Conversations: An Interview with Mat Johnson

by Matthew Krajniak

If you’ve made publishing your creative work a priority in life then you know what it’s like to be a mole in the old whack-a-mole game. With each decision—from editing material to finding a publisher to navigating setbacks—you expose yourself and your beloved ideas to being knocked down, enough so that the whole nerve-twisting experience can make even the most dedicated writer want to quit playing. So with a number of writers here at the University of Houston planning on revising a story or two over the Thanksgiving break instead of being with loved ones, this dedication to writing and publishing is on my mind when I sit down with Mat Johnson in his office.

To date, Mat has nine major publications, and though he’s taken a few to the chin while fighting for these works, he continues to develop and send work out often. Earlier in the day, we had a quick conversation about the risks of making publishing a priority in one’s life, so as we finish with small talk and he leans way back in his chair—an act revealing his easy-going attitude, while also belying a mind buzzing with plans and proposals—I ask him for an example of this risk. He lets out a laugh before he answers, something he frequently does.    

Well, when I first started my MFA program (at Columbia) I was very broke and had an early morning temp job at Goldman Sachs, and there was a guy there, on my first day, who was a little edgy and told me he’d gotten his MFA at Columbia seven years ago, but was still trying to publish his first novel. He said he hoped I’d do better than him, but what was strange was at the end of the shift, he came up to me and said “Seventeen,” and before I could ask him what he was talking about, he’d said, “that’s how many times you yawned during the shift.” He meant it was obvious I didn’t really care about the job and that I should focus on what I did care about. I realized right then it was very possible for me to end up like him, stuck there and furious about life. So that’s one thing you’re risking—this fury at life. For me, I thought if I can occasionally get a story out and be a part of this cultural conversation, I could somewhat play down that risk.    

What’s immediately evident about Mat’s response is the practicality of his approach: He recognizes a potential problem and attempts to adjust his means to fit his ends. This practical mentality may be why Mat has been writing professionally for nearly twenty years and spotlights the benefits of having a plan that may better yield the desired results. This may seem axiomatic, but for the writer, who often becomes lost in the clouds of dreams and feelings, it’s an important reminder to stay grounded. And it’s this terra firma strategy that makes me curious about his ideas on the oft-abstract processes of choosing narrative material. 

I tend to think of it like this: There are a thousand stories I’d like to tell and a thousand stories people want to hear and what I need to do is find an overlap between the two. To be clear, any book I’m doing, I’m doing because I want to, but I hope I can create a conversation between myself and someone who wants to listen. And that, really, is my idea of success: Am I talking to people? Is this a conversation? 

And again there’s that practicality, but he also introduces two interesting ideas: using the goal of “creating a conversation” to help inform your work and determining for yourself what success is. To me, these ideas represent a valuable practice for handling the blows sometimes dished out by publishing. The concept of “creating a conversation” does this through strengthening a project via a defined objective, while the self-determining of success helps by claiming some of the judgmental power from your work’s arbiters. However, the specifics of this “conversation” are a bit vague, so I ask what he focuses it on and how he starts and keeps it going.

For me, it’s focused on current events, since they definitely affect the conversation’s start and momentum. When I was working on Loving Day, a story about a mixed-race community, Barack became president and the story was dramatically reshaped and then kept evolving, since that conversation is open for change until the final edit. And current events like that are always in both the writer’s and reader’s view, and are constantly affecting and encouraging the conversation. Even if you aren’t thinking of it, you’re responding on some level to your moment in history. Often, our initial ideas are just excuses to get on the page.

What might need clarifying here is that Mat isn’t suggesting topical writing as a full-proof publishing philosophy as much as he’s saying a writer needs to ask why someone would want to read their stuff, what about it is relevant to both of their experiences. This doesn’t necessarily mean centering the conversation on current events, but it does create a template for generating this interaction. It does, however, beg the question about the reader’s end: How can any writer who’s crafted an inviting story be confident the reader will engage in the conversation, or for that matter, the conversations of future works? Mat resignedly shakes his head. 

You can’t be. It’s always a leap of faith. As a career too. Every book I’ve published feels like I’m throwing a party but I don’t know if anyone is going to show up. But you take that leap, that risk, and maybe nobody does come, but you have to have some element of faith. You try to strengthen your chance at luck by hard work, by working smart, and by trying to create work that someone actually wants to read.

We’re again talking about risk, but what tugs at my attention is his noting of ways he’s been able to mitigate that risk. And while these ways are not uncommon, they are still vital, since any committed writer, regardless of past success, has experienced being the host of an unpopular party, whether through a form rejection or a book few buy. The needed follow-up question then, and one of the most important a writer serious about publication can ask, is how does one react to a smack on the head from the publishing world? Mat sighs and relates a few experiences he had during the eight years it took to publish his third novel, Pym.

I mean, there I was re-writing a book by Poe that NO ONE has read AND putting ice monsters and literary criticism in it. Plus, early on, when I was at AWP, I ran into an editor I knew, and while I was explaining the basic ideas and narrative, he’s just looking at me like “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.” Not to mention I was sending out drafts to friends who write and not getting a ton of positive responses. So, yeah, I’ve had the experience of people in publishing tell me my stories aren’t working. But all of that kind of helped too, since I felt mostly free, thinking nothing was going to happen with the book. After each draft failed, I got a little bolder, hoping I could at least get a small press to print 500 copies, so I could sell maybe 250 and put it on my resume for tenure. 

What’s interesting about Mat’s reaction here, aside from being simultaneously practical and headstrong, is that it highlights a common writing and publishing problem. Namely, without your steadfast support your work isn’t going to make it past the recycling bin let alone an editor, but if your belief is too fervent, turns unconditional, you blind yourself to its flaws and possibly lose years of your life proselytizing it. Mat’s situation as described here only further complicates this conflict, since Pym became a critically acclaimed book that put his career into full bloom. To be sure, there is no definitive answer, and those who are called “mad” will continue both to surprise and stultify us, but it brings to mind the practice of foisting all your ambitions onto one work. I ask Mat about this, and he smiles.

What I’ve learned is this: It’s always good to have a few projects going, to always have different fishing rods out there because you increase your chances of one of those rods paying off. It’s still baseball numbers, you can still spend years with nothing happening, but having multiple projects going at any one time increases your chances that some form of your work will be in the hands of an audience.

This “different fishing rods” credo is what Mat’s known for among his colleagues and students. At any given time, he’ll have at least three projects he’s either planning, developing, or re-working. It also speaks to his commitment of getting his work out there, to exploring all of his options in reaching these goals. This commitment is no better evidenced then by his four novels, one nonfiction book, four graphic novels, and the scads of essays, interviews, pilots, and other lesser visible works he’s published. I ask about the benefits of publishing in various genres and he immediately nods yes. 

The graphic narrative audience has little crossover with the prose audience, but I think what the interviews and the comic books and the NPR essays do is keep me in the publishing world’s conversation. If I hadn’t gotten on Twitter in ’07, I wouldn’t have had the success I did later with The Great Negro Plot (his nonfiction book). Twitter told people I existed, and it led to the book being reviewed. Likewise, if I hadn’t done comics I might not have been able to transition to screenplays. 

Someone knocks on Mat’s door, and as he answers it and talks to the person, I think about how in this age when people ingest more media and art than ever before, Mat’s catholic attitude towards publishing seems ideal for those who want to stay, as he says, in the publishing world’s conversation, so after he closes the door and sits, I ask him to speak more about the benefits of sending work and inquiries to various venues.

Yeah, those graphic narratives and essays, they opened a lot of doors that were completely unexpected, with almost all of those opportunities having really good results. Some of the coolest opportunities I couldn’t have been planned for—they just showed up. For instance, I grew up listening to NPR, specifically Fresh Air, as it was a Philly show before a national one, and I used to listen to it at work all the time, was just dependent on it, and if you would’ve told me that someday I’d be on it, I would’ve been like “Oh my God!” But it wasn’t a direct path, it was much more random and happened because my name was out there. Same thing with the comics, if you would’ve told me I would get to write for DC comics, I would’ve been blown away. And that was another time my other stories helped out. So those good things can happen, but they happen from hard work and from pushing yourself to grow and to produce.

Mat has a meeting with other English Department faculty in a few minutes, but what’s struck me most throughout this conversation is that his ideas and knowledge related to writing and publishing are rooted both in real world experience and in self. And by “self” I simply mean that of all the conversations he’s spoken of, the one the writer has with him or herself—what “success” means, the value of multi-genre publishing, aesthetic choices—is by far the most important. A conclusion I first tell him about and then jokingly ask, as he takes a sip from his bottle of water, if he believes I’m in the ballpark of accurate. He laughs.

Part of it IS accepting what you can and can’t do. You’re always gonna get criticized for something, so you really have to challenge yourself and what you believe is important to your work and your goals moving forward. I think a lot of writers get into the arts because they want approval or recognition in the larger world and what they don’t realize is that many of the responses you get are negative. But if you are doing it right, if you are concerned more with the growth of your work than with praise—because your work’s growth is the only thing that really matters—you’re going to get some people who are very positive about what you’re doing, who really enjoy your stories, and who look forward to seeing what you do next. 


Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Loving Day, Pym, Drop, and Hunting in Harlem, the nonfiction novella The Great Negro Plot, and the comic books Incognegro and Dark Rain. He is a recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. He is currently a Professor at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew Krajniak is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston and is working on a novel. A short story of his, "The Size of the Sky," will be out in January in The Avalon Literary Review. He can be reached at matthew.hous@gmail.com.

Posted on December 14, 2016 .