If you’re going to listen to anyone about the process of writing, Colson Whitehead is a pretty good choice: the MacArthur Genius Grant recipient won back-to-back Pulitzers for his novels The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, making him the only writer to win that prize for consecutive novels in history. (Not that prizes are the goal; but it does speak to his work’s consistent excellence.) In his recent 60 Minutes interview, Whitehead sat down with interviewer John Dickerson to give us a look into his life and process—and also doled out some thoughtful writing advice. Here’s some of the insight he shared:
Good lines will come to you when you least expect it:
[Lines come to me] at the bodega. Always at the bodega.
[When that happens] it’s—it’s phone. So four AM, you know, tapping, my wife’s like, “I can’t see, it’s too bright.”
Write for yourself, because time is short.
[I write] really for me, which sounds very selfish. Should I have written a zombie novel? It made perfect sense to me. I grew up loving horror movies and then horror fiction. Is that something I should be doing as a literary author? I don’t know . . . if it gives me pleasure, if it’s exciting, you know, our time on earth is pretty short. I should be doing what I feel like I should be doing.
Fiction frees you up to clearly convey truth.
The premise [of The Underground Railroad] is this fantastic conveyance will take you around different points in history, these alternative Americas. And so immediately it’s not real 19th century America and I can do what I want. And so sometimes by not coming at things the right way, by coming at them sideways, we see them a different way and they make more sense.
Write responsibly, not fearfully.
The current debate’s over who can write about what, and writing across race and class and gender. And it’s only when you screw it up that people get angry, and I think rightfully so.
[JULIE BARER:] But I hear people ask him sometimes at readings, you know, “Is it hard to write from the point of view as a woman?” And he’s like, “I’m a writer. That’s my job.”
[CW:] Or “I’m a human being.”
You can watch the interview here.