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Colson Whitehead on new novel: ĎItís not just about slavery; itís about oppressioní

October 24, 2016

Colson Whitehead switches literary styles the way a race car driver shifts gears.

His genre-skipping books range from the speculative fiction of his 1999 debut, "The Intuitionist," to the blood-splattered humor of his 2011 zombie thriller "Zone One." He has written historical fiction ("John Henry Days"), a poker memoir ("The Noble Hustle") and an autobiographical coming-of-age novel about upper-crust black kids in 1980s Long Island ("Sag Harbor").

A MacArthur Foundation "genius," he was just nominated for a National Book Award for his most ambitious novel yet ó "The Underground Railroad."

Oprah Winfrey ensured that the book would be one of the yearís most buzzed-about titles when she selected it for her book club in August. "She reached out to us in April," Whitehead said by phone this month. "I had to keep my mouth shut for four months so the publisher could print extra copies."

A father of two ó a 12-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son ó Whitehead lives in Brooklyn with his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, to whom "Railroad" is dedicated.

His novel, set before the Civil War, reimagines the safe houses used to conduct enslaved African-Americans to freedom as a literal railroad. Its heroine is Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who, impelled by violence and a desire to own her body and soul, decides to flee north.

"I wanted to create something about this time period that gives us hope," Whitehead said. "Cora is part of a lineage. Sheís part of the generations of people who were limited in their physical world but who, somehow, had bigger dreams. All she knows is the borders of the plantation. Whatís it like for her to go beyond that?"

The novel is a bleakly profound reckoning with a past shrouded by fear, misunderstanding and myth. At the same time, Whitehead conjures heady poetry as the railroad carries Cora from state to state, each stop along the way representing a different state of being that feels Dante-esque.

Q: How long was this novel in gestation?

A: Sixteen years. Iíve carried this idea with me for a long time, but I needed the maturity to be able to complete it. I wrote 20 pages in January 2015, then I taught, and put the book down. Then I wrote the rest between May and November last year.

Q: Why did it take so long?

A: I had to grow into the subject and have a better understanding of my literary role models. Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison play with fantastical elements. You look at people whoíre smarter than you, more talented than you, and hope that, whether youíre dealing with history or family or war, that youíre a writer of your historical moment. Hopefully, Iím adding something to what they have given us.

Q: You seem to be someone who creates something, then breaks the mold. This novel seems like a departure even for you.

A: My last couple of books ("Zone One" and "Sag Harbor") had a lot of humor ó a satirical edge. I realized that that kind of voice and attitude wouldnít work for this. I had a lot of freedom to make things up and deform reality. But I had to ground it in something recognizable. I wanted the (early) Georgia section to be as realistic as possible before I started altering things. I paid tribute and honored the slave dead in my family before I began to play with things a little.

Q: What was the balance between research and imagination for this book, and how much did you immerse yourself in the period?

A: Whether Iím writing about kids growing up in the Ď80s in Long Island or post-apocalyptic New York, Iím building a world. In the early section, I create a credible world for the characters to populate.

In terms of finding realistic voices for the characters, I had a rich resource in the writer interviews that the government conducted in the 1930s with former slaves. I got nouns, verbs, adjectives ó the gritty details of their lives. "The master scourged my mother last night." So "scourged" becomes a verb for "beat" or "flog." These narratives were incredibly helpful.

Q: Was there something that shocked you in your research?

A: I wouldnít say shocked. But itís terrifying to contemplate what millions of Africans endured. Someone would say, casually, "I moved to another plantation and wore clothes for the first time." They were kept like animals.

Q: Was it difficult to walk away from the horror?

A: No. I work in the morning and early afternoons, then knock off. Then I start planning dinner for my family. When I was done for the day, I was done.

Q: Thereís a surprising dispassion in the work. Youíre revealing a lot about your characters but not making judgments, per se. And you donít seem to belabor things that are horrifying.

A: Once I wrote the story of Coraís grandmother, I found a voice that worked. Itís intimate with the characters, how they saw their mothers flogged and sisters sold off. Itís very matter of fact.

Q: Your novel keeps company with Toni Morrisonís "Beloved" and Charles Johnsonís "Middle Passage," with some Gabriel GarcŪa MŠrquez-esque elements of magical realism. In all three, the characters who are under intense trauma escape into fanciful flights.

A: Maybe itís a way of escape, or trying to fashion a world thatís free in the imagination.

Q: In your book, the metaphorical underground railroad is real. And some real things become metaphors.

A: The fantasy structure was built in from the beginning. Every state (where the railroad has stations) is a different state of reality. I didnít want to belabor things, like have a 10-page tunnel section. The tunnels are just doorways between the states. But the book isnít about the fantastical. Itís about Cora as she comes into her ideas, her widening notions of freedom.

Q: This novel gives us an alternative to the ideas we have about plantation life. What goals did you set for yourself in writing this book?

A: I just wanted to live up to the promise of the idea. There are certain demands, like the realism of the world (that the book imagines). I canít think of what I was rebelling against, but (certainly) the pop-culture plantation of "Gone With the Wind." I wanted to show different kinds of plantations, different kinds of people. I wanted to have a larger conversation not just about slavery, but about eugenics and forced sterilization in Nazi Germany. I can talk about the plight of people on plantations, but also the plight of Jews in a book like this. Itís not just about slavery, itís about oppression.

Q: The book is set during a benighted era, but itís informed by some very contemporary ideas around trauma, especially as it relates to Cora and her partner, Caesar.

A: Today, we have a very different notion of the damage that assault and rape can cause. When I was writing it, I wanted to explore the psychological realism of the era and animate the plantation with that. What do you do with the outcasts, with the people who are too damaged? Where are they exiled? When Cora gets close to Caesar, how much does the trauma and abuse sheís experienced determine her idea of romantic freedom?

Q: What do you say to readers who may fear taking up a serious book like this?

A: Art sometimes makes you sad. This is not a work about laugh-a-minute slavery.

Q: Any surprises in the response youíve gotten to this work?

A: Iíve written a bunch of books and have never had something be embraced by critics and readers so quickly. Obviously, having Oprah and President Obama endorse it in different ways is thrilling. ("Railroad" was on Obamaís summer reading list.) The book is still selling pretty well. Word of mouth is kicking in. People are liking it and pushing it onto their families.

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