Interview with Colson Whitehead

Posted by Goodreads on September 6, 2016
Colson Whitehead, in works ranging from The Intuitionist and John Henry Days to Sag Harbor and Zone One, has probed issues of race and identity in America in completely original ways while borrowing from a variety of genres. (Who else can swing so effortlessly between zombie fiction, satire, fantasy, and folklore?) His latest book, The Underground Railroad, once again charts new ground. A big, ambitious novel of slavery, it is, at the same time, a recognizably Colson Whitehead book, where The Underground Railroad is both real steam engine and metaphor, and the American landscape is transformed into a heightened, hallucinatory vision of itself. Of course, violence is endemic, as Cora, a runaway slave from a Georgia plantation, attempts to make her way north via a system of subterranean trains, relentlessly pursued by a sadistic slave catcher named Ridgeway. Goodreads interviewer Andy Tepper spoke with Whitehead in early August—the publication of the book's release was moved up to correspond with its Oprah Book Club selection and a lengthy excerpt in The New York Times Magazine—about playing with historical reality, the challenges of writing about slavery, and some not-so-subtle parallels to today.

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Goodreads: First of all, congratulations on the book. It's certainly struck a chord already with readers and critics, not to mention Oprah. You've said that the idea first occurred to you more than 15 years ago. Describe the original idea a bit more and why you finally wrote the book now.

Colson Whitehead: Well, I was finishing John Henry Days in 2000 and was pretty depleted. But I had this fanciful idea—I think I was remembering how when you're a kid and you hear about "The Underground Railroad," you think it's an actual subway. Then when you find out it's not, you think, Damn, that would've been so cool! So I just thought, What if it actually was true? That was the start of the story, but there's not a lot of meat there. So I was, like, What if every state that our character goes through is a different state of American possibility?

But in the beginning, I didn't feel up to the heavy lifting of doing a book about slavery. And every couple years when I'd finish a book, I'd go back to it and think, Am I up for it now? And each time the answer was no, not yet. The scale of the book, even though it ended up being relatively short, seemed like it would be an 800-pager or something. Then two years ago I had an idea for a novel, but the voice was very much like the narrator of The Noble Hustle, my poker book, sort of a wisecracking, embittered loser. I didn't want to repeat myself, and when I'd tell my agent or editor about The Underground Railroad idea, this weird tone would come into their voice and they'd say, "We really do like what you're working on, but maybe you should start thinking about that Underground Railroad thing some more." So that's when I started thinking about it more seriously.

GR: Do you feel like the idea was connected to John Henry Days in some way? It does seem to hark back to that book and its approach to race and American mythic history.

CW: Yes, it's definitely dealing with race in a more direct way. To go back to the question of why now—my first couple books were about me exploring an intellectual question, like, How do you update an Industrial Age myth for the Information Age? And my last couple books have been really more concerned with character. So I feel this book was a melding of those two impulses, an exploration of race and Americanness as well as a deep character study.

GR: I want to ask you about the characters, but first I'm curious about the research the book did end up requiring. Tell me about the reading and also the travel to the South that you did. In The New York Times Magazine excerpt, you mention a New Orleans plantation tour.

CW: The plantation visit was actually just a two-day trip, so I don't want to sound like I was out there canvassing. It was just one trip.

GR: So it was mostly reading of slave narratives and other books?

CW: Yeah, luckily all that stuff is in the public domain—the big slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, the Library of Congress's digitized versions of the W.P.A.'s slave narratives. There's thousands of these interviews from the Depression with people who are 80 or 90 years old and were children or teenagers when slavery happened. They cover a real variety of slave experiences, from what they ate to master-slave relations. I think pop culture gives us the idea that there's just one kind of plantation in the Deep South, but there was a real variety.

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GR: Why did you decide to set the book in Georgia in the 1850s?

CW: I wanted to set it in a real cotton state when cotton production was a huge economic engine. Cotton is what we associate with slavery, even though there's also tobacco, indigo, sugar, and all sorts of other crops. And I wanted a big community, so that Cora could stand out better.

GR: This book is in a very different vein from some of your more allegorical work. It's much more realistic, even graphic. Did you find it difficult to write this way?

CW: I wanted to be true to the slave experience, which was very violent. And I think the way it's put on the page, in a very matter-of-fact way, is true in that it was also routine. It was very hard to write, and I think the hardest part was just gearing myself up to put Cora and her comrades through a lot of terrible things. So while there's a fantasy element, particularly after Cora first rides on the railroad, I wanted the first 60 pages or so on the plantation to be realistic. And that meant including a lot of terrible things, which was devastating.

GR: Tell me about some of the fantastical elements that you've inserted into Cora's story. The physical Underground Railroad is one, but there's also the section on the Museum of Natural Wonders in South Carolina, for example. You rearrange some chronology, too, right?

CW: Right. My mental date for the book was 1850, so I wanted to keep everything real around there. But once I decided to make The Underground Railroad literal, it allowed me to play with history more. The Tuskegee experiment happened decades later; the display of black people as African natives in World's Fairs and traveling carnivals happened later. But I think they spoke to a truth of an African American experience. Since I didn't feel I needed to stick to the facts, my method was to go after that truth. Talking about genocide in the North Carolina chapter or talking about sterilization movements in different parts of American history—they weren't happening in 1850, but, you know, there's been all sorts of holocausts and ways we've demonized the other, and it seemed like fair game.

GR: I wanted to ask about the structure of the book, which generally follows Cora's journey north but is interspersed with shorter sections that delve into the backstories of other characters.

CW: I think it all started with the first chapter on Ajarry, Cora's grandmother, which was a sort of prologue. It seemed like a good way to organize material that didn't necessarily fit organically into Cora's narrative. I also wanted to delay gratification and juggle a suspenseful chapter with a pause. The shorter chapters are also there to give flashes of different parts of America. They were a way of using different voices, providing a commentary on what has come before and what will come later, and, as in Caesar and Mabel's sections, they also provided a real emotional payoff.

GR: Cora and her mother, Mabel, are at the heart of the book, though we know very little about Mabel's own earlier escape attempt from the plantation. Describe your focus on them as well as free black characters like Caesar and Royal, who help Cora along the way.

CW: I had never written a mother-daughter relationship before, so it seemed like a good challenge. It also made sense in terms of the particular abuses of black women in slavery. Over the years, as I had the idea of this book in the back of my mind, the main character was, at first, a young man going north, a son looking for a child or parent. But then it just seemed like a daughter looking for a mother made the most sense. She starts off alone, but part of her journey involves relying on other people, sometimes even being betrayed by them. So Royal and Caesar are men unlike she's met before, and they represent different ways of being in the world. I think in this book, more than ever, I was invested in the minor characters, if only because of the depravity of the situation I was bringing them into.

GR: Then there's Ridgeway, the slave catcher. Tell me about him and the other slave patrollers—who arguably bring to mind some of the cases of police violence we've experienced lately.

CW: Ridgeway is a single-minded slave catcher who's obsessed with Cora. He has a lot of extravagant philosophies about why he does these things, in the same way that I think our country has a lot of explanations about why we do certain things in the world. But really he's just a terrible, cruel person. He's representative of a certain American character, and that definitely comes through in his assessments of new immigrants from Europe and, of course, the slaves he hunts. A book also needs a strong antagonist. But I didn't feel the need to force any parallels between black people then and now.

Before there was a real police force, the slave patrollers made sure that black people were in check. So they could go up to any plantation house, any house of a free person, and demand to see papers. And obviously there are parallels to "stop and frisk." While slavery ended 150 years ago, its effects reverberate in institutional racism, Jim Crow, separate but equal, and in the election right now. I would wonder at times if I was being over the top, say, in this lynching scene or that scene of torture. Then I'd do research and see I wasn't being over the top at all. And if you look at the rhetoric of some of the political rallies today, you can see I wasn't exaggerating.

GR: I was wondering how much you were affected by the news of the day—the police killings, the Black Lives Matter movement—while you were writing the book.

CW: Well, I think the outrage and police brutality of this last year-and-a-half is news to a certain part of America, but as a 46-year-old black man it's been a feature of my life since I was a teenager. While there's this discussion of police brutality right now, every couple of years it kind of erupts into the consciousness and then seems to fade away.

GR: The book raises questions of what freedom really means as Cora shuttles between cramped, attic hideouts and underground stations. Meanwhile, there's also a sense of her searching for "the true face of America" as she travels through the different states. Were these issues you especially wanted to examine?

CW: Well, I think freedom is a matter of perspective. If you're a white woman in the 1820s, how free are you? If you're a free person of color in the 1850s in Virginia, how free are you? How free are we now? In a lot of my books, I do try to tackle this notion of America and what it means to different people in different times, whether it's zombies in Zone One or some of the questions that Cora is wrestling with in this book.

GR: I'm curious about this moment in our popular culture, with recent movies and books dealing with slavery, like 12 Years a Slave and the upcoming Nat Turner movie, Birth of a Nation. Do you think we're more open and ready to deal with this painful shared history?

CW: In the case of those two films, the stories haven't really been told before, so it's time. I think a lot of periods in black history have not been explored in any deep and thorough way. And now we have a new generation of artists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are coming into their own. I think to understand American history you have to handle slavery, and there's a Gone with the Wind version and then there's the 12 Years a Slave or Nat Turner versions.

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GR: Do you have a general writing routine, or was it any different with this book?

CW: It's been pretty consistent over the last couple books. If I can write three or four days a week, and do eight to ten pages a week, I think that's good. I have kids, so I don't always get a full day to myself. But if I can work 10 to 3 p.m. four days a week, that's pretty good for me.

GR: Who are some of the authors who were particularly infuential to you?

CW: Toni Morrison, John Dos Passos, and Robert Christgau, the music critic.

GR: What are you reading now?

CW: I'm about to pick up the complete set of Elena Ferrante novels as well as some books by Richard Stark, the crime novelist.

GR: Thank you and congratulations again. This has certainly been a big week for you, especially with the Oprah announcement. I don't imagine you're as ambivalent as Jonathan Franzen, right?

CW: No, I wasn't going to pull a Franzen on Oprah! [laughs] It's been an omen of such good things for the book. Ever since I handed in the manuscript, things have just really come together. I've written eight books and I know this doesn't happen often, the constellation of reviews, Oprah, the Times Magazine thing. So despite my best efforts, I've been enjoying it because I know it's rare and I'm very fortunate.

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Donna Milner (new)

Donna Milner I am in the middle of this book right now and it is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. (And that is hard to do considering the the reality of the brutal truth it deals with. ) A classic already.

message 2: by Diane (new)

Diane Holland I first heard about the Underground Railway back in the 80s in Australia when I was involved with a group of women in Brisbane who were getting together a series of songs about women who have made an impact on society. One of the songs we did was about Harriet Tubman, one of the core members (I believe) of the Underground Railway; and then later I saw the film about her which I just loved. Reading this interview has sparked my interest in this again. I suspect that parts of the book will be a very hard read but it shall definitely be going on my "to read" list.

message 3: by Marsha (new)

Marsha I was totally new to Colson Whitehead as a writer, and was completely blown away from his detail of the horrors of slavery, his creation of Cora, and the backstories of the other characters. They all seemed so real to me. I wish Cora could have known about her mother Mabel and how much her mother loved her. The novel covered so many historical details, horrific yet details we should never forget. The trips Cora took on the railroad were such an unusual way to describe the Underground Railroad: kudos on that magical element of the book. Everyone should read this book to understand a part of US History that is not discussed enough to allow us to understand each other.

message 4: by Myra (new)

Myra Stull My husband reads the books we select to me so we can experience them at the same time. We loved your book and will certainly find your previous published works. Living in Ohio we were familiar with some of the places used going north. But The Underground Railroad made us aware of how difficult it was to be an abolishinist. Thank you. Myra and Terry Stull

message 5: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Springer I finished the book today and I could hardly put it down. I have read many books fact and fiction, that taught me the history of the slavery in the America's. I have heard stories told by elders who knew and whose parents knew, this is the closest I have felt a story touched on the people and their struggles during the period. Well pout together and laid out I mean I could follow it and I have memory problems. I recommend it and it could be a great book club starter.

message 6: by Md (new)

Md Arif I read this book

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