Colson Whitehead was six months into writing a novel about the digital economy when he was seized by the ghost of an old idea. The 47-year-old, who was a reviewer for the Village Voice in his 20s and had since published five novels and two nonfiction books, was in, as he puts it, the perennially gloomy mood that is his baseline when writing. “I usually have two or three ideas floating around,” he says. “When I have free time, the one I end up thinking most about is the one I end up pursuing.”
Reluctantly, he put aside the nascent novel, on the basis that a satire about digital media was something “a 27-year-old hipster would be better equipped to deal with”, and turned to the other idea.
The book Whitehead ended up writing was The Underground Railroad, the story of Cora, a 15-year-old slave who escapes from a plantation in Georgia. It would come to be published in 40 languages, win a Pulitzer prize and a National Book award and be anointed by Oprah. The TV rights have been bought by Barry Jenkins — the man behind the Oscar-winning movie Moonlight — and for the past six months Whitehead has undergone a transformation. “Generally, I walk around in a glum mood,” he says. “But I’ve been in a really good mood for the last year. So, that’s new, and a nice feature.” Will glumness descend again? “Eventually,” he laughs. “I assume that, once I get into a new book, I’ll revert to my usual average temperature. But I’ve definitely been enjoying it. It seems like a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’ll put some money aside to put my kids through college, buy some new shirts and generally walk around in a good mood.”
We are in a cafe near Whitehead’s home in downtown Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Julie Barer, a literary agent, and the couple’s three-year-old child. He has a 12-year-old daughter from his first marriage. Whitehead grew up in Manhattan, one of four children of successful entrepreneur parents. His 2009 novel, Sag Harbor, detailed with humour the experience of being a kid in Manhattan’s private-school world, with a fancy summer home in the Hamptons. It was a position of privilege considered so unavailable to African Americans that the parents of white classmates would speculate about whether he and his brother were African princes.
“Bougie” is the word he uses to describe that world, which he went through a period of disparaging and attempting to distance himself from. “Posh,” he says, by way of translation. “Upscale; bourgeois values. The whole constellation of satisfied, complacent, et voila.”
It didn’t occur to him to be embarrassed about having gone to private school — Trinity, on the west side of Manhattan — but all those summers at his parents’ house in Sag Harbor, in the Hamptons, were something else. “Once I got to college,it seemed that the Hamptons were a little bit too posh for me and didn’t represent the kind of values I was embracing in my late teens. So, I didn’t go out there, except to visit my parents, for a long time. And then, after 9/11” - he starts laughing — “I discovered it was a nice, mellow place to hang out.”
Whitehead’s parents ran an executive recruitment firm and were less than delighted when he announced a desire to become a writer. Apart from anything else, it was out of character. Until he went to Harvard, says Whitehead, he had been a “goody-goody” and done everything his parents expected of him. They expected him to go into a profession. Then, at college, he changed. “I started to rebel in this passive-aggressive way, by sleeping in late and stuff like that.” What kind of student was he?
“I was available to hang out,” he says drily. “The department of English at that time was very conservative. I think we had one class on literature written after the Second World War. So I would take classes in the theatre department — not acting, but studying plays — and in the African American studies department, which then was pretty moribund, before Henry Louis Gates got there. I wasn’t a particularly ambitious student. I played cards. Poker and bridge. But that’s where I first encountered James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon and a lot of the great books that I still refer to in terms of inspiration and structure.”
In 2014, Whitehead wrote a memoir about poker, The Noble Hustle, which was expanded from a magazine article based on seven days he spent in Las Vegas taking part in the World Series of Poker. It has one of best subtitles ever: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death. He is good at opening lines, too: The Intuitionist, Whitehead’s experimental first novel, which is set in an elevator inspection service, opens with the Don DeLillo-ish: “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.”
Writing was something Whitehead had done since he was 10 or 11, inspired by the wide range of books in his house. “Commercial literary fiction; John Updike and Stephen King; Norman Mailer and Judith Krantz. I had two older sisters, and every book brought into the house I would eventually inherit. So it meant reading Tom Wolfe and The Bell Jar and horror and comics — all stuff that made me want to write. And Jackie Collins. We always knew what to get [my sisters] at Christmas, because she always had a book come out on December 10.”
Nonetheless, after graduating, when Whitehead told his parents that he wanted to become a journalist, “they told me journalists make $14,000 a year. Which seemed like a lot to me, frankly. But they wanted me to become a lawyer or a doctor or have some upstanding job. It wasn’t until my first book was finally out and they could hold it in their hand and it was being reviewed that they would stop urging me to get a real job. ”The idea for The Underground Railroad came to Whitehead early — in 2000, in the wake of his first book being published. He wrote The Intuitionist while doing reviews for the Village Voice and later as a more wide-ranging freelance writer. Those grungy years were instructive, says Whitehead. “The job at the Village Voice was 35 cents a word, so it wasn’t that high profile. But once you were in the paper you could write for different sections and they really gave you a chance if you were in the building every day and under foot. And being a freelancer gave me the time to start working on fiction, and the confidence of living from writing gave me more confidence.” He pauses. “Even though that was foolish.”
His youthful confidence had its limitations, however. When he came up with the concept that would become The Underground Railroad, it was different from what appeared in the final version of the novel. He knew he wanted to write about the channels that helped slaves escape from plantations in the south to the north. He knew he wanted it to include an element of magical realism — in this case, the conversion of the figurative railroad, the network of safe houses via which escaped slaves passed, into an actual subway system. He also thought his principal character would be a young, single man, as he was at the time. That was as far as he got.
“When I had the idea in 2000, it seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t think I could pull it off,” he says. “I didn’t think I was a good enough writer. I thought if I wrote some more books I might become a better crafts person and, if I was older, I might be able to bring the maturity of some of those years to the book and do it justice. And so I shied away from it. It was daunting in terms of its structure, and to do the research as deep as it needed to be done, and to deal with the subject with the gravity it deserved, was scary. And then, a couple of years ago, I thought maybe the scary book is the one you’re supposed to be doing.”
The heroine became not a man in his mid-20s, but Cora, a teenage girl following in her runaway mother’s footsteps. The most striking section of the book is the intensely realistic opening portrait, of life on the plantation before Cora’s escape, in which Whitehead focuses on the relationships between slaves, so often sentimentalised in shallower depictions of slavery. He says: “Writing it now, the question was: ‘How can I make a psychologically credible plantation?’ And that means thinking about people who’ve been traumatised, brutalised and dehumanised their whole lives. It’s not going to be the pop culture plantation where there’s one Uncle Tom and everyone is just really helpful to each other. Everyone is going to be fighting for the one extra bite of food in the morning, fighting for the small piece of property. To me, that makes sense; if you put people together who’ve been raped and tortured, that’s how they would act.”
There were two crucial scenes that brought Cora to life in his mind, he says: when she stands up to a fellow slave, a bully who tries to take away the only thing that is hers, a tiny patch of dirt she calls her garden; and when she tries to protect Chester, a child, from the wrath of the slavemaster. “Writing in 2015 and imagining what kind of heroic desperation could lead someone to leave a plantation is hard. For me, those two moments spoke to who she was and what she’d do to preserve herself.”
Whitehead spent a long time on the research for the book, ploughing through oral history archives, in particular the 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, when, incredibly, the last survivors of slavery were in their 90s. While he was at school, he says, education on slavery had been pitifully inadequate. “In fifth grade, we did 10 minutes on slavery and 40 minutes on Abraham Lincoln, and in 10th grade you might do 10 minutes on the civil rights era and 40 minutes on Martin Luther King and that’s it. I think it’s probably better now. But there’s no reason for the powers that be to address that part of history.”
Whitehead also wanted to write more generally about parents and children. Having children himself put the imagined experience of slavery in an even more intolerable light. Cora is galvanised by her love for, and fury at, her mother, Mabel. “Mabel provides on the one hand an example of someone who can run away successfully, we think, and also the counter example of someone who abandons their child to the hell of slavery. And both of those things warp Cora’s perceptions and drive different behaviours in the book. When we find out what happens to Mabel, I wanted to address the gap between what we know of our parents and who they really are.”
What happened to Mabel is the great shock of the book, the artful suspense around which drives much of the narrative. I ask if Whitehead felt squeamish about deploying the customary tricks of the novelist when the subject matter is so traumatic. “I’ve written books that are more resistant to readers and books that are slow and defy the pleasures of plot. Sag Harbor, which is about growing up in the 80s, is a portrait of a summer; there’s no driving plot. But with this book, I think the life-or-death stakes — if she was caught, she would be put to death — called for a different approach to some other books. I was aware of the conventions of a suspenseful book and of withholding information; red herrings and distracting the reader. And I think the plot, like humour, or what kind of narrator you have, is just a tool you use for the right story at the right time.”
Whitehead is currently recharging. He teaches creative writing on and off at Princeton and NYU and has written 32 pages of a new book. He is in no hurry. The extraordinary success of The Underground Railroad will, he predicts, take up much of his time until early next year. “I value my downtime. I usually take a year or a year and a half between stuff, whether it’s staring off into space or bingeing on a TV show or a video game for a month. I also work when I’m working, but I think my wife was concerned when we first got together that I sat around all the time.” And then what? He smiles. “And then the self-loathing kicks in and I have to get back to work.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd