he Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, made a stop at the University of Idaho for Black History Month. While here, he sat down with a few lucky students and faculty—studying or teaching English, History, Screenwriting, and Narrative Theory—to discuss his recent book, and his current life and times.
The author was incredibly generous—he gave three talks in one day, including a keynote address to a packed audience—as well as fiercely intelligent, and full of candor. The chat I got to sit in on was informal and intimate, so to respect the space we’ve opted not for a full transcription of the Q&A, but a brief summary and some words from Mr. Whitehead, to outline the meanderings and contours of the conversation.
Many thanks went around the room for his time, and we’d like to offer them here again.
What everyone wants to know: what’s it like to be wildly successful? According to Mr. Whitehead, it’s much the same as the rest of a writer’s career: only “the stakes are higher.” Where he used to trade freelancing work for cigarettes and an apartment rent, he now balances his year by teaching, giving talks and tours, to support a family and a mortgage. “I’m always buying time to write,” he said.
What else has changed? Mr. Whitehead maintained that he’s carried many of his childhood interests in stories and storytelling, over to his current career. “My storytellers came from the TV,” he said, mentioning The Twilight Zone along with comic books. As well, he was, and still is, fascinated by science fiction. He credits rules he learned from this and the fantasy genre for helping him build the world of The Underground Railroad. He outlined (no spoilers), what happened on pages one, two, and three. For something outside of an audience’s experiences, he said, “You have to describe the rules of the world. It felt like I had to describe the rules of the world of slavery,” and he laid out a pattern for it in the first three pages of text.
Though the rules he used changed, from place to place—he likened the stops of his protagonist, a runaway slave named Cora, to Gulliver’s Travels—he talked about finding a balance between the historical and fictional, or, as he likes to say, “fantastical.” I asked about the “slipstream” feel of the book, a blurring of reality with just enough un-reality, that social structures are thrown into sharp effect. Reading it, I was constantly reminded of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. He nodded at this effort at description, but waved his hand at the need for defining. “I just write something, I don’t think about what it is,” he said. “That’s something other people say, after.”
Still, I wanted to know, how did he decide on world-building, what to keep and what to alter? While he made the figurative Underground Railroad into a literal, subterranean train line, and changed states’ governments to reflect various “final solutions to the ‘slave problem’,” as well as bringing in some technology that would be found in a different century—was there anymore he’d thought about changing? Anything that he tried that didn’t work? Mr. Whitehead assented to this, saying he’d thought about having even more extreme worlds reflected in each state. Ultimately, he said, “I had been on the ‘Fantasy Scale’ at 11, and I took it back to ‘Magic Realism’ set on 1.”
While he doesn’t like to define his book, he does credit Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s use of magical realism with imbuing his own - what he calls “mixing the fake and the real, doing it with a straight face.”
What’s he reading now, we wanted to know? What’s he watch, to take a break?
Elena Ferrante, N. K. Jemisin, Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. He referenced Star Wars, and Netflix’s Peaky Blinders.
It turns out, Mr. Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad could find itself in on-screen conversation with these—Barry Jenkins, director of the 2016 Oscar’s Best Picture Award-winner Moonlight, will direct an eight episode miniseries for Amazon. We asked if the author had any casting suggestions for this, and, saying he did not have enough familiarity, he did bend at one possibility. “My only say, I would love to get Peaky Blinders actor Cillian Murphy for the role of the antagonist, Ridgeway. He has a great face for it.”
We agree, and, sensing our time is up, come back for the last time from fantasy, to reality. I ask if he has any advice for beginning writers, who have a big, moving project inside them. Mr. Whitehead had talked about having the idea for The Underground Railroad for twelve years, but struggling with feeling ready. The next book he’s working on, as well, is something he said he felt moved to do.
“Do the thing that’s hard,” he said. “The hard thing is worth doing. Not doing the same thing that you already know how to do.”
This book charts new territory, using art to ask questions of humanity, outside of a strictly historical framework of slavery. Questions he finds posed to him a lot, of the timing of the book—published under the Obama administration, promoted under that of Trump—are about his political goals for the work. He said, “People ask if this is related to Black Lives Matter, and the answer is no. I find as a country we’ll have conversations for a while about police brutality, and then we’ll stop having them. But when you’re talking about racism then, you’re also talking about racism now.” Mr. Whitehead said he’s glad this book is engaging discussions, but how it can be useful, is ultimately up to the reader.
The man’s work and dedication is awe-inspiring, especially as he seems to hold the honor so well. I think back to something he said earlier, what seemed an aside but maybe was more of a seed. “I write when I can, one or two pages a day is a good day,” he reflected. “That’s eight pages a week. Eight pages a week over a year, that’s a book.”
Mr. Whitehead talked about extensive research he did for this book, using primary sources, stories written by slaves, interviews of former slaves done by government-paid writers. Technical research on gravedigging and genetic modification. Even with all that, it’s comforting to know, The Underground Railroad was written one page at a time.
(For more on Colson Whitehead, visit colsonwhitehead.com.)