Colson Whitehead's New Novel Takes Readers to the Jim Crow-Era South

Posted by Cybil on July 16, 2019
Colson Whitehead
What do you write after your novel wins a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and is selected by Oprah for her book club?

For Colson Whitehead, whose 2016 masterpiece, The Underground Railroad, won all those honors, the answer was to try something totally new: historical fiction about an abusive reform school.

“Sometimes when I’m writing, there's an alarm that goes off in my head, like, you know you've done this before, why are you repeating yourself?” said Whitehead. He prefers projects that are daunting. “If you know how to do something, what's the point in doing it again?”

The Nickel Boys follows two black teenagers, Elwood and Turner, who are sent to a hellish, segregated reform school in the early 1960s in Florida. Elwood approaches his sentence with optimism, while Turner, who is more cynical, just tries to survive. The novel explores their unlikely friendship and how the school drives their fates.

The Nickel Boys was inspired by a real reform school in Marianna, Florida, which was operated by the state until 2011. Boys there were beaten and sexually abused. They also “disappeared”; dozens of bodies have been discovered by anthropologists in recent years. Whitehead talked to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw about his life and latest work. Their conversation has been edited.

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Goodreads: I loved your book. It was moving, it was a page-turner, and it introduced me to a grisly part of American history.

Colson Whitehead: Thank you very much.

GR: The New York Times called the expectations for this book “stratospheric.” But what are they for you?

CW: Generally, when I’m excited by an idea, I plan it out, work it over in my mind, and start writing. The main thing is to not screw it up, page by page. In terms of other people's expectations, that's their business. In terms of my expectations, I try to do the best I can with each project. Hopefully I'm following through on my idea and not screwing it up, page by page.

GR: After the success of The Underground Railroad, I imagine you could have written anything you wanted. So why this book? Why now?

CW: In the summer of 2014, I came across news about the Dozier School, which is the model for the Nickel Academy. I thought I’d file it away for later; I had something else to work on after The Underground Railroad. And then, in the spring of 2017, with the fallout of the election, I was wondering where the country was going. It seemed that working through the situation of a school like Nickel during Jim Crow would be a good project for me: finding a way to deal with my hopes on the one hand and my fears on the other.

GR: As a way to process your emotions?

CW: Sure. If you compare Barack Obama and Donald Trump, you have two very different ideas of what kind of America we want, what direction we want to take America in. And I think, like most people, I have an optimistic side, I've got a cynical side, and the two boys in the book, Elwood and Turner, are vessels for these different aspects of my personality.

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GR: How did you first hear about the Dozier School?

CW: I came across it on Twitter, where I follow a lot of news outlets. At one point in the process of digging up the graves, there was a status report. It was a blip in terms of national media, but it was covered extensively in Florida.

GR: At what point did you know that you were going to write this story, not just read about it?

CW: Really the first day, when I was processing. It seemed so horrific, and yet I had never heard of it. I don't think a lot of people had. The coverage subsided quickly after that one day in August. And the people I found in my first sweep of articles about the place were mostly white, while most of the students were African American. So it just seemed there was a story waiting to be told there.

GR: It struck me that a theme in The Nickel Boys and also in The Underground Railroad is the idea that pain of abuse and racism transmits across generations. It's what President Barack Obama said of The Underground Railroad, and I saw those themes in The Nickel Boys as well. I wondered if you agree with that?

CW: I don't know about transmit. There's institutional racism, there's control of black people under slavery, and then that becomes converted after Reconstruction to Jim Crow laws. It's converted now to a racist police apparatus, gerrymandering, the incarceration state. There have been articles about the pain of slavery, the Holocaust being transmitted as if it's a physical thing. I don't know much about that science. But the structures to control black people 20 years ago are still operating now in different guises.

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GR: Was part of your interest in writing this to illuminate a part of history? My assumption is that many Americans don't know about these reform schools.

CW: Yes. I had no idea about them. I mean, you know about abuse in orphanages and institutions in general, the kind of abuse that happens when grownups are in charge of powerless children and youth. But I wasn't acquainted with the reform school system, how it came into being, and how it actually worked. So it was news to me and, of course, provides a backdrop for the two boys.

GR: I’d love to learn more about your process. I have read that you aim to write eight pages per week. Is that accurate?

CW: Yes, if I have a week to myself, and I'm not teaching, or traveling, or celebrating Thanksgiving with family members. If I can work, say, Monday, Tuesday, and then Friday and Saturday, that’s two to three pages a day, which adds up to about eight pages in a week. Sometimes it's seven, sometimes it's 12. But if I do eight, I feel I've done a lot that week. After a month, that’s 30-something pages, and after a year, that’s 300. Writing a novel is a marathon, and this is a way to break down the work into units. If I can get eight pages closer every week, I'm definitely less insane.

GR: That seems very doable.

CW: For me, it is. I mean, some people have to write every day, and some people [Laughs]...I don't know what people do, frankly. But for me, I can work different days of the week, and if I'm putting in four or five hours, it adds up.

GR: When do you go back and reread what you've written?

CW: I go forward and back, forward and back. If I get up one day and I don't feel like writing, maybe I'll revise. As the book changes, or I figure out things, I’ll go back and bring the earlier part of the book up to the new standard or idea. So, for example, if the narrative voice changes, I’ll go back to page one and bring it up to the now-prevailing voice. I'm always going forward and back.

GR: Do you ever have mornings where you doubt your direction or the whole idea?

CW: Not the whole idea. I outline before I start, and usually I’ll let the idea kick around my head for six months or a year. That way, I won’t get to the middle and feel it's a stupid idea. So I don't doubt the idea, but I definitely have doubts, like: Does this chapter work? Is this character working? Is the pacing too fast? Too slow?

GR: I won't put any spoilers in this, but there was a twist in The Nickel Boys. Did you always intend for it to be there?

CW: Yes. I started writing it in the spring of 2017 and came up with the plot, and the twist, in the spring of 2016. So it was in the back of my head before I actually started writing.

GR: What makes you the most proud of all that you've accomplished in your 20-year writing career?

CW: No one thing. It's all been sort of a crazy ride. Nine books, and I've had ups and downs. I think the first response to The Underground Railroad, from my wife, my agent, and my editor were very strong and encouraging. There was something in their voice that told me I'd done something different. And then when I got to the end of The Underground Railroad and finished it, I was very proud of those last 30 pages. It was the best work I'd done in my career. For many months, I basked in my pride of how I wrapped up that book. There are so many great things: the recognition, becoming a better writer, becoming a better person, and having my wife and kids in my life and all the things I didn't have 20 years ago. It all goes together.

GR: When someone is as talented as you are, how do you get better?

CW: That's nice of you to say. For me, it’s to not do the same thing. Each time I start a new project, I think: Is this a new kind of character, is this a new kind of challenge, a new kind of genre I want to explore? What do I want to keep from postapocalyptic science fiction in Zone One? I haven't done a historical novel before—what are the things I like about that genre, the things I hate about it? I haven't done a first-person narrator before—what are the strengths and disadvantages of that?

GR: Do you read your reviews?

CW: I read the first third, and then after that, a good review is a good review and a bad review is a bad review. When people say they don't read reviews, I think they’re lying.

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GR: Are there any books that you want to read now?

CW: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, which came out this month. What else...I’m looking at my bookshelf…Tracy K. Smith's new collection, Wade in the Water. Exhalation by Ted Chiang.

GR: How did winning the Pulitzer change your life?

CW: It's something you don't really expect. Or when you’re younger, you're like, “Oh, maybe that will happen to me!” And then the reality of the writing life and life in general is such that you put away lofty ideas like that.

The recognition, and the acknowledgment, was great. The fact that it brought more readers to the book was great. And then, just in terms of my mood, I was in a good mood for about a year. I'd be standing in line at the grocery store and think, “Ah, these idiots! It’s supposed to be a ten-item lane, and this guy has 12 items!” And then a force would say, just chill man, just chill. Like, what are you complaining about? And then I would relax.

GR: Is there one piece of advice you find yourself giving aspiring writers?

CW: Read a lot to find out what kind of writer you want to be, and then write a lot to find out what kind of writer you actually are. And then, obviously, you have to stick with it. There's a lot of disappointment. And going back to what I said about the challenge, if there's a story that's personal or a story that's first person that you've been avoiding…maybe you should try it.



Colson Whitehead's new novel, The Nickel Boys, is available in the U.S. on July 16. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-35 of 35 (35 new)

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message 1: by Larry (new)

Larry Sherk Blaming the victim is a classic symptom of the problem. When Anglo-Saxons came to America, they had to clear out ten or twenty million Indians, so they made the Indians into ignorant, brutish, savage monsters who weren't even Christian. Andrew Jackson was a classic, taking out most of the Choctaw and the Creeks. Then we began to worry about justifying slavery and what to do with a few million blacks, whom we had to demonize as ignorant, ape-like, rapist monsters. Then we had to turn the Mexicans into rapists by rape and rapine from 1845 to 1848. It has never stopped. It is the flip side of American Exceptionalism, and we're doomed until we learn to stop it. We have always "taken liberty" instead of understanding freedom.


message 2: by Janet (new)

Janet Sam wrote: "more victimism crap creating more racism"
Not "victimism" when it's based on facts, and not "creating racism" when it's the same racists out from under their rocks.


message 3: by Ms.pegasus (new)

Ms.pegasus I would hope people read the book before commenting. As you read, please focus on its literary qualities. Just a gentle reminder!


message 4: by Diana (new)

Diana Brooks I'm writing a book too. It's about a profoundly gifted white girl born into humble circumstances who is sent to a private Catholic school. She is an outcast at her school. Eventually she befriends a couple black students and observes the cruelties of racism they experience. They devise several brilliant plots to teach the white students and the Franciscan priests a lesson from God's son.
No, I'm not a trained writer. However, the memory of this 'true' story returned shortly after I sensed the death of a man connected with our story. He was our only black football player and this story really happened at a Catholic high school in Fort Wayne, IN.
An African Artifact that brought back from Africa after WW2 represented the miracle that happened in 1978. It was locked in our trophy case. The artifact disappeared in 1982 after we graduated. It reappeared in 2017 on Facebook in the possession of a former white football player. Luckily, he returned it to me. I wish to use Ray Billingsley's story and auction the African Artifact to raise money to help subsidize early education for black students.
I have no explanation for the inspiration of my plot if it didn't really happen.

Thank you for sharing your helpful advice to other hopeful writers. I'm going to attempt to finish my story.


message 5: by David (new)

David Blake Sam wrote: "more victimism crap creating more racism"

Sam wrote: "more victimism crap creating more racism"

Now that is a scary comment...you do realize that the book is very much based upon actual events at a reform school in Florida that io operated until 2011. How is that "more victimism crap" when it is REAL??It is horrific and if the victims were white you'd be screaming to the heavens...or maybe you just approve of death and molestation of teens regardless of skin color. Either way...shameful.


message 6: by Lola (new)

Lola Barello Sam wrote: "more victimism crap creating more racism"
WAA WAAA JUST LIKE A TRUMPIE, BLOCKING OUT YOUR NASTY HISTORY....


message 7: by Joan (new)

Joan I'm looking forward to reading this book, though the subject will make it a tough read. This interview was a gift. My thanks to Mr. Whitehead.

btw, I live in Florida. Further investigation is being done at that site as there are signs of more bodies. Tragic and shameful.


message 8: by Joan (last edited Jul 16, 2019 08:03AM) (new)

Joan Ms.pegasus wrote: "I would hope people read the book before commenting. As you read, please focus on its literary qualities. Just a gentle reminder!"
I feel no need to read the book before I read an interview with an author. Often the interview greatly adds to my pleasure and/or understanding of the book. Sometimes an interview helps me to decide if I want to read the book or not.


message 9: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer Allison Seems to me the people who benefited from the subjugation of the African are perennially defensive....saying how sick and tired they are of hearing about abuse and victimisation...perhaps Sam comes from that long line of heads buried in the sand.


message 10: by Purposefully (new)

Purposefully Designed Joan wrote: "Ms.pegasus wrote: "I would hope people read the book before commenting. As you read, please focus on its literary qualities. Just a gentle reminder!"
I feel no need to read the book before I read ..."


I think Ms.pegasus was speaking to the comment about this book being 'victimism crap creating more racism' - a comment which I am also against considering that this is based on 'fact'. But some people will find any reason whatsoever to behave badly online, won't they?


message 11: by Michael (new)

Michael Great interview. Important book.

On another note, the behavior of adults in this thread is reflective of underdeveloped maturity and character. Our society is a mess. Social media just reveals it.

Name calling doesn't solve problems. It makes you look just as bad as the person exhibiting weak emotional intelligence or missing E.I.


message 12: by Leta (last edited Jul 16, 2019 09:02AM) (new)

Leta Drake The Underground Railroad was one of the best books I've read a a long time. Looking forward to reading Nickel Boys!
Leta Powell Drake


message 13: by Antonia (new)

Antonia “the pain and abuse of racism transmitting across generations”...only if you let it. Stand up and stop being a victim.


message 14: by Antonia (new)

Antonia But just because “wokie” GR commentator said that doesn’t mean I won’t read Mr. Whitehead’s book.


message 15: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Crane This did not just happen to black children. Poor white children suffered the same fate in orphanages during this time.


message 16: by Sam (new)

Sam Nigro There should be books about SUCCESSES of every subculture in America instead of reminders of the wrongs and failures. Today 90% of every minority and subculture is SUCCESSFUL in America.
It is not perfect, but nowhere else is there such successes. The failures are mostly due to failed-family-caused inability to use the opportunities available. Bigots will never change if all they hear is victimism. All need to hear about successes to imitate instead of the wrongs giving ideas to the not-caring and hateful...of which there are too many; and they need to hear that most work to give successes to all instead of being unwittingly suggested to be against others, which is what victimism does...It make matters worse and paralyzes into wanting handouts and making excuses. "Poor them and poor us" books do not help the failures or the hateful.


message 17: by Dany (new)

Dany Hi all, just a quick reminder to please treat other members with courtesy and respect. Opinions differ, yes; however, comments supporting these opinions can still be worded in a way that's respectful and civil towards your fellow members.


message 18: by Carol (new)

Carol Nauss Thoroughly enjoyed reading the Nickel Boys, and I am looking forward to reading your future books.


message 19: by Garet (new)

Garet Anderson Thank you for including some information on how you choose a subject, a project, and how you write. We, the new writers and new authors of the world, prefer to hear this from successful real authors, such as yourself, rather than from books on writing. I am a scratch writer. I have a plot of sorts but I don't know what is going to happen ten minutes from now. I also love reviewing my work. Colson's admission that he writes 2 or 3 pages a day, about 4 days a week was most interesting. I am going to try slowing down to that.


message 20: by Motaz (new)

Motaz Derhalli Great interview! However, I would have also asked Mr. Whitehead this question: Would you have written the story if there was a reversal of roles, meaning, if the abusers were black and the students were white?


message 21: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie I'm confused about a small line in his interview. "... the Holocaust being transmitted as if it's a physical thing." I do not understand what he meant by this. I fully understand that "There have been articles about the pain of slavery,..." as he stated before that comment regarding the Holocaust. I also understand that articles have been written about the Holocaust and the pain from that. What I do not understand is the "...transmitted as if it's a physical thing." So is he saying that he doesn't believe that the Holocaust caused pain in a physical way? Or he doesn't believe that there was a Holocaust at all? Or that other's have written about it as those things? I don't know how to take that comment and I'd truly love some clarification regarding this statement.


message 22: by Steve (new)

Steve G Colson Whitehead, the Nickel Boys, would have to be the most eloquent book I have ever read deserving of the Pulitzer. Mr. Whitehead captured the essence of the deep south, during a time that America was embolden by a belief that certain races were not egalitarianism to others based on skin color and that’s all. Read this book, and understand how these two characters differ, yet shared a common goal, and apply those goals your own lives. I applaud you Mr. Whitehead, you are an excellent writer deserving of many awards.


message 23: by Ann (new)

Ann Moriarty I bought the book today and plan to read it and will comment on it when I finish it. I almost wish I had not read his interview before I read the book, but it is too late now and I hope it won't color my own impressions. His last book was amazing. I felt I was there with the two main characters suffering all they suffered. It was a difficult book to read but equally difficult to put down.


message 24: by Martha (new)

Martha Looking forward to reading your new book. Loved the creative thinking in Underground Railroad. I admire your growth mindset to keep challenging yourself with new genres.


message 25: by Ricky (new)

Ricky I had this book on my "Want To Read" list from the day I learned that it was coming. Upon completing it, I just sat there for a while cogitating. Then, I recommended to my family that they "...read this novel. Then read it again." I'm going to let it sit for a couple of months and read it again in October.


message 26: by badcat (new)

badcat Such a great interview! I am really enjoying the book—beautiful writing on a powerful subject. I love this author and it’s great to hear about his perspective and process.


message 27: by Lana (new)

Lana Mitchell Another I can't wait to read it book.


message 28: by Ellen (new)

Ellen I loved 'The underground railway' and its many contradictions. A classic in my eyes.


message 29: by Elba (new)

Elba Horrocks I just finished 'The Nickel Boys' and was deeply moved. Elwood's capacity to suffer and not give up on Dr. King's message of love is extraordinary. Check out my review on goodreads. I refuse to hate people because they are different race, religion or whatever. One Love.


message 30: by Reid (new)

Reid Stephanie wrote: "I'm confused about a small line in his interview. "... the Holocaust being transmitted as if it's a physical thing." I do not understand what he meant by this. I fully understand that "There have b..."
Stephanie, read up on the ACE Study. And look up Nadine Burke-Harris's book, The Deepest Well and her TED talk on YouTube. Another great is Gabor Maté who has books and YouTube talks that touch on the ACE Study. Children neglected, abused, belittled, bullied, take that stuff into their bodies. It's inescapable. The children of Holocaust survivors (Maté is one) take on the suffering of their parents and grandparents.


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message 34: by Barbara (new)

Barbara The Nickel Boys brings back memories of reform schools and where racism, physical and sexual abuse is prevalent and when black males are arrested for meaningless crimes. Is is a part of history that has seen a resurgence today. Highly recommended for reading!


message 35: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Springer Interesting perspective on how he writes, what and when. Good advise to writers and it does give a perspective for the reader as did an interview I saw of him. Sounds like another pain filled story but I'm drawn to know about my people and those of other cultures. Reading about others opens me up more to them and myself. Kind of like knowing self and/or God, the creator. Perhaps we are not to make an image because there are many, male and female. If one believed that could you do such harm.


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