Q & A with Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad starts with a realistic depiction of slavery and goes on to feature literal underground railroads and many other ahistorical elements. What was your intent in constructing this type of blended narrative, as opposed to straight-ahead historical fiction?
The book began with the question: "What if the Underground Railroad were an actual underground railroad... and every state it traveled through a different state of American possibility?" So from its conception, it wasn't going to stick to the facts. You pick the right narrative tool for the job you want to do, and straight realism wasn't going to cut it--the "facts" couldn't accommodate the "truths" I wanted to tell.
You make direct reference to Gulliver's Travels: "The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home." Except for the fact that Cora has no home, that seems to accurately describe Cora's journey from state to state--each posing its unique difficulties--over the course of the book. Did you deliberately pattern The Underground Railroad after Gulliver's Travels? If so, why?
I didn't start with Swift in mind, but it seemed if my character was going on a journey through different states/lands, the association that came to mind was, "Oh, you mean like Gulliver's Travels, Colson?" Is it also the structure of The Odysseyand Pilgrim's Progress? Maybe so. The structure of most adventure stories, a series of escapades? Most of the things Swift critiques and satirizes in his book are over my head--the religious and political scandals of Britain in the 18th century--but it was useful to keep Gulliver in my head when I was conceptualizing the book. Safe to say, there are fewer jokes in The Underground Railroad, and you're right that Cora has no home to return to between states.
There are ways that Cora's plucky but faltering escape from bondage can be seen as a metaphor for the African-American experience in the United States, post-emancipation. Cora notes: "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Many Americans today don't seem to understand that the African-American struggle didn't end with emancipation. Did you intend your book as a kind of corrective?
I'm not incredibly interested in what people do or don't know about history and I'm not out to educate anyone. But American history certainly is good material for a novelist, so lucky me.
For all its many trying passages, The Underground Railroad has moments of genuine hope. In books such as The Noble Hustle, you have hardly presented yourself as an optimistic individual. As a self-proclaimed anhedonic, did you ever have to make a conscious effort to avoid the nihilism and despair that often come hand in hand with meditating on terrible crimes?
If you didn't have hope you'd die--I think that ties Zone One and The Underground Railroad together. Even if it's an unrealistic hope. How to persevere in the face of disaster? As for keeping distance from the material... the deeper I got in the research, and the more I realized what I'd have to put the characters through if I wanted to be faithful to history, the more depressed I got. It was tough to write.
You write: "Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's head that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world." Am I wrong in thinking that lines such as these as well as well as certain aspects of Cora's personality are autobiographical?
I don't see myself much in Cora. I like poetry, but no, I'm not much of a churchgoer, that is true. If I had to name my most autobiographical book, it'd be The Colossus of New York, strange as it sounds. Without the filter of a character or a narrative, there's a bunch of me all over that book.
Did the choice of subject matter or protagonist require a major stylistic shift on your part? Would you agree that The Underground Railroad has simpler, more accessible prose as opposed to the dense, abstract language that characterized books such as The Intuitionist? If so, what is the purpose of that change?
Again, you pick the right tool for the matter at hand. The narrator of The Intuitionist is not the same as the narrator of Sag Harbor, and neither of them is the narrator of The Underground Railroad. The voice in the book came to me more quickly than it usually does when I start a book, and seemed to fit what I was up to. Since I do change genres and subject matter a lot, finding the right voice for each new project is part of the territory.
Your book foregrounds Cora but also features a few chapters from the perspectives of other characters, including the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway. How did you go about getting into the head of a man who, among other crimes, captures runaway slaves for fun and profit?
It's my job. If you're lucky, you're animating all your characters, big and small, so that they live and breathe in a realistic fashion. You take what you know about yourself, other people, the world, and use it make your characters real on the page. And you also make stuff up and invent plausible psychologies and hope it comes together.
The Underground Railroad examines a number of deeply held ideologies regarding the American Experiment, often in conflict with each other. Do you continue to find anything inspiring about the promise of America, if you ever did?
The American idea is certainly a fine one, even if we've botched its execution. I suppose things get better by degrees. Like, I'm not property. I have two kids, so I have to believe the world will start improving at a quicker pace.
Could you speak about the character of Homer, the odd black boy who drives Ridgeway's coach and serves him loyally? He is portrayed almost as demonic--does he represent anything in particular in your mind?
Homer's gonna Homer!'
When you've written a book about race, let alone several, you must know that in interviews, author events, etc., you'll be continually asked about one of the most difficult questions in American life. Do you ever wish you could simply say what you needed to say in your novel and have that be the end of it? Touching the third rail of American discourse again and again must be exhausting.
Well, there are only so many ways to phrase an answer, so that gets exhausting, but events are always a nice way to end the day. I'm lucky to have any readers at all, let alone ones that stick with me from book to book, so when people take the time out of their busy lives to come and see you, it's really fortifying.
You have such a heterogeneous body of work--any idea what's next?
I think it's going to take place in New York City in the 1960s--and that's all I can say! Trying different kinds of stories, with their different narrative strategies and problems to solve keeps the work interesting. Figuring out what makes this genre tick, compared to another type of story--it's scary but fun.
-Q&A courtesy of Shelf Awareness
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE, THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD, THE ALA ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL AND THE HURSTON/WRIGHT AWARD ** NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, WALL STREET JOURNAL, WASHINGTON POST, TIME, PEOPLE, NPR AND MORE ** #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Get it, then get another copy for someone you know because you are definitely going to want to talk about it once you read that heart-stopping last page.”
Oprah Winfrey (Oprah's Book Club 2016 Selection)
“[A] potent, almost hallucinatory novel... It possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, with echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and brush strokes borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Jonathan Swift…He has told a story essential to our understanding of the American past and the American present.”
Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Think Toni Morrison (Beloved), Alex Haley (Roots); think 12 Years a Slave…An electrifying novel…a great adventure tale, teeming with memorable characters…Tense, graphic, uplifting and informed, this is a story to share and remember.”
People, (Book of the Week)
"With this novel, Colson Whitehead proves that he belongs on any short list of America's greatest authorshis talent and range are beyond impressive and impossible to ignore. The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece, as much a searing document of a cruel history as a uniquely brilliant work of fiction."
Michael Schaub, NPR
“Far and away the most anticipated literary novel of the year, The Underground Railroad marks a new triumph for Whitehead…[A] book that resonates with deep emotional timbre. The Underground Railroad reanimates the slave narrative, disrupts our settled sense of the past and stretches the ligaments of history right into our own era...The canon of essential novels about America's peculiar institution just grew by one.”
Ron Charles, Washington Post
What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a "dilapidated box car" along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks? For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with "real life," both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves' destiny reveal themselves. So it's back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they've not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that "freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller's deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass' grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft's rococo fantasies…and that's when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is. Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.