Tag Archives: mat Johnson

Mat Johnson

Here’s today’s intro for Mat Johnson, who gave an awesome workshop and told a great tale during his reading this afternoon. Look him up. Buy his books. Twitter him now.

I met Mat Johnson several years ago when he was teaching at Rutgers University. I was an undergrad at the time, working on Painted Bride Quarterly. And although I never had the pleasure of attending one of his classes, I have this great memory etched in my brain, that I wanted to share as a way of introducing this wonderful author. I was standing in the hall, on the fourth floor, outside one of the English Department offices and I was talking to a bunch of other English majors and professors and we were having this conversation about Mat, as to whether he was going to stay at Rugers, I believe, or return to Bard. Because you know, at that time, (2002-2003) Mat Johnson was roughly 30 years old, his first novel Drop had been chosen as a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selection, Interview Magazine named him a “Writer on the Verge” and his second novel “Hunting in Harlem” was due for release. So, it’s no wonder we were all so infatuated with Mat. And as we were huddled in the hall, he unexpectedly walks by in his chummy,  affable way and he leans in and asks, “What are you talking about?” never realizing we were talking about him. Of course we were all thoroughly humiliated. And the subject was probably “dropped” or changed to something else.

But I think that story illustrates Mat’s great personality, and success as a writer by the amount of respect and awe we as students had for someone that struggled to achieve his dreams.

Mat Johnson’s life, his “story” is an American story- one of a boy who barely passed school with Ds, barely got into a local state college, but eventually realize his potential and began working towards goals. And after several years of international travel, a little poverty, and sleeping on his mother’s sofa in Anchorage Alaska, he was accepted to Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program where he received his MFA in creative writing and began Drop, a “coming of age novel about a self-hating Philadelphian who thinks he’s found the perfect escape in a job in London.” This novel, published in 2000, was voted Progressive Magazine’s “Best Novels of the Year.” And one in which I, to this day, still recommend.

In 2003 he published Hunting in Harlem, in 2007 The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, and in 2009, his first graphic novel, “Incognegro,” the tale of an African American journalist who “passes” as white in the 1930s South so as to investigate the murder charge against his brother, was released. It has been described as “smart, pulpy and fast-paced” by Publishers Weekly.

Mat Johnson  has taught at Rutgers University, Columbia University, Bard College and the University of Houston where he teaches currently. He was also named a 2007 James Baldwin Fellow.

Aside from five published novels, inspiring academic achievements, many awards and a growing number of English major fans, Mat Johnson, as memory serves,  is also a great guy.

Reality Fiction


SO, last night was a night alone–completely alone–no kids, no boyfriend, no friends, no nothing. And quite honestly, I enjoyed the heck out of it. People who can’t be alone shock and amaze me. And it’s not that I make very good use of my “me time”: Dr. Phil and Intervention marathons are sadly as wild as I get.

But I did read last night; that’s a big plus.

There are several things I’m reading- Ron Rash’s Serena, Mat Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem, and then several lit mags: Creative NonFiction,  Glimmer Train, and Tin House, the latter of which was the only thing that interested me last night as it had a great interview with David Shields who believes in “tell don’t show” when it comes to fiction.

Interesting! If you know anything about fiction writing, as students we are told the opposite, that “show don’t tell” is the first rule of writing and so, our fiction ends up looking like this:

Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man’s or the regular?

A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.

“Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.

Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . . (taken from: Inspiration for Writers)

The above, of course, is a bad example, and yet, it illustrates nicely what most of our fiction looks like. Shields is saying that “fiction” hasn’t caught up with our contemporary culture which is a blend of reality and fiction and that most literature is egoless because it “shows” action, rather than tells of what the mind is thinking, what the emotions are feeling. The subconscious, he argues, is what is most desired and what can be exposed in literature and yet no one is doing it.

I’m sure I’m bastardizing his philosophy, but what I find greatly fascinating is that when I worked with PBQ I kept pushing for what I called “Reality FIction.” KVM thought I was nuts. But my point was to expose a reality in fiction that no one seemingly wanted to read. Bad literature. But the reality was, as far as submissions to the magazine went, there was more bad stuff than good. And if we were to portray “reality” this is how we would do it. Not only that, but i wanted to publish the cover letters. Marion got me. KVM didn’t. Nice to know another “Shields” gets me.

He will be speaking and reading at Rutgers for the summer writers conference. I can’t wait!