Author Colson Whitehead on 'The Underground Railroad'

The Book Review


Colson. Whitehead's new novel. The underground railroad is already making a mark as a work of fiction that combines history and metaphor telling a story about slavery in America in new and surprising ways whitehead is the author of many books including zone one and Sag harbor and he's also received a macarthur genius grant and many other awards Colson. Thanks so much for being here. Shurmur pleasure so this is not your first novel. Obviously but how many novels have you written? And the last one was about poker this is my sixth and I have to nonfiction and last nonfiction was about Playing the world series of poker and having to bone up on a game and and trained for a couple of weeks and crash course in order to play at the annual big game that was the no Hustle Noble Hustle. Yeah so how did you get from the Noble Hustle to the underground railroad? I'm always sick. Like whatever style is working in on the book and the last book was first person a lot of jokes. I saw it as a humor book. That's tried to cram as many weird jokes in as I could With the underground railroad. Well it's fiction. Try to have humor in my books but obviously you can't really have as many jokes for page in a book that slavery so that so that was good. My last couple of novels had a ton of black dudes walking around thinking about things and it seemed Have a female protagonist and mix it up and never explored a mother daughter relationship before so it seemed good for me to break out of sort of a mode. I'd been did part of the idea of this scary you to brighten the voice of a woman example multiple her. I mean I think That's your job. I mean. It's Nice if people say oh you got a female characters voice and I just think well. That's what you signed up on when you pick the book and said as female character like if you have a plumber and Drain you go. Wow you were the UNCLOG that drain. That's why you call them and That's why he did it. So it was hard to tackle slavery and get into the Research and really contemplate and immerse myself in the horror. Hadn't only people walk around thinking about slavery in a deep way all the time and Obviously exposed to route. I was very young and studied it in college but I had immersed myself in slave narratives and a very long time and now that I'm older you know affects me more than it did when I was a teenager in my early twenty s and so I'm realizing how much the true ours was not to submit my protagonist in her companions to Dante and terrifying. It also seems that I mean we're roughly the same age that depictions of slavery obviously there was roots and there was a beloved but in the last decade or so have almost reexamined it and in a way that's a lot more fearless and visceral and that you're kind of fits in well with that Well I think You know taking liberties with historical record. I mean I'm playing with time. Once Cora gets deep into her journey but that first section mergers George. I want to be as realistic as you know. I can make it. Which means a lot of brutality? And it means impressing upon the reader the psychological tortures that they were forced to endure so for those who have not yet read the buck. Let's just talk a little bit about the the story line We start off as you mentioned in Georgia with Cora. Court is Sixteen or seventeen year old girl Owners didn't keep track of their slaves. Birthdays she has no idea how old she has. Her family has gone. Her mother has run off years before. And she's a an orphan astray on the plantation. A man named Caesar sold down South From the north he has contacts underground railroad so they light out to the north availed themselves of his contacts. And that's when the book changes I guess I had this idea that you know. What if the railroad was an actual literal railroad would apprentice not so much of a full story? Was that the first like one of the first things that you came upon when you were yes about. Sixteen years ago I was thinking. Oh isn't funny like when you're a kid and I hear about anything other little subway and that was like one little well actually on twitter. I'll search for the entire book and it'll be teenagers in school. Like Oh missy stupid. She thinks of underground wherever and as always like a couple of those a day. So I think it's a common Fantasy the notion and then I was thinking mcdan- to a story like what if every state Georgia South Carolina North Carolina. She goes through is a different state of American possibility. And so I was thinking about how each different character and the first place she ends up is South Carolina which is seemingly benevolent paternalistic place. Where a lot of programs for black social uplift jobs programs housing North Carolina is a white supremacist state. Where black people were outlawed and not allowed to step over the state line and so I was trying to sort of tweak American history to expose various tensions and I mean did you sort of create certain rules for yourself like well. This is going to be this part of me. Maintain kind of historical accuracy and integrity. And I will place these sort of discreet. What could have been or what might have been or what was then and not there within Georgia where we meet on the plantation going to be very realistic and traditional depiction of plantation life. And then the first gets the WHEEL ROAD. She looks up and sees a skyscraper and that's As a writer that's why I'm GonNa let it rip and have fun and go crazy and and the beaters notions and it's a you know. Obviously a big signs of the reader that we're not I think you know. I thought the Book Sixteen years ago and initially in for many years each state took place in a very different time frame and so South Carolina would have been like in this very stylized future place with with gene experiments and enslaves bread for different roles. And it would have been an fantastic. Gestures would have been much more broad and a sort of cloud atlas type style and so you're in a different world and the North Carolina chapter was going to some sort of fifty suburbia Myst- sort of Eisenhower Era America. That was the default for many years of the Voice of the book and a structure and then has to be read and as mentioned in the review. Glad to see it a hundred years of solitude which I read when I was in high school and had been an impact on me and I read it a few months before I started writing this book and it just seemed what if I just toned it down and didn't have to have these broad gestures ever sort of my default setting. There's a section in the book where she's a living exhibit in a museum and she acts out scenes from a plantation and a slave ship behind glass for the museum's patrons and I feel like five years ago would have been a ten page. Like huge like setpiece announced like two pages. It's interesting because I think just in the paper today. There was a photo from one of these museums. Where you know wasn't the Museum of Living Wonders but place where they reenact an earlier incarnation of America and you know and there were two African American people dressed up in costume. The first world's fairs you know often had an jungle natives and garb Dancing around to fit some some some sort of idea of darkest Africa Their various African pygmies were you know paraded For the delectation of American audiences you know once I decided not to make a historical novel and play with Time. Allowed to bring in things like that. Which occurred in eighteen fifty but were part of America in the late nineteenth century and the various things about eugenics and the Holocaust which I bring in. That's novel eighteen fifty but they ranked true and so I think another rule of besides concision was stick to the truth and not the facts and so There seem to be a truth in that museum. Section and where core funders in North Carolina that. I wanted to be loyal to even if it didn't actually

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