August 12, 2016

Colson Whitehead on Oprah, American history and the power of a female protagonist

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Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel may be his best yet. An ambitious, imaginative tour de force, The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave who escapes from a plantation in Georgia via an actual underground railroad. The novel has achieved almost universal praise since its release and became an Oprah Book Club selection. It’s also our September Fiction Top Pick. We gave Whitehead a call to talk about Oprah, historical research, Donald Trump and writing truth vs. fact.

First and foremost, congratulations on the buzz that The Underground Railroad has been receiving! When I checked the Amazon bestseller list earlier today, the only book that is outranking you in Literature & Fiction is the new Harry Potter book, so that must be kind of exciting for you.
Yeah, definitely. There’s no hope of ever beating Harry Potter, but I think the book is doing pretty well. It’s definitely been a crazy week—very happy and gleeful—with everything that’s happened.

Obviously the other big news is that Oprah just announced that she has selected The Underground Railroad for her book club, her first selection in nearly a year and a half. Can you tell me a little bit about how you reacted when you found out that the book had been picked?
It was something that was pretty wild because I had handed in the book four months before, so I wasn’t even thinking about reviews or what would happen to [the book]. But I was doing a reading at Duke University, and I was checking my email on the plane right as it was landing and there was a voicemail from my agent and she just said one word: Oprah.

I immediately started cursing. I was trying not to curse because I was on a plane and people were looking at me, but I couldn’t hold it in. And then that started this whole crazy ride where I couldn’t tell anybody [that she had picked it], and I had to lie to people’s faces . . . when she mentioned [The Underground Railroad] in her magazine in June, and people said to me “Wouldn’t it be great if she picked it?” I was like, “Huh, yeah. But that will never happen, though.” So I’m really glad that the news is finally out there.

Is it weird knowing that now when people Google your name that Oprah’s name comes up in conjunction?
Well, I was a teenager when she first came into the cultural landscape so she’s always been this huge cultural figure to me, and her book club started around the time that I started publishing. But when you’re writing about elevator inspectors, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have a lot of mass appeal. I’ve always loved giving my weird takes on the world and writing books that sound a little oddball and maybe even turn some people off, so with Oprah giving her endorsement, that really cuts through the odd description on the book cover and will hopefully help the book make its way to more readers.


“When you’re writing about elevator inspectors, you don’t necessarily think you’re going to have a lot of mass appeal.”


In an article about the craft of writing, you wrote: Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration.” With that in mind, can you share how this book found you?
Just to clarify, that was for a parody article about writing advice, but like any writing cliché, there is a bit of truth in it.

I had the idea for the book about 16 years ago, recalling how when I was a kid, I thought the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad and when I found out it wasn’t, I was disappointed. So I thought it was a cool idea, and then I thought, “Well, what if it actually was a real railroad? That seems like a cool premise for a book.”  But I had just finished up a research-heavy project and wasn’t up for that kind of ordeal again, and I didn’t feel mature enough or up to the task. But every couple of years, when I was between books, I would pull out my notes and ask myself if I was ready. And inevitably I would realize that I wasn’t really up for it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I really committed to the idea. I had the idea for a novel, but the narrator was very similar to the narrator in my previous book, The Noble Hustle, a sort of wise-cracking depressive. And rather than repeat myself, I decided to challenge myself and do the book I found scary to do. When I floated the idea out to people, they seemed really excited about it in a way that was new, so I thought that seemed like it was an idea worth pursuing.

Given that The Noble Hustle was about your real-life experiences competing in the 2011 World Series of Poker, would you say that it had you in the mindset to take a gamble?
I guess you could say that! But really, every book is a gamble. Can I pull it off? Will the idea defeat me? Am I up to the task? There’s always that kind of fear about what you’re about to take on. Figuring out how to overcome it and sidestep the danger and fear is important.

“Every book is a gamble.”

After sitting with this idea for 16 years, is there anything you can point to as the catalyst that made you feel like you were ready to tell this story?
Honestly, so much time had passed that I finally asked myself, “Why am I putting this off? Why am I afraid to do this?” Slavery is a daunting concept to contemplate, and it’s daunting to put your characters through the kind of brutality that telling a truthful story about the topic requires, so those things definitely gave me pause. But I’m older now and I have kids and both of those things pulled me out of my 20-something selfishness and gave me a new perspective on my characters and the world. I think that becoming a better writer, becoming a more well-rounded person and wanting to present a real challenge to myself all played a part as well.

Do you feel that becoming a parent has played an important role in your evolution as a writer?
There is a different kind of empathy that I have for my characters now. I used to joke that after my daughter was born that instead of shooting someone, now it would maybe just be a flesh wound. It’s a lot harder to kill characters off, though I have gotten over that. You come to empathy in different ways and writing this book now as opposed to 16 years ago made a big difference in how the characters turned out.

The Underground Railroad is rooted in historical fact and captures the brutal and painful realities of what it was to be black in America during the time of slavery. What kind of research did you do when writing this book?
Primarily I read slave narratives. There are a few histories of the Underground Railroad; one of the first ones I read, which proved the most useful was Bound for Canaan by Fergus Bordewich. That gave me an overview of the railroad, but the main thing was just reading the words of former slaves themselves. There are the big famous slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but in order to get people back to work, the government in the 1930s hired writers to interview former slaves. We’re talking 80-year-old and 90-year-old people who had been in bondage when they were kids and teenagers, and that provided a real variety of slave experiences for me to draw upon. It gave me a real taste for the expansiveness and breadth of plantation life as well as the slang and small details that help make the world rich.

Even though this is a work of historical fiction, I don’t think there will be a single reader who makes it through The Underground Railroad without drawing parallels between Cora’s world and our modern reality. As a writer, how much did you lean into and draw energy from the present-day and current events when writing this book?
Well, the country is still pretty racist, so it doesn’t take that much of a leap to draw parallels between black life 150 years ago and now. For example, the parallel between the slave patrollers 200 years ago who had the power to stop any black person—free or slave—and demand to see their papers and “stop and frisk” policies now. You don’t have to work hard to see the continuum of oppression in this country.

How does it feel having this book published in the same year that we could conceivably see Donald Trump elected as the next president of the United States?
It’s scary to contemplate a Trump presidency, whether you’re black or white! Seeing some of the rhetoric at his rallies, it reminds me of when I was writing the book in 2015 and wondering if I was going too far in some of the lynching scenes or being a bit too extreme. But the answer is no: the lynch-mob mentality is still around, as is the demonization of the other whether it’s the African, the newly arrived Irish immigrant, or now the Muslim immigrant. Fear and prejudice is a constant in American life. It’s gotten better by degrees, of course, but the world of Cora is not that far removed from our own.

“Fear and prejudice is a constant in American life. It’s gotten better by degrees, of course, but the world of Cora is not that far removed from our own.”

You chose Cora, a female protagonist, as the book’s core and you largely explored the parameters of the slave’s world from the perspective of women. Why did you decide to do this?
I guess I like to change it up from book to book and I had had a certain kind of meditative “dude narrator” for my last three books, so it just seemed time to mix it up. The narrator of my first book was a woman, and I like that people think that my female protagonists work, though I also think that if you have a plumber come to your house, you wouldn’t commend them for getting your drain clean. I think as a writer, it’s your job to present realistic protagonists and a supporting cast.

But you have mentioned that when you initially conceived of the book, you had a male at the center, so was there a moment when you felt that the story worked better with a woman protagonist?
Over the 16 years, the protagonist migrated: I’ve had it as a man, a man looking for a child, a man looking for his wife. When I finally committed to the book, I hadn’t explored a mother-daughter relationship before, and it seemed time to take that on.

Also, the black female experience in slavery was so terrible and different from the male experience that it seemed important to illuminate some of the specific history of African women in slavery

What was it about the character of Cora that you found the most compelling as a writer?
When you drop a character into the midst of slavery, they’re going to endure a lot of brutality and hardship. I was certainly rooting for Cora as she goes farther and farther north, and I admire her gradual awareness of the world and that she gets wiser and wiser with every step. There are certainly a lot of reversals of fortune that occur, but she keeps fighting, and that’s very admirable.

When we look at the American literary canon, there are already some incredibly powerful and moving classics about slavery and the pre-Civil War black experience like Beloved, Kindred, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Known World. What do you think The Underground Railroad brings to the table when it comes to contributing something new to the black slave narrative?
It’s not really for me to say what it brings that’s new; that’s really something that other people can say, or not say. For me, I just try to bring my own perspective to whatever I’m writing about, whether it’s a coming of age novel or a nonfiction book of immersive journalism. You can’t worry about what people have done before, you just have to trust that you have something new to say and execute your vision as well as possible.

When you think about the book, do you think about it uniquely as a slave narrative or, in your mind, it’s about more than the black slave experience?
To me, it’s a novel about slavery, “Americanness” and perseverance.

This is your first explicitly historical novel. Did working within a fixed historical context challenge you in ways that your previous novels didn’t?
It’s always a challenge to figure out different forms. Since I do change genres and forms a lot, that’s always a big part of the task early on.

The first chapter in Georgia I tried to make realistic and stick to the historical record, and then after that, I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts. As we go to South Carolina and Indiana and the different states that Cora goes to, I am playing with history and time, moving things up to talk about the Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and the eugenics movement. So in some sense, it’s not really a historical novel at all because I’m moving things around. Once she gets out of Georgia and starts on her journey, I didn’t feel that I had to stick to the historical record, and that gave me much more latitude to play in terms of the themes and different concepts to work with.

“I wanted to stick to the truth of the black experience but not necessarily the facts.”

Although you have an incredibly eclectic back catalog that includes a zombie apocalypse novel and a book about coming of age in the Hamptons, one overarching theme in your novels is the issue of race and the black experience in America. In your own words, how does The Underground Railroad fit into and expand upon your oeuvre to date?
I think it fits in with some of my books because it deals with race and American history, which are two things that I’m interested in, along with technology and pop culture. With some of my books, like John Henry Days, I can get a lot of my preoccupations in there, and then sometimes I’m finding different ways of talking about some of my favorite subjects. While I’ve written about race in most of my books, if you’re actually going to the original sin of slavery, it requires a different tactic. I think the ironic voice of Sag Harbor that Benji has provides one way of talking about race, and then a clear-eyed view about the true brutality of slavery requires a different kind of voice and tactic.

As a follow-up to that last question, although you’ve made a name for yourself by picking wildly disparate subjects and adopting very different styles with each novel is there a topic or genre that you’ll never touch as a writer?
Never say never, but I’m probably not going to write a book about football or yoga . . . but you never know!

Do you believe that there are benefits to tackling difficult topics like slavery and race through the medium of fiction (and perhaps film) as opposed to newspaper articles and nonfiction pieces?
Each form is different and has its advantages and disadvantages. As a novelist, I get to make up stuff; when you’re a historian or a nonfiction writer, you have to stick to the facts, but making up things is the fun part for me.

The Underground Railroad clearly pays homage to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with Cora’s journey to each new state analogous to Gulliver’s voyage to strange new lands. Do the similarities end there or, like Swift’s novel, do you also view your novel as a satire?
It’s not a satire. Once I thought about making each state its own place with its own set of rules, the first analogy for me was Gulliver’s Travels. I’m not a Gulliver’s Travels fanatic, but . . . I think it’s a good structure: It’s episodic—much like The Odyssey and Pilgrim’s Progress, where a person is on a journey and they’re being tested along the way with different episodes that have different allegorical freight. The structure itself has been around for a while. Early on it seemed like a good way of framing it and it became my default way of describing the book.

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about white privilege in America and systemic racism that is propagated by whitewashed media and entertainment. As a black writer, why do you believe it is so important for readers to actively diversify their reading?
I’m not going to tell people what to read, and I haven’t said that it is important for us to diversify our literature. Publishing as an institution in the world is racist because the world is racist. I do think you are probably a more well-rounded person if you read books by men and women and people with different-colored skin. But I don’t care if you do or not.

For readers who are interested in checking out a more diverse array of authors, can you recommend any that you think are particularly worth their time?
Sure. There are a lot of authors that I like: Toni Morrison, ZZ Packer, Junot Díaz, Adam Johnson and Kelly Link all come to mind. I’m excited to pick up Elena Ferrante and I also like Gish Jen.

Given the subject matter, what has it been like trying to pick passages of this book to read aloud to an audience as you prepare for your upcoming tour?
I really enjoy readings, and I usually read the funny parts because people enjoy them and I remember writing the jokes. But this book has very few jokes compared to my other work, so I’m trying to find bits that are self-contained. Right now I’m reading the part when the slave masters interrupt the birthday party on the plantation, which covers a bit of ground, and it’s the first time I mention the Declaration of Independence, which plays a big role in the book. I also choose between the short biographical sections with Dr. Stevens, Ethel and Caesar; right now I’m reading the Ethel section because it is so different from Cora’s experience.

One of the most vital messages in The Underground Railroad is about the power of the written word and the ability to read. What’s the most important book you’ve ever read that you think should be considered required reading?
It’s hard to pick one, but in terms of my evolution as a writer, I would say One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read it when I was in high school, and I read it again before I started this book. As a teenager, it broadened my idea of what a novel could be and as a 40-something it gave me an idea of how a novel could be organized.

Now that you’ve finished this huge, emotionally draining book, what are your plans and what are you working on next?
I am busy all fall promoting the book, so come January I will take stock. Right now, it’s going to be a novel that takes place in Harlem in the 1960s. I’ve still got a lot to research, so that’s all I can say about it!


RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Underground Railroad.

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead
ISBN 9780385542364

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