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Colson Whitehead gives us a glimpse inside the brilliant mind that has tackled books on elevators, zombies and racism. Photo: Simone Padovani /Awakening/ Getty Images
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Colson Whitehead on The Nickel Boys, Zombies and Star Wars
The author talks about his writing process, how being Black shaped his life and being a “weirdo” / BY Kim Honey / July 24th, 2020
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead is a self-described “weirdo” who thought his 1999 debut novel The Intuitionist would appeal to Black teenagers who picked it up and thought, “This guy’s a freak.” But when the author gave his first reading from the speculative fiction book about elevator inspectors, there were no teens in the audience, Black or white. So he decided never to write for anyone but himself.
“I gained people with Sag Harbor, a realistic novel about growing up in the ’80s. I lose people with zombie novels,” the author said during a July 15 talk for a Hot Docs Cinema virtual event, referring to 2011’s Zone One. “The Underground Railroad — probably a new audience. So I’m used to disappointing people and people leaving from book to book. And so I don’t think about them.”
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
He’s now researching two new book ideas, a science fiction novel set in the Star Wars universe, and his first romance novel, set on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Since it has a lot of white people in it, he’s been researching how white women act and think by binge watching — wait for it — The Golden Girls.
“I’m going through them, taking notes on Blanche and the bunch and getting some good stuff,” he said with a straight face.
As for Star Wars, he knows Disney might have something to say if he steals too much of the franchise’s intellectual material, but he thinks there is “room for my vision.” Besides, he has so many questions. For example, why — in a world where they can make a weapon the size of a moon called the Death Star and swords from lasers and move through hyper space in the blink of an eye — does R2D2 have no voice box? Even CP30 has one.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. He’s the smartest character in all the movies, and they can’t even hook him up. It’s not a technical issue. They have the technology.”
Words to Live By
Twenty years ago, when he sat down to write The Intuitionists, he was comforted by the idea that if the story rang true for even one person, it might appeal to dozens or more. “If I can find the right combination of words and get them down on the page, thousands and thousands of people can see something the same way I do. And this calmed my nerves when I was sitting down to write.”
It’s safe to say his words have resonated with millions, since The Underground Railroad became an instant bestseller when Oprah chose it for her book club the day it was published in 2016. Then it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and ascended the bestseller lists all over again.
His latest novel, The Nickel Boys, which came out in paperback June 30, also won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, and Whitehead, a Harvard-educated lifelong New Yorker, was just awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction for his original and masterful body of work.
“It’s like a lifetime achievement award,” joked the 50-year-old. “I hope I have a few years left. Well, sometimes when you write a novel, it seems like a lifetime. So I’m not going to quibble with it.”
Here, in his owns words, is the author in discussion with BuzzFeed news curation editor and CBC columnist Elamin Abdelmahmoud on writing, race and The Nickel Boys. The Q&A has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Evolution of a Writer
Q: Can you talk about how your writing has evolved over your career?
A: When I started, I was influenced by people like Thomas Pynchon and Ralph Ellison, who would do large takes on society but also zoom in on characters. I mean, you can do that in a couple of books. I like Raymond Carver and Invisible Man and lots of different kinds of writing. So what I like about switching from genre to genre is that I’m not doing the same thing all the time, and it keeps it fresh for me. It’s a challenge. With The Underground Railroad, I wrote the section where Cora’s working at the museum and it was two pages long. I knew that old Colson would have been like, who was the curator? What was his philosophy? Where did he go to school? How do they engineer these underground tunnels and stuff like that? And the new Colson — Colson circa 2015 — really just wanted to talk about Cora and not so much make it into a systems novel and full of po-mo jujitsu.
Q: You mentioned Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain in your talk. Do you have to take on that history if you’re a Black person in America in 2020?
A: Well, yes, it defines your life. I grew up in New York in the early ’80s, and my dad made it very clear that I’m a target when I leave the house, and any encounter with white law enforcement can escalate to a lethal degree. Every couple of years, we’d have a conversation about police brutality (after) a high-profile incident is caught on video — (like) Rodney King — and then we stop talking about it. And then it happens again and we get outraged, then we stop talking about it. So it’s a feature of Black life in America and other places as well. And I think the reason Dozier hit me the way it did in 2014 was just feeling so powerless. How can you ignore what’s on video? You know, it happens again and again. And so the staff at Dozier got off, the guy who killed Michael Brown got off, the guys who killed Eric Garner. And the one thing I can really do is just write my story about it and grapple with it in the course of making a novel.
The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys is a fictionalized account of what life was like for Black students at a horrific state reform school in Marianna, Fla., the Dozier School for Boys, which was shut down in 2011 after 111 years of “educating” boys as young as five. When the property was excavated, archeologists found 31 unmarked graves and another hidden gravesite with another 55 bodies. For some, their only crime was running away from abusive homes or being orphaned.
The book tells the story of two Black teenagers sent to the Nickel Academy in 1963: Elwood, a goody two-shoes and eternal optimist who believes every word Martin Luther King, Jr. says will come true, and his polar opposite, Turner, a pessimist who thinks the only way to survive in their brutal world is to expect nothing and constantly invent ways to lessen the inevitable blows.
Q: Part of the reason The Nickel Boys blew me away is that I really connected with and held on to Elwood’s earnestness. When can you see Elwood in you most clearly?
A: When I think about what kind of world my kids will inherit. Last month I was talking about how white law enforcement usually gets off the hook when they kill a Black civilian, but the protests in America and around the world were so large and so varied, they were so widespread and they’re still going on that it’s hard to believe that we’ll go back to the same thing, the status quo. I think there’s a lot of evidence to foster the view that human beings are pretty terrible and that we’ll never get our act together. Even if we do, say, topple right-wing fascists in America and other countries, there’s still global warming and climate change to fight. So those glimmers of Elwood have definitely lately been shattered down by Turner’s more evidence-based approach to life.
Q: You chose to situate this novel at a very specific moment, which is 1963. What went into choosing that?
A: It’s the height of the civil rights movement. I mentioned Elwood’s affinity for Dr. King and he’s seen progress in his life and in Tallahassee, Fla., where he was raised. There’ve been boycotts and sit-ins that actually changed laws in Tallahassee. So he’s energized. But it’s also the height of Jim Crow — that constellation of big laws like segregation and smaller laws like bumptious contact — if a white person is walking towards you on the street, you have to get out of the way and if you don’t, you can be fined or put in jail. So Black life is constrained in these really big ways, which add up to a scene of degradation. After Elwood’s picked up, we get the Voting Rights Act in ‘65, and things change. But the moment when the book opens, these two forces are really grappling with each other.
Q: Elwood gets this encyclopedia, and he is so excited and he just wants to consume the knowledge of the world. Can you talk a little bit about what happens and why it just sucks so much it breaks your heart?
A: His grandmother works in this hotel, and he’s sort of like a mascot among the kitchen staff. So they let him win a set of encyclopedias, which a guest has left behind. He’s very excited. He’s a good kid, a goodie-goodie, a good student. He gets home, and the pages are blank, so there’s been a misprint, and that’s sort of the world confronting him. The whole world, everything it has to offer, is denied him because of his race and where he was born. There are all sorts of lofty speeches about democracy in the encyclopedia and the pages are blank. So it’s an early disappointment, and it’s sort of establishing his world and what’s stacked against him. I felt very sad writing that section. It’s the first time he suffers a setback, and it’s just a small thing but such a big thing. I knew that was pretty small compared to what else I was gonna put it in.
Q: What was it with the Dozier school story that grabbed you so much?
A: I hadn’t heard about it and, again, if there’s one place like that, how many other places (are there)? It was a summer of outrage, and so it made it sort of more indelible. It was three years between learning about Dozier and starting to write. In between I was taking notes about the plot and figuring it out. So if you think about it in your off-time, it’s an argument in its favour. With The Underground Railroad, I had the idea in the year 2000 but then didn’t start writing it until the end of 2014.
Q: With The Underground Railroad, you incorporate these elements of fantastic realism to access history. But this book is pretty grounded in the history. Did you do any interviews in the process of writing The Nickel Boys?
A: The conversation I wanted to have about American history I couldn’t do in a realistic book, you know mixing and matching different episodes, and so it required a fantastic structure. With The Nickel Boys, I knew it’d be very intimate. I knew it’d be short from the get-go. I knew it would be realistic. And so that’s one of the things I think about when I’m organizing it and outlining: who’s the right narrator, is it first person, third person, a very simple diction, very elevated — sort of like post-modern narrator? And then for research, there’s a lot of journalism. It was covered in Florida papers, not so much nationally. So that meant there was 10 years of reports about the closing of the school and then the excavation of the bodies.
Q: What do you think it is about humans that see a horrific thing and handle it with this mild form of incrementalism in the face of such horrors?
A: It’s that, as a society, we’re not taking care of poor kids. We’re not taking care of poor kids of colour. So not a lot of people care, people in positions of power. There’s no profit for the administrator who’s down in the state capitol to close a school. Scandal. He gets sued. So look the other way, promise investigation and wait for it to blow over. In terms of the families of the kids, what are they going to do? Sue? You know, this is what happens to poor kids, what happens to the Black kids in the South and you have no recourse. That’s the system. And it takes a lot of people looking the other way. So we’re pretty good at that. And we’re pretty good at being complicit when we look away.
Q: In your depiction of physical violence in your books, you’re very succinct and matter of fact. How do you approach writing about the physical trauma your characters endure?
A: With The Nickel Boys, I don’t show things. Early on, Elwood gets beaten. It has to be in there ’cause that’s the reality, but I’m not trying to exploit the situation. In that scene, if you notice, it’s all sort of off page. It’s about the sound of the kid before getting beaten. It’s anticipation. It’s fear. What’s going through his head. And after that scene, I get it out of the way, and Elwood and Turner sort of meet properly, and that’s the start of the book. So it has to be in there, but I really want to get to Elwood and Turner because that’s the heart of the book.
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