from the skin to the deepest of bones, and you can identify different structures within that picture. So I use it for a combination of things. I use it for identifying nerves.

So for instance, if somebody's going to have a procedure around the knee, right behind the knee and a little bit above it in the back are a pair of nerves that come down, and they're easily seen on the ultrasound screen. And you can watch your needle get right up next to them, inject your local anesthetic on it so you can have much more accuracy with the block that you're placing. But I use the ultrasound for other things too because it's also great for seeing blood vessels.

So I do a tremendous amount of cardiac anesthesia. So we're always looking for big veins to put IV catheters in, and we're also looking for the more difficult - the artery - arteries, excuse me, that we're trying to put a catheter in there so that we have moment-to-moment blood pressure readings, and we can also access blood for any sampling that we want to do during it.

GROSS: So you specialize in pediatric anesthesiology. You estimate that you anesthetize about a thousand children in an average year, and you also work with preemies - premature babies. Like, what's the smallest that you've had to administer anesthesia to?

PRZYBYLO: Six hundred and forty grams is my memory. It's 1 1/2 pounds. The most recent was 2 1/2 pounds. So yeah, we're - pretty tiny.

GROSS: Oh, that's, like, the definition of fragility. I mean, what are your concerns?

PRZYBYLO: Oh, everything is so tiny.

GROSS: ...That you have to deal with when you have to - yeah.

PRZYBYLO: It's just so tiny. The - you know, sometimes, I'm asked, what's the difference between the pediatric care and adult care? In the pediatric care, so much of it is similar, but it's like, you take a bull's eye, and you shrink that bull's eye from the - what? - 2 and a half feet or 2 feet it is across over, and you just shrink it down to tiniest, tiniest. So you have to be much, much more precise. The other thing is that the smaller the child, the less forgiving they are. You have to be very, very quick with all your responses, otherwise you're going to get into trouble very, very quickly.

GROSS: You must have to administer a microdose.

PRZYBYLO: We use the tiniest syringes. That's absolutely right. The gas, interestingly, isn't as much of a difference. The gas doesn't matter across - it does a little bit but not a whole lot across ages and not across species either. So I can anesthetize a goldfish with my gas at about the same amount. But when you start talking about the medications that you give them by IV, it changes very much so.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo. He's an anesthesiologist who's written a new memoir called "Counting Backwards." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo. He's an anesthesiologist who's written a new memoir called "Counting Backwards." He's also an associate professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University School of Medicine.

So you're not supposed to eat before anesthesia. Everybody who's ever had any form of anesthesia knows that. I think it's usually, like, midnight the night before is the latest. And you're supposed to have - what? - like, a light meal? You tell me.

PRZYBYLO: The whole issue - whenever you put something in a stomach, you generate acid. And that acid - while the stomach is built to withstand it, none of the rest of the body is. So when you have something that, you know, doesn't sit well with you and you burp a little bit, you feel that burning sensation in your chest, that's the acid coming out of your stomach and up into the esophagus.

Well, under anesthesia, I drop the tone of all the muscles throughout the body. So the tone keeping the volume in the stomach is dropped. And the other thing that's dropped is the action of the vocal chords. So the vocal chords will not close when something happens. So if you have something come up into your mouth, the vocal chords close right away, and they prevent anything from going from the esophagus down into the - past vocal chords down to the lungs. So that's what happens under anesthesia. So we want to have no acid in that stomach as much as possible. So that's what NPO is called - nil per os in Latin.

We're not so strict as the 12 o'clock midnight because if you're going at 2 in the afternoon, that's a long time to go without anything. And we also know that if you have clear fluids, things that you can see through that don't have any fat in them, they don't tend to produce a lot of acid. As a matter of fact, they may actually clear the stomach a little bit - so two hours before an anesthetic, a little bit of clear fluids. Six hours, eight hours - nothing solid, and life will be OK.

GROSS: So you write that the first time you saw a human heart, it was a religious experience. Tell us about that experience.

PRZYBYLO: When the chest is opened, you know, the heart lies deep to the sternum - that hard bone, the breast bone. And when you open it up, the first thing you see is a covering, the pericardium. And the heart is deep to that. So you get a sense to it. But when that pericardium is open and you see that organ just moving, just beating so rhythmically, it's not like a lot of other parts of the body. You don't see them moving, actually. This is one that you should never see, but I did. And that's just the way it is. It was very, very moving.

GROSS: Now, I saw a beating heart in a movie recently. And I have to say I found it a little upsetting (laughter) because - well, let me explain why.

PRZYBYLO: Yes, please.

GROSS: I didn't want to think about how hard that muscle has to work every second in order for me to stay alive. Like...

PRZYBYLO: It sure does.

GROSS: You kind of don't want to be thinking about that.

PRZYBYLO: No, you don't want to be thinking about it. But when I see the heart, there's a very good reason. And that's because that heart isn't going to be beating much longer unless I do see it.

GROSS: So you see hearts beating on the table during transplants.

PRZYBYLO: Oh, yes, oh, yes. The most - the emptiest feeling that you get is at the transplant time when they take the heart out and you look into their chest cavity where something should be and it isn't there. And that is just a feeling you never get over - just seeing that empty chest cavity. And then when the new heart goes in, you know, it needs a moment of reflection, you know, because somebody else gave up that heart for this person to get it. So you know, there's two lives on line minimally. So it is a very, very moving experience. It's one that never goes away.

GROSS: So you've had to calm a lot of parents who are basically handing their children over to you to be anesthesized (ph) before surgery. You were in that position of being a parent yourself when your son at the age of 30, I think was, was anesthetized before a very major procedure. What was the surgery your son was having?

PRZYBYLO: He had a vascular malformation in his brain that needed to be taken out.

GROSS: And so what was the experience like for you of not doing that anesthesia yourself and handing your son over to the anesthesiologist and overriding your impulse to, like, watch (laughter) the anesthesiologist over his shoulder while he or she worked?

PRZYBYLO: It was absolutely horrible because every second that you sit in that waiting room, you know, you're picturing exactly what's going on right behind the walls that you're trying to peer through. And you're trying to be the one doing the controlling. You know, the anesthesiologist has control of the body during the procedure and all the functions. And I so desperately wanted to be the person controlling all of my son's functions, and so it was intensely nerve-wracking.

GROSS: How come you didn't do it yourself?

PRZYBYLO: It was at a different hospital. I would have done it if I could have. I would have given anything to do it. I did procedures on my wife. So you know, I would have if I could have. But he needed to go to a different hospital.

GROSS: You write that you were overcome by waiting room paralysis. Describe what that is.

PRZYBYLO: That's when you plunk yourself down in a chair, and you're afraid to move a millimeter because you're afraid that in that time, somebody is going to come and announce something to you. And so you just sit there. And you wiggle a little bit, and you watch the clock no matter - I told tens of thousands of families, you know, don't watch the clock; it has no bearing in the operating room. It takes what it takes. The No. 1, 2 and 3 goal is to get your person, your family member, whatever back to you in better condition than coming to me, and time is inconsequential. And I tell them all the time, and I know that. But when you're in that waiting room, it's completely different.

GROSS: I think I've had that kind of waiting room paralysis, but I didn't have a name for it. Is that your expression, or does everybody use that?

PRZYBYLO: That's my expression.

GROSS: Yeah, that's a good one. So how did your son's procedure turn out?

PRZYBYLO: It it turned out well. I mean, we were very, very grateful. The (laughter) silly thing about it is that at the end of the procedure, which went longer than it was anticipated, they didn't have a intensive care unit bed ready. And he spent I think about two hours in the operating room awake waiting for his room, and they actually - the anesthesiologist was a friend of mine and actually sent me a picture of Jason from the operating room with the thumbs up that everything was OK.

GROSS: Your book is dedicated to your wife...


GROSS: ...Who you write left me far too soon.

PRZYBYLO: She had a brain aneurysm.

GROSS: When did that happen?

PRZYBYLO: She was pregnant with my last daughter. It was right during the pregnancy, and she wasn't supposed to survive and miraculously she did. She was in the single-digit survivor risk rate. And she managed to walk out of the hospital, but she had a brain injury that consumed her and took many years. But it did consume her, and she's the reason I turned to writing.

GROSS: What's the connection between that and writing?

PRZYBYLO: Well, first of all, it was - she had a lot of mental changes. And so we were searching for years for different things and different causes and different help. And we went through dozens of psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists and social workers, and they couldn't help. And it came to the point where I just said to myself, you know, if they couldn't help her, they certainly weren't going to help me. So I just said, you know, I - people were coming up to me and saying, where are you getting help? And I turned to writing because it was a way to try and rationalize everything that you couldn't rationalize.

And so then as that progressed, I - a secondary benefit came out of it because I thought sitting with my wife, which is all I wanted to do, what could I do that would be productive? And so I started writing about her, and I started thinking about writing seriously. And so then I went to get my master's degree, and I went to a college in Maryland in Baltimore, Goucher College - fabulous place for me. And I went there writing about my wife. My first mentor, Diana Hume George, said to me - and said something, by the way, that Mary Karr I think said to you in an interview - that you can't write through tears. And they were absolutely right. So they asked me to write about something else and "Counting Backwards" got a genesis.

GROSS: With your wife's brain changes, was that cognition or mood, memory?

PRZYBYLO: It was everything. It was everything. But she was very, very unpredictable. She had a frontal lobe injury called dysexecutive function disorder. And for anybody who doubts how great psychiatry is - and I'm not picking on them, but any disease process that you name dysexecutive function disorder, you know, you just don't understand it.

GROSS: What does that mean?

PRZYBYLO: It means pretty much she lost her soul, that at - given any time alone, she would do something bad. And so we had to keep a constant eye on her.

GROSS: Bad to herself or to just in general.

PRZYBYLO: Bad to herself. It was very difficult.

GROSS: How long did she live after that?

PRZYBYLO: She passed away two years ago, so she made about 16 years.

GROSS: I'm so sorry. It must have been so hard for you during that whole period, let alone after it.

PRZYBYLO: Still is.

GROSS: Yeah.

PRZYBYLO: Still is.

GROSS: Yeah.

PRZYBYLO: But, you know, you try and look at the bright side of things and you try to go forward. And the comments that I've had about the book have all been spectacular, and they give me pause to, you know, give another day. Let my world revolve one more day.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo, author of the new memoir "Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes On Anesthesia." We'll talk more after a break. And Jesmyn Ward will talk about her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing," which won a National Book Award this month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo, a pediatric anesthesiologist who's written a new memoir called "Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes On Anesthesia." He's also an associate professor at the Northwestern University School of Medicine.

So from your perspective as an anesthesiologist, what are some of the most worrisome things happening now in health care and health insurance just in terms of people getting what they need and being able to afford what they need?

PRZYBYLO: Well, there's the one section about the boy with the transplant, and it's a very problematic, bothersome, very hurtful thing that you go through - the point of getting a transplant to a patient and the patient is thriving, and then for whatever reason, they stop taking the drugs. And the particular reason in the book is that the coverage, the state coverage, for the drug ran out. And you just think to yourself, how silly. Why should bureaucracy get in the middle of health care? But it did in a big way.

GROSS: In this case, it was a boy who had been on Medicaid. And the Medicaid for children runs out at age 18 or 19. Do I have that right?

PRZYBYLO: You know, I'd have to look it up myself. I think it's on the 30th day of the month of their 19th birthday the bill sunsets. And so then he no longer received money for his medication. And I think it was around $20 a day. And he was choosing to save the money for something else and stopped taking it. And nine days later, he's back in our care.

GROSS: And that costs a lot of money.

PRZYBYLO: Not only does it cost a lot of money, these people kick into a non-retransplant list because they've caused their own issue. And there's so many people waiting for transplants before them that they don't even make it to the list again. And so he passed away.


PRZYBYLO: It was horrible.

GROSS: How would you change that if you could?

PRZYBYLO: You know, if the state would have had the foresight to, say, spend the $20 a day then you would have stopped 50, 60, 70 days in the intensive care. You could have paid for 20 years of his medications. You know, it was just poor hindsight.

GROSS: So when you were just starting out as an anesthesiologist, were you nervous that you would do something wrong? And if so, how did you kind of mask that and present a kind of calm surface to the people who you had to calm?

PRZYBYLO: The very first day of being a physician - July 1 - after receiving lectures on you better do all your medical charts or you're never going to get paid, and the sheriff will come and deliver your malpractise summons here, and how to act respectfully during cardiac arrests, then they say, OK, go off. And you're on your own now. Go to your service. Report to your service. And it was just by serendipity that my very first service was anesthesiology.

So I walked up to the front desk. And at the front desk the person running the schedule, the anesthesiologist in charge of running the schedule that day, said, you know, I remember your name being on a schedule when you were a student doing the rotation here - couldn't put the face. Now I remember who you are. Your first patient is waiting outside room six.

And so I was thrown into it deep like you could never believe. I had never set up a room before. I had never actually pushed the syringes before. I had never managed an airway before. And I had never intubated on my own without somebody showing me where the vocal cords were. And there I was all by myself. And the attending anesthesiologist covering me that day just kind of stood off to the side and said OK. And, you know, I pushed the medications in. And I put the mask on her face. And I got a seal. And I watched their chest rise.

And I said, oh, boy, this is good and then went to look for the vocal cords. And they were staring me in the face. And I put that endotracheal tube through. And it built a confidence that I kept from there on - not that I would do it right all the time, but that I could do it. And so that was a very, very interesting first day of being a physician.

GROSS: So no offense, but I think a lot of patients really do live in fear that they're going to get, like, the new doctor or the new resident (laughter) and that you're going to be a kind of practice patient and not have really experienced hands working on you.

PRZYBYLO: One way to look at it is every patient is a practice patient for me because I'm always trying to get better. I'm always looking for better ways to do things, more successful ways to do things.

GROSS: Yeah, but you're really skilled.

PRZYBYLO: But - yeah, I can't argue. I am. And, you know, I would like to be nice and humble on that one, but I am. But whenever anybody touches a patient in my stead, if I'm the one directing it, that's an extension of my hands. And my hands are right next to that patient. I'm never going to let them do anything dangerous. They're never going beyond my range. So anything happens with a patient because a resident of mine did something, it's my problem. And I will respond like my problem.

GROSS: You said that you use anesthesia all the time, but you don't really understand how it works.

PRZYBYLO: Correct.

GROSS: Must be kind of odd for you to administer medications when you don't know how they work.

PRZYBYLO: You know, I ask the patient to have faith in me as I have faith in my anesthetic. And it just works. Healthy patients go in. Healthy patients come out. It's just my statistics, but I'm very proud of them. So it works, but I can't tell you why.

GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PRZYBYLO: Thank you. I've enjoyed this very much.

GROSS: Dr. Henry Jay Przybylo is the author of the new memoir "Counting Backwards: A Doctor's Notes On Anesthesia." After we take a short break, Jesmyn Ward will talk about her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing," which won a National Book Award this month. It's about a boy growing up with a black mother and white father in rural Mississippi. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been quite a year for author Jesmyn Ward. She received a MacArthur Fellowship, and this month her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing" won the National Book Award for fiction. Her previous novel, "Salvage The Bones," also won that award. "Sing, Unburied, Sing" tells the story of Jojo, a mixed race 13-year-old boy. He lives with his black grandparents. His grandmother is dying from cancer. His drug-addicted mother Leonie is unreliable. She's self-medicating her grief from the covered-up murder of her brother when they were in high school. Jojo's white father, who was never much of a presence in Jojo's life, is doing time for drugs at the state penitentiary, the infamous Parchman Farm. Helping bolster Jojo through these trying circumstances is the unfaltering love between him and his grandfather and his toddler sister Kayla.

Ward's characters live in the fictional rural town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Ward based it on the town she grew up in and lives in today called DeLisle. Jesmyn Ward has written and edited other books, including the memoir "Men We Reaped" about five men from her hometown who died young, including her brother who was killed in a car crash. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: I'd like to start with a reading, if you could - maybe the beginning of the book. And maybe just set it up for us. Who's speaking here?

JESMYN WARD: So the narrator here is Jojo. He is a 13-year-old mixed race boy. He's growing up in a small town in the South, in rural Mississippi, called Bois Sauvage. And the novel opens on his 13th birthday.

(Reading) I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it's something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger. That's how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I've earned these 13 years, so Pop will know I'm ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody.

(Reading) Today's my birthday. I grab the door so it don't slam, ease it into the jam. I don't want Mam or Kayla to wake up with none of us in the house. Better for them to sleep. Better for my little sister, Kayla, to sleep because on nights when Leonie's out working she wake up every hour, sit straight up in the bed and scream. Better for Grandma Mam to sleep because the chemo done dried her up and hollowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks.

(Reading) Pop weaves in and out of the trees, straight and slim and brown as a young pine tree. He spits in the dry red dirt, and the wind makes the trees wave. It's cold. This spring is stubborn. Most days it won't make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad draining tub. I left my hoodie on the floor in Leonie's room where I sleep and my T-shirt is thin, but I don't rub my arms. If I let the cold goad me, I know when I see the goat I'll flinch or frown when Pop cuts the throat. And Pop, being Pop, will see.

BRIGER: That's Jesmyn Ward reading the beginning of her new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing." Jesmyn, you have three narrators in this new novel. One of them is Jojo, who we just heard from. Can you tell us a little bit more about him? I heard that part of the reason you wanted to write this book was you wanted to tell the story of a biracial boy growing up in Mississippi.

WARD: Yeah. You know, Jojo is the character that came to me first when I was casting about for novel ideas. He popped into my head. And I wondered what it would be like to write about a kid like him, a biracial kid. You know, one parent is black. The other is white. I knew, because I'm writing about him at this moment in his life when he is attempting to figure out what it means to be a man, what it means to be a black man in the South, in America - I knew that this would be a moment that had a lot of dramatic potential.

And he's confronting basically the history of the South - right? - you know, of racist violence, of slavery, you know, of Jim Crow. But he's - it's a very personal battle for him because of who his family members are. And I just thought that he as a character, that - you know, that he would be a very rich character to write about.

BRIGER: And speaking of his family, his father Michael is white, and he's in prison for drug charges, and his mother Leonie is black, and she's one of the other narrators of the book. And you've written her into a pretty bad place. I mean, she's addicted to drugs. She's doing meth and cocaine. She's neglectful of her children.

And I don't think you ever spell this out, but I think the reason that she's addicted to drugs is that she's, you know, self-medicating her grief from her brother's murder. He was shot by a white man and it was covered up as a hunting accident. To make things more complicated for her, the father of her kids is cousin of the person that killed her brother, and his father was an ex-sheriff who helped cover it up. So why did you want to write her into such a hole?

WARD: Bois Sauvage - right, so the fictional town that I write about is actually, I guess, a fictional twin of my hometown, DeLisle, Miss. I feel like in every book that I commit to telling the truth about the place that I live in, and also about the kind of people who live in my community. There are a lot of people in my community who struggle with addiction. Back in the '80s and the '90s it was basically a crack epidemic in my town. But now I'd say in the past five years that crack epidemic has transformed into a meth epidemic.

And I think that I connected Michael to Leonie's brother's killers because I feel that often racist violence in the South is intimate. You know, it's - it - in some ways it reminds me of what I know about domestic violence. Like, these crimes seem to be very intimate crimes. They happened between people who know each other, you know, who live around each other, who share community sometimes. And so I think I wanted Leonie's situation to reflect that. But I think you're totally right about the wound that she's carrying with her, the wound of her grief and the loss of her brother. And I think that does motivate a lot of her struggles with addiction.

BRIGER: You know, you have actual ghosts in your novel. You have two ghosts. There's one who's Richie, who was a 13-year-old boy who Jojo's grandfather, Pop, met at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, when Pop was pretty much kidnapped and forced to work there. And then there's also Leonie. Whenever she gets high she sees her brother's ghost, Given. Why did you decide to have actual ghosts haunt the work?

WARD: I knew that Leonie would see a phantom of her brother from the very beginning of the rough draft, right? But I wasn't convinced that he was an actual ghost. I thought, well, maybe he's just a figment of her imagination. Maybe he's just the embodiment of her grief and her guilt that comes alive whenever she uses drugs, whenever she's high. And I thought this until I - you know, I was doing research about Parchman prison in order to write about it.

And I was reading a book called "Worse Than Slavery" by David Oshinsky. And in that book I read that there were boys as young as 12 and 13, young black boys, who were charged with small crimes and then sent to Parchman prison. And, you know, those children were enslaved and suffered and were tortured and sometimes died in Parchman prison, and their suffering had been erased from history in some ways. And so I was so, like, horrified and also heartbroken when I read that that I thought, OK, I have to write about a kid like this, and this child has to have agency. This child has to have voice. You know, this child has to be able to act in the present moment with Jojo, you know, with Pop, with Kayla. And the only way that I could do that was by making this character a ghost. And so then I understood that I was writing a ghost story too.

BRIGER: You know, a lot of your book seems to be about the personal traumas the characters are trying to cope with, but there's also trauma on a larger, systemic level. These characters are burdened with a history of oppression that shaped their lives and, you know, limited the choices available to them. And I think that Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, looms large as sort of a symbol of that in your book. Is that true?

WARD: That's totally true.

BRIGER: Can you tell us a little bit about it?

WARD: Yeah, I mean, you know, Parchman prison is the large state - Mississippi State Prison. And when it was established, the people in power sort of changed the laws and criminalized really small offenses or criminalized things that, you know, weren't even really criminal acts, like loitering - right? - vagrancy, right? They also criminalized a lot of, like, petty thievery. And they did all of this in the hopes that they could arrest and send a lot of black men to Parchman and populate Parchman because basically, they wanted to work them, right?

They wanted free labor, and that's what they did. You know, I mean, Parchman was mostly black - mostly black men. They were basically enslaved again, and they worked the fields, right? So Parchman prison was basically a big plantation in the 1930s, the 1940s. Those inmates were also - so they worked the plantation. They worked Parchman prison.

But they were also rented out to regional, like, industrial barons. They were rented out to these men who used them to, you know, clear large tracts of land, to lay train tracks, right? So any jobs that, you know, these men wanted them to do, that's what they did. And so, yes, they were re-enslaved. I mean, Richie is based on a real - real children who were charged with petty crimes and then sent to be slaves - right? - and to die in Parchman prison.

BRIGER: When you were growing up in Mississippi, did you know of Parchman Farm? Was there the presence in your life?

WARD: It sure was. I mean, I didn't know, you know, specifically, like, what happened. I didn't - I wasn't - I didn't know the history of Parchman prison. But I knew that it was a bad place that you never wanted to go. But I also knew that the danger of being sent there was, like, ever-present for people like me, for black people, right? I remember being very, very young. And I wrote about this briefly in "Men We Reaped." But I remember being 7, 8 years old and having nightmares about my uncles and my father being arrested and being sent to Parchman prison.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jesmyn Ward. Her latest novel is called "Sing, Unburied, Sing." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jesmyn Ward about her latest novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," which won a National Book Award this month.

BRIGER: As you said, your novel is based on a fictional town called Bois Sauvage, but it's also based on the town you grew up in and live in now, DeLisle, Miss. Can you describe it?

WARD: So DeLisle is situated on the back of the Bay of St. Louis, right? And it's very small. I think - I don't know the exact population count, but it can't be much more than a thousand. You know, maybe it's 1,500. Most of the black people who live in the town have lived there - you know, their families have lived there for generations. And, you know, this is the case with my family.

It's interesting because it's the kind of place where family and community are sort of the same thing. You know, I'm related to a lot of the black people who live in the town. Like, if I just count my maternal grandmother's people - so my grandmother's sisters and brothers, and then all their kids, and then their kids and then their kids - there are over 200 of us.


WARD: That's just a fourth of my - you know, like, of my family tree.

BRIGER: But you left. You left the town to go to college and grad school, and I think for work too, and, you know, stayed away for a while. And you've said before in earlier interviews how much you dislike the town because of the history of racism, and the state and how it limits the opportunities for African-Americans there, but now you've moved back. How did you come to that decision?

WARD: Well, I did. I returned around six years ago, and I have mixed feelings about it. You know, on one hand, I love my town, you know? And I love the place where I'm from, and I think in part it's because of my family. I think it's because of my community. I think it's because of the beauty of that place. But, you know, it's really frustrating to live in a place where you can see that, you know, the people in power do not care about your community. They don't care about your family. They don't care about people like you. They don't invest in your neighborhoods. They don't invest in your community.

You know, when I think about, like, just living in Mississippi and I feel like my elected representatives never represent my interests, ever, it's very frustrating because I can see what happens when generations of people live in poverty. I can see what happens when generations of people, like, struggle to bear up under the yoke of racism - of systemic racism. I see that when so many of the people in my community are addicted to drugs, you know, when so many of the people in my community never go on to seek education beyond high school - if they graduate from high school - right? - when so many people in my community spend their entire lives without health insurance, without dental insurance, without mental health treatment, when so people in my community spend their entire lives working dead-end jobs only to, you know, become senior citizens and then survive on grease, basically - and because their family members take care of them.

Like, all of that is very frustrating for me. And because I have two kids now, like, I don't know if I will stay there. I don't know if I want my children, you know, to live there as teenagers. In some ways, I feel like I might be - I don't know, like I might be doing them a disservice.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was wondering.

WARD: ...You know, by...

BRIGER: ...If you were feeling ambivalent.

WARD: ...By remaining there.

BRIGER: ...About raising your kids there.

WARD: Yeah, I definitely am. I mean, I felt that way when I had a daughter, but I especially feel that way now that I have a son.

BRIGER: Yeah, yeah. Can you describe that a little bit?

WARD: You know, I - you know, my brother died when he was 19, right? He didn't even make it to 20, and he was hit by a drunk driver, and then no one was held accountable for his death. And I want my son to live. You know, I want him to live to be an adult. And not only do I want him to live, I want him to thrive, and I don't necessarily know if he will live or thrive, you know, if he spends his teenage years in Mississippi - in rural Mississippi. You know, that - I don't know. You know, part of me is really thinking that it might not be possible.

BRIGER: You've had some success in life. You've - you were able to - I think you were the first person in your family to go to college. Is that right?

WARD: Yeah, in my immediate family, so...

BRIGER: In your immediate family, right - and then you went to grad school. And you - you know, you've had success as a novelist. And it feels like you have a responsibility - that you feel responsibility to your family in Mississippi. I was wondering if that's also one of the reasons why it's hard for you to leave.

WARD: Definitely, yeah - because I do. I feel a sense of responsibility to them - right? - because I am at this point in my life where I have more resources than they have, so therefore, I feel like I should help. And so, you know, I do what I can. And it does. It does. It makes it harder for me to leave.

BRIGER: So there's that - the joy of having an extended family close to you, but then there's also responsibilities that come with that.

WARD: Yeah, definitely - plenty of responsibilities.


BRIGER: Well, Jesmyn Ward, thanks so much for talking with us.

WARD: Thank you.

GROSS: Jesmyn Ward's new novel is called "Sing, Unburied, Sing." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the 45th and final President of the United States.

GROSS: My guests will be the two stars of the Comedy Central series "The President Show" - Anthony Atamanuik, who plays President Trump, and Peter Grosz, who plays Vice President Pence. The show is like a late-night talk show hosted by the president with the vice president as his sidekick. "The President Show" Christmas special will be shown Thursday on Comedy Central. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue