Mat Johnson, winner of the Dos Passos Prize for Literature for his novel Pym, will be reading at the literary concert Yeah, You Write this Thursday at Tipitina’s. Recently, Peauxdunquian Maurice Carlos Ruffin asked Mat some questions.
A Conversation with Mat Johnson
MCR: Where does a story begin for you?
MJ: To me, it’s more about what it ends. I look at story as the ride towards epiphany. Something important is realized, either by the characters or the reader. What comes before that is the facts that lead up to that point.
MCR: What balance do you try to achieve between characterization and plot?
MJ: Characters have to be real enough that you care what happens to them, and there has to be enough plot that we don’t get bored just looking at them. The rest is defined by whatever story you have to tell. If the story demands more action, it will make less time for character development. If the story is an internal journey, that makes less time for demanding plot devices. The key is to figure out what kind of story you are trying to tell and then feed it what it needs.
MCR: Do your characters choose their actions or do you?
MJ: I sit there typing and try not to bore myself. So I write myself into moments even I didn’t expect. Enough of those, and the characters start looking like people I didn’t consciously intend for them to be. From there, I consciously try and build on those traits. So it’s a trade off. The art is knowing when to control the page and when to let it run wild.
MCR: What do you do when you’re having a difficult time with a story?
MJ: I walk away from the page. I talk it out with friends. Usually, it’s going rough on the page because there is something I missed, something I’m not understanding, because now I’m reading it and going, “Naw, something’s off.” When I can come up with a way to rethink what I’m working on, then I come back to it.
MCR: What is the best bit of writing advice you’ve gotten?
MJ: “This reads like I’m stuck next to some guy on a plane and forced to listen to his life story. But I’m not stuck. And I can just put it down and walk away.” Michael Cunningham told me that about a book I was writing. It was great advice, because it got through my thick head that my book was not interesting. It gave me the strength to walk away from it and try to write a book that was actually engaging. That ended up being Drop, my first published novel.
MCR: What has been the most surprising thing about the professional writing life?
MJ: That it doesn’t pay shit. I thought I’d be living on a boat by now.
The last two questions were offered by Evelyn Alfred, who is hosting a Pym discussion group on Twitter.
EA: Is there a specific reason why you didn’t discuss the experience on Tsalal?
MJ: Yes. I don’t like to go into breakdowns of my work, I like it to be digested by the reader without my extra-guide, but the ending mirrors Poe’s original ending. Much of Pym is referenced from moments in the original material, but I have my own meanings for them.
EA: What happened to “White Folks” the dog?
MJ: I refuse to talk about White Folks! That would be racist!
Mat Johnson will read at Yeah, You Write, Thursday at Tipitina’s.