Mat Johnson & Sean Smith

“I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting.”

2012 Alum, Sean Smith, interviewed author and James Baldwin Fellow, Mat Johnson, during his visit on October 6, 2014. For more of Mat’s work, visit his website.

On Finding Time to Write: “You’re always stealing time. There’s never a perfect time, and so you have this balance because you can’t just sit down and write. You can sit down and type, but you can’t sit down and write.  You have to get into this mode where you’re going to access something good, but at the same time you can’t be so precious about when you’re going to write that nothing ever happens. You have to write through crap.”

On Getting Into the Writing “Mode”: “It’s tricky finding that mode. I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting. You put something, like, ‘Oh, shit! I can’t believe I just said that!’ You think, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ And that’s fun.”

On Editing: “Usually, I’ll start [writing] a book and I’ll say, ‘Okay, this book is about revenge,’ and then I’ll start telling the story about this guy whose father was killed, and I’ll get two-thirds to the end and I’m like, ‘Oh, crap,  this book is about this guy looking for his missing father, and it’s about fatherly love.’ The story isn’t what you think it’s about, it’s not what you plan it to be—what it is is a culmination of scenes. A big part of writing is realizing that you don’t have complete control over it; you have to step back and realize what you’ve actually written versus what you actually intended. If you try to change it constantly to be what you intended, you can kill the story.”

On Genre: “We talk about literary versus genre fiction; literary comes out of genre fiction to begin with.  When you’re looking at Gulliver’s Travels, when you’re looking at Frankenstein, when you’re looking at a lot of the most important books in the past, we have this collusion. Genres in part are born from literary fiction.  The idea, now, of speculative fiction, of this kind of hybrid of literary fiction and genre fiction–there’s nothing new about it, it’s kind of this re-awakening…no one thinks of Beloved as this ghost story and literary fiction story. No one thinks of 1984 being between literary fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. So, when they’re successful, they’re taken out of the genre spectrum altogether.”

On Entertainment and its Value in Writing: “I grew up reading comics…the first thing I actually read by my own volition was The Hulk, and that’s when I got into the joy of actually reading, and I didn’t switch to novels until middle school, and that’s where my roots are and not in literary fiction. I think, in part, we don’t think of literary fiction being class-restrictive but oftentimes it is. The fun part of having monsters or having ghosts and zombies is that it attracts a larger audience to the conversation…I do fear that literary fiction has just gotten too damn boring. There are books that bore 99% of the population that I love; I read literary criticism for fun, you know? I know people are bored by that; there are books I love that people just find so dry and that’s fine, but I think this question of entertainment matters. It matters in part because of that class situation. If we start thinking of literature as something that only people that have degrees have access to, that is scary.  If we’re saying that only boring books–only books where there are extended points that you’re going to be bored–are serious, then that hurts literature.”


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