With James (Doubleday, Mar.), Everett retells Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Jim’s point of view.

As a novelist, what sort of potential did you see in Twain’s book?

It fits into our literary landscape in a distinct way. Some people think it’s the first modern novel, and I tend to agree, but there’s also all the stuff around race, in particular the word nigger, which has caused the book to have a different kind of life in the culture. So that was a lot of what attracted me to it. And the fact that Jim is a significant literary figure who never had any agency.

Did writing a novel based on a well-known story impose limitations?

I read Huck Finn 15 times, for the purpose of becoming sick of it and abandoning Twain’s story. In my novel, Huck is there, the two con men are there, but all the characters are completely different. Most of my novel, since it’s from Jim’s point of view, really has no source in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck isn’t always present during my version of Jim’s story in the same way that Jim isn’t always present in Twain’s story of Huck.

Early in your novel, Jim, a voracious reader, instructs his family in the use of coded “slave” language. Later, when Jim drops the dialect, white people are confused and fearful. These elucidations about speech ring out as important to your project.

I’m the last one to say what one of my books is about. But for me, and maybe this is true of all my novels, it’s about language. It’s about the power that comes with owning the language.

One of the things that bothered me about the movie 12 Years a Slave was that you have this Black man who has been raised in the North. He’s free, he’s living side by side with white people, and when he’s kidnapped into slavery and thrown in with the slaves, there’s something that’s completely incorrect, which is that he understands what they’re saying. He could not, because these people who are enslaved and oppressed would have created a language by which they could communicate without their oppressors knowing what they were saying.

Have you thought about where your book stands in relation to contemporary slavery narratives?

I’ve been so sick of slave stories. Um, what am I supposed to think at the end? Wow, slavery was bad? For years, before I figured out that I was gonna write this novel, I had an ongoing joke that I was going to write and publish something called Percival Everett Finally Writes His Slave Novel. This is a novel about Jim, not about slavery. He happens to be a slave, but it’s about Jim, and about what Jim represents in the American literary landscape, and his relationship with Huck.