Write the Book That Scares You Shitless: An Interview with Colson Whitehead
John Freeman in Conversation With This Year's National Book Award Winner
The following conversation took place at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival.
I would like to say on his behalf that Colson Whitehead that he is overjoyed to be here, even if he does not show it. “I have a good poker face,” Whitehead wrote in Noble Hustle, his book about gambling and Las Vegas, “because I am half dead inside.” “I was a skinny guy, but I was morbidly obese with doom.”
We know him in NYC as Mr. Sunshine, and, to a small, small cadres, Cuddles, but no writer across all of America has had more fun with serious things in the last twenty years as Colson Whitehead. If Ishmael Reed & Thomas Pynchon collaborated to put together an absurdist theater group, they might call it Colson Whitehead. It would have been established in 1969, in Manhattan, nurtured at Harvard, and workshopped at the Village Voice, where Colson Whitehead was for a few years a TV critic.
He once said he liked that job because he could work four hours a week. It was in the other thirty that he began his first book, The Intuitionist, a parody of a detective story about a woman named Lila Mae in the Department of Elevator Inspectors who has stumbled on a moment of intrigue. That novel was a brilliant evocation of the notion of racial uplift in a city much like New York, just slightly different.
Across the rest of his career, Whitehead has been the dour-faced poet laureate of the city which is his home. In his hands, a midtown tunnel is “like a throat,” and the city a place with “skyline rows of broken teeth.” In his first book of nonfiction, Colossus of New York, he paid tribute to Gotham and all its shambolic sensory muchness, from garbage trucks to garbage time dancing at night clubs. “Beware the lumbering man-child at 10 o’clock,” he wrote in one chapter, “they tend to wave their arms when they dance.”
He brought the city destruction in Zone One, his zombie novel about, well, people who like brains, and the emptying out of the city due to gentrification and economic collapse. “New York City in life was much like New York City in death,” he wrote. “It was still hard to get a cab, for example.”
And he paid the city’s summering community a hat-tip of hard-won nostalgia in Sag Harbor, his coming of age novel about the three months from June to September on Long Island: “The I-Remember-Whensters lumbered in with their musty catalogues of the bygone, dragging IVs of distilled nostalgia behind them on creaky wheels.”
He is a skeptic, an anti-hustler, a poker-of-fun at sacred cows—his response when John Updike labeled him a young black writer to watch in the New Yorker, “I hear John Updike is an older white writer on the up and up.” He is also the hipster’s anti-hipster. “Google ‘Brooklyn writer,’” he once said, “and you’ll get, Did you mean: the future of literature as we know it?”
Against this thread of novels and Whitehead’s constant flicker of silliness, there has been a seam which investigates and upends concepts of race and racial justice. It began with The Intuitionist and continued with John Henry Days, an epic montage of stories and anecdotes about the steel driving man set around a John Henry festival—which actually happens—in Talcott, West Virginia.
It followed with Apex Hides the Hurt, nominally a book on the band aid industry, but really a book on racial coding as well. “Colored, Negro, Afro-American, African American. … Every couple of years someone came up with something that got us an inch closer to the truth. Bit by bit we crept along. As if that thing we believed to be approaching actually existed.”
And now we get very close to the truth indeed with his magnificent sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, a historical tale about what happened and what might have happened in the life of a young teenager named Cora who runs away from her plantation in Georgia. She hops from state to state, from North Carolina to Indiana and elsewhere, always trying to outrun a bounty hunter who is begging for Mel Gibson to be cast as him.
The book has been a runaway bestseller in the U.S., reaching #1 on the New York Times list, and receiving rave reviews, including a selection from Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club 2.0. The winner of a MacArthur Genius grant, he has won a slew of awards and been a finalist for the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle, the PEN/Faulkner, the PEN/Hemingway and now—for The Underground Railroad—he has just won the National Book Award.
Ladies and gentlemen, Colson Whitehead.
JF: Alright, let’s jump right in. You have said before that this book has been germinating for a long time. How long, exactly, has it been inside you, and why did you wait?
CW: Thanks for the lovely introduction, John. That was very sweet of you. And thanks to all you nice people for coming out. I usually spend Friday nights at home brooding over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace. I was finishing John Henry Days, spring of 2000, and came across a reference to the Underground Railroad and thought back to when I first heard about it in fourth grade. The words are so evocative, I envisioned a literal subway underneath the earth that the slaves would take, and then my teacher told me how it actually worked. It does seem like that would be a cool premise for a novel, not much of a story there, so I added the sort of complicating element that each state our protagonist goes through—at that point, it was a he—South Carolina, North Carolina, is a different state of American possibility, with a different, sort of alternative way that we could have been. It seemed like a very good idea, but I knew that if I tried to write it back then, I would have messed it up, just in terms of not being mature enough for the subject matter.
I always have these ideas, and I think, “That would be really good; if I was a better writer, I could pull it off.” And then I try to become a better writer to do it justice. Whenever I finished a book, I would come back to the idea and my one page of notes, and think, am I ready? And the answer was always no, so I’d write another book, and I kept going on for a while, until about two and a half years ago. I had sold a book to my editor and had plotted it all out. It seemed like a really good idea, but the Underground Railroad idea was nagging at me, so I decided to tell my wife about it. In marriage sometimes you have to make conversation, kill the silences. And so my wife said, “I don’t want to say that your idea about a Brooklyn writer going through a midlife crisis is dumb, per se, but this book about the Underground Railroad sounds really good.” So that was one vote. And then my agent—who John knows quite well because he lives with her—
JF: She’s not aware of that fact.
CW: This is like being with family up here today, so it’s very nice. Nicole worked there for 18 years. I had one agent before her, and that person tried to sell my first book and it didn’t go anywhere, so she dumped me, and Nicole lifted me from the garbage—much like you, I assume. And my life has been much better. So I told her about this Underground Railroad idea. She’s always supportive so she said, “Both ideas sound good,” which was very helpful, but then two days later, she emailed me on a Sunday and said, “I can’t stop thinking about it.” So I was like, huh. And then Wednesday is shrink day, so I told my shrink about it, and she said, “What are you, crazy? I mean, we know you’re crazy, but this sounds really up your alley with all your issues and stuff.” So I went to my editor, who I’ve also worked with for 18 years, and I told him the idea, and he just said, “Giddyup, motherfucker,” which is publishing for, “I think that’s a very good idea and we should pursue it.” I put it off for so many years that it seemed like a scary idea—the one that scares you shitless is the one you should do, and not the book you know you should do, and so I started researching.
JF: You once said Lila Mae in The Intuitionist was a man first as well, and you described the reason that you changed her into a woman was because it scared you. And I wonder why you changed this narrator into a woman.
CW: Sure. I guess I’m always just not trying to repeat myself too much. Whenever I write something, I’m really sick of that form. So a first person book means that the next book might have a third person narrator, my last book about poker had a lot of jokes and this book has no jokes. I’m keeping things refreshed for me. In terms of this book, I’d had three male narrators in a row, so I had to mix it up. One of the first slave narratives I’d read in college was Harriet Jacobs—Harriet Jacobs is a woman who ran away from her master and hid in an attic for seven years, supposedly, before she could get passage out of North Carolina. She says early on in that book that when she hits puberty, that’s the start of the worst time for a slave girl, because now you’re sexual prey for your master, overseers, other slaves, and you’re supposed to produce babies—more babies means more hands to pick more cotton, more cotton means more money—and you’re supposed to produce people who can be money-making machines for their master. The distinct terrors of a female slave seemed worth exploring in fiction, and going back to that first inspiration from Harriet Jacobs, it seemed why not have a female protagonist?
JF: Your style has developed over the years a recognizable sound—it’s kind of tentacular, and it’s quicksilver-like, has beautiful, many clauses, like Don DeLillo, but a little bit hipper. This is very different. It’s so far different it took me a moment to find the narrative intelligence that reminds me of you in it. So I imagine you had to either put yourself on a restrictive style diet. What rules did you set for yourself, or how did you come to this sound, which is so dramatically different from your other books?
CW: My last book had a bunch of jokes, and so, I knew going into this book that it was not going to be funny, and I would have to lose that satiric distance that I relied upon a lot. So that was one thing I couldn’t use. I had had books with a lot of digressions; Sag Harbor has a three-page section on TV dinners and being a latchkey kid and lots about pop culture. My last book about poker—I tried to find a voice that could accommodate one-liners and non-sequiturs so it’s very uncontrolled. As an antidote to that, I wanted to be very controlled. I wanted to keep it simple and direct in a way that I’m sometimes not. Going back to Apex [Hides the Hurt], which not many people like but has its adherents, and I certainly like it. There’s a really clean, direct sentence in there that I was really proud of, and it is very linear, so that was an inspiration for the voice in this book. I think when I write about contemporary life I do try to capture the hyperkinetic spirit of the times, and so I have longer sentences that are kind of complicated, and more direct address seemed to fit the material here. Usually, I do a lot of outlining, and I have the beginning and the end, and I do a lot of structural stuff before I start, and the voice comes in around page 80 or page 100, and then I have to go back and retrofit all the earlier pages to come up with a new dominant voice. But with this book, the voice came really quickly. There’s a six-page prologue with Cora’s grandmother Ajarry, and the voice in there seemed to really work, and that became the voice of the book really quickly, earlier than usual.
JF: We start with Cora, she doesn’t have many memories of her family, and those are the strings that attach her to the past. Soon within the book, she goes on the run—she escapes and goes into the Underground Railroad. And as each section of the book goes forward, you move her through a series of possible American pasts that are related to but different from North Carolina or Georgia or Indiana at that time. But in between each of them there’s wanted posters for runaway slaves that I thought I had seen before, and I realized that one of your friends, the poet Kevin Young who you went to college with, wrote a brilliant book called The Grey Album, which is kind of a unified field theory for African American literature and culture. But in that, he has the concept of the lost book, the book that didn’t get written because it couldn’t be written. And that book is dedicated to you. And I wondered if you could talk about that concept in relation to the book that you’re writing, and if that book was the nudge to you to go and write this book.
CW: That book by Kevin is so complicated—it’s a deep survey of black popular culture coming from a lot of different angles. There’s a few things: One is that in Kevin Young’s first book Most Way Home, he has a poem that’s in the voice of a runaway slave ad, and that was probably the first time I ever saw one. He’s very artsy-craftsy and made a poster blowup of it. I had this runaway slave ad over my desk for many years. While I wanted Underground Railroad to be very linear, there are two elements that are a little bit of PoMo jujitsu. One is the biographical sections, which break up the state sections. Different people interact with American history in a way that Cora can’t, and they become a way of accessing a larger story. I think I first saw that in Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy. He would have Woodrow Wilson for three pages in this stream of consciousness kind of way, breaking up the main narrative. And the other thing is these runaway slave ads.
The University of North Carolina has digitized a lot of the classifieds from the early 1800s. As a fiction writer, I like being a ventriloquist and trying to find people’s voices and trying to copy how people talk, occasionally. But the language of the ads was so perfect I just stuck them in there—they’re under public domain. There’s no way I could compete with the way they captured so much about slavery. They’ll go, “Bessie, 17, mulatto, has a mark on her face from a burn, ran away for no reason, has a downcast expression.” And of course, it’s only 8 lines, but you go, “Gee, why’d she have a downcast expression, why’d she run away, how’d she get that burn?” So I wanted to put them in, and there are four of them. There’s a fifth one that I wrote for Cora—who, of course, is a runaway—and it seemed important to me towards the end of the book to have a blessing for her. I felt bad for all the things that had happened to her and I wanted to not be a writer and be a person and write Cora’s runaway slave ad—it’s a hard thing to explain, but I wanted to give something to her as a human being and not a creator. And so the slave ads become important in terms of pacing and setting up that final one for Cora.
JF: They also operate in tandem with the narrative, because one of the arcs of the book is that she begins as property and ends as a human being, of sorts. And that’s a tremendous evolution that you put her through because, as we get to know her as a character, we’re constantly reminded through these ads that she’s also constantly and only viewed from the outside as property. “Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.” And I wonder if you can just talk about writing a character who, unlike any of your other characters, is an object, or a machine, to everyone else but herself.
CW: That’s the slave state. You’re an object, you’re not a human being. Going through oral accounts of former slaves, you come across the most atrocious things, obviously. Slavery is terrible. But there’s all sorts of weird facts that come up, and you sit there sort of stunned. One person was just like, “You know, I was sold down to another plantation, and for the first time wore clothes.” This person didn’t wear clothes until she was six, was just walking around like an animal, and that’s how her masters viewed her. I have to dramatize the movement from object to personhood, from lack of agency to agency, and that means supporting casts that can test her, whether they are heroes or villains, it means the various different states that she goes through that allow opportunities for her to, say, learn how to read. That’s a very important moment in most slave narratives, when the person learns secretly on the plantation how to read or gets freed and learns his or her letters, and then a whole new world opens up. How do you narrate that new self, that new awakening, from episode to episode? How can I come up with different ways of getting this uneducated person who has never seen a book before into a place to where she’s a reader and interpreting history and becoming an actor in history, an actor in her own life? Part of the Gulliver’s Travels thing—I’m not a big Jonathan Swift fan, but it seems like a convenient way of talking about it—each state sort of reboots the book every 60 pages and provides a different stage or arena for Cora to become a person, and hopefully they’re all working in concert to bring her into personhood.
JF: You have this beautiful quote when she picks up a book for the first time: “The almanac had a strange, soapy smell and made a cracking noise like fire as she turned the pages. She’d never been the first person to open a book.” So against moments of beauty and grace, if you will, there are also moments of true terror, because she’s being pursued the whole time. There’s possibility constantly rubbing up against fear, and I wonder if you can read a bit from the book, so you can help us feel that?
CW: The slave catcher Ridgeway gets an introductory chapter after Cora runs away. I’ve written books that have no plot and books that have a stronger plot, and built into a slave narrative is those life or death stakes, so there is that notion of suspense built into the story. I definitely wanted to work on the drama of the escape, which I think is entirely appropriate, and also have a villain who can stand up to Cora, who I think is a strong character. So this is Arnold Ridgeway:
Arnold Ridgeway’s father was a blacksmith. The sunset glow of molten iron bewitched him, the way the color emerged in the stock slow and then fast, overtaking it like an emotion, the sudden pliability and restless writhing of the thing as it waited for purpose. His forge was a window into the primitive energies of the world.
He had a saloon partner named Tom Bird, a half-breed who took a sentimental turn when lubricated by whiskey. On nights when Tom Bird felt separate from his life’s design, he shared stories of the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit lived in all things—the earth, the sky, the animals and forests—flowing through and connecting them in a divine thread. Although Ridgeway’s father scorned religious talk, Tom Bird’s testimony on the Great Spirit reminded him of how he felt about iron. He bent to no god save the glowing iron he tended in his forge. He’d read about the great volcanoes, the lost city of Pompeii destroyed by fire that poured out of mountains from deep below. Liquid fire was the very blood of the earth. It was his mission to upset, mash, and draw out the metal into the useful things that made society operate: nails, horseshoes, plows, knives, guns. Chains. Working the spirit, he called it.
When permitted, young Ridgeway stood in the corner while his father worked Pennsylvania iron. Melting, hammering, dancing around his anvil. Sweat dripping down his face, covered in soot foot to crown, blacker than an African devil. “You got to work that spirit, boy.” One day he would find his spirit, his father told him.
It was encouragement. Ridgeway hoisted it as a lonesome burden. There was no model for the type of man he wanted to become. He couldn’t turn to the anvil because there was no way to surpass his father’s talent. In town he scrutinized the faces of men in the same way that his father searched for impurities in metal. Everywhere men busied themselves in frivolous and worthless occupations. The farmer waited on rain like an imbecile, the shopkeeper arranged row after row of necessary but dull merchandise. Craftsmen and artisans created items that were brittle rumors compared with his father’s iron facts. Even the wealthiest men, influencing the far-off London exchanges and local commerce alike, provided no inspiration. He acknowledged their place in the system, erecting their big houses on a foundation of numbers, but he didn’t respect them. If you weren’t a little dirty at the end of the day, you weren’t much of a man.
Every morning, the sounds of his father pounding metal were the footsteps of a destiny that never drew closer.
Ridgeway was fourteen when he took up with the patrollers. He was a hulking fourteen, six and a half feet tall, burly and resolute. His body gave no indication of the confusion within. He beat his fellows when he spied his weaknesses in them. Ridgeway was young for patrol but the business was changing. King Cotton crowded the countryside with slaves. The revolts in the West Indies and disquieting incidents closer to home worried the local planters. What clear-thinking white man wouldn’t be worried, slaver or otherwise. The patrols increased in size, as did their mandate. A boy might find a place.
The head patroller in the county was the fiercest specimen Ridgeway had ever laid eyes on. Chandler was a brawler and bully, the local terror decent people crossed the street to avoid even when the rain made it a stew of mud. He spent more days in jail than the runaways he brought in, snoring in a cell next to the miscreant he had stopped hours earlier. An imperfect model, but close to the shape Ridgeway sought. Inside the rules, enforcing them, but also outside. It helped that his father hated Chandler, still smarting from a row years before. Ridgeway loved his father, but the man’s constant talk of spirits reminded him of his own lack of purpose.
Patrol was not difficult work. They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes. They stopped niggers they knew to be free, for their amusement but also to remind the Africans of the forces arrayed against them, whether they were owned by a white man or not. Made the rounds of the slave villages in search of anything amiss, a smile or a book. They flogged the wayward niggers before bringing them to the jail, or directly to their owner if they were in the mood and it was not too close to quitting time.
News of a runaway sent them into cheerful activity. They raided the plantations after their quarry, interrogating a host of quivering darkies. Freemen knew what was coming and hid their valuables and moaned when the white men smashed their furniture and glass. Praying that they confined their damage to objects. There were perquisites, apart from the thrill of shaming a man in front of his family or roughing up an unseasoned buck who squinted at you the wrong way. The old Mutter farm had the comeliest colored wenches—Mr. Mutter had a taste—and the excitement of the hunt put a young patroller in a lusty mood. According to some, the backwoods stills of the old men on the Stone plantation produced the best corn whiskey in the county. A roust allowed Chandler to replenish his jars.
Ridgeway commanded his appetites in those days, withdrawing before his confederates’ more egregious displays. The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America. He liked the night work best, when they lay in wait for a buck who sneaked through the woods to visit his wife on a plantation up the road, or a squirrel hunter looking to supplement his daily meal of slop. Other patrollers carried guns and eagerly cut down any rascal dumb enough to flee, but Ridgeway copied Chandler. Nature had equipped him with weapons enough. Ridgeway ran them down as if they were rabbits and then his fists subdued them. Beat them for being out, beat them for running, even though the chase was the only remedy for his restlessness. Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.
When his father finished his workday, the fruit of his labor lay before him: a musket, a rake, a wagon spring. Ridgeway faced the man or woman he had captured. One made tools, the other retrieved them. His father teased him about the spirit. What kind of a calling was running down niggers who barely have the wits of a dog?
Ridgeway was eighteen now, a man. “We’re both of us working for Mr. Eli Whitney,” he said. It was true; his father had just hired two apprentices and contracted work out to smaller smiths. The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them. The crop birthed communities, requiring nails and braces for houses, the tools to build the houses, roads to connect them, and more iron to keep it all running. Let his father keep his disdain and his spirit, too. The two men were parts of the same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny.
An absconded slave might fetch as little as two dollars if the owner was a skinflint or the nigger was busted, and as much as a hundred dollars, double that if captured out of state. Ridgeway became a proper slave catcher after his first trip to New Jersey, when he went up to retrieve the property of a local planter. Betsy made it all the way from the Virginia tobacco fields to Trenton. She hid with cousins until a friend of her owner recognized her at the market. Her master offered the local boys twenty dollars for delivery plus all reasonable expenses.
He’d never traveled so far before. The farther north he got, the more famished his notions. How big the country was! Each town more lunatic and complicated than the last. The hurly-burly of Washington, D.C., made him dizzy. He vomited when he turned a corner and saw the construction site of the Capitol, emptying his guts from either a bad oyster or the hugeness of the thing stirring rebellion in his very being. He sought out the cheapest taverns and turned the stories of the men over in his mind as he scratched at lice. Even the shortest ferry ride delivered him to a new island nation, garish and imposing.
At the Trenton jail the deputy treated him like a man of standing. This was not scourging some colored boy in the twilight or breaking up a slave festival for amusement. This was man’s work. In a grove outside Richmond, Betsy made a lewd proposition in exchange for freedom, pulling up her dress with slender fingers. She was slim in the hips, with a wide mouth and gray eyes. He made no promises. It was the first time he lay with a woman. She spat at him when he fastened her chains, and once again when they reached her owner’s mansion. The master and his sons laughed as he wiped his face, but the twenty dollars went to new boots and a brocade coat like he’d seen some worthies wear in D.C. He wore the boots for many years. His belly outgrew the coat sooner than that.
New York was the start of a wild time. Ridgeway worked retrieval, heading north when constables sent word they’d captured a runaway from Virginia or North Carolina. New York became a frequent destination, and after exploring new aspects of his character, Ridgeway picked up stakes. The fugitive trade back home was straightforward. Knocking heads. Up north, the gargantuan metropolis, the liberty movement, and the ingenuity of the colored community all converged to portray the true scale of the hunt.
He was a quick study. It was more like remembering than learning. Sympathizers and mercenary captains smuggled fugitives into the city ports. In turn, stevedores and dockhands and clerks furnished him with information and he scooped up the rascals on the threshold of deliverance. Freemen informed on their African brothers and sisters, comparing the descriptions of runaways in the gazettes with the furtive creatures slinking around the colored churches, saloons, and meeting houses. Barry is a stout well made fellow five feet six or seven, high small eyes and an impudent look. Hasty is far advanced in her pregnancy and is presumed to have been conveyed away by some person, as she could not undergo the fatigue of traveling. Barry crumpled with a whimper. Hasty and her pup howled all the way to Charlotte.
Soon he owned three fine coats. Ridgeway fell in with a circle of slave catchers, gorillas stuffed into black suits with ridiculous derbies. He had to prove he was not a bumpkin, but just once. Together they shadowed runaways for days, hiding outside places of work until opportunity announced itself, breaking into their negro hovels at night to kidnap them. After years away from the plantation, after taking a wife and starting a family, they had convinced themselves they were free. As if owners forgot about property. Their delusions made them easy prey. He snubbed the blackbirders, the Five Points gangs who hog-tied freemen and dragged them south for auction. That was low behavior, patroller behavior. He was a slave catcher now.
New York City was a factory of antislavery sentiment. The courts had to sign off before Ridgeway was permitted to take his charges south. Abolitionist lawyers erected barricades of paperwork, every week a new stratagem. New York was a Free State, they argued, and any colored person became magically free once they stepped over the border. They exploited understandable discrepancies between the bulletins and the individual in the courtroom—was there proof that this Benjamin Jones was the Benjamin Jones in question? Most planters couldn’t tell one slave from another, even after taking them to bed. No wonder they lost track of their property. It became a game, prying niggers from jail before the lawyers unveiled their latest gambit. High-minded idiocy pitted against the power of coin. For a gratuity, the city recorder tipped him to freshly jailed fugitives and hurriedly signed them over for release. They’d be halfway through New Jersey before the abolitionists had even gotten out of bed.
Ridgeway bypassed the courthouse when needed, but not often. It was a bother to be stopped on the road in a Free State when the lost property turned out to have a silver tongue. Get them off the plantation and they learned to read, it was a disease.
While Ridgeway waited at the docks for smugglers, the magnificent ships from Europe dropped anchor and discharged their passengers. Everything they owned in sacks, half starving. Hapless as niggers, by any measure. But they’d be called to their proper places, as he had been. His whole world growing up in the south was a ripple of this first arrival. This dirty white flood with nowhere to go but out. South. West. The same laws governed garbage and people. The gutters of the city overflowed with offal and refuse—but the mess found its place in time.
Ridgeway watched them stagger down the gangplanks, rheumy and bewildered, overcome by the city. The possibilities lay before these pilgrims like a banquet, and they’d been so hungry their whole lives. They’d never seen the likes of this, but they’d leave their mark on this new land, as surely as those famous souls at Jamestown, making it theirs through unstoppable racial logic. If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.
Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavor—if you can keep it, it is yours. Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.
Ridgeway gathered renown with his facility for ensuring that property remained property. When a runaway took off down an alley, he knew where the man was headed. The direction and aim. His trick: Don’t speculate where the slave is headed next. Concentrate instead on the idea that he is running away from you. Not from a cruel master, or the vast agency of bondage, but you specifically. It worked again and again, his own iron fact, in alleys and pine barrens and swamps. He finally left his father behind, and the burden of that man’s philosophy. Ridgeway was not working the spirit. He was not the smith, rendering order. Not the hammer. Not the anvil. He was the heat.
JF: In John Henry Days and The Intuitionist and this book, I feel like you’ve assembled a machinery of how race is indelibly connected to the machinery of capitalism. And as you were reading, I remembered how all these books have elements of iron and machinery, and you almost sense the gears turning. On the other hand, as Cora is running away, she gets into the Underground Railroad, and there’s this first moment where she sees it, and she goes, “It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables—this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.” And I wonder if in telling Cora’s story you’re almost making an antidote to that machinery that you’ve described in these books—the machinery of the struggle that is a very human machinery? In some ways, it’s not winning; it’s pushing against it.
CW: Everyone is trapped on the machine in different ways, and I think that’s definitely a metaphor in John Henry Days. And then there are people who escape, and those are the people on the Underground Railroad like Cora, and to have someone escape is a betrayal of the order. That’s definitely how Ridgeway sees it. If you allow too many people to escape, their slave society breaks down. Slaves rebel in different ways, whether it’s spitting in the master’s soup or actually running away. The book is about that really grand, heroic gesture of escaping a system and it’s an act of true bravery and something that undermines the whole idea of what society is based on.
JF: You started this book in 2014, we’re now in 2016, it takes a year to make a book—that means you wrote the book very quickly, and I know from camping out in your agent’s house that this is how you work, which if you’ve read any books by Colson Whitehead, it is absolutely mind-boggling that you can write this well this quickly. I wonder if you can take us, very briefly, inside the lab? How does that happen? You obviously outline, but then, what happens next?
CW: I outline, I have to know the beginning and the end and the middle can be fuzzy. I think my nerdy way of thinking about it is, it’s hard enough to find the right words each day; if you don’t even know what’s going to happen, it seems twice as hard. Each day I wake up and it’s like, describe Ridgeway’s father and the blacksmith shop, and that’s two pages, and that’s a good day’s work. Describe Ridgeway when he comes to New York, and that’s another unit. Sometimes you only get through one page of that, or sometimes you do a couple of things. But I have a task.
And in terms of writing every day, I try to do eight pages a week. That seems to be a pace for a good week now. I have kids who I have to pick up from school, so sometimes I’ll have a day that isn’t very productive. If I have a doctor’s appointment at one, I’m like, “Ugh, why get started?” I’m such a prima donna. It takes a long time to write novels and if you’re accumulating, it adds up. I measure my life in how long before this next horrible thing I have to do is over? And a novel is one of them. Eight pages closer to it being over. Sometimes I get up, and if I’m not really feeling it, I’ll revise. I’ve never really understood the whole draft thing because I revise as I go along. So if I write 5 pages and I’m stuck, I’ll revise pages 1 and 2. Then I’ll write pages 6 and 7; revise 4 and 5. I’m always going forward and back. I revise on the computer, on print-outs, and now even on a tablet. It’s a good way to proofread; I see different things on the tablet as opposed to the computer screen and the paper. And then I take a year and a half off, and I’m teaching, or doing book promotion, or whatever—just brooding unhappily.
JF: So you’re writing one-fourth of the time out of a two-year period?
CW: This book was very fast. I started in January of 2015; I taught for four months and wrote nothing, and then I wrote everything else from May to November. It was the fastest thing I’d ever written. I was just in it. I didn’t have anything else to do. I taught four classes in the Spring, and that paid for me to not work in the Fall and finish it. So even though I’m not at the Village Voice, I’m still in this freelancer head of like, If I write one article, I can get two pages of writing done. Now it’s, If I teach a few classes, I can get three months writing.
JF: Right. So, in some ways, this book is not that dissimilar from Zone One, the novel that preceded it, which was a zombie novel. And you grew up in New York in the 1970s and 80s, which was kind of a zombie apocalypse period in the city. You were also a huge fan of slasher flicks and horror movies; did you actually want to be a sort of pulp writer at some point?
CW: I was reading Marvel Comics in 6th grade. That was like late 70s, early 80s, Chris Claremont, Marv Wolfman, Amazing Spider-Man, and all those sort of classic X-Men runs that are now movies were coming out in real time. I think a lot of people my age, like Junot Díaz, or Jonathan Lethem, wanted to write comics, or draw them, or be in them. Be the X-Men. I thought writing comics would be good.
My family read a lot of commercial fiction. We always had the latest Stephen King. My mother would read it first, and then my sister, and then I would get it, starting in fifth grade. The first big book I read was Night Shift by Stephen King, you know, a huge book of short stories. And so for many years I just wanted to write horror fiction. I was a latchkey kid. My brother and I would go to the video store every Friday and rent five VHS movies like The Driller Killer, Last House on the Left, Invasion of the Crab Men. And then we’d just watch these terrible horror movies, and it seemed like the fun thing to do. To make monster stories.
JF: What was New York like in that period?
CW: I think as a 13-year-old I was kept on the sort of safe path. When I first started exploring the city, I was 15 and 16 and going down to the East Village, going down to CBGB and Irving Plaza to see bands. That always seemed like this Dante-esque trip, going down on the subway. Looking back, we would just walk from the West Village to the East Village, and it would get darker and darker and dirtier and dirtier. I swear for like a year on the corner of Bleecker and Bond there was this pile of tires in the middle of the street. It was just there. Cars had to go around it; why was no one moving these tires, I don’t get it! And people would just sell stuff on the street. There would be like a lamp, a dildo, some porn mags, and a mouse trap. Some guys would be trying to sell these four things on a towel! That was all over the East Village; it was crazy. Growing up with this apocalyptic New York made writing about an apocalyptic New York quite easy because that was my first impression of the city.
JF: We talked yesterday in a session about hope. There’s this great quote in Zone One: “Hope, he told himself, hope is a gateway drug. Don’t do it.” I was about to ask you where this came from, and then I read this New York Times piece about your desk where you write that someone committed suicide in the apartment above you when you were growing up, and they were still hosing him off the sidewalk when your dad said, “I wonder if his place is available.” So I guess I gather that your family was not exactly a hope machine.
CW: [Laughs] No, it was not a hope machine. My brother and I would watch these horror movies. On Thanksgiving and Christmas we would have a turkey dinner, and then be like, Okay, let’s put on David Cronenberg’s They Came from Within. And we’d have a family sitdown in front of early David Cronenberg movies. And actually, I hadn’t seen it in about 30 years, and when I saw it—They Came from Within is about an STD that turns people into zombies—at the end, there’s this huge apartment complex and everyone’s infected and walking around. I had forgotten it, but that’s basically an image from Zone One: these people in a big city infected, and the whole city’s taken over with maybe one survivor, and where is that survivor in this zombie landscape?
JF: It seems that with this novel you found such a perfect expression of that kind of hopelessness, to some degree. At one point, you write, “Cora didn’t know what optimistic meant. She asked the other girls that night if they were familiar with the word. None of them had heard it before. She decided that it meant ‘trying.’” As I read that, I thought, this sounds a lot like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s notion of the struggle—replacing “progress” with “the struggle.” I wonder if you had read that book yet, and if not, if this idea of the struggle, in his definition, is a line you can draw from early America to today?
CW: Yeah, I read it about this time last year, so towards the end of the book. I’m sort of blanking on his definition of the struggle—I mean, I think linking Zone One to Underground Railroad, both the novels are animated by people who, despite everything being stacked against them—the apocalypse and the vast machinery of slavery—believe somehow that there is a place of safety and work to make it happen. I think we’re still working on it now in our country. If you think about the rhetoric of Trump supporters at these rallies saying, “Keep out the Mexicans, keep out the Muslims, kill the bitch, hang the bitch,” the racist energies that I’m describing in The Underground Railroad are still very much a part of our life. The part I read about the slave patrollers of Ridgeway—being stopped and frisked and having to have your ID at any moment is still very much a part of my existence. I never know when an interaction with a policeman can run away—can go awry. You can be the President of the United States and Donald Trump will still demand your papers. Where’s your birth certificate? That’s this ridiculous expression of, you’re not supposed to be here; justify yourself for else we’re gonna drag you out, in that case, of the White House.
JF: When Obama was elected in 2008, when everyone was writing pieces about how this was going to be a period of post-racial American life, you wrote a really funny piece in the New York Times making a very prescient point. You wrote, “Yesterday morning, I woke up to a new world. America had elected a skinny black guy president. I never thought I’d see the day. What were the chances that someone who looked like me would come to lead the most powerful nation on Earth? Slim.” And so you’re writing about the fact that this is the first skinny black guy president. You had a lot of fun writing this piece and poking fun at this rhetoric of post-racial America, but as you just described, it feels like we’re in a post-humor moment, to some degree, with Trump. Is that frustrating all for you? Because humor, consistently, is one of your most useful and, at least probably, enjoyable weapons at pushing back against the world.
CW: I think it was sort of nice not having a lot of jokes. Working on something for a long time that didn’t’ have a lot of jokes in it. I think working in different registers is important, just for me as a writer, so that I’m pushing myself. But then also, jokes can be a prop and a way of distancing yourself from material and the world. So, for me, it was good to write a book where I couldn’t just rely on one of my favorite props and tools as a human being, as a way of making fun of systems I find oppressive.
JF: One final question. You once in an interview said, “I don’t find history very reliable. There’s a white history and there’s a black history.” I wonder if you still feel that way after writing this book, because so much of the story is obviously Cora’s story, and the story that descendants of people like Cora have inherited, but in some ways, everyone else in the book is also implicated, including the descendants of Ridgeway, and the descendants of plantation owners, and the descendants of people that had taverns in New York that maybe tipped off people like Ridgeway. Would you change that comment? It’s a 13-year-old comment so I’m sorry to spring it on you now.
CW: In the end, I wouldn’t change it. I would add that, you know, hopefully the book allows access for different people to think about history in different ways. I don’t have an audience in mind; I’m really just trying to solve a problem for myself with these books. And I hope that their paragraphs, and their pacing, and their language is such that other people can come along for the ride and my ideas make sense. But in terms of this particular subject—slavery and race in America—yes, we are all implicated in it. And I think the structure of the book allows for a different conversation about history. The North Carolina section, for example, was inspired by Harriet Jacobs, who spent seven years in an attic waiting for passage out of North Carolina. When you think hiding in an attic from an oppressive regime, you think Anne Frank; how can I talk about black oppression in 1850, and open up white supremacy in 1850, to have it also talk about white supremacy in Nazi Germany? And now we’re not just talking about slavery, we’re talking about all kinds of demonization of the Other in different times—how it’s all the same, where we overlap as people. There are evil white characters in the book, there are white heroes in the book, black villains, black heroes. I think, if your family was around in America at the time of slavery, it’s hard, as a white person, to contemplate that your great-great-great-great-great grandfather raped, tortured, abused people—to support himself and his family, and then he passed it onto his kids, and that’s how you made a living. If you’re an African American and happily middle class, third generation college, and you’ve “made it” by all the markers of American success, how do you contemplate the sheer brutality, the meat-grinder, that your ancestors went through? They’re nameless; you don’t know whether they died in Florida or Georgia. What they went through. Obviously some bit of them survived because you’re here, but there’s a black hole in your history. If you think about what they went through, would you have had the courage of runaway slaves, to take that step off, or would you have stayed on the plantation and rebelled in other ways, or have been beaten down? It’s hard—it’s just hard. Slavery is hard, whether you’re African American or white, to contemplate. I think if this book can, because of the way I juggle history and put different episodes in juxtaposition with each other, allow people to have a different kind of reckoning or a different way of thinking about our shared history, I think that’s good.