Deep in the morass of antebellum Virginia, the enslaved protagonist of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s debut novel lurches toward freedom. The Water Dancer follows a young man named Hiram Walker, whose journey North is an urgent, perilous odyssey. In one early scene, Hiram encounters a group of white men charged with capturing runaways. “Even in this terror and despair, I didn’t think to fall down in the road or to surrender myself,” he says. “The light of freedom had been reduced to embers, but it was still shining in me, and borne up by the winds of fear, I kept running, bent, loping, locked, but running all the same, with my whole chest aflame.”

The Water Dancer infuses Hiram’s tale of escape with an air of magic. Like the mother he cannot remember, the young man has a water-driven power called Conduction, which enables him to traverse great distances. Along the way, he meets real-world figures such as William Still and Harriet Tubman. They challenge and assist him as he attempts to secure the safety of Thena, a maternal figure, and Sophia, the woman he adores. Tubman, who is herself a Conductor, explains the supernatural ability to Hiram: “The jump is done by the power of the story. It pulls from our particular histories, from all of our loves and all of our losses.” Studied and meticulous, the novel is a slave narrative that depicts the quotidian horrors of family separation. Even so, it’s remarkably tender: The Water Dancer is also a romance.

Publishing historical fiction is a new endeavor for the author. As a national correspondent at The Atlantic, Coates produced journalism, essays, and memoir writing that earned him widespread acclaim and shifted national dialogues. But in recent years, the writer has also turned his attention to projects that stretch readers’ imaginations—and his own—in different directions. “It became clear to me that I could say some things in the fiction that I couldn’t say in nonfiction,” Coates said of the shift when we spoke recently about The Water Dancer, his research process, and the larger project of resurfacing buried historical narratives. This conversation has been edited.

Hannah Giorgis: Where does the story of this book start for you?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It actually starts back at The Atlantic. I was doing a lot of Civil War blogging when I was there back around 2009 almost up through 2012. I got captivated by the world I was inhabiting through the histories. And after my first book was published, my editor, Chris Jackson, really felt like I should try some fiction. This seemed like the place to do it—the world to do it in.