Ta-Nehisi Coates was a hot ticket in Oakland last night: Some 500 attendees packed a William Pitt Student Union ballroom to hear the author speak, with more in an overflow room and 100 or more folks turned away at the door. But if people came expecting him to talk about his best-selling 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, his experiences writing Marvel's Black Panther comic, or even his high-profile journalism in The Atlantic and elsewhere, they got a bit of a surprise.
Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, Coates talked about himself not as a pundit, scriptwriter or adherent to any single genre or subject matter, but as a writer. In fact, he spent the first several minutes of the hour-long program talking about how writing and studying poetry back in college had shaped his craft. (He was sparked here by his introduction by University of Pittsburgh professor Yona Harvey, an old college pal from Howard University.)
And most of Coates' presentation involved his reading aloud a pair of excerpts from his work-in-progress novel. The story is set in slavery times; the hero, whose father is a slavemaster, is plotting escape with the woman he loves, a fellow slave. The passages were heavy on thoughtful dialogue and ruminations on the relationships between the enslaved persons and their white owners.
Coates is riding high these days. The talk was recorded by a PBS cameraman for future use, and the applause that greeted Coates when he took the podium was enthusiastic enough that it risked turning into a standing ovation before he'd spoken a word.
Instead, he got the standing O at the conclusion of a lively Q&A in which several aspiring writers asked him for advice on the writing life. "Cultivate a group around you of people who push you," he counseled. He also spoke of his desire not just to be "right" in a piece of writing, but to evoke an emotional response in readers. "It's not enough to be logically correct," he said. "You want people to feel it." Later, he added, "I want people to be disturbed like the literature I love disturbs me."
In response to another question, he identified James Baldwin as his favorite writer of nonfiction. (That's notable in a town that's made a surprise arthouse hit of I Am Not Your Negro, the new documentary about Baldwin.)
Coates also noted the dangers that come with the success of a book like Between the World and Me, a critical and commercial hit that's informed our discussion of issues like white privilege. The risk lies in the "external life" the book itself takes on, one that requires a lot of its author (presumably in terms of things like personal appearances and the like). "You can get lost in that external life and you can forget who you are as a writer," Coates said.
His dedication to his novel (he said his publisher gave him a deadline of this year) suggests that Coates, for his part, still remembers.