Ta-Nehisi Coates, the bestselling author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, may be best known for the National Book Award–winning Between the World and Me and the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics, but he is about to add novelist to the list. His debut novel, The Water Dancer (One World, Sept.), follows a young man’s conflicted journey into the covert war on slavery. “This is a 19th-century novel about memory and about the price of forgetting,” Coates says. “What my characters come to realize is that there’s a huge price for forgetting. Right now, across the country, we are trying to act like we didn’t do certain things. We’re getting upset when people want to take down Confederate statues, for example. In the book, what I’m trying to argue for is remembering. For all of us to remember.”
For Coates, the book is also about language. Because he started his writing life as a poet, language is important to him. “I’ve always had this admiration for visual language, invented language. After writing The Beautiful Struggle [his memoir], I was reading a lot of history, exploring slave narratives, digging through WPA oral histories, books on what enslaved black people ate, books on black music during that period, books about furniture, books about manners at the time. There were aspects of the way we lived during that period that were really fascinating to me. As brutal as the system was, there was life beneath that brutality. I just fell down the rabbit hole and before I knew it, I was writing a book.”
One of the biggest challenges in writing a novel rather than nonfiction was consistency, says Coates. “The difference with fiction is trying to make a consistent world across the board, and trying to keep your story straight. That is so hard to do.”
This is only Coates’s second BookExpo; his last one was in 2015. Of his decision to skip book conventions for several years, he says, “The mindset of a writer is, you’re trying to get to the point where you are stable enough or you have enough of a body of work just to be there. I was one-track–minded—I was trying to get my writing out, and that was about it. And I don’t want to say I’m antisocial, but I don’t tend to be a big-group sorta dude.”
Today, 8–9:30 a.m. Ta-Nehisi Coates will speak at the Adult Book & Author Breakfast, on the Main Stage.