Ta-Nehisi Coates knows that interviewers have great, unrealistic expectations. A MacArthur "genius grant" winner and a 2015 National Book Award winner for Between the World and Me, the Atlantic magazine national correspondent is one of the leading writers about race in today's racially polarized world.
Because he writes about race and expectations directly and honestly, and because he seems to see things so clearly, people – mainly white people – want Coates to have the answers. When Coates appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to discuss his latest book, We Were Eight Years in Power, Colbert asked him if he had hope that things will get better in America – as in better race relations, better country, better politics. Coates said no. Colbert kept pushing. Coates didn't budge. Colbert begrudgingly said, "Well, I hope you're wrong."
It's a lot to put on one man. So before his sold-out appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday, we tried to lighten things up a little, talking to Coates about his writing routine, his Black Panther comic series, and what it's like to carry the weight of the world.
You've been a reporter for a long time. What's it like to be on the other end of the interview?
I've learned how frustrating it is. Everyone has to do their job, but a lot of the interviews are about the same thing, with the same questions.
I read these interviews, and they sound emotionally exhausting. People want you to solve the country's race problem. Are you just worn out after them?
I am. But I enjoy the writing process and producing the work, and what I have right now are what I call "champagne problems." All writers struggle to get people to read their work. I wrote for 21 years, and most of the time people didn't pay attention to what I did. People ask these heavy questions, and I tell them, "I don't know." But at the same time, people care, and people are reading, and they're interested.
What do you do in your downtime to relax?
I go to the gym in my building. I don't have a lot of time right now, the publicity is so intense. I am trying to find time to write.
Have you been back to Howard University, the place you called "Mecca" in The World and Me?
I was there yesterday. It's a beautiful place. I'm in D.C. right now because my wife is in med school. It's a little bit of home.
You were mentored by the great David Carr, who was the editor when you were at the Washington City Paper. He was known for helping young reporters and writers. Have you been able to do that for others?
It's hard to imagine myself in the position I am now without him. He was a huge booster of my work. I don't really do that for others. Honestly, I don't. I'm still trying to figure out how he did that, how he was able to judge people. I was thinking, "How do I decide who to invest in and who not?" I'm a little more cautious about who I have around me, or more paranoid. David loved the crowd and being the center of attention. I want to write and to be alone.
Do you have a writing routine?
I'm a pretty passionate writer. I go by emotion. It's rare that I find myself without the emotion to write. If I have time, I'm on it. It's hard to write when I'm tired, but otherwise, it's like a biological function: I have to write.
You wrote the Black Panther comic book series. That script is the complete opposite of the typical long-form narrative you usually write.
With comic books, there's so little space. You have to write powerfully and efficiently. When I finish an arc of Black Panther, it feels like I've run a marathon.
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a response [for his website, ta-nehisicoates.com] about some of the critiques I got for my "The First White President" essay. Some of the comments really disturbed me, but you have to be careful when debating with people in media spaces that are "white media space." Someone suggested that they wanted to see me debate someone in the New York Times. But this isn't a sport to me. This is real — real life.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Eight Years We Were in Power. Central Parkway Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Sold out. Information: 215-686-5322, freelibrary.org