A writer on tour always fields unexpected questions unrelated to the subject of his book. Such behavior comes with the territory.
But novelist Colson Whitehead has noticed a new line of inquiry since the publication of his latest novel, “The Underground Railroad,” his genre-bending National Book Award-winning masterpiece about slavery and survival. This time, the questions are less about the material, more about modern cultural issues. An example: “What do you think about Harriet Tubman being on the $20 bill?”
“I think a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to ask about blackness and black culture,” says Whitehead, who appears at Miami Book Fair in conversation with Leigh Haber of Oprah Magazine on Sunday. “So I get questions that aren’t pertinent particularly. Last night someone said, ‘I’m a teacher, and one of my white students touched the hair of a black student — what do you think about that?’ Well, I think you shouldn’t touch someone’s hair without asking!
“I think this speaks to the divide in this country, the silence, the fundamental way we see each other as other, even if we’re well-meaning and liberal. There’s a fundamental desperation between us.”
“The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday, $26.95), Whitehead’s sixth novel, landed in the middle of this cultural desperation earlier this year, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Chosen for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and nominated for a Kirkus Prize, the book has remained on the New York Times bestseller list, a literary anomaly amid thrillers and romances. This is not to say “The Underground Railroad” isn’t a thriller — Whitehead’s greatest talent may be marrying propulsive action and a sci fi sensibility with an emotionally resonant story. “This book had me up at night, had my heart in my throat, almost afraid to turn the next page,” is how Oprah Winfrey described it.
I have children. Imagining them seeing me beaten and tortured or sold off, or vice versa, the true scale of the horror became more apparent.
Colson Whitehead, author of ‘The Underground Railroad’
The inspiration for the book, which seamlessly blends historical truths and speculative fiction, came from a passing, random thought: What if the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and secret routes that hid and moved slaves fleeing the antebellum South, had been a real, physical railroad?
“It was really sort of a strange notion I had one day about 15 years ago,” Whitehead says from his home in New York City. “But I didn’t have much of a story.”
For years, Whitehead wasn’t sure what to do with the idea. Eventually, though, the story took shape after he finished his last book, “The Noble Hustle,” a nonfiction account of playing in the World Series of Poker (he’s also the author of “The Colossus of New York,” a virtuostic love song to a city).
Ready to shed the wisecracking voice of “The Noble Hustle” (for awhile, anyway), Whitehead turned back to the idea that would become “The Underground Railroad” and came up with Cora, a courageous young slave who flees a Georgia plantation after trying to protect a boy from his master’s beating.
“You see whips, and you never stand up, because you know your punishment will be worse,” Whitehead says. “But she makes that impossible step into humanity.”
The rest of the novel follows Cora in her Odyssey-like travels north to what she hopes will be safety (Whitehead likens her flight to the journey in “Gulliver’s Travels”). At each step along the way, from South Carolina to North Carolina, then onward to Tennessee and Indiana, she is pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, facing at each step new and terrible hardships and violence in an America that’s all too recognizable even in this dark fictional form.
“Colson’s always been this brilliant writer, the way he weaves the fantastical and the historical and the political and the personal together — who else could write any of his books?” says Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “They all feel so unique. This book for me felt like his writing was so in control. He had full command of every gift he’s been given, and he’s been able to take all his wit and passion and inventiveness and to use them to the greatest possible effect.”
For Whitehead, a former MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner who’s also the author of five other novels including the coming of age story “Sag Harbor,” the zombie thriller “Zone One” and Pulitzer Prize finalist “John Henry Days” believes the delay in writing improved the book.
“In terms of understanding the real tragedy and devastation of slavery, being in my mid-40s as opposed to 30 helped,” Whitehead says. “I have children. Imagining them seeing me beaten and tortured or sold off, or vice versa, the true scale of the horror became more apparent. I could’ve written this at 30, but it would have been a much shallower book, maybe even postmodern.”
Cora’s flight and resilience are deeply moving to readers, but her plight also affected Whitehead. Reading slave narratives collected by the U.S. government in the 1930s by the Works Progress Association proved difficult but not as wrenching as the realizations that came when he started to write.
“About a month before I started writing I realized with Cora, there was so much likelihood that she’d be sexually assaulted, that depicting physical punishments and rendering that and making it vivid was depressing,” he says.
What Whitehead can’t ignore — and what we shouldn’t ignore — are the similarities to our contemporary world.
“Perception is so separate from conception and execution,” he says. “The stuff I took for granted when I was writing is the language former slaves used to describe slave patrols. It’s the same language we use for being stopped and frisked. ... This conversation, we keep having it and having it. I was counseled about how to deal with the police growing up in the ’80s. I knew about Michael Griffith, killed in a police chokehold, and Eleanor Bumpurs, who was killed while being subdued by police. Then later, there was Rodney King. I feel all these considerations arising and subsiding, and we forget till the next moment when we talk about them again.
“I was contemplating that I’m descended from people who went through this, who perished under these conditions. I realized it’s a miracle anyone made it out. Staring into the heart of slavery with a full adult reckoning is hard. ... I’m downloading other people’s accounts of their lives in my house, and I’m quite comfortable, at such a remove. But slavery reverberates through society now. The disconnect between what has and hasn’t changed is disappointing.”
Meet the author
Who: Colson Whitehead in conversation with Leigh Haber of Oprah Magazine
When: 4 p.m. Nov. 20
Where: Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave.
Info: Free with street fair admission, but you need tickets; there will be a standby line
Street fair: $8 for adults; $5 for 13-18 and over 62; 12 and under free