A Conversation with Colson Whitehead

by Maggie Sweeney

Colson Whitehead, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, is the author of eight books. He has published two books of nonfiction, including The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, which chronicles his trip to Las Vegas to compete in the World Series of Poker. His five novels include the coming-of-age story Sag Harbor and the zombie apocalypse tale Zone One. His most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Carnegie Medal and was long-listed for the Booker Prize. It was a New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and dozens of publications declared it the best book of the year.

Whitehead recently visited Butler University as part of the Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series, where he read from Underground Railroad. During the Q&A, he was quick to deflect suggestions that he is now a spokesperson for racial issues. His job, he said, is simply to create believable characters and interesting stories.

Maggie Sweeney: I read that you tried watching 12 Years a Slave but couldn’t get through the film because the violence was too intense. You were able to write that kind of violence in The Underground Railroad, but you couldn’t watch it?

Colson Whitehead: I can put it on the page, but seeing actors being beaten—I had a very physical reaction to it. I like horror movies. Texas Chainsaw 5I’ll watch, but seeing people go through this brutal experience that was real, as opposed to a horror movie, was too much.

MS: You’ve been asked before about the role literature plays in our tough political discourse. Ben Winters, who wrote Underground Airlines, said he hoped books like yours would move people. Do you think art can change people?

CW: I don’t know. Do you think there’s a novel lately that’s changed how people think about things?

MS: Well, yours. Your novel is making people at least think about how slaves were treated. I think reading helps me understand other cultures and perspectives. You’ve never read a book and thought, “I didn’t realize that’s what it would be like?”

CW: Yes. But we’re talking about scale. Isn’t that part of the question? “Change things.” It’s not my role to say this book is going to change people. Read it and have a reaction to it. I don’t think fiction has a central place in society, where one book changes how people think. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a political tract. It was written to educate abolitionists and white northerners about what was happening in the South. I think it did change a lot of people’s minds, and it did change history. But I’m not sure fiction is central in society in that way anymore.

MS: If you don’t think you’re reaching and changing people, what compels you to keep writing?

CW: Because I have ideas, and I find writing personally fulfilling. I think about it a lot and take a lot of pleasure in it, so hopefully if nobody liked my books I’d keep writing them.

MS: I personally have a hard time with passion versus career. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter who wants to major in theater. I think, “You’re going to go into $100,000 of debt to be something that would be very hard, and it’s unlikely you’d make a living.” I want her to follow her dream. I’m just curious how to balance that today.

CW: If something makes you happy, then you have to do it.

MS: Despite the debt, the prospect of living in poverty?

CW: If there’s nothing else you can do to make your days on earth fulfilling and worthwhile, you have to do it either way. Think about poets. Few people read poetry in this society. But if that’s your art, that’s your art.

MS: The central question that began The Underground Railroad was, “What if the Underground Railroad was a real train?” Even though it was a literal train, it didn’t function any differently from the historical Underground Railroad. It was still incredibly difficult, it was still dangerous, and it still took runaway slaves to dangerous places. You could’ve done anything. It could’ve been a magical train, or it could’ve taken passengers to another planet. So why did you make the decision to keep it as it was?

CW: It’s called The Underground Railroad, but the railroad is the least interesting thing in the book for me. It’s really about getting Cora from place to place. It’s more of a portal than a vehicle in any sense. I’m trying to get her to a new place where she can expand her ideas of freedom, of who she is, of what the world is. Hopefully Cora is more central than the train.

MS: In The Noble Hustle, you say you are an anhedonian, a person who feels no pleasure, and that made you a better poker player. Does that also make you a better writer?

CW: I’m not sure it makes me a better writer. The character in the book is sort of me, and sort of an exaggeration depending on whether you find jokes about paranoia, neurosis, and anxiety to be funny.

MS: I usually picture writers as people who feel so much, almost too much, but in that book you’re almost saying you’re the opposite.

CW: [Laughs] Well, I think sad people generally feel a lot. That’s why they’re sad.

MS: You’ve written about a lot of different time periods. What’s your process of researching other time periods?

CW: It depends. With the ’80s, with Sag Harbor, I was trying to re-create stuff that was going on in ’85. Music. Movies that were popular in ’85. TV shows. How can we use these pop culture artifacts to talk about this character? With The Underground Railroad, it was getting the language and technology of the time. Did they say “buggy” or “wagon” in 1850? What nouns and adjectives did they use? What slang was popular then? What existed? Did they have gas lamps? Was it whale-oil lamps? Was it electricity? Who had outdoor plumbing? You do research to make it realistic. If you’re writing about slavery, obviously you have to research how it worked, how long it lasted, and what part of Africa slaves came from. What did they farm? I do research until I’m sure I’m ready to get working on the book. That tells me when I’m done.

MS: I’m so impressed with how you change your voice in each novel. You mentioned that you research adjectives and slang. Is there anything else you do when creating a unique voice?

CW: Some of my narrators tell jokes; some don’t. Some have five-clause sentences. Some are very terse. The subject matter determines how you tell the story. If you’re writing a book that is uplifting, it affects the narrator. If you’re writing a novel where everything’s determined by fate and nothing turns out right, that affects the narrator, whether it’s first person or third person. All of those things have to be considered before you start writing.

MS: In an interview with John Freeman, you said you get ideas and think, ‘That would be really good. If I was a better writer, I could pull it off.” How do you become a better writer?

CW: Just write a book, and then hopefully at the end you know more than when you started. Just keep writing. You get better by doing it.

MS: Earlier today you said your age and experience have impacted your work. Specifically, you were talking about how being a parent added another layer to The Underground Railroad. Can you elaborate on how your experiences have contributed to you growing as a writer?

CW: Well, the more you know about the world and about yourself — hopefully you are growing as a person and understanding how things work — this enriches your art. I think the books you read and the music you listen to go into the hopper with your life experiences. The more you interact with the world, the more you can make that into more interesting and credible characters and situations and more fulfilling stories.

MS: Can you talk a little about world-building? The Underground Railroad was set in an alternative history, and Zone One in an apocalyptic landscape. When you’re designing a fictional world, how do you narrow and implement the details?

CW: The details are what make it great. I grew up reading horror and science fiction, and those books always build a world. “On this planet everyone has three legs.” You have to teach the reader what the rules of the world are before you can actually get into the story.

MS: Horror is a great genre for teaching world-building?

CW: Yeah, and science fiction and fantasy. Here are the orcs. Here are the elves. They’ve been at war for generations. But you’re always building a new world, even if it’s a realistic, domestic novel. Here’s so and so; they have a dead-end job and live in a suburban cul-de-sac. This is the background for the story, whether it’s something gritty like “We have to build morale after the apocalypse, so let’s make some T-shirts” or it’s “Every Sunday we go to Wal-Mart and stock up on buy-in-bulk toilet paper.” It’s your job to come up with the details that sell it to the reader.

Maggie Sweeney will earn her MFA in fiction from Butler in May 2018. She’s a four-year reader for Booth.