Colson Whitehead had to wait to write 'Underground Railroad'

2017-11-12 | Chicago Tribune

Nov. 12--Colson Whitehead first had the idea for "The Underground Railroad," his novel about slavery that melds magic realism with the brutal realities of that institution, decades ago.

And while he says he was "self-satisfied" as a young man, he also knew enough to know that he shouldn't try writing it then, as his second novel. "I was 30. I was not a good enough writer to pull it off," he told some 900 people Saturday who came to hear him talk and see him accept the Chicago Tribune Heartland Literary Prize for fiction for the 2016 novel.

In the intervening years -- he is 48 now -- the New York writer has published other novels, including "John Henry Days" and "Sag Harbor," honed his craft and, most essentially, he suggested, developed the empathy and the maturity to do the story of "The Underground Railroad" justice.

"Pretty snazzy," he said, upon seeing the prize medal, one that joins the National Book Award for Fiction and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the collection of accolades for the novel. Oprah Winfrey tabbed it for her book club, and "Moonlighting" director Barry Jenkins will write and direct an adaptation, a TV series for Amazon.

In conversation with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich at the Art Institute of Chicago's Rubloff Auditorium as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival's Fallfest, Whitehead made the hour zip by with reflections, alternately searching and self-deprecating, on his craft, particularly writing in the voice of a teenage girl; on exploring slavery in more detail than he ever had; and on having a book be so widely read and widely well-received.

A key difference, he said, is that he is in general happier. "Before this, in '88 I was in a good mood for two weeks," he joked.

In a lightning round of questions from Schmich, he sang the praises of cumin as an aid to his cooking. He gave religion a possibly grudging nod ("it seems to get people through the day, like baseball, things like that, and yoga"). And he noted that his long-standing poker group, with fellow writers, has changed over time: "Now all we do is talk about our work and our allergies and our sciatica."

But the centerpiece of the event was the book. "The Underground Railroad" tells the story of Cora, a girl Whitehead said he imagines as 16 or 17, and her life in slavery on a Georgia plantation and her escape from it. The means of escape, in a touch of the fantastical that is characteristic of the novelist's work, is no mere metaphor but an actual functioning subterranean rail line.

"This book has traveled in a way my other books haven't traveled," Whitehead said. "I've been surprised how other countries are grafting their own histories onto the book."

To write "Underground Railroad," he said, he was happy to delve into the interviews with surviving slaves done by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s because sitting at home reading fits his MO.

"I don't really go anywhere. I don't like leaving the house," he explained. He acknowledged the near-capacity crowd in front of him: "People leave their houses on Saturdays? That's sort of news to me."

Reading the stories of surviving slaves, he said, he was "soaking up facts and nouns and verbs. Did they say 'wagon' or 'buggy' in the 1850s? That's interesting."

But, yes, eventually "I felt compelled to go into the field like a real writer," he said. "I took some plantation tours in Louisiana." He mentioned the Whitney Plantation, a museum there focused on slavery, as being especially helpful. The writing of Harriet Jacobs, the 19th century ex-slave and abolitionist, was a key inspiration, too, he said.

It was the first novel of his that does not try to be funny, and Whitehead knew he was onto something when he showed the opening 100 or so pages to those closest to him. " 'It's very good,' " he said they told him. " 'It's sort of good-er than your other books.' "

There is brutality in the book, even between the slaves, because that is how he imagined it must be to live in a system of captivity, rape and other violence, to live with what the modern viewer would recognize as PTSD.

In other words, Whitehead said dryly, "The book is not 'Gone with the Wind,' where the white lady is self-actualized against the backdrop of the Civil War."

With the success has come some downsides, including being asked to speak for his people. "I'm not getting the telegram every day from Black Central to pontificate on stuff," he said. If an interviewer wants to know what's next for Black Lives Matter, he said he tells them, " 'Maybe you should ask Black Lives Matter.' "

But putting himself into the heads of his characters is another matter. He was not daunted by taking on a teen girl, Whitehead said, because imagination and empathy are the writer's job. Also, he said, he had used a few male narrators in a row, and "in the back of my head, there's a voice saying, 'Don't do the same (stuff) all the time.' "

But when asked if he would do a book in the voice of a white man, he demurred. "Upper-middle-class white people who feel a little sad sometimes?" he said. "I think there's a lot of competition."

Whitehead is an unabashed science-fiction, pop-culture and comic-book fan, so it is fitting that the interview ended on a quote from the accidental classic film "Plan 9 from Outer Space." The conversation turned frequently to the continuing racism in the United States and the steps backward Whitehead said he feels the country has been taking.

But does he still have belief in the future, Schmich asked.

Whitehead answered back with the quote: "A lot of people are fascinated by the future because that's where we're all going to live one day."

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

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