In Conversation With Colson Whitehead

Photo: Bobby Doherty

Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Underground Railroad — rushed last week to early publication after being anointed by Oprah Winfrey — turns the metaphor of the American fugitive-slave network into a literal system of stations traveled by preternatural locomotives. The (painful, beautiful, brilliantly imagined) journey of the slave Cora from a cruel Georgia plantation through a handful of states, each “a state of possibility” portending America’s fractured racial history, has gestated in Whitehead’s mind for sixteen years — almost as long as he’s been roving across his own series of bizarre fictional landscapes. There were the acclaimed early novels, The Intuitionist and John Henry Days, cheeky and weird extended metaphors for racial and industrial anxiety that earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant. There was the less admired satire Apex Hides the Hurt, followed by the autobiographical Sag Harbor, about Whitehead’s upbringing as an upper-middle-class black New Yorker. Along came Zone One, a joke-splattered zombie thriller, and the midlife-crisis poker stunt memoir The Noble Hustle. And then, finally, the unlikely completion of the novel he never thought he’d write, followed by, probably, a level of fame and posterity he’d never imagined. Skinny and dreadlocked in a jaunty short-sleeved plaid shirt, Whitehead sat down with us on Tuesday over a cappuccino near his West Village home. 

Are you having a good week?
Yeah, the best week of my professional career, so. 

You got the call from Oprah months ago, and then had to keep it a secret until now. Did you tell your family?
Just my wife, who came out with me to Oprah Land in Southern California, and then we shot the interview that appeared last week, and then for three months people were like, “When’s the pub date?” “September.” “How do you feel?” “Uh, I feel okay.”

Oprah hadn’t read your other books,From O: “I was at home in California when I received an advance copy of Colson Whitehead's novel, The Underground Railroad. I’d never read anything by Colson… but everything I’d heard about the book—the way it shape-shifts and refracts time and history through the figure of one 16-year-old girl—made me eager to start. The opening sentence got my heart pumping right away…” which are very different from this one. Was that weird?
Well, I’ve been publishing for 18 years and I’m sort of used to that because I’ve switched genres. The readership for Sag Harbor was different from people who’d read me before — it was linear and realistic, not as strange as The Intuitionist. Did they carry over to Zone One, a story about zombies in New York? Some, some not. I’m used to people not caring about my other books.

Did you have any sense, pre-Oprah, that this was going to be your big novel?
I don’t go back to a finished book as often as I have with this one, and I’m still very much invested in Cora and Caesar and Mabel, and I think going back I can relive those months last fall and feel a sense of accomplishment, and also a weird…wonder? I’m still trying to figure out how to put it into words. But I felt like I did a good thing, and I still feel this kind of rush of accomplishment.

How did this concept — of the literal underground railroad — change since you first thought of it years ago?
I had a handwritten page in 2000, and in 2004 I put it on the computer — just a list of: “South Carolina, futuristic gene splicing question mark?” Every couple of years I would pull it out and add a sentence and move a couple of things around. Originally, “he” was going to come to New York and then Canada. It was a guy on his own, then a man looking for a child, a child looking for a parent, and finally a daughter looking for a mother. All the states are really just arbitrary.

And you were all set to write a different novel, about a New Yorker having a midlife crisis, when you thought of developing this in 2014. How did you switch gears?
I was on my way to work at Princeton and wrote an email to my editor, Bill Thomas. “Here’s another idea.” It was a paragraph and he said sure, whatever you want to do. So I started doing research in the fall. I wrote the first 100 pages in January of 2015, and they said, “So do you think they can hand it in for next fall publication?” And I still had 200 pages to go, but I was in a real froth about the book and I said yes. So I finished the thing in early December. Usually it takes me a while to figure out the voice of the narrator, but when I wrote the first chapter, which deals with Cora’s grandmother, the voice came fully formed and I stuck with it.

You must have been starting your research just as Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Did that, and subsequent shootings, fuel the story in any way?
I think today is the second anniversary of him being killed. But I came of age in New York in the ’80s, when Yusuf Hawkins was beaten to death for being in the wrong neighborhood, Michael Stewart was beaten to death by cops for doing graffiti, Eleanor Bumpers was a mentally unstable woman killed by police. And so I was trained that whenever you leave the house you’re a target, even in lovely Manhattan. So I think we do get these periodic eruptions and the conversation changes briefly to police brutality. There hasn’t been an uptick in it, just in people recording it. It’s not news to me and I don’t know how long our present conversation about the vulnerability of the black body will continue. Since we’re not changing the underlying causes, these moments are temporary, because our attention has always shifted elsewhere.

Do you think there’s been any progress?
Sure — it’s very slow progress. We have a black president and various laws have been implemented, and I’m at a big publisher, I’m talking to a big magazine, and I owe my career to writers who have come before me. So things have changed.

There are more writers, too. Chris Jackson edits a lot of them.
How many African-American editors are there? But yes, there’s [Yaa Gyasi’s slavery novel] Homegoing, [Brit Bennett’s debut] The Mothers. You can actually point to young African-American writers debuting in their 20s and 30s and all doing different things. But it is incremental, it is slow.

You’re well known for comic riffs and wild inventions. The Underground Railroad is relatively dialed-back.
I think if I had done it ten years ago, the divisions between the states would have been more stark and more Gulliver’s Travels–like — each state with its own reality, time period, codes, and customs.One of Whitehead’s escaped slaves, Caesar, actually reads a samizdat copy: “The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home. That was the man’s real trouble, not the savage and uncanny civilizations he encountered—he kept forgetting what he had.” And some of that is still in there, but everything’s taking place around 1850The book dates after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The race between slave-catchers and lawyers springing fugitives is touched on in a chapter, “this constant spy vs. spy story,” as Whitehead describes it to me. “Everyone is just spending so much energy keeping this shitty system alive.” in terms of technology and slang. I wanted to be concise. I had given myself free rein to have digressions in various books, and I didn’t feel I had to do that anymore. When I got to the section with the Museum of Natural Wonders, I wrote two pages and I was like: I’m done. I’m not gonna make this a big set piece like I’ve done in the past and pull out the bombast. It’s nice and quiet the way it is now; let’s keep it there.

What made you do that? Was it the gravity of the subject?
Well, you can do a lot of jokes in a slavery book. Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed probably has a lot of jokes.The pioneering black writer’s postmodern parody of a fugitive-slave memoir, which does Whitehead’s railroad one better by having his escapee fly on a jumbo jet. But I’d just written a poker book that had a lot of jokes — I tried to cram in as many as I could. I got it out of my system, and then also as I did more research, I wanted to honor all the people who had been in slavery, to the dead, to my ancestors. So even though I play with history and time, in terms of moving the Tuskegee syphilis experiments down and bringing the implications of the Holocaust in, I wanted the first chapter to be as realistic as I could do it. And yeah, it is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking.

In an essay of tongue-in-cheek advice about choosing a genre, you listed the “Southern Novel of Black Misery.”“Slip on your sepia-tinted goggles and investigate the legacy of slavery that still reverberates to this day, the legacy of Reconstruction that still reverberates to this day, and crackers. Invent nutty transliterations of what you think slaves talked like. But hurry up — the hounds are a-¬gittin’ closer!” How did you aim to avoid the clichés?
I had my kitsch detector out, so hopefully it was working. I wanted to be realistic to my notion of psychology. We know a lot about PTSD. Well, these are people who experience trauma every day of their lives; how does that manifest itself? How could I make a realistic backdrop for Cora? In my experience, if you get 100 people in a room, 10 percent are really great, 10 percent are terrible, and the rest are mediocre. But if you go to a plantation where 100 percent have been tortured and abused, they’re not on their best behavior. Everyone’s out for themselves, fighting for a little piece of land, for an extra bite of food in the morning. In some portrayals of plantation life, there are some sellouts, but most people are sticking together. That just didn’t seem true to my understanding of human nature. I was being true to my idea of a traumatized populace under siege, so I didn’t worry about kitsch.

Cora’s journey seems to encompass almost every feature of black history. One half-black preacher is described as a “beautiful hybrid,” and I couldn’t help think of Obama.
Uhm [laughs], no I think there’s a tradition of the biracial person who can move through both worlds. But the preacher’s antagonist represents respectability politics: We can’t save every slave who’s damaged; we have to save the ones we can. And we hear that kind of rhetoric today. Pull your pants up; you’re too damaged in the inner city to join us in this new America.

That reminds me of someone too.
So, comparing the rhetoric of black progress then and now, it was so similar I didn’t have to force it. That was true of comparing slave patrollers to stop-and-frisk now.

You were handcuffed as a teenager in Manhattan — a case of mistaken identity. Have you had other encounters?
Just being stopped. One time my friend was in med school and a cop stopped us. I guess he had MD plates, and the cop said, “I’ve never seen doctor’s plates before.”

Is it just a coincidence that you spent almost all of the Obama years not writing about race, except in satirical riffs like “Finally, a Thin President” and “The Year of Living Postracially”?Wherein Whitehead applies to be Obama’s “secretary of postracial affairs.”
There were just other things I wanted to talk about. I’m fortunate, being at the same publisher for eight books, that whenever I have an idea, they’re like, “Let’s do it. We trust you to pull it off.” I knew that a zombie book would not particularly appeal to some of my previous readers, but it was artistically compelling, and being able to do a short nonfiction book about poker was really fun and great. But looking back, I was able to say to myself, “Well, you had your book for you. Now I want you to talk about something serious.”

You’re not done being unserious, are you?
I’m not sure, but in writing this book I was stopping myself from doing things the way I’ve done in the past — in terms of economy, of a less satirical voice. I gave myself a lot of digressions in Sag Harbor and The Noble Hustle. And so I don’t have to do them anymore. There are ways of tackling material that I felt didn’t serve the book and maybe will come back later. But there are clichés about slavery and also clichés I’ve made myself, ways of writing.

The style of this novel reminds me of Toni Morrison — completely apart from the subject matter. The sentences are more aphoristic, more gemlike, than anything you’ve ever done.“Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth.” “The only way to know how long you are lost in the darkness is to be saved from it.”
Yeah, I’ve been thinking about sentences the last couple of years. My more modern narrators like to have these big clause-heavy sentences, but not in this particular book. I think part of it is that shaping metaphors out of life from the 1850s made some of the similes and analogies simpler. You know, a sentence that comes easily to me is, “The street was busier than a 7-Eleven parking lot on free meth day.” I could make a weird modern joke, and that’s a long sentence. But when you try to make a simile or a metaphor out of the nouns of 1850s, simplicity and clarity make more sense.

There is a theme in the recent reviews — kind of praising you for putting away childish things. Is that how you see it?
It’s an imposed narrative, and it’s fine. Eighteen years have passed since my first book and I do feel older and wiser, and while hopefully I can write a book with humor again, there are certain broad gestures I don’t have to do anymore — certain pyrotechnic effects I’ve gotten out of my system. I felt more in control when I was writing this book. I was teaching a lot and I was a pretty ruthless editor of my students’ fiction. It seemed unfair to spare myself the knife. Putting out all these principles, I should probably apply them to myself! And so I became a much better editor of my own stuff over the last couple of years.

Have you changed in other ways? You’ve had childrenA daughter, 11, from his first marriage to photographer Natasha Stovall, and a son, 3, with his wife, Julie Barer, a literary agent.
I guess mature is the word. Cora is not someone who would have occurred to me 15 years ago. I was just younger and more self-centered and didn’t have the empathy. Lila Mae in The Intuitionist doesn’t have a team, but Mark Spitz in Zone One and Cora in The Underground Railroad have people they can rely on. Not everyone makes it to the other side, but they have a team, a community. I was attracted to the loner in my first couple of books who’s apart from all these systems, breaking them down, analyzing them. And Cora is a slave, she’s enmeshed in the slave system and has to figure out her way out and she can’t do it alone. She has to rely on other people to give her the notion that she can do it and also show her the path. And yes, as a parent who’s lived longer, you understand what it actually means to have no agency, to see your children, your mother, your relatives, your friends, at the mercy of a capricious master with all that entails. Slavery meant something different to me when I was 8, and 20, and then now.

But you didn’t have to write about slavery, did you?
I would joke about having to do [a slavery novel] at talks, knowing in the back of my head I had this idea sitting there. I started writing in the ’90s, so I was free to just have an eccentric career and not conform to some idea of what a black writer has to do. I didn’t have the burden of representation. Growing up as a product of the black civil-rights movement, I had a lot of different models for black weirdness, whether it’s Richard Pryor or James Baldwin or Jimmy Walker.

And you wanted to be weird?
I was very self-conscious starting out. I worked in the book section of the Village Voice and I would see all these new novels come in. I didn’t want to write a Gen-X sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll book, and there was a certain Southern Novel of Black Misery I just couldn’t relate to, just being a New Yorker. I didn’t want to write something autobiographical. I didn’t want to do what I’m supposed to do as a black writer or as a young writer. In The Intuitionist I wanted to write about race and a city, and as I started writing about elevators, metaphors of black uplift crept in. It was about race, but in a way that I could handle when I was 27, just a weird way no one else would do.

The Underground Railroad is probably as straight-ahead as you could get. You even reprinted actual classified ads for fugitive slaves. Where did you get them and why did you open every section with one?
Those are from the University of North Carolina, which digitized their old newspapers. It’s fun to make up stuff, but sometimes you can’t really compete with the actual rhythms of historical documents. They’re only eight lines or so, but they tell so much about the person who’s writing them down and the person who fled and the entire culture that enables them to come into being. And writing one for Cora seemed like a nice gift from the narrator to her, because I was sort of bummed out about what I was doing to her.

There are some truly horrific scenes in the novel, especially involving slaves who were caught escaping. Were those all real punishments from your research?“There aren’t as many histories of the Underground Railroad as you would think. My introduction was Bound for Canaan, by Fergus Bordewich. And then I just reread the classic slave narratives — Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs — and then the ones from the Works Progress Administration in the ’30s, when they interviewed hundreds of former slaves, now in their 80s and 90s — quotidian details of plantation life that gave me a real idea of the variety and breadth of the slave experience.”
You want to set an example, and so yes, you would burn people alive, yes, you would cut off their feet and their hands. I would go back and forth and think, is that too crazy, and go back to a couple of narratives and think, actually no. I did originally have a crucifixion, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that so I took it out.

You’ve said you couldn’t sit through 12 Years a Slave after doing that research. But you depicted worse. You must have been a mess.
I was a mess mostly before I started writing. I have a protagonist, and realistically she will be sexually assaulted before the book starts, realistically her mother will be assaulted. So just wrapping my head around what was a realistic backstory for her was terrible. And then I think it has affected how I feel about her at the end of the book. When I reread the last couple of pages, I feel bad for having put her through it.

This is your first book to come out to universal acclaim in a long time. How did you react when Apex Hides the Hurt was widely considered a disappointment?
I really liked the voice! I thought it was a really clean narrator, unadorned. But just because you like it, it doesn’t mean everyone else will — or will pick up on it. And all I could do is just write the next one. Sometimes people will figure out what you’re doing, sometimes they won’t, but that’s out of your hands. And then with The Underground Railroad, I assumed I would still have my regular readers, maybe gain a few because it’s in the historical mode. Having people like the book this much — and Oprah and the Times thing [last week’s stand-alone print excerpt] — it’s never gonna happen again. So I should enjoy it, and the next book might be received Apex-like.

What is the next book — the midlife-crisis book you were working on?
No, I think I got that out of my system. I don’t know if I’ll stick to it, but I think it’s going to take place in the ’60s in Harlem. It’s subject to change.

We’ve talked a lot about how this book is a departure. But what makes it a Colson Whitehead book?
Stepping back, my latest theory is that with the first couple of books, I had some sort of problem I was trying to figure out, or proposition. How do I update this industrial-age anxiety myth for the information age? And then I think Sag Harbor and Zone One and Noble Hustle are about characters finding their way in the world. And in The Underground Railroad I’m taking both: What if it was an actual railroad, and also, this person had to navigate these different Americas on her way to freedom. The character portrait of the last couple of books merged with the larger abstract question.

Why did you choose to thank bands in your acknowledgments?From the acknowledgments: “The first one hundred pages were fueled by early Misfits (‘Where Eagles Dare [fast version],’ ‘Horror Business,’ ‘Hybrid Moments’) and Blanck Mass (‘Dead Format’). David Bowie is in every book, and I always put on Purple Rain and Daydream Nation when I write the final pages, so thanks to him and Prince and Sonic Youth.”
With the last eight books, whenever I had two pages to go, I would just put on Purple Rain and Daydream Nation, and that’s been my last-day ritual for the past 20 years. After Bowie died, I said to myself, I want to put this down on paper just so they know. And then Prince died after I put the acknowledgments in! Not that he was going read it anyway.

Do you think it was the bleak subject matter that kept you away from this for 16 years?
Well, I think Zone One is pretty bleak, but this one is very grim going. I think I got to a point where I had avoided the book for so many years it was worth examining why I was avoiding it. And it seemed that if it was daunting to tackle slavery, well, maybe the hard thing is the thing you’re supposed to be doing.