Mat Johnson: Black & White & Read All Over

Our interview with the Houston-based author

Mat Johnson: Black & White & Read All Over
Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0.

This is an interview with Mat Johnson, who wrote the acclaimed Pym – which is somehow a popular favorite and a cult favorite, simultaneously, we'd swear – and who is most recently author of the novel Loving Day, which we've reviewed right here, just out via the Spiegel & Grau imprint of Penguin Random House.

Note: Johnson had written a few books before those two, yes, and – here, that's what this link (thank you, Wikipedia) will tell you all about. And here's the interview:

Austin Chronicle: Your Pym was one hell of a wild ride, like a fantasy thriller crossed with cultural critique, and it seemed to go all over the map. An interesting map, and hilariously drawn, but with so much stuff, like, galloping through the story. Loving Day, funny as it is, seems a lot more focused and relatively subdued.

Mat Johnson: The type of work I’ve been doing has its limitations and its strengths. And one of the strengths, I think, letting it go half wild allows me to take it to places I wouldn’t have if I was planning it meticulously. So I realize that, basically, I’ve been throwing knuckleballs. You know? You throw a knuckleball, there’s an acceptance that you’re dealing with chaos, but, hopefully – through technique and through practice – you can manage to control chaos enough to get it into the general direction. And that’s been the trick. Of course, the question is: How do you follow it up? And I don’t know if I can! [laughs] With Loving Day, what ended up being the entire book, I had imagined it as half of the book – but thank God I didn’t go on for another 300 pages. When I started it, I was interested in looking at mixed identity, mulatto identity – which, almost always in literature, is an I, singular – “This is my experience, I’m different than everybody,” and that’s the tragic mulatto archetype. And so what I wanted to do was try and say, “Okay, this is a different time, now – it’s more of a we.” What does it mean when you take something that’s so often been described as an individual experience and you start looking at it as a group experience? That was one of the original impetuses – there were a couple of them. Another was just, I wanted to write about Philly. [laughs] And the other one was that line, that opening line, “In the ghetto there is a mansion, and it is my father’s house.” And I really liked that line, and I caught myself saying it to myself – like it was lyrics to a song – and I thought, “Oh shit, this is something. Why is this interesting to me?” Because sometimes it’s my subconscious that’s interested, and my conscious has to figure out why my subconscious cares. So it built from there. And ultimately, while I was writing it, I realized that the father-daughter story was the essential story. And so, once I had that, that’s when I had my structure.

AC: Concerning Pym, particularly, with that lost race of Yetis living in Antarctica – were you concerned at all of getting trapped in the genre ghetto? Did you have that worry, maybe, like Margaret “I don’t write science fiction” Atwood?

MJ: Well, the nice thing about having no career? I wasn't worried about it. I thought Pym would most likely go to the academic press, and it would be nice because it would help me get tenure. Because I didn’t have tenure at the time. I wasn’t at the school that I used for a lot of the book, but I was like, “Oh, I'll get a book out, and maybe I’ll get a nice relationship with them and they’ll let me publish a couple more.” Because, that’s the thing: Unless somebody sees it, it’s just ink on a page – you want people to see it. I think that, if I had been more self-conscious, I wouldn't have done some of the things that I did. Because there’s always a point – with Pym and with Loving Day – I’m writing it, and as soon as I write a bit, I’m going, “Oh well, there goes Oprah’s Book Club,” right? Like, “There’s this audience that I’m completely alienating.” But, honestly? This isn’t false humility, but I realize I’m not good enough to hold back. What I’m good at is giving everything I have. And if I fail while giving everything I have, it’s okay. Because, you know, you gave everything, what the hell else are you gonna do?

AC: Ah, that's – that's a great philosophy.

MJ: In the past I would do, like, muted kinds of scenes where I was like, “Ooh, don’t do this and don’t do that,” and, invariably, it was disastrous. And to do otherwise, it’s not really daring, it’s like you have a choice between being mediocre and dull or being a spectacular failure. You know what I’m saying? I’d rather be a spectacular failure. So that’s been the aim so far, to just kind of stick it out there and see what happens. And the nice thing is that I don’t have a ton to lose, really. I’ve got a full-time teaching job that I love. And I love Texas, believe it or not. I was shocked: I came down here just because of the U. of H., because the university’s got this great writing program – but I fell in love with Houston and I fell in love with Texas. And so, even if there was no money, I wouldn’t want to leave. I wouldn’t want to live the way we’d have to live in California.

AC: Or New York.

MJ: Exactly, exactly. So there’s not a lot of – you know, I’m married, I’ve got a beautiful wife, three great kids – so there’s nothing that the industry, ah, nobody can touch me right now. And they let me say incredibly profane things all the time! So far nobody’s come after me! [laughs] So, if a book does well, it feels really great, it feels amazing. But, if it doesn’t do well, I’ll live. So I feel good about it, that’s a little freedom there.

AC: But your career since Pym – and maybe even earlier, since your first graphic novel, Incognegro, came out – I mean, you've definitely got a good thing going now.

MJ: With books, they don’t go bad. It’s not like a pop song, where you have six months and then it’s old-school. The books stay around forever, so Pym, which came out in 2007, it’s still around to be picked up in a somewhat fresh manner. And now, heh, downloaded for free from some site in Czechoslovakia. But, really, this shit feels crazy. Because, the first two books – with the first book I got a Discover Great New Writers thing, and I got a review in the Washington Post, and one or two smaller papers, and that was it. And then the next one came out, and it was just nowhere. It wasn’t in the bookstores, it wasn’t really reviewed, and the people who read it had no idea what to make of it. So I just assumed that that would be it. So, when Pym started doing well, I was almost, I think I went into physical shock. The New York Times review came out, and Fresh Air did a review, and they both hit within 24 hours, and my brain kind of collapsed. I went to read in New York – and I forgot that, in New York in March, you have to have a coat – and I got on the plane to New York wearing just a T-shirt. And I had my ID, but I’d left the rest of my wallet at home. So I was in LaGuardia, with a T-shirt and no wallet, and I’ve got this massive migraine. And I borrowed a coat, but I didn’t have a hat, so I tweeted, “Hey, if anybody could bring a hat to the reading …” And I got to the reading, and there was like 150 people there – and a third of them had hats. And I realized, something different’s happening.

AC: Damn, that's great.

MJ: Yeah, because I came out at a time when the people around me that were my age, writers of color, they were having these really big breakouts. Junot Diaz had a huge breakout, ZZ Packer, Danzy Senna, Zadie Smith – so I assumed that, if you didn’t have this huge breakout with your first book, that was it. And I’m very happy to see – even as an old man now [laughs] – that it’s not true. And I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

AC: Okay, here’s a, uh, a Tricky Race Question. There are all these wrap-ups you see in the media – The Best Of The Decade, The Best Of The Century, and so on. The Best Black Writers Of blah-blah-blah. And not that it’s a zero-sum game, but there’s gonna be some list of The Top Ten Black Writers, and if you’re on that list? And there’s some other writer, who’s almost as good as you are – like it could be gauged that precisely, so they’re definitely next on the quality tier – but you’ve knocked them out of that top ten. And they’re not mixed, they’re black. Are they gonna feel like, looking at you, “Wait a minute, what is this dude doing on the list?”

MJ: Yes, they will feel like that. Because one of the things, in the larger sense of Who Gets To Get Listened To? Part of the reason we have these lists – of The Top Ten African-American Writers or The Top Ten Latino Writers – is because when it’s just The Top Ten Writers? It’s actually The Top Ten White Writers, and with maybe one or two other kinds of people thrown in to, you know, integrate it. So the initial problem is that the black writers’ response, other ethnic writers’ response, is to the fact that there’s really a kind of antiquated segregation in publishing. So that’s part of it. The other part is, there’s not a lot of black writers writing literary fiction, so you’d have to get it down to about The Top Five, probably. [laughs] But one of the things that’s difficult for writers of color is that your success is largely based on a white audience, so people who have sort of an in into the larger white mainstream are going to get more attention. Now, sometimes those ins are, you know, white readers are interested in getting a kind of inside look into a culture that’s unfamiliar to them. And sometimes those ins are like with Loving Day – there's my Irish father, and it’s Irish this and Irish that – so that’s also an in that kind of puts a sign on the door that says White Money Accepted Here Too. You know?

AC: Sure, sure.

MJ: And it’s frustrating, even to me, that there’s a disproportionate amount of attention paid by white readership to mixed characters because there’s that cultural connection – but that’s not my fault! [laughs] One of the reasons I had a hard time for a while was that there was no place to quantify this. If the white readership was looking for a kind of torrent of the black experience, they weren’t looking for my type of black experience. And the other thing is, the weirdness of what we call race, white- and black-ness – usually when we talk about race, we’re talking about several different things. We’re talking about caste, right? Caste-wise, mixed people are black. No cop is gonna pull over a person for Driving While Black and find out, oh, one of their parents is white, and let them go. That’s not part of the equation. So on a caste level, it’s still kind of simplistic. But what we’re really talking about is ethnicity. I wrote a thing this year about "mulatto," the word mulatto. And I, personally, I see mixed experience, mulatto experience, as being a subset of the larger African-American experience. So, for me, there’s no other list to go on. I mean, I’ve never seen Top Ten Mixed Writers Of The Year, y’know? [laughs] And ethnically, regardless of how I look, and even having a white parent, I’m still black. Just as much as somebody who has one Italian parent, they’re still Italian-American. I don’t have any issue with that – I still feel connected. It’s just … tricky.

AC: But, okay, are you more black or Irish?

MJ: I’m both. But the fact that all of us have these kind of lines along our identities, I mean, are you more of a male or an Austinite? They’re two separate identities: You have both of those identities, and sometimes they might conflict, but they’re both part of who you are. Are you a member of your mother’s family or your father’s family? You’re a member of both families, of course. We don’t see a conflict there, and the reason we see this conflict between the European-American experience and the African-American experience is because of our slave history. We see it through that filter, but that filter is actually more artificial than not. And one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to challenge that filter.

AC: So if a reader were to take away from Loving Day something that you wanted them to take away from it, what would it be?

MJ: That’s a good question – I should have thought of that when I was writing! [laughs] But probably, ah, the idea that race is absurd. And we need to understand that it’s absurd, so we can take it apart. Because if it’s not absurd, it becomes sacred and precious and fragile – and almost impossible to work with. But once you start slapping around the concept of not having as much respect for it, you get some room to work with. That isn’t to say that we should all just go willy-nilly without an informed understanding of history. But, at the same time, we’re functioning within this absurd system that’s not allowing us to see people’s humanity – and that’s crazy.

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Mat Johnson, Loving Day, Pym, Incognegro, American writer, African-American writer, Irish-American writer, Top Ten Mixed Writers, Texas Book Festival 2015

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