Mat Johnson

June 29, 2010

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.

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