Coates and Ward in New Orleans

“Are you in line?” asks a man wringing out the rain from his shirt behind me. He tells me he is there to see Ta-Nehisi Coates.

As I scan the line of people waiting to enter Temple Sinai on Saint Charles Avenue, I think to myself, I wonder if anyone would ever stand out in the rain to hear me speak.

On October 30, the rain didn’t stop New Orleans from packing the main floor and balcony of the temple to see Jesmyn Ward in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Ward, an acclaimed novelist and professor at nearby Tulane University, asked Coates questions about his new book, The Water Dancer, and if it was difficult to transition from writing nonfiction to writing his first novel.

“In a novel you have to pay attention to details and almost obsess about them in ways you don’t have to in nonfiction,” said Coates. He gave an example of how in fiction, you have to include what kind of curtains are hanging when a character enters a room.

Coates was charismatic and blended his journalist instincts and oftentimes flipped the questions asked of him onto Ward, especially when asked the question she hates being asked, “What are you working on?” His reply, “I don’t know Jesymn, what are you working on?”

Ward acquiesced to the reply and talked about a new novel she’s working on that is set in New Orleans. In turn, Coates responded that he’s just touring for now, but projects are always in the works.

The event ended with questions from the audience ranging from the 2020 election to civil discourse. In a reply to a question about how to speak to people who don’t want to hear views different from their own, he told the audience that we can’t put too much stock in people whose minds are already set. “Life is short,” said Coates. “We got books to write.”

Kelly Harris is the literary outreach coordinator for Poets & Writers in New Orleans. Contact her at NOLA@pw.org or on Twitter, @NOLApworg.