Colson Whitehead: Finding the Right Voice

photo: Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the author of six novels and two nonfiction books on subjects as diverse as poker, zombies and New York. His sixth and newest novel, The Underground Railroad, tackles slavery from a subversive, phantasmagorical angle. His protagonist Cora escapes from a plantation only to find herself hounded by the relentless slavecatcher Ridgeway. She is helped, however, by Whitehead's version of the Underground Railroad, a literal railroad with tunnels underneath the pre-Civil War South. Cora's narrative eventually adopts the loose structure of a classic adventure story, with Cora overcoming new, bizarre threats in each state.

The Underground Railroad starts with a realistic depiction of slavery and goes on to feature literal underground railroads and many other ahistorical elements. What was your intent in constructing this type of blended narrative, as opposed to straight-ahead historical fiction?

The book began with the question: "What if the Underground Railroad were an actual underground railroad... and every state it traveled through a different state of American possibility?" So from its conception, it wasn't going to stick to the facts. You pick the right narrative tool for the job you want to do, and straight realism wasn't going to cut it--the "facts" couldn't accommodate the "truths" I wanted to tell.

You make direct reference to Gulliver's Travels: "The white man in the book, Gulliver, roved from peril to peril, each new island a new predicament to solve before he could return home." Except for the fact that Cora has no home, that seems to accurately describe Cora's journey from state to state--each posing its unique difficulties--over the course of the book. Did you deliberately pattern The Underground Railroad after Gulliver's Travels? If so, why?

I didn't start with Swift in mind, but it seemed if my character was going on a journey through different states/lands, the association that came to mind was, "Oh, you mean like Gulliver's Travels, Colson?" Is it also the structure of The Odyssey and Pilgrim's Progress? Maybe so. The structure of most adventure stories, a series of escapades? Most of the things Swift critiques and satirizes in his book are over my head--the religious and political scandals of Britain in the 18th century--but it was useful to keep Gulliver in my head when I was conceptualizing the book. Safe to say, there are fewer jokes in The Underground Railroad, and you're right that Cora has no home to return to between states.

There are ways that Cora's plucky but faltering escape from bondage can be seen as a metaphor for the African-American experience in the United States, post-emancipation. Cora notes: "Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits." Many Americans today don't seem to understand that the African-American struggle didn't end with emancipation. Did you intend your book as a kind of corrective?

I'm not incredibly interested in what people do or don't know about history and I'm not out to educate anyone. But American history certainly is good material for a novelist, so lucky me.

For all its many trying passages, The Underground Railroad has moments of genuine hope. In books such as The Noble Hustle, you have hardly presented yourself as an optimistic individual. As a self-proclaimed anhedonic, did you ever have to make a conscious effort to avoid the nihilism and despair that often come hand in hand with meditating on terrible crimes?

If you didn't have hope you'd die--I think that ties Zone One and The Underground Railroad together. Even if it's an unrealistic hope. How to persevere in the face of disaster? As for keeping distance from the material... the deeper I got in the research, and the more I realized what I'd have to put the characters through if I wanted to be faithful to history, the more depressed I got. It was tough to write.

You write: "Versifying left her cold. Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's head that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world." Am I wrong in thinking that lines such as these as well as well as certain aspects of Cora's personality are autobiographical?

I don't see myself much in Cora. I like poetry, but no, I'm not much of a churchgoer, that is true. If I had to name my most autobiographical book, it'd be The Colossus of New York, strange as it sounds. Without the filter of a character or a narrative, there's a bunch of me all over that book.

Did the choice of subject matter or protagonist require a major stylistic shift on your part? Would you agree that The Underground Railroad has simpler, more accessible prose as opposed to the dense, abstract language that characterized books such as The Intuitionist? If so, what is the purpose of that change?

Again, you pick the right tool for the matter at hand. The narrator of The Intuitionist is not the same as the narrator of Sag Harbor, and neither of them is the narrator of The Underground Railroad. The voice in the book came to me more quickly than it usually does when I start a book, and seemed to fit what I was up to. Since I do change genres and subject matter a lot, finding the right voice for each new project is part of the territory.

Your book foregrounds Cora but also features a few chapters from the perspectives of other characters, including the villainous slave catcher Ridgeway. How did you go about getting into the head of a man who, among other crimes, captures runaway slaves for fun and profit?

It's my job. If you're lucky, you're animating all your characters, big and small, so that they live and breathe in a realistic fashion. You take what you know about yourself, other people, the world, and use it make your characters real on the page. And you also make stuff up and invent plausible psychologies and hope it comes together.

The Underground Railroad examines a number of deeply held ideologies regarding the American Experiment, often in conflict with each other. Do you continue to find anything inspiring about the promise of America, if you ever did?

The American idea is certainly a fine one, even if we've botched its execution. I suppose things get better by degrees. Like, I'm not property. I have two kids, so I have to believe the world will start improving at a quicker pace.

Could you speak about the character of Homer, the odd black boy who drives Ridgeway's coach and serves him loyally? He is portrayed almost as demonic--does he represent anything in particular in your mind?

Homer's gonna Homer!`

When you've written a book about race, let alone several, you must know that in interviews, author events, etc., you'll be continually asked about one of the most difficult questions in American life. Do you ever wish you could simply say what you needed to say in your novel and have that be the end of it? Touching the third rail of American discourse again and again must be exhausting.

Well, there are only so many ways to phrase an answer, so that gets exhausting, but events are always a nice way to end the day. I'm lucky to have any readers at all, let alone ones that stick with me from book to book, so when people take the time out of their busy lives to come and see you, it's really fortifying.

You have such a heterogeneous body of work--any idea what's next?

I think it's going to take place in New York City in the 1960s--and that's all I can say! Trying different kinds of stories, with their different narrative strategies and problems to solve keeps the work interesting. Figuring out what makes this genre tick, compared to another type of story--it's scary but fun. --Hank Stephenson

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