TONY COX, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michele Martin is away. Coming up, ever since New York legalized same-sex marriage, business is booming for planners of gay weddings. We've talked to one woman who has made a career out of helping gay couples tie the knot. But now, we turn the page to the latest selection in TELL ME MORE'S Summer Blend Book Club. That's our summer-long series where we look at the mixed-race experience in America.
In the science fiction novel "Pym," author Mat Johnson creates the modern day sequel to Edgar Allen Poe's only novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket." The 1838 novel is a seafaring adventure where Pym and crew, much to their horror, land on an island near the South Pole populated only by black people.
Poe's novel ends with a cliffhanger. The characters leave the black island and end up on the coast of Antarctica, face-to-face with a mysterious white creature. Mat Johnson's sequel picks up where Poe left off.
Mat Johnson, welcome to the program.
MAT JOHNSON: Nice to be here.
COX: Man, I'll tell you, this was one interesting book. How it begins and how it ends seem to be completely different. What inspired you to write it?
JOHNSON: Well, I loved Edgar Allen Poe, and he has this one novel, and the novel is insane. It starts off in one direction, where it's like a regular seafaring tale. By the end of it, it's off into this other kind of science fiction realm. At the very ending of the book, the main character goes towards Antarctica, and when he gets to Antarctica, all he sees is this white figure standing on the coast. And the ice opens up in a chasm, and the boat goes in. The whole book ends. And that's it. You don't know why. Like, even if you read the whole book, it makes no more sense than what I just said to you. So it was fascinating.
The other part is the more surreal it gets, the more it starts to become sort of like him putting his racial subconscious onto the page. And it's a, you know, 19th-century Southern racial subconscious, and it becomes absolutely bizarre. And it just intrigued me.
COX: One of the things that was the link between his book and yours is this idea that there is a place on the planet that black people thrived and survived all the other elements of the world, racism, whatever. And your characters are in search of this place.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that's, in some ways, it seems like an American fantasy, too, this idea of this homeland that we all have. And for some of us, that's Africa. For some of us, that's Europe. And I think what I was imagining, in part, was a diasporan homeland, a homeland of the descendents of Africa who came here, something that was kind of unique in itself.
When I read Poe's book, he goes to this island where everybody is so black, even their teeth are black. Like, even the water is purple, you know. And for him, it's a nightmare, you know, because he's coming with all these fears from a slave society.
But for me, it ended up being the opposite. It became something utterly fascinating.
COX: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox.
We are talking about the third book in our Summer Blend Book Club series. It's called, "Pym," an epic adventure novel - epic, for sure. And author Mat Johnson is our guest.
Let me ask you, Mat, because in the book, your hero, Chris Jaynes, and his all-black crew travel to Antarctica, as we've already said.
There are some racial symbolism that are throughout the book. One of them involves something called the Little Debbie snack, little symbols. They keep popping up throughout the story.
Let me ask you: Would you mind setting up one of those scenes and reading the passage for us?
JOHNSON: Sure. Here's a scene where they first interact with these monstrous creatures. They meet these eight-foot-tall albino goliaths that live underneath the ice in Antarctica, and they find that they actually have some culinary similarities with these monsters.
Pausing for a few seconds after my last swallow, seeing I didn't fall to the ground and meet a quick death, the creature ate what was left of the portable sweetness. Oh!
(SOUNDBITE OF GROANING)
JOHNSON: The sounds it made, the groans were loud, vulgar; they were appreciative too. And the now excited snowman gathered over his buddies. The international sugar cane trade that fueled the colonial world, these beings had obviously missed that. I watched, struggled to be culturally relative and hide my revulsion as they moved the crumbs around in their mouths, their alabaster tongues glistening. They liked the food; I turn to tell the others. They were all nodding, uniform looks a frozen shock on their faces.
COX: That was one of the more interesting things in the book - how Debbie snack cakes kept coming up and up and up. Another thing that kept, as I saw it, Mat, as a strain throughout the book, your main character, biracial - you the author also biracial. What were you trying to show there?
JOHNSON: You know, it's funny, when I'm writing and I try to show something, if I try, meaning I have an idea of what it's going to be and I put it on the paper, it's usually horrible; it feels dead on the page. So part of the challenge with Poe's book, I felt was if he put his racial subconscious on the page, then I had to put mine. And when I actually started it I didn't think about the biracial issue. But as I was just kind of spewing all these things out there, in a lot of ways, it ended up speaking to my own kind of struggles with biracial identity.
COX: Was it cathartic for you to write about it this way?
JOHNSON: Oh no, it was hell.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOHNSON: I mean, you know, it's cathartic now because it's done. You know? Like no, it was horrible. I mean this book took me like nine years because I wrote like probably like seven or eight different versions of this thing. Basically what I did was just kind of put my hand into my brain and threw it on the page. And so I had to redo it again and again and again, but to figure out what I even meant - and I didn't even realize that the book was in part about my own biracial identity until the end, you know?
JOHNSON: Because a lot of times, you know, when you're working on a project you're working so close to it - like it's a painting and you're just working in this tiny centimeter block, and then eventually you step away from it and you start to see the larger patterns. And that's when it starts to become clear.
COX: You know, one thing that probably is not getting through to people listening to you and I talk about the book is this, it is funny. This book is hilarious in places.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COX: It sounds and, you know, we're talking about biracial and we're talking about all, you know, history and Edgar Allan Poe...
COX: ...and blah, blah, blah, and yet it is it's a crack up.
JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean race is absurdity, you know, and race can be hilarious in its absurdity and its contradictions. And, you know, the challenge that I wanted to do with this book was to try and deal with some big ideas that I was interested in exploring. But do it in a way that was somehow so entertaining that you barely noticed that till later. You know, and I wanted you to be kind of engaged in a moment. I like if something is funny you tune in and you get enjoyment from it. And I find that humor offers the same thing on the page, that it makes people tune in and listen even closer.
COX: Absolutely. It was a fascinating book to read. And of the several reviews that I read, Salon.com had the best subtitle for your book, Pym, Negroes on Ice.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOHNSON: I actually wanted to call it Negroes on ice.
COX: Really? That was that, I said that's perfect. This is just what this book is about, Negroes on ice.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COX: It was absolutely hilarious. Matt Johnson, thank you very much for coming out and being with us. He's the author of the recently released novel "Pym" as well as the author of a number of other books, including "Drop" and the graphic novel "Incognegro." He is also a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, joined us from member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. Mat, thank you very much for the book. Thank you for the interview.
JOHNSON: Hey, great talking to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)