Cobalt: As a Baltimore-based journal, it’s hard not to start off with this… What drove you to write a novel (PYM) so tightly tied to the sole novel of the great Baltimorean Edgar Allan Poe?
Mat Johnson: Poe’s Pym is one of the great American literary gauntlets: an arguably unfinished (or at least opaque) novel that has driven several major writers over the years to attempt sequels. And no one had tried to do one in years. So it just looked like a challenge.
Cobalt: In PYM’s acknowledgements, you discuss having bounced the book around for a while – that your editor pushed you “to realize it fully.” Can you tell us a little about the process of this book, how it evolved, and how the relationship between you and your agent led to the finished product?
Johnson: My Pym is like a dream that was captured on the page. That sounds grandiose, but think about it. Dreams are a mess. They’re vivid, but often times incoherent on the conscious plane. So turning an expression of the subconscious into something actually readable took time.
Cobalt: I am particularly fond of Catch-22, and in an interview last year, you mentioned this as the first satire that really stuck with you. How would you say your interest in satire plays out in your writing? Are you aware of it from the get-go, or does it appear more through the revision process?
Johnson: I think satire impacts the way I look at the world so completely that I don’t even set out to write satire, or write comedy, it just comes out that way. I feel like we are surrounded by our own absurdities. So depict the world realistically, the humor has to be there. To be honest, I was surprised how big a deal the reviewers made of the humor in the book, which, when I was writing it, I paid little attention to other than to keep me awake.
Cobalt: One of my favorite scenes from PYM is the “downbeat” beat down that Chris Jaynes gets from hip hop theorist Mosaic Johnson in the bar, who, while pummeling, exclaims: “Poe. Doesn’t. Matter.” First, I can’t help but notice the slight similarity between your name and Mosaic’s. Did you feel, in writing this, that you were beating on Jaynes yourself?
Johnson: I was in a rap group called Mosaic Blac in the mid 90s. And we were horrible. Actually, it was on stage with a mic in my hand that I realized: Fuck this, I’m going to be a writer.
Cobalt: And, second, did you have intentions to criticize the value placed on literature through this scene? Of course, one of the most interesting components is that these two academics are fighting in a bar; however, it’s also hip hop beating down on literature.
Johnson: Yes, but it’s a scene of literary fiction describing the “hip hop theorists” assault and then the entire novel after that goes on to assert the narrator’s perspective, as silly as he can be.
Cobalt: You also produce graphic novels, most recently RIGHT STATE (Vertigo, 2012). Is there a different approach, for you, when putting together a graphic novel?
Johnson: If I have a short, visual story to tell, it works well as a graphic novel. Long, internal, complicated narratives, I do best in prose. It’s that simple.
Cobalt: What comes next?
Johnson: Finishing up the next novel now, which takes place in Valley Green Park in Philly, and is part ghost story, among other things. I’m actually planning a memoir after that. I try to continue to push genres; it helps me become stronger, so when the aliens come I can defend the planet with my prose skills.
About Mat: Mat Johnson is a novelist who sometimes writes other things. He is the author of the novels 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. Mat Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program.