Mat Johnson is a bit of a renaissance man: an author of non-fiction, novels and comic books, including his well-received graphic novel Incognegro and John Constantine: Hellblazer, Papa Midnite. His most recent book is Pym, a modern take on Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which is described by the New York Times as "relentlessly entertaining." Johnson took a few moments to answer questions about his ground-breaking novel and more.
You're a guy who really gets around: novels, nonfiction, graphic novels, everything. What's the secret of getting so much stuff done?
Utter fear of dying without accomplishing anything - I find that helps. Also, debt. Debt is a real motivator. And three kids. You add three kids to the whole debt thing and wow, you're writing like crazy. Add to that no other marketable skills, and we are talking a total recipe for success here.
Obviously you have some wide interests. What were you like as a kid? Where did you grow up? What shaped your interests?
I was a white looking black kid in a black neighborhood in Philly during the height of the black power movement. So I stayed inside a lot and read. Mostly comic books where I could fantasize about being powerful and romanticize my own social awkwardness. I got into reading prose because the dollar to reading time was so much better, but my love of comics never left me.
Reading Pym, I was taken with your authorial voice. It's almost kind of stream of consciousness, but in a controlled manner. How did this evolve? Who were your influences?
Wow. I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out what the hell happened there. Percival Everett's work really showed me what was possible to do on the page, and to reject limits. I was inspired a lot by the pop-surrealist art movement as well, particularly the mixing of high and low culture into a form that reflects the way life works in my head. I'm a big fan of past African American satirists like Wallace Thurman, Fran Ross, and Ellison of course. The first satire I ever loved was Catch-22, and that's stuck with me over the years.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is racially problematic to say the least, with the "horror" of finding a land ruled by black men. In my own readings I've noticed that science fiction and fantasy authors from the early twentieth century (and in some cases before) often write about other races of man, but with what appears to be absolutely no sense of context or grasp of symbolism.... Do you think that Poe meant for his black men to chill white readers with the fear of a free and prosperous black people? Or was he, like seemingly other writers, somehow utterly oblivious of how this would seem? ...Were they all too aware of it and simply expressing the cultural biases that were part of normal culture?
It's just a guess, but I would think that they didn't know. Writing is like dreaming sometimes, particularly when you go off into the fantastic. Themes and messages emerge that may be obvious to others that the writer can't see because they're too close. There is stuff in Pym I'm just figuring out now. Like, the day after the book came out, I looked at it and saw something completely different. That's the beauty of creating something - we infect the story with our own subconscious.
As a big fan of the pulp writers - Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard - I often find myself struggling with how we should deal with the explicit racism inherent in their writings. Some of them are utterly amazing authors, but then I hit some bit of ragingly anti-Semitic text or a phrase like "his hateful negro features," and I'm just stopped cold in my tracks. What's your take on dealing with this kind of thing? How should we read these authors? I'd also love to get your take on the Mark Twain Huckleberry Finn controversy, if you have one.
Writers are people, flawed people, often more flawed than most. If I was going to throw writers out because of their prejudices, I would lose most of the great writing out there. That's not to excuse it, or diminish it, but if a work is truly great, it can transcend it's own pettiness. To me, those prejudices are flaws in the work, because they're generalizations, telltale signs of weak thinking. But I am not letting their pettiness ruin great reads for me. You can view these works within their historical context and take what you can from them. Sometimes that is enough that the detractions don't ruin the overall impact.
A good follow-up question, I think, would be to ask you about your own relationship with Poe. Is it a love/hate thing? Something else entirely? What was your experience with the man's writing? How did you get exposed?
It's total love, actually. I just devoted 9 years of my life to him. He is the father of the mystery genre, the Gothic genre, and a great ancestor of American writing in general. And he was a genius. I felt honored to write a response to his work. I came to Poe late in life, in college, and have had an affinity ever since. I love that he engages the reader intellectually and emotionally with equal power. That he gave us good books that are also good reads. That's a rare thing even today. Maybe even especially today.
Your protagonist speaks of curing the disease of "Whiteness." Could you talk a little bit about what that means? I was a little bit confused as to whether he meant whiteness as a cultural idea or if he's speaking of some kind of white culture itself or white people generally. Could you discuss the idea of racism and the concept of racial pathology and how it has informed your work?
I'm going to have to be a little vague on that and leave the book out there for deciphering. I will say this: I think Jaynes sees whiteness as an overwhelming world view that heavily distorts how the world is seen, while at the same time denying its own existence as a world view. And I'm not going to unpack that either.
I saw that you had a great blurb from Victor Lavalle, and it got me thinking about his novel Big Machine, another book I read quite recently. His book and yours both bring a different perspective - a fascinating one, by the way - to some of the conventions of fantasy or, for lack of a better word, imaginative literature. As science fiction has helped us to explore the technological possibilities of the future, can imaginative literature also help us to understand each other and grow into a better, more socially equitable, future? Further, how can we all work to push society forward to this kind of future?
Victor and I became writers together, living in the same apartment, and we talk almost everyday. So yeah, we've shaped each other a lot. One thing we share is a love for genre and the belief that you can harness the original power of genre in literary fiction to come up with a hybrid that both entertains and engages. I don't know if either one of us knows how to grow towards the future, at least I don't, but I do think that engaging intellectual with the ideas of our time can't hurt.
What did you hope to accomplish with Pym? Do you think you succeeded?
I wanted to write a book that was utterly idiosyncratic, that challenged my limits as a writer, and still make it good enough that someone else would want to read it. It looks like that worked - although it took me nine years to slay that dragon instead of two or three like I hoped. Still, I'm surprised the reaction to it has been so strong. I'm not even sure why, yet.
What's next for you? Got anything you'd like to plug?
Next, I'm working on an apocalyptic novel that hopefully dodges the fact that we're all getting sick of those books right now. I also have another graphic novel coming from Vertigo in Fall 2012. Besides that, sleeping, and raising my Halo: Reach ranking will be major priorities.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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