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ABR author credits failure for success in life

By Carolina Astrain
Oct. 7, 2012 at 5:07 a.m.
Updated Oct. 8, 2012 at 5:08 a.m.

Failure and obsession are what led author Mat Johnson to Antarctica.

Johnson drew inspiration for his new book from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket."

The 19th century novel chronicles the adventures of Pym to the coast of Antarctica, where his crews find that it is populated only by black people.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia native will give a reading of his new work, "Pym," as part of the University of Houston-Victoria's American Book Review Fall Reading Series.

"It was a failure commercially," said the author about Poe's original story.

Johnson said he was attracted by the challenge of creating a sort-of-sequel and revision of the famed mystery writer's botched piece of work.

For the University of Houston creative writing professor, his own journey to professional writing was dribbled in nonsuccesses.

"I wasn't one of the most talented students," Johnson said. "But I really wanted it, I pushed myself and I was obsessive about it."

The author said he knew he wanted to pursue writing professionally after realizing it was something worth failing for.

The book's hero, professor Chris Jaynes, sets off for the South Pole with friends after he is denied tenure for questioning the university's diversity initiatives.

The author said it was during his time teaching at Bard College in upstate New York when he confronted a similar frustration.

"It was very much diversity for diversity's sake," Johnson said. "The student body was very homogenic, and not really a representation of the world."

When Jaynes, who mirrors the author's biracial background, and his all-black crew arrive to the continent's icy shores, they stumbled upon an exclusively black population.

In Poe's original story, the crew is all white.

Race, politics and class divide were themes reflected in the news when he started writing his science fiction satire in 2002.

"I was in New York City when the twin towers went down," Johnson said. "The apocalyptic feel of the book, in part, comes from being there when that was happening."

The collapse of the World Trade Center towers, Hurricane Katrina and the election of the United State's first black president all influenced his writing, said Johnson.

"At this point I don't think race matters as much as tribes do," Johnson said. "But it's not all rainbows and lollipops. We've found ways to divide ourselves because that's what we do."

Corrected Oct. 9, 2012



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