As an award-winning writer and essayist — the online publication The Root recently called him “arguably the greatest essayist of our time” — Ta-Nehisi Coates knew he could put words on a page just fine. But could he write a novel? On that count, the Baltimore-born Coates wasn’t so sure.
“I had some degree of acknowledgement of public acclaim for my previous work,” Coates says over the phone, pausing in the middle of an exhausting 21-city speaking tour on behalf of “The Water Dancer,” his latest book and first novel. “But fiction is a totally different thing. There’s no reason why anybody who likes your nonfiction should necessarily trust that they’re gonna like your fiction.”
Looks like he needn’t have worried. Even before its Sept. 24 release, Publisher’s Weekly had called “The Water Dancer” the most anticipated book of the year (as had Lithub and Parade magazine), and it was long-listed for the 2019 Center For Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Even Oprah Winfrey jumped on the bandwagon, choosing it to relaunch the vaunted Oprah’s Book Club, this go-round on Apple TV+. She announced the selection on “CBS This Morning” the day before the book’s release.
“When I found out, I was blown away,” Coates, 44, says of getting the Oprah seal of approval for his first effort at writing fiction. “Having that stamp, that seal of endorsement, from Oprah really helps.”
Then, pausing to think back on the writing process that begat “The Water Dancer,” he adds, “It only took 10 years."
Coates, who will be returning to his hometown for an appearance at The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on Oct. 10, packed a lot into that decade, much of which he spent as a writer and national correspondent for The Atlantic.
He began work on “The Water Dancer” shortly after publication of his first book, “The Beautiful Struggle,” a memoir of his youth in West Baltimore. Even while working on his debut novel, he published two more books: “Between the World and Me,” written as a letter to his son about growing up black in the U.S., which won the National Book Award, and “We Were Eight Years in Power,” a collection of essays on the Obama years.
He also wrote “The Black Panther” comic book series for Marvel, and embarked on an HBO series about the life of Martin Luther King Jr., working with fellow Baltimoreans David Simon, a Baltimore Sun alum and creator of “The Wire,” and Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer Taylor Branch.
For his appearance at the Meyerhoff, Coates promises “a good conversation,” with plenty of talk about “The Water Dancer” — “some sort of insight into why it was written, what the major themes were for me, why I was attracted to the story.”
It’s not hard to seer why readers would be attracted to Coates’ debut novel. He populates “The Water Dancer" with memorable characters of his own creation, as well as a sprinkling of historical figures. Set largely in pre-Civil War Virginia, it’s a first-person account of the life of Hiram Walker, born a slave, yearning to be free, struggling to gain control of a mystical power he barely understands, but one that could free both him and those he loves. Beginning with the early, faded memories of a mother he lost, Walker is determined to become his own master, despite living at a time when that’s not only near-impossible, but in many places illegal.
The book’s characters include Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad conductor who earned the nickname Moses. It encompasses themes including struggle, loss and what Walker, as narrator, calls “the awesome power of memory.” But more than anything, it’s a story about the power of family, about bonds that can never be totally broken, and how the corrosive evil of slavery tried, tragically if unsuccessfully, to subvert that power.
“Oftentimes, with slavery, we focus on the physical aspects of it,” says Coates referring to the beatings, the torture and the forced labor. “I really, really wanted to focus on some of the things that people don’t think about, family separation being one of those."
But the way Coates presents the tragedies of family separation is far more nuanced than simply noting how abhorrent they are. One character, offered the chance to reunite with her long-gone daughter, balks, determined to leave that hurt be. Another, offered the chance to create a family of her own, demands it be done on her terms, and no one else’s. In the world of “The Water Dancer," reunification, pulling back the curtain on the past and moving on, is complicated.
”That was drawn out of, I think, the desire among many African Americans of previous generations to not talk about things," Coates says. “It was too painful.”
The book, he says, went through many drafts; the finished work retains few details from the earlier drafts of a decade ago. “Not many of the characters that are in it now were in it then,” Coates says. “That was the main thing that changed, the characters. And the way the plot was done, and the presence of the Underground Railroad. All of that stuff changed.”
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Still, it wasn’t just plot and character alterations that took time. Coates researched the book heavily. Because Tubman would be such a key character, he read up on her; although his research didn’t extend to retracing her steps via the Eastern Shore’s Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, “my family’s from the Eastern Shore,” Coates says, so he was familiar with the area. He researched the era, even discovering that a movement usually associated with the 1960s, the concept of “free love,” dates to the mid-19th century. “Yeah, that’s not actually a modern thing,” he says with a laugh, explaining how the term made it into his book.
And he visited numerous plantations, seeing where slaves lived and labored, standing where they stood, admiring the work they left behind, holding in his hands items they once held. A visit to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was a major inspiration for much of the detail that made it into "The Water Dancer."
“It helped me to see how people actually lived,” Coates says. “Little things like toothbrushes or marbles, stuff like that. It really testified to their humanity. ... It’s not like I didn’t expect them to have interior lives, but the extent of the research that has been done, and that I was able to incorporate into the book, I was surprised by that.”
His reputation as a novelist firmly on the rise, Coates insists he doesn’t know what’s next. Assuredly, there will be more essays, more of the sort of provocative writing that has earned him a reputation for being both outspoken and fearless. He has testified before Congress on the moral justification for reparations, and that issue is far from settled. But he’s got a book tour to finish, and that’s enough for the moment.
“The tour, man, the tour,” Coates says in mock exhaustion when asked about future plans. “I got another six weeks on tour. I’ll see what’s going on after that.”
If you go
Ta-Nehisi Coates will be returning to his hometown Oct. 10 for “A Discussion with author Ta-Nehisi Coates," set for 7 p.m. at The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets, available through ticketmaster.com, are $72-$247. Information: bsomusic.org.