Burnin’ It Down: A Q&A with Mat Johnson

By Michele Nereim

Warren Duffy has decided to burn his father’s house to the ground: a great, crumbling mansion crouched on seven overgrown acres, in the “heart of black Philly.” He’ll “burn the fucker down,” collect the insurance money, and free himself from everything else that’s fallen apart in his life—his marriage to a Welsh woman, career as artist and comic book shop owner, and generally perilous finances. But history doesn’t die easy, and personal history comes back to haunt him in the form of a daughter he didn’t even know he had, conceived in his reckless youth. The appearance of Tal changes everything. Everything except the plan. But mansion-fires get put on the back-burner as Warren drops everything to focus on being a father to a girl who was previously unaware of her own interracial history and is, frankly, a little racist. “Casually racist.”

His efforts to connect to Tal, and connect Tal to her African roots, lead them to Melánge, a “mixie” commune and school. After having had to fight and posture his entire life to establish his blackness, Warren finds himself slowly succumbing to the idea of a community where he truly fits in. A Mulattopia. That prospect is sweetened by the presence of Sunita Habersham, a woman Warren finds absolutely irresistible, from her substantial feminine form to her comics-loving core. But when Tal sees ghosts (“Crackheads!” Warren insists, Sneaky, levitating crackheads) and the commune comes to the mansion lawn, Warren begins to realize that their utopia might be more accurately described as a cult, and that cult has his daughter.

Anyone who has spent time with Mat Johnson knows where the wit, energy, and frankness of his novel, LOVING DAY, come from. The man has the exterior of a gregarious linebacker and the heart of a total nerd. He’s deeply thoughtful, but does not shy away from difficult subject matter or strong opinions. Hell, he wants us to be a little uncomfortable. That’s a natural reaction to head-on confrontation, and Johnson won’t let you avert your eyes from America’s troubling history (See his graphic novel, INCOGNEGRO) or enduring racism (Haven’t read the “Indian”-genetic-testing scene in his celebrated novel, PYM? You should. It’s hilarious and scathing). He even makes a point to indict his fellow progressives. No one is spared. Johnson is a self-proclaimed “Octoroon” who might get mistaken for white, but was raised by his African-American mother in Germantown, where he donned the occasional dashiki. He has engaged deeply with that identity and the social issues that swirl around it. And he skillfully translates his presence and pathos to the page.

I recently had the honor of chatting with Mat Johnson about his new novel, LOVING DAY, named for the anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia decision, which struck down the remaining anti-miscegenation laws. We talked ghosts, women, and “loving shit.”

Michele Nereim: Let’s talk ghosts.

Mat Johnson: Hit me.

MN: I know you said you didn't set out to write a ghost story, even that you started writing a ghost story before you knew that's what you were doing. How did that turn around in your mind?

MJ: I wrote the opening chapter first, which is rare for me (usually I go back and do a new one later), and I had this scene with crackheads. I read it somewhere, like three days after I wrote it, and a lady came up to me after and said, “I want to know more about those ghosts.” I shrugged it off, then months later, when I saw where it was going, I was like, “Oh shit, they're ghosts.”

Part of it was that I wrote the scene not knowing what or why it was happening. Afterwards, I had to translate my subconscious, and that's what was there.

MN: Both the crackhead/ghosts and busted-up Loudin Mansion struck me as really apt physical manifestations of the history that looms over the story and characters. Like, America’s arbitrary racial ideologies that still haunt the hell out of us today.

MJ: Yeah. Of course, I didn't know this until much later. It was like a dream, more apparent to others than yourself.

The weird thing is, I started with just that first sentence, and then built on it. And it quickly became about Germantown. But then, I realized, my image of Germantown was really about myself. And this hybrid reality of African-American and Irish-American culture.

MN: It just now struck me as funny that the place is called “Germantown.” Talk about identity crisis.

MJ: Right? Not a lot of Germans there now. I had a German friend visit me there once and she actually saw the connection. I still don't.

MN: It's like the name leftover from a dead city.

MJ: I think that city has been born and died so many times, the place I grew up with isn't even there anymore. I'm writing about a place of my imagination now.

MN: I thought it was really interesting how the different women in Warren’s life (past, future, only-in-his-dreams) seemed to wield a lot of power over how Warren perceived himself, his racial identity, etc. Do you think that's how it often plays out in real life?

MJ: Yup.

I’ll say more, but it's really that simple. In my life, I interact with the feminine a lot more than the masculine. My wife, my daughters, my mom—who has MS and I partly take care of, most of my students. Besides my young son, if I want to interact with men socially, I have to arrange a play date basically. I don’t think that's an uncommon experience either.

I’m a big, butch, straight man. But I want to be a good person in regards to how I interact with the women and girls in my life. I want to be a positive in their existence, and considering we live in a violently misogynistic society, that takes self-examination and effort.

MN: Which reminds me—obviously, Tal, adds an entire new dimension to Warren’s identity, perhaps even stabilizing a self that was otherwise falling apart. How did your kids shift your sense of self?

MJ: Becoming a parent made me become a true adult. That’s what did it. I don't think you have to become a parent to become a fully realized adult, but that’s what it took for me.

MN: At risk of being blatantly sexist—I suspect that's true for a lot of men.

MJ: I was a wild teenager. I was a good-looking kid, to be frank, and being physically attractive is sort of a power in itself. And I ran loose and acted irresponsibly. And I got a girl pregnant. I think. I don't know. But she told me she was, although I strongly suspect she wasn’t telling the truth. And it changed my life. I stopped going out. I realized I was acting like a fool. I stayed home, and read, and gained more depth than I’d been rolling with before. And it changed my life. But I always wondered, What if? So that part in the book, basically nonfiction.

That’s the only part, though. Everything in the future is made up.

MN: As a fellow card-carrying nerd, I have to bring up the nerd element in the book. Warren works as a maybe-failed comic book artist. And you, of course, are a writer in the comics/graphic novel world. What brought about that creative decision? Other than the obvious perk of getting voluptuous Sunita in a Catwoman mask.

MJ: It’s like you can see into my mind.

You know what, I like being a geek. Fucking right. I love loving shit, and I love that I used to cower at my odd obscure loves. And now I embrace it. And it’s easy now anyway. Because the geeks won. We took over the pop culture. How cool is that. But yeah, the twelve-year-old me thinks the highest connection with a woman comes from mutual comic reading. I can admit that.

MN: Important follow-up question: favorite Catwoman of all time?

MJ: Oh shit. Catwoman. The black-nationalist remnant in me wants to say Eartha Kitt, but I know in my heart it’s Julie Newmar. Now in the comic, the character has become just better and better over the years. Really been enjoying the continued growth.

MN: Anything else you want people to know about LOVING DAY?

MJ: If they’re going to buy one comic novel about a man raising his daughter in a haunted mansion with a militant biracial commune squatting on the lawn, this is it.

Michele Nereim received her MFA from Florida State University. Her essay about the insanity of Florida football appeared on NPR, and, this past year year, she moved to Houston where she is working on her novel and a Ph.D. in Fiction at the University of Houston. She is a proud Floridian, but is under no illusions about the general insanity of her home-state. And, yes, she had alligators in her back yard.

Loving Day Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812993455
Availability: Hard to Find
Published: Spiegel & Grau - May 26th, 2015

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