Colson Whitehead: ‘My agent told: Oprah. I told: Shut the front door’

With The Underground Railroad, Whitehead has given the story of an escaped slave the quality of a fable. Now hes been anointed by Oprah

Colson Whitehead, youd suppose, would be used to accolades by now. Before Oprah picked his new novel, The Underground railroad, as her next volume club selection, hed amassed quite a few of the laurels available to American novelists. A Guggenheim, a Whiting award, and one of those MacArthur genius fellowships. His books had been shortlisted for many prizes, including a Pulitzer. But Oprahs touch still has its own particular various kinds of advertising magic, and so Whitehead observes himself answering the issues to: where was he when he heard the news?

I had a reading at Duke, and my aircraft touched down. Im always checking my phone as soon as I hear the landing gear go down. Theres[ a bellow from] my agent, he tells me over the phone. I called her back and she told: Oprah. I told: Shut the front doorway, because I didnt wishes to curse. She told: Oprah book club. I said: Motherfucker. People were looking at me because this was on the airplane.

Had Whitehead been able to explain to his fellow airplane passengers, they would without doubt to comprehend. But there is some cloak and dagger involved in being blessed by the One Who Dedicates Away Cars.

They said its a secret and you cant tell anybody, and if you do, well destroy you, Whitehead jokes. So four months of lying to people. It was a huge relief two Tuesdays ago when I ultimately was able to tell people. Two days before, I told my wife. Two days before my daughter was at sleep-away camp, and had no access to electronics, so she had one phone call. I was like: Ill tell you Tuesday. Since you have no way of telling anybody, Ill let it out of the bag.

The book appeared in American bookstores the day of the proclamation, even though it has hitherto been scheduled for publication in the US on 13 September.( The volume will be available in the UK on 6 November .) American literary Twitter began joking that Whitehead had pulled a Beyonc, dropping a astound book. Not unlike Lemonade, The Underground railroad sold like hot cake, hitting No 4 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. But for Whitehead, things obviously didnt happen that rapidly. In fact, The Underground Railroad was 16 years in the making.

The book follows Cora, a young slave in Georgia who escapes her brutal life on a plantation with the assistance of that fabled element of the slave era, the underground railroad. In Whiteheads retelling though not in real life the railroad is an actual subterranean train. One or two automobiles roar through a system of passageways, with stations buried underneath the two houses of sympathetic southern whites. Cora travels through South Carolina and Tennessee before ending up in Indiana. In the New Yorker this week, Kathryn Schulz praised Whiteheads handling of the subject: It is a clever option, reminding us that a metaphor never got anyone to freedom.

Some reviewers have remarked that the Underground Railroads spareness is a departure for Whitehead, a novelist known for his comedic touch. He has had a varied career, moving from the slightly fantastic in his 1999 debut novel The Intuitionist, to the solid realistic account of 2009s Sag Harbor, to the zombie-apocalypse plot of 2011s Zone One. When I asked him about it, he told: Growing up watching Kubrick, it seems like a normal thing. You do your darknes comedy, you do your war movie, you do your science fiction movie, and its all accessing various regions of your personality.

The idea that the Underground Railroad was an actual develop had been the idea that inspired this latest book. I was thinking about how when youre a kid, when you first hear about the underground railroad, you visualize a literal subway. Just because the image is so evocative, Whitehead told me. I guessed, what if it actually was a metro? His imagining of the book unfolded from there, advised substantially, he told, by Jonathan Swifts Gullivers Travels. He imagined the slaves traveling from country to nation, and that the narrative would reboot every once in awhile, proving some different aspect of America.

But initially Whitehead wasnt sure he was up to executing the idea. He wasnt sure he had become the kind of novelist that could pull it off, and besides, the prospect of researching bondage, a gruesome topic, was not appealing. So years went by, and he wrote other novels while the idea continues to germinate. Ultimately he had begun to work on a volume about a journalist in New York, and the voice seemed too close to the voice Whitehead had used in his nonfiction book about poker, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. It seemed like repeating myself, and also if I put off this slavery notion for so long, why not try to confront why I was trying to avoid it?

The wait was apparently worth it. Over period, Whitehead tells me, he dropped his onetime plan to have this be something of a fantastical narrative. Originally he supposed, for example, that the Underground railroad would transport the characters to different epoches; instead, in the end, the action of the book all takes place in 1850. He spent a lot of time rereading slave narratives, the famous published ones like those of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, as well as narratives collected in the 1930 s by the Works Progress Administration, which collected oral history from then-still-living former slaves. They gave me enough material, in terms of lingo and the kind of food they feed, that are intended to get going, Whitehead told. So it was four months before I felt ready to go.

One of the most remarkable things about the Underground railroad is Coras level-headedness in the face of the agony and tragedy she both encounters and experiences herself. Another sort of writer, one more sentimental than Whitehead, might have been seduced to ratchet up more open emotionalism. Instead, his volume does not make a big show about Coras stoicism, and Whitehead came to believe it followed logically from the horror of bondage. I think when all youve known is cruelty, how do you rank the latest inhumanity with the rest? he told me.

Whitehead had in mind several grand schematic novels while composing the book. In high school, he took a class called Fabulism, and there he read Gabriel Garcia Marquezs One Hundred Years of Solitude and John Bunyans Pilgrims Progress, and Kafka. These volumes, alongside Gullivers Travels, informed the structure of Coras journey. Any various kinds of adventure tale where someone goes from allegorical episode to allegorical episode, and escapes at the last minute, that kind of outlandish series of events actually works for an escaped slave. You are just going from slim refuge to slim refuge trying to make it out. He has a point, and the critics, who have all given The Underground railroad rave reviews, seem to agree that Whitehead fastened on exactly the right metaphor. This, many people are telling, may be the fiction that wins Whitehead the Pulitzer.

This all arrives at a time where there has been so much talk about diversity in publishing and in pop culture. I ask what Whitehead thinks of the debate. I think progress is slow. Year by year I think we have more and different African American writers making their debuts. I was allowed to write about race utilizing an elevator metaphor because of Toni Morrison and David Bradley and Ralph Ellison. Hopefully me being weird allows someone whos 16 and wanting to write inspires them to have their own weird take over the world, and they can see the different kinds of African American voices being published.

If you go to a big publishing home, editorial aside, its totally white, he adds. Narratives written about black people or featuring black protagonists have become big or get a lot of attention, and then three years later its back to the same draft. Not to be negative, but I always see it as a … You want to point to The Underground railroad and [ Yaa Gyasis] Homegoing as the year black people violated through,[ but] three years from now, youre not going to have that same story.

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