The Carnegie Interview: Colson Whitehead

When Booklist reviewed Colson Whitehead’s historical novel, The Underground Railroad, back in June, we designated it as a major work. Ever since, we’ve been cheering along its rise: as Oprah selected it for her book club, as Whitehead received the National Book Award, as the New York Times named it one of “The 10 Best Books of 2016,” and as the audience for The Underground Railroad grows ever wider. We were delighted when this in-demand author made time to speak with us toward the end of his extensive book tour.

DONNA SEAMAN: I want to begin with the novel’s literal underground railroad, which has actual tunnels, tracks, trains, and stations. This imaginative approach reminded me of the elevators in your first novel, The Intuitionist, and, in John Henry Days, the contest between man and machine. I wonder if these earlier riffs on humans and technology inspired aspects of this novel?

COLSON WHITEHEAD: With those two books, I started from a weird question or premise—what if an elevator inspector had to solve a criminal case? Or: What if we updated this industrial-age anxiety myth of John Henry for the information age?

In my early books, I started with what-if stories, then with Sag Harbor, I started thinking about character and situation more. The what-if-ness aspect of The Underground Railroad goes back to the earlier books, but it weds an oddball premise with a really strong foundation in characters. I think it marries two different strands of my work.

And I do skip over how this underground railroad actually works. I’m not so interested in explaining it; it’s really more like a doorway allowing Cora to get from state to state and episode to episode.

I was struck by how very tactile everything is in your novel, so tangible, so intimate. How did you achieve that?

I think by just doing the research, especially reading the voices of former slaves in the slave narratives or oral histories collected by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. By sticking true to how people described their own experiences being brutalized under the slave system, especially the matter-of-factness found in many of these accounts, I had a voice for the narrator in my novel that is rooted in the details, the brutal particulars.

Was Cora, your protagonist, an amalgam of the voices you were reading?

I think she comes from trying to figure out the personality of someone who makes that imaginative step off the plantation. Out of all the millions, there was only a fraction of people able to conceive of running because, obviously, the stakes were so high and the punishment was so great if you were captured. What kind of person conceives of running away like that?

What about Caesar? He’s also a very compelling character, and he offers a different view of the situation.

Caesar is someone who knows how to read, who grew up in the North and is transported to the southern system. He’s another representative of plantation life. Other characters—Sam, who helps Cora in South Carolina, versus Martin in North Carolina—represent different kinds of people who are reluctant or enthusiastic supporters of the railroad.

The way I see it, this book is being rebooted every 60 pages as we get to each new state along the railroad, which allowed me to have a really big cast. . . This approach made it possible for me to have a much bigger path than a more realistic novel would allow. It gave me a way to explore different perspectives on free men, a different way to look at white abolitionists and slave masters. The structure allowed me to have a lot of different voices in the book.

As fantastic as many elements of the novel are, it is also a very traditional odyssey, albeit with the added twist of having your hero emerge from the underground in one surprising place after another.

The structure is definitely old. The protagonist is on a journey through different episodes that have allegorical flourishes, and she’s being tested at one after another as she tries to find that final port of home, a safe place of refuge. It allowed me to take her to a lot of different places.

For me, each new section was very exciting to get to because I’m allowed to have these different schemes and arenas for Cora to battle against and be tested. Whenever she popped out of the underground, I was very excited to create a new land for 60 pages before I changed it again.

It really gives readers a vivid sense of the vastness and complexity of the divided nation. It’s interesting, too, that Cora reflects on the very idea of freedom; she says freedom is a thing that shifted as you looked at it. That perception underlines what she finds in each place, especially when appearances are deceiving. At one point, she ends up as part of an exhibit in the Museum of Living History. There really were such displays at world fairs and exhibitions, where Native Americans and Africans enacted scenes. Was this a source of inspiration?

Oh yeah. World’s fairs, exhibitions, carnivals—P. T. Barnum would display African Americans in jungle garb and have them portray African stereotypes. There’s a lot of stuff that seems absurd when you first encounter it in the book, but it’s all rooted in something that actually happened. The Museum of Living History episode is not very embroidered. What Cora goes through in that section is far tamer than the disgusting extremes of actual world’s fairs and carnivals.

We were talking about how your earlier books can be seen as stepping stones to The Underground Railroad. What about Zone One, your zombie novel?

The way I see it, one of the backbones of post-apocalypse literature is the search for a safe refuge, whether in post-nuclear war fiction or zombie novels. People are always looking for that human refuge over the next hill. Then they find a place and it’s overrun, and they have to keep going. They’re animated by a very improbable hope that they can be safe. I think that is what animates Mark Spitz in Zone One and a lot of heroes in post-apocalypse literature. I think that impossible hope also animates Cora. Why should she believe that there is any place of freedom when all she’s witnessed her whole life is the brutality of the plantation? Yet she persists.

Cora describes America as her “warden,” which suggests that everyone in the country, North or South, free or enslaved, was imprisoned in some way by slavery.

There’s a moment when Ridgeway, a runaway slave-catcher, is talking to his father, the blacksmith, whose business takes off as the cotton industry booms because he’s making the chains and the nails and the wheel rims that keep the system going. Meanwhile, Ridgeway is keeping the slaves in order and capturing them and bringing them back to the masters, upholding the system that way. Anyone who’s financially implicated in slavery is enslaved by it.

We talked earlier about Cesar, who, unlike most enslaved people, was able to learn to read. It there a connection between literacy and freedom?

Becoming literate is a big part of the early slave narratives. It was actually against the law for slaves to read. Slaves were beaten if they were caught, and the owners were beaten, too. Once they got off the plantation and were free from the constraints of slavery, they could read, so that moment of liberation is very important to a lot of slaves—and, of course, people in general.

Reading is still an important aspect of staying free, as is access to libraries.

Yes, absolutely. It’s been delightful to find that out. Because I play with history, because I combine fact and faction, the true and the fake, readers have done research on their own to try to figure out how the novel works and how it’s constructed, learning, along the way, more about these brief excursions I make into American history.

Discussion questions for The Underground Railroad (PDF).

Interview by Donna Seaman, first published December 16, 2016, Booklist.

The Carnegie Interviews

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