Whitehead switches literary styles the way a race car
driver shifts gears.
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").
MacArthur Foundation "genius," he was just
nominated for a National Book Award for his most
ambitious novel yet ó "The Underground
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."
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.
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.
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
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
How long was this novel in gestation?
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.
Why did it take so long?
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.
You seem to be someone who creates something, then
breaks the mold. This novel seems like a departure even
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.
What was the balance between research and imagination
for this book, and how much did you immerse yourself in
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.
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.
Was there something that shocked you in your research?
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.
Was it difficult to walk away from the horror?
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.
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.
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.
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
Maybe itís a way of escape, or trying to fashion a
world thatís free in the imagination.
In your book, the metaphorical underground railroad is
real. And some real things become metaphors.
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.
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?
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.
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,
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?
What do you say to readers who may fear taking up a
serious book like this?
Art sometimes makes you sad. This is not a work about
Any surprises in the response youíve gotten to this
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.