Mat Johnson and I have been friends since we published our first books fifteen years ago. In that time we’ve spent an untold number of hours bullshitting about writing, parenting, and sundry nonsense. Mat’s new novel, Loving Day—which will be released by Spiegel & Grau on May 26—is the story of a mixed-race comic book artist who returns from Wales to his native Philadelphia to discover a daughter he never knew he’d fathered, a mixed-race cult that hopes to recruit him, and a pair of ghosts haunting his father’s home. Our conversation appears below.
Victor LaValle: Germantown’s Finest, what’s going on?
Mat Johnson: I’m sweating my ass of in Houston Fucking Texas is what’s going on. It’s like Philly in July but for six months down here.
VL: That’s going to ruin your image as a writer. Your Twitter profile photo makes you look like an elegant leg breaker, not a sweating goon.
MJ: Breaking legs builds moisture in your arm pits. I am rugged fiction writer man. I make my own paper from the pulp I chew off trees, man.
VL: Yo, I’m 120 pages into that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and you were right that it’s a beast. It took 100 pages for Mr. Norrell to do any serious magic, but somehow I’ve never become bored. How is Susanna Clarke doing this shit?
MJ: I’ve read it three times. The best answer I can give, for long books like this, and this goes for George R. R. Martin’s Fire & Ice series too, is that the world becomes so engrossing, that you’re more willing to engage in a longer narrative for the chance to stay within this reality. As a writer of short books, I’m blown away.
VL: That makes sense, the world building, but even strict realism is world building, or it should be. What do I know about mid-western baby boomers thrashing in the cold grip of impending death? Maybe that’s part of what makes someone like Franzen popular. His novels are actually full of world building. Right now I’m imagining him going into a flop sweat at the suggestion that he and George R. R. Martin have anything in common as writers.
MJ: I think escape and immersion are underrated when we talk about fiction writing. It’s a huge part of what the average reader comes to reading novels looking for: the chance to get out of their skin, their reality, their time. Yet, in the world of teaching writing, this is almost never mentioned. That’s a pretty big disconnect.
Then there’s an odd balancing act in lit fiction. At one end, it’s art, and it’s the reader’s task to accept the artist’s challenge. On the other end, for many of us (me included), it’s also entertainment. I don’t want to bore the reader, so I have to make a concerted effort to engage them. Those ingrates.
VL: Art versus entertainment makes sense as a kind of push/pull in lit fiction, but in the new book you’ve added a third ingredient. Outrage. Some motherfuckers are going to be outraged by what you’ve put in this book. Black, white, mixed. It’s possible you’ve even defamed ghosts with one of the subplots.
MJ: I like being scared when I’m writing. I enjoy building to the moment where I’m like, I can’t believe I’m putting this on the page. All of Loving Day was like this. Growing up mulatto, looking white but being black. In the black community I never talked about being mixed. I was too busy overcompensating to fit in.
Writing this book I kept thinking, black people are going to hate that I’m even talking about this, mixed people are going to be annoyed about the way I’m talking about it, and white people aren’t going to know what the hell it is I’m even talking about. Shit, I’m still scared.
VL: I still remember how you felt before your last novel, Pym, was published. You were calling me on the phone saying you didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen. Who was going to want a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s sole, shitty novel? And written with a critique of white supremacy laced throughout?
And then that joint comes out and you’re getting a full page wet kiss in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a best book of the year in Vanity Fair, The Onion’s A.V. Club, Salon, The Washington Post, on and on. I swore I’d never ask you to pick my Powerball numbers in the future.
MJ: That’s how I feel every time. I like to prepare myself for the probable worst, and be open to the unlikely best. I learned this watching the Philadelphia professional athletics.
VL: You grew up in Germantown, with your mom, but your dad was still in your life, right? This new book has a lot to do with fathers and I realized I don’t know much about you and your dad.
MJ: My father and I are close in some ways, distant in others, so a fairly standard father/son dynamic. The thing about dads is usually you know where you stand with them, even if that’s nowhere.
Because I grew up spending a lot of time compensating for looking white, and being mixed, I think I distanced myself mentally from my dad. This was part of why going with a black identity, as opposed to a mulatto one, was not healthy for me. I didn’t realize how much the issue affected me till I finally wrote about it.
VL: Did you and your dad ever talk about this identity question? I mean when his white-looking son comes home from college and says he’s the head of the Black Student Union I’d imagine that could cause a discussion.
MJ: My father’s general response to the larger realities is to shrug and groan, God love him. We, in the great Irish tradition, know how to politely avoid conflict, which I have to tell you is not a bad life strategy sometimes. I tried once to breach the Afro-Irish divide, I played him House of Pain. His response was, “God I hate Irish music,” followed by a shrug, and a groan for good measure.
VL: So did you end up having these conversations with your mom? Someone else?
MJ: I had these discussions with you. I grew up with two mixed cousins who lived down the street, so when I was younger I had these discussions with them. But really I had these discussions with books. Souls of Black Folk, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Autobiography of Malcolm X, etc. I didn’t have a larger black intellectual community around me, or mixed one for that matter, but I had the books. It was an identity correspondence course.
VL: It seems like the end of this book is your coming out, or claiming yourself, as a mixed person. So is that you now? The Great American Mulatto?
MJ: I prefer to call myself The Mullah of Mulattoes, thank you. When I was kid, if you were part black, you were black, end of story. And if you protested you were an Oreo, a sellout. Slowly, as an adult, I started growing warm to mixed identity, as being a healthier way of self-definition. But there are still several things I was uncomfortable about. I needed to work through that. I needed to do it publicly, and through story.
VL: Is it cheesy for me to imagine you giving this book to your dad as a way of explaining all your thoughts on your identity and the hard won place you’ve come to now?
MJ: I’d like to imagine that, but I don’t like to think of him reading the scene in Loving Day where a black ghost and a white ghost are suspended 20 feet in the air, fucking.