Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Water Dancer, the 2020 Election & How to Become a Writer
When it comes to releasing a debut novel, most authors— even Ta-Nehisi Coates—don't automatically expect a positive reception, much less to become an Oprah's Book Club Pick. "You could build a monument out of the essayists who sought to be novelists," he jokes. But Coates says he enjoyed stepping into the world of fiction by publishing The Water Dancer in 2019. His historical novel follows the story of Hiram Walker, a young man born as a slave on a plantation in Virginia who has been gifted a mysterious, magical power that eventually saves his life.
The Water Dancer, however, was Coates fourth book. The author first began writing around age 17, and went on to work for several publications, including The Village Voice and TIME, before writing three non-fiction books. In 2015, he won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for one of them: Between the World and Me, a letter written to his son about his experience as a Black man in America. This year, Between the World and Me was adapted for HBO as a special feature, with appearances by Angela Bassett, Mahershala Ali and our very own Oprah.
And like Oprah, Coates has always adored reading, particularly fantasy and science fiction. In fact, Dungeons & Dragons and comic books helped inspire his love of literature. "I had books all over my house," he says. "Our whole house was basically a library. There was no higher power after my parents other than books and learning."
In November, O's editor in chief Lucy Kaylin sat down for a virtual chat with Coates over Zoom to discuss The Water Dancer—now available in paperback—as well as politics and the lessons he's learned in quarantine. Plus, Coates shared some essential advice for any aspiring writers out there.
Ahead, some highlights from their Q&A.
Q: I'd like to start with The Water Dancer. "It pierced my soul," Oprah said when she chose the book for her book club.
The book takes Hiram, someone from this brutally disempowered realm, and imbues him with what I think we can call superpowers. It struck me as a very inventive idea, but also a profoundly poignant one.
Can you tell us a little more about that as a literary device that really powers the book?
A: I spent in total about 10 years I think on the story of The Water Dancer. It really began from a frustration in that, the depictions of enslavement that I read and that I saw were often quite different from what I saw in the first person dialogues about enslavement. It may seem somewhat bizarre or strange, in general, to take an enslaved person and invoke the supernatural, but when I was doing the research for this book, something that constantly came across was that the world of the enslaved from the perspective of the enslaved was full of the supernatural and the fantastic.
When you talk about someone like Frederick Douglass, when he tells his story of escape. It's not simply a mathematical get from point A to point Z—he has an elderly adviser who gives him a route and tells him. "This will render you invisible so people aren't able to see you as you make your escape." When I went into the oral histories, there were all sorts of myths and ideas about powers that enslaved people could use.
One of my favorites was that if you put graveyard dust in your shoes, the hounds wouldn't be able to track you. Harriet Tubman, who very much depicted herself as a mystical figure—or a spiritual figure, someone touched by God, felt called by God, was revered and had the nickname Moses. The world of enslaved people, specifically the world of the Underground Railroad, is a world of heroics, epics, and sagas—and yes, the world is charged with the supernatural. It's not often depicted that way. It wasn't that much of a reach for me to put it in the book.
View the full interview on OprahMag.com: Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Water Dancer, the 2020 Election and How to Become a Writer.