NEW YORK (AP) — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel, “The Water Dancer,” has been a long and eventful journey.
Begun a decade ago, his chronicle of a slave with an extraordinary memory who joins the Underground Railroad is the result of countless drafts, a shift from multiple narrators to a single voice, some needed advice from fellow writers and hundreds of thousands of words discarded. Coates’ research ranged from reading interviews with ex-slaves and consulting a 19th-century Farmer’s Almanac — books duly pictured on his Instagram account — to his numerous and revelatory visits to former plantations.
“I was just as surprised as anybody. I pretty much write for myself and the only people I think about are my wife and my editor,” says Coates, whose novel is her latest book club pick. “I was really happy (about the news from Winfrey). But I think the most encouraging part was that she’s a reader. It was clear from the conversation that she’s a reader. This is not a marketing ploy. There’s nothing to be cynical about.”
Winfrey announced Monday that she chose “The Water Dancer” to formally begin her new book club partnership with Apple, for which she plans a selection every other month. In October, she will interview Coates before a live audience at Apple Carnegie Library in Washington, D.C., a conversation that will air Nov. 1 on Apple TV Plus, the new streaming service. During a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, Winfrey became tearful as she described the novel’s emotional impact, how it captured the devastation and resilience of those enslaved.
“I have not felt this way about a book since ‘Beloved,’” Winfrey said of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by her friend and literary idol Toni Morrison, who died in August.
The 43-year-old Coates spoke to The Associated Press during a recent afternoon at a SoHo cafe, where he drank strong iced coffee and received the occasional greeting from a friend or fellow customer. He said that he began the novel after completing his first book, the memoir “The Beautiful Struggle,” and acting on editor Chris Jackson’s suggestion that he try fiction. Jackson told the AP in a recent statement that “The Beautiful Struggle” demonstrated Coates’ “ability to dive so deeply and imaginatively into a character’s interior life and invent an idiom to tell the story that was more Joyce-ian than journalistic.” Coates, who had been reading extensively about the Civil War at the time, wanted to open readers to the “inner lives of enslaved black folks,” a “thriller” that would also dramatize the most profound questions of freedom and identity.
“The house is beautiful, stunning, gorgeous — and it was enslaved people who built it,” he says. “There’s a tunnel under Monticello that enslaved people walked through. When I walked through that tunnel, it was like, ‘Man, I get it now.’ I could see so much. I could feel my people talking to me at that point. I could feel it. But that was after 10 years of work. I don’t know how it happens without that.”