This week, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad tops the New York Times fiction best-seller list. Since 2002’s Pulitzer-prize nominated John Henry Days—about the “steel-driving man” who dropped dead “with a hammer in his hand”—Whitehead has been on fiction’s top floor. August is the 46-year-old’s biggest month yet.
The Underground Railroad tells the story of 16-year-old Cora’s escape North from a brutal Georgia plantation, pursued by slave-catcher Ridgeway. Images sear into your consciousness: the death of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry in the cotton fields; the torture and murder of runaway slave Big Anthony. “In Cora’s shock,” Whitehead writes, “the world drained to gray impressions … She wasn’t surprised when his character revealed itself—if you waited long enough, it always did.” Travelling through different states, The Underground Railroad reflects on different elements of the African-American experience, from the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to cultural misappropriation.
I spoke to the lifelong New Yorker over the phone from the West Village apartment he shares with his wife Julie Barer (a literary agent) and two children. We conversed about humor, empathy, and the many political questions his writing raises. As in his writing—from The Intuitionist to The Colossus of New York—Whitehead is fiercely intelligent and engaging in conversation. His commitment to tough material is leavened with inventive drive, writerly self-deprecation and an appreciation of absurdity.
Steve McQueen said, “What’s wonderful for me about this whole experience is to delve in deep about the nature of slavery, but come out sane again, because you could actually lose yourself,” when I profiled him for 12 Years a Slave. Can you relate?
It was very harrowing knowing that I was about to put my character, and her supporting cast, through so many trials and tribulations. The coming-out-sane part—I work downstairs in my office all day and at 3 p.m. I can come up and try to figure out dinner. So I learned to have that distance required to get it down on the page, but not have it live in your head 24 hours a day. That sort of calibration was hard early on.
Cooking was your main thing for balance?
Mario Batali’s general Italian specialties book is good; very few ingredients, always ends up working out in the end. I’ve had a smoker for the last nine years. So I’ve gotten my ribs down, started making my own barbeque sauces, experimenting, try not make it too spicy to burn out the family. When I’m done with work, I can think about what kind of ingredients I want to work with, get them, cook them; takes a couple of hours.
An inspirational Richard Pryor poster hangs above your writing desk.
I grew up in a household that had HBO as soon as it was invented and Saturday nights we always spent—my brother, my parents and I—watching whatever was on HBO at 8 o’clock. It was boxing, I remember the Sugar Ray Leonard fights. I remember Muhammad Ali’s last fight. And we watched George Carlin and Richard Pryor. So Carlin and Pryor’s counterculture energies, the way they veer from the comic to the tragic from minute to minute, the way they take their outsider’s view and present the world back to the squares: That was all very inspiring when I was young, and continues to be.
With the understandable exception of The Underground Railway, dry humor zings in your work.
My previous book, The Noble Hustle, was a short non-fiction account of the World Series of Poker, and to me it was a humor book, trying to cram in as many jokes I could per page and have fun with the form and the persona I was creating for myself. Definitely when I got divorced and was living in my shitty apartment, Louie came on and had the same sort of easel for the kids that I had. Everyone has to put their shitty apartment together, after something like that, and I felt kinship with this middle-aged schlub trying to figure things out. I remember seeing him doing stand-up 20 years ago, so we’ve gone older and grayer together.
Do you find publishing to be as cutthroat as other parts of the entertainment industry?
I don’t think it’s the day-to-day of publishing. I think if you get a bunch of writers at a writer’s conference, or in the faculty room, yeah, it’s a bunch of weirdoes with strange egos, so similar in that way. But not the back-biting. For one thing, the money is different scale, so you’re not fighting for the same resources.
Reminiscent of classic hip-hop, you don’t waste a word in The Underground Railroad.
There’s a feature of my modern narrators, say John Henry Days or Zone One, where their sentences, their vocabulary is much more complicated and a little frenetic, and that’s me trying to reflect modern life. I definitely wanted a voice that was very different from my other books. When you’re drawing metaphors from 1850, there are certain kinds of sentences I couldn’t do. In trying to create a voice that’s pulled out of mid-19th-century vernacular, I hit upon this narrator. Cora is pared down, simpler and more direct: simple in a good way.
I grew up on hip-hop. Most of my hip-hop knowledge ends around 1997, and when I wrote [coming-of-age novel] Sag Harbor I went back to the ‘80s stuff I listened to and I’ve playing it ever since. So any day I’m playing on my master loop of music Whodini comes up, Stetsasonic, Run DMC, the Beastie Boys—those are my '80s guys. They have such huge beats and this kind of trebly production you don’t really hear anymore.
I love music. I listen to music on a loop when I’m working, always have. Whether it’s David Bowie or Black Flag or Prince or Frank Sinatra, all those people keep me company.
You quote real classified ads from North Carolina newspapers where slave masters chased runaway slaves. They bring to mind Philip Roth’s old contention that American reality out-fictionalises fiction.
You’re always competing with what’s going on. The rise of Trump, popular demagogue—doubt there’s any other sort of satire you could have about a bull-headed person who comes to power exploiting the fears of the masses. So 2016 has outpaced political satires from the last 60 years. The various satires now seem dated and quaint.
I couldn’t really compete with the directness of these classified ads from newspapers in North Carolina. The apparatus of slavery was so complicated, it was responsible for so much of the economic life of the country, that every little detail becomes planned.
Before I began The Underground Railroad I had the idea that racial progress was very, very gradual. Now I think it’s very, very, very gradual.
What’s Barack Obama’s legacy?
I am trying to have my own conversation with history and race in America with this book, trying to figure out the common language between 1850 and 2016. A month ago there were a lot of policemen getting shot by psychos, and Obama gave one of the speeches at the funeral of one of them. It brought back his other speeches on race: Progress is so slow. But I think of these moments where he steps out of what we think of as presidential and addresses the death of Trayvon Martin, addresses his grandparents’ prejudice, addresses the grievances of policemen and Black Lives Matter activists. I think we have a leader who’s remarkably empathetic. We won’t see his likes again.
Yet the Republicans have repaid Obama’s moderation and leadership with scorched-earth opposition. Now they foist Trump on us.
Their chickens are coming to roost. It’s gratifying to see how the GOP has destroyed itself; unfortunately they’ll probably drag us down with them. So the arc of justice bends ever so slightly, but we’re all going to pay the price for their 20 years of foolishness. Before I began The Underground Railroad I had the idea that racial progress was very, very gradual. Now I think it’s very, very, very gradual.
The Colossus of New York is an interesting collection of essays about your city. This year Rudy Giuliani’s rep is falling to bits.
He just kept pushing it. I guess he sees a place in a Trump Adminstration as an emotionally stunted racist. Growing up in New York, Trump was always a real buffoon. While it’s horrifying to consider him in a position of power, he still seems cartoonish. Whereas having lived through years of Rudy Giuliani as a prosecutor, then Mayor, then the face of 9/11, now as a surrogate for Trump, I find it really galling to think about Giuliani decades later. I’m glad he’s self-destructing in a way and on a scale I never thought possible.
“They were careless people,” Scott Fitzgerald put it in The Great Gatsby. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Still resonates in the era of these Republican leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney?
It so romantic the way he puts it. These aren’t romantic people; they’re dumb brutes. In some cases they got lucky, in terms of inheriting money, and kept the streak going. Fitzgerald puts it in a much nicer way than these people deserve.
On a lighter note: you are a non-driver. Is this subverting traditional expectations of masculinity?
It can be construed as such. Perhaps my wife thinks so. You grow up in New York, you have a different relationship to cars. I’ve always been a big walker. The subway’s the subway. Certainly after John Henry Days and this book, I’ve got some metaphors out of it.
“The most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy,” Obama said in his conversation with Marilynne Robinson. Do you agree that, at their best, that’s what novels are about?
Yeah, partially. Sometimes they can just be entertainment. Jaws has a place, and so does The Brothers Karamazov [laughs]. We come to take solace from our daily cares in different ways; sometimes it’s entertainment, sometimes it’s a widening of the world in an empathetic novel. If people go to Google after reading stuff about the syphilis experiments in my book and it ends up they know more about how America treats its citizens, that’s good.
I also hope they’re caught up in the core story, and the more essential parts of it and the cliffhangers I spent a lot of time thinking of. I think a great novel says a lot of different things. It is entertaining, it is educating, it is illuminating. Some of the oldest stories that have stayed with us come from Homer, there’s a lot of action. In The Odyssey and The Iliad, he comes to a great reckoning about how people live, it resonates thousands of years later, and those books are also page-turners.