10 questions for author Colson Whitehead

The writer discusses The Underground Railroad, Oprah’s newest book club selection
Photo by Madeline Whitehead
Photograph by Madeline Whitehead

In New York-based writer Colson Whitehead’s sixth novel, The Underground Railroad, a slave named Cora escapes her Georgia plantation. Except she doesn’t escape using the metaphorical Underground Railroad that you learned about in history class. Instead, it’s a fictional, literal railroad that takes Cora from Georgia to South Carolina, North Carolina, and beyond. The book, originally slated for a September release, was rushed to printers earlier this month after Oprah announced the novel as her latest book club pick. President Obama also included it on his summer reading list. Whitehead spoke with us about the novel’s success, inspiration, and research. He will read from the book at the Carter Center on September 21.

Why did you start the novel on a plantation in Georgia?
I wanted [to set it in the] Deep South because it’s not where the Underground Railroad actually went. Georgia was semi-arbitary, but I knew I wanted [it to be somewhere on] the Eastern seaboard because [Cora] only had a limited number of worlds and states to go through.

You did a lot of research for this novel but also reinvented history in several parts. How did you know when to research and when to invent?
The Works Progress Administration Collections had hundreds and hundreds of slave narratives. Some of them are only a paragraph and some are 12 pages long. They are organized by state, so I’d just sort of scroll through and see where the pages took me. I did enough research to start going, but if I got stuck or a new character came up, like Stevens the doctor and grave robber, I stopped and researched. The hardest thing was being prepared to put Cora through all the turmoil and torment.

What was it like psychologically for you to write this book?
The hardest part was when I started writing. The voice of the narrator came very quickly without too much trouble, but staring down the facts of how slaves are treated, the social dynamics, the near impossibility to any kind of salvation was terrifying. You have to compartmentalize and have a certain distance to put the material on the page. I had a good formula for being engaged with the material but separating myself. About 100 pages into the book, I finally decided I could watch 12 Years a Slave, but seeing actors go through the stuff I was describing was too much. I had to stop watching.

The book alternates between Cora’s narrative and other people’s perspectives. What made you decide to include these interludes?
Most of my books have always worked through juxtaposition, jumping through different point of views and time. In Zone One, it was one character but many flashbacks. In John Henry Days, it was multiple points of view. The friction through juxtaposition seems to be a normal way of telling the story. I had the idea to have Ajarry [Cora’s grandmother] as a prologue. The other sort of biographical pieces were a good way to illuminate different parts of the world or narrative that didn’t fit into Cora’s perspective. I was constantly shifting where their chapters went. I put the most compelling character at the most compelling moment.

Why did you make your protagonist a woman?
While I was thinking about this book, the hero of the story changed many times. At one point it was a man alone, a parent looking for a child, a child looking for a parent, a brother looking for a sister. But the mother/daughter dynamic wasn’t something I had explored, and it seemed to be a good challenge.

What was the writing process like for this book?
I wrote 20 pages in January of 2015 and the rest from May to Thanksgiving of 2015. I had been teaching a lot and hadn’t written fiction in five years, so I think I was just ready to go. My office is in my house, so I write there in the morning, then I pick up my kids and cook most of our dinners. Eight pages a week seems like a good amount.

You’ve had this idea since 2000. Why write the novel now? Did the country’s current political climate prompt it?
Ferguson has opened up a new dialogue about police brutality, but if you’re a black person, it’s not news. How I am supposed to act if I get pulled over? Driving while black was taught to me at a young age. I put off the book for so many years, so I figured why not try to figure out why I am putting it off?  It was gathering myself to confront slavery in a way I hadn’t before.

How had you confronted slavery before?
I saw Roots when I was seven. My parents gathered us all around the TV. A black American living in contemporary times is obviously well-acquainted with the reverberations of slavery and Jim Crow separate but equal. I went to college and studied history. But in elementary school, we learn slavery existed and then skip to Abraham Lincoln. With Martin Luther King, we learn things were terrible and then he made a speech. Schools don’t teach American history that well, especially a lot of black American history.

I also come at things from a satirical angle. I knew my jokes-per-page thing was going to go down a lot, so it was sobering to contemplate that. But that’s how I got here. My ancestors died on plantations; they were whipped to death, beaten to death, and they were raped. I don’t know their names, but if I can tell their story to the best of my abilities, I will have done something.

What has it been like to be the next Oprah Book Club pick?
Frankly it’s great. Some books are well-received with critics; other books sell. This constellation of great reviews, Oprah, Obama—it doesn’t happen and won’t really ever happen again.

What are you working on next?
I always take a year off in between books at work. I have a few ideas, but the one I’ve focused on more is about New York City in the sixties in Harlem.