Colson Whitehead Explains How He Grew as a Writer for 'The Underground Railroad'
Oprah's new favorite author talks to VICE about his fascinating new novel, the creative process, and why it's impossible to make fun of Donald Trump.
Two weeks ago, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad was released with the blessing of Oprah Winfrey's semi-dormant Book Club—and those familiar with the author's work couldn't help but chuckle at the occurrence. A well-regarded ironist with a bleak comic outlook who writes obliquely about race, Whitehead has a sensibility that feels, if not at odds with Winfrey's, then certainly at a remove; with The Underground Railroad, Whitehead takes on the specter of American human bondage with hints of Marquez's magic realism, DeLillo's insidious intelligence, and the playful postmodern systems analysis of Pynchon. His droll humor comes in smaller doses than usual—after all, it's hard to make slavery funny.
The book tells the story of Cora, a 17-year-old Georgia woman born into slavery who attempts the flight north with a man named Caesar. During their escape from the plantation, the couple are briefly apprehended, and Cora kills a pre-teen slave patrolman with a rock. Now sought out as murderers, Cora and Caesar flee via the Underground Railroad, which Whitehead reimagines as a literal subterranean rail line manned by conductors and station agents.
When Whitehead arrived for our chat at Manhattan's Corner Bistro, he was decked out in a black Misfits T-shirt, tight jeans, dark sunglasses, and his trademarked dreads—not the mode of dress we normally associate with middle-aged black men, let alone one who just published a novel of startling aesthetic and emotional power on slavery. But Whitehead isn't your run of the mill novelist, black or otherwise; The Underground Railroad is the type of slavery novel in which the Misfits get thanked in the acknowledgements, and the book has a driving, propulsive energy that keeps you jumping up and down even if you aren't at CBGBs.
VICE: What was your notion of slavery as a child?
Colson Whitehead: As a young African American male growing up in the 70s, Roots was obviously a major touchstone. When it first broadcast, it was a national obsession. Like a lot of other African American families, we'd gather around the TV and watch the 70s version of the story play out. In school, you hear about slavery and then jump to Abraham Lincoln immediately—there are not a lot of units describing the degradation.
You conceived of The Underground Railroad when you were younger and only picked the idea back up a few years ago. How would the book have differed if you had written it around when you first came up with the idea?
I was a 20-something New York hipster, and I wouldn't have been able to do it justice at that moment. I was still in Gen-X slacker mode, so the protagonist would have been a guy trying to escape for his own freedom. The notion of escaping to find your child, or a spouse—or a daughter looking for her mother—didn't occur to me then. All of the fantastic gestures would have been broader or bigger, instead of being woven into Cora's timeline and technology.
What is your creative routine like?
For the last couple of books, I had a page count of about eight pages a week. Seven is meh, nine is better, but eight is a good steady pace, and it adds up. Eight pages a week is 400 pages a year, and that's a novel. I have kids, and some days I don't feel like working. Sometimes I have to go to the dentist, and I can't work if I have to go to the dentist. If I don't feel like working, I'll improvise. I'm always going forward and backward, forward and backward.
With this book, I wrote the first third, and then I showed it to my agents, my editor, and my wife, who were like, "You're doing good!" Sag Harbor was a really personal book, so every time I'd finish a chapter, I would show it to my agent just so she could say, "It's good, keep going!" With Zone One, I didn't show anybody until it was done—I think I was sort of depressed and wanted to hole up like Mark Spitz.
Are there aspects of the book's characters that are autobiographical?
The Colossus of New York is probably my most autobiographical book—it's just me, without any narrative filter, having ideas about the city. I'm in most of my characters, and that includes the villains. In my better moments, I see myself in some of the more enlightened characters. You're always putting the good and bad parts of yourself in the characters to make them real.
Did you ever think your sensibility would be admired by Oprah Winfrey?
Well, you hope if you do a good book, people like it. She's picked great books. I loved Beloved and I loved The Road, and both of those influences are in this book. It was shocking because [the book club] was such a force for so many years, then it slowed down. When I first started publishing, you'd be in a hotel bar after doing a reading and someone would say, "Has Oprah picked it?" Then it died down because she stopped doing the book club, so when I got the call in April, I wasn't even thinking about it —I'd just finished copy edits. It came out of the blue and made this summer a lot better.
What do you consume in the media?
I've been distracted, and I haven't read as much this year. My big find was the movies Point Blank and Payback, which are based on these novels by Richard Stark following a guy named Parker. There are 30 of them, so I've read six of them back to back. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson was really great. It overlaps in some ways with The Underground Railroad, in terms of a person being hemmed in by a multitude of societal forces and finding how to make their way. But I find it hard to read when I'm working, and I've also been consumed with the primaries and the post-primaries and the daily outrage.
Does the current political climate surprise you?
Having written a book about lynching and slavery, not really [laughs]. But as a rational human being who doesn't want the world to blow up, I think everything is surprised by the constant stream from the Trump campaign—the rhetoric and the daily outrage.
When I was writing some of The Underground Railroad's graphic passages—like the lynching scene—I went in between about if I was going too much over-the-top. Then I'd research and be reassured that violence and brutality happened to many people. The lynching scene as a communal entertainment for the town isn't so far-fetched, so the rhetoric that comes out at a Trump rally is reflective of a primal human impulse toward hate that's not specifically American. In the same way, if you're going to make a satire of a demagogue, you couldn't come up with Trump, who strains the credibility of satire every day.
Why do you think slavery is on so many people's minds right now in culture?
The number of black writers, filmmakers, and TV producers aren't huge, but there are more than there were ten years ago. I don't feel like there can ever be enough [slave stories] as long as there's more ground to cover. There are many corners of African American history that have not been explored, and we have more choice over what we want to tell now.
You've been doing an increasing amount of nonfiction. Does that work a different muscle in your writing repertoire?
My introduction to nonfiction was reading my sister's copies of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer, and music journalism—I'd come home from school on a Wednesday afternoon reading the Village Voice in the 80s, see who's playing at Irving Plaza, and read the music criticism. At the time, there weren't a lot of outlets for first person nonfiction, but the Voice had some of that. My introduction to book criticism was also through the Voice, and that was one of my inspirations for writing.
When you imagined the career you would embark upon when writing your first book, does it career at all resemble what your life and work is at 46?
In terms of work, it's the same. These last two weeks really aren't going to happen again—the next book will probably have a normal launch—so I'm just trying to enjoy the success of this book. I'll put another book out, no one will know what I'm doing, I'll take the hit, and move on. I'm just going to keep writing either way.