Baltimore-born writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the most acclaimed voices of his generation. Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic, is widely known for his essay “The Case for Reparations” and his first book The Beautiful Struggle. His second book, Between the World and Me, debuted in July, and he joined us to talk about how the book was written, the inspiration of James Baldwin, and his reaction to Freddie Gray’s death.
You’ve said that James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was part of your inspiration for this book. Did you intend to write in the letter format as Baldwin did?
It’s funny because the distinguishing feature for me of The Fire Next Time was not the letter format. Several people have written letters as essays, so there’s a tradition there. You know what it was, it was the ranging nature of the way that book is written. It’s so beautiful, it’s so short, it’s so seemingly structureless. It’s a very wandering, epic book for such a small length. You begin with this letter to his nephew, you then proceed to his childhood in Harlem, you come out and you’re meeting with the black Muslims and the Nation of Islam, then you come back out into his pronouncement of the future of our country. I thought that was incredible, the landscape of it, to use Baldwin’s deep knowledge of history, his opinions, his memoir, then on top of that his journalist expertise. It, to me, was a tour de force.
If you think about it like a ball player, he was using all of his game at the same time—got his defense going, got his three-pointer going, just showing you all sorts of ranges and styles. I thought that was absolutely incredible, and beyond that I thought it was of great use for what Baldwin was trying to do. It was necessary for the time. I really looked up to that, and I called my editor Chris Jackson and I said, ‘Why doesn’t anyone write like that right now? Why aren’t essays written in that way?’ Particularly African-American essays, dealing with politics in this country. He said, ‘I don’t know, but I think you could. It’s hard, but it’s worth taking up and trying.’ That’s really how it came about. And then when I got into it, when I started writing, I probably had three to four drafts before we decided to orient it towards the letter. And really, that was a literary technique so I could focus my writing to who I was talking to and why I was talking.
Your book is written as a letter to your 15-year-old son. Has he read the book, and if so, what does he think of it?
Yes, he has. He read several versions, pre- and post- letter. He likes it quite a bit, he’s very proud, he told me.
Where were you in the writing process when Freddie Gray died?
When Freddie Gray died, I was pretty much done. I was putting the finishing touches on at that point. You know what’s funny, even when Ferguson happened, I had already turned in a draft. Ferguson was put in relatively late, all that stuff is late. And Eric Garner, too, that came in with the letter.
What’s it been like for you to watch what happened in your home city after Freddie Gray died?
Well, it’s just unsurprising. I hate saying that, but it’s true. I wouldn’t say it’s what I was expecting, but it’s unsurprising.
What about the officers being charged in his death?
I was surprised by that. I’m always surprised by that. Even in the process of everything that’s happened after the officers were charged, you can see why officers are rarely charged, with the amount of political pressure that’s now being applied.
Is there a specific message you are hoping white Americans will take away from the book?
No, there isn’t, it wasn’t really in my mind when I was writing the book. And that doesn’t preclude white Americans from taking anything out of it. It doesn’t preclude them from taking a variety of messages, but those are probably for them to tell me. I was very interested in expressing a feeling that I’ve heard African-Americans express in our conversations, and that being fear. I guess it would give me some degree of comfort if some African-Americans read this book and realized they were not crazy . . . But you have to understand, when my editor said to me, ‘I think you can do it,’ it was a hell of a challenge to try to write the book. It was so difficult you really have very little room to think, ‘I hope someone gets this particular message from it.’ You’re trying to make the whole thing work, so it’s a coherent piece. That was really my obsession, and we were doing that up until two months ago.
In the book, you write about an enlightening trip to Paris. Did you think about James Baldwin, who made the city his home, while you were there?
[Laughs] You know, I didn’t. I didn’t really have folks like him or Richard Wright in my head. It’s a really interesting question to think about because I can’t candidly tell you what that has to do with my attraction to France, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that is has something to do with him. Maybe that we attracted to the same thing, and maybe that we were all drawn to a thing that many Americans find themselves to be drawn to.
What’s next for you, what’s the next step in your journey?
[In a sinister voice] If I told you, I’d have to kill you. [Laughs] No, I’m gonna write. I hope as long as I’m alive I’m going to write books.