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tv   Colson Whitehead Discusses the Underground Railroad  CSPAN  December 24, 2016 3:00pm-4:01pm EST

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if people would pay -- i would probably pay for google, i think a dollar a month or whatever would be -- and if they wean themselves off that diet, would that ultimately lead to a completely different place for how the economy goes forward. i'm not sure. it's hard to get people to part with money, you know, what they think is money. we like, you know, americans, we like kind of parting with money in less obvious ways. [laughter] that's the nature of our culture. we're addicted to free stuff. so the other side of this would say advertising is so natural, part of this idea of selling is so natural that we'll never be fully rid of it. >> host: well, i can't think of a better note to end on than that somewhat hopeful note about what could happen in the future. tim wu, the book is "the attention merchants: the epic scramble to get inside our heads," a fascinating read and should make many of us, perhaps, at least question the bargain that we've made for some of this
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supposedly free services and free media that we consume. tim, thanks. >> guest: it's been a great pleasure. thanks. >> c-span, where history unfolds daily. in 1979, c-span was created as a public service by america's cable television companies and is brought to you today by your cable or satellite provider. [inaudible conversations] >> welcome back, everybody. let's get started. i'm lela kite, i'm your room host for the day. wearing a little weary by time but glad to be here. i'm also chair of the brickle avenue literary society. turn your cell phones off, please. thank you all for coming. let's thank our sponsors. we need to do that in every session, because they are so important to the success of the fair. so big thanks to knight
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foundation, ohl, the bachelor foundation, the deging ro to ot -- degroot foundation. as always, thank you to all of the friends of the book fair. we hope everybody in this room will be a friend by next year so you can enjoy all the activities that are available for friends during the year. we thank our volunteers, we thank the staff of the book fair and super big thanks to miami-dade college. [applause] okay, thanks to all. [applause] we have a big crowd for a mighty important, prize-winning author, so let me start by introducing his introducer. marsha dunn is a longtime miami resident, and she has been, talk about good examples, a friend of the miami book fair since the very first year. how many of you are founding book fair friends? anybody else been around as long
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as marsha? a few. okay. good. anyway, she is an alumna of barnard college and the university of miami school of law. she supports many cultural institutions in town, but she says that she is most devoted to, and most passionate about the book fair. she says that the popularity of the book fair says more about the intellectual climate of miami than any other event, and i think we will all agree with her. so please welcome marsha dunn who will introduce our next conversationalist. thank you. [applause]
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>> as we know, oprah selected the underground railroad as one of her books for this year. lee began her career in book publishing as a news aide for "the washington post". after moving to new york, she became a publicity director for harcourt, brace and other publishers. her first love is editing. she worked as an editor or with many famous writers; alice walker, steve martin, lou reed, the list goes on. i'd like to welcome lee mayber who's going to be -- haber, who's going to be our questioner. [applause] colson whitehead was hailed as one of america's most talented and innovative authors before thetic publication of -- the publication of "the underground railroad," his eighth book. a native new yorker, harvard graduate, professor, mark arthur -- macarthur genius
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award winner, guggenheim fellow, mr. whitehead is now the recipient of the 2016 national book award for fiction -- [applause] we are so fortunate to have him here. the novel was published to uniform acclaim both for its devastating account of the terrible human cost of slavery and for its unique style. mr. whitehead freely mixes the surreal with the real and changes the chronological order of events to create a novel of tremendous, chilling power. it is the tale of cora, a slave on a plantation in georgia in the 1800st. the opening sentence -- 1800s. the opening sentence says it all. the first time caesar approached
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cora about running north, she said no. i urge all of you to discover what happens when he asks her a second time. and now it's my great pleasure to introduce colson whitehead and welcome him to our miami book fair. [applause] >> hey, howdy. thanks so much for coming. thanks to the miami book fair for having me. i usually spend sunday afternoons in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace. [laughter] my pjs. i first had the idea for the book 16 years ago. i was sitting in my house and came across a reference and remembers how when i was in fourth grade for a few moments
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until my teacher explained how it actually worked, i envisioned the underground network beneath america like a subway. and, of course, it's very impractical for many reasons. and this day 16 years ago i thought, you know, that'd be a weird premise for a book if the underground railroad was a literal train. and that's a premise, not much of a story. so i added the element where each state our character goes through as she runs north, south carolina, north carolina, is a different state of american possibility. sort of like gulliver's travels, an alternative america. i knew if i tried it then, i would have screwed it up, and so i decided to wait until i was maybe a better writer, a little more mature. and each time i finished a book, i would pull out my notes and think, am i ready? and each time the answer was, no, until about two and a half years ago.
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i'd sold a book idea to my editor, and -- but i was feeling a little bit unsure. so i told my wife about the idea about the underground railroad book. sometimes in a marriage you have to talk, make conversation -- [laughter] to kill the silences. and so -- [laughter] she said i don't want to say that the book you're working on now about a brooklyn writer going through a midlife crisis is dumb per se -- [laughter] but this other book sounds pretty interesting. so i was like, huh. so i went to my agent i've worked with for 18 years and told her, and she said, well, both ideas sound good. which is not very helpful. [laughter] but then she mailed me on a sunday, which she never does. and usually your agent tries to contact you on a sunday, you've done something wrong. but instead she said i can't stop thinking about that other idea. so i was like, huh, two. so wednesday was shrink day, so
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i told my shrink -- [laughter] and she said, what are you, crazy? [laughter] i mean, we both know you're crazy, but it sounds like this is the thing you should be working on. so my editor, who i've worked with for a long time, and i sold this other idea. and she just said giddy up, mother -- blankety-blank which is old school publishing talk for that's a good idea, and we should pursue it. [laughter] so i did, and this is the result. so i'm going the read two brief sections. one is early in the book. it's the birthday of old jacques, the oldest slave on the plantation. and whenever he senses a need for release, he declares it's my birthday, and it could be once or twice a year. they have a feist and music, and it's a brief release from the hell of the plantation.
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caesar is the slave who eventually convinced cora to run north. he grew up on a plantation, on a small farm in virginia and was promised when his owner died that he'd be set free, but she left no instructions, and so he was sold down south to a much more brutal slave system. and now he's at the randall plantation with cora, which is owned by james and terence randall. then there's a reference to chester who's a young boy, 10 years old, who cora, our protagonist, has taken under her wing. the music stopped, the circle broke. sometimes a slave will be lost in a brief eddy of liberation, in the sway of a sudden reverie among the furrows or while untangling the mysteries of an early morning dream. in the middle of a song on a warm sunday night. then it comes always, the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master. the reminder that she's only a
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human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude. the randall brothers had emerged from the great house and were among them. the slaves stepped aside making calculations of what distance represented the right proportion of fear and respect. godfrey, james' houseboy, held up a lantern. according to old jacques, james favored the mother. stout as a barrel and just as firm in countenance, and terence took after the father, tall and owl-faced, perpetually on the verge of p swooping down on prey. they inherited their father's tailor who arrived once a month with his samples of linen and cotton. the brothers dressed alike when they were children and continued to do so into manhood. their white trousers and shirts were as clean as the slaves' hands could make them, the men looked like ghosts emerging from
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the dark. master or james, jacques said, his good hand gripped the arm of his chair as if to rise. master or tenderness. don't let us disturb you, terence said. my brother and i were discussing business and heard music. i told him, that is the most god awful racket i've ever heard. the randalls had looked as if they'd drained a few bottles of wine. cora searched for caesar's face in the crowd. she didn't find him. she hadn't been present the last time the brothers appear together. you did well to remember the different lessons of those occasions. something always happened when the randalls ventured into the corridor. sooner or later a new thing coming, you couldn't predict until it was upon you. james left the daily operations to his man connolly and rarely visited. he might grant a tour to a visitor, a distinguished neighbor or curious planter from another neck of the woods, but
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it was rare. james rarely addressed his niggers who'd been taught to keep working and ignore his presence. when terence appeared, he usually appraised each slave and made a note of which men were the most able and which women the most appealing. content to leer at his brother's women, he grazed heartily upon the women of his own half. i like to taste my plums, terence said, prowling the rows of cabins to see what struck his fancy. violated the bonds of affection, sometimes visiting slaves on their wedding night to show the husband the proper way to discharge his marital duty. he tasted his plums and broke the skin and left his mark. it was accepted that james was of a different orientation. to hear his valet prideful tell it, james confined his erotic energies to specialized rooms in a new orleans establishment.
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the madam was broad-minded and modern. adept in the trajectories of human desire. prideful's stories were hard to believe despite assurances that he received his reports from the staff of the place with whom he'd grown close over the years. after all, what kind of white man would willingly submit to the whip? terence scratched his cane in the dirt. it had been his father's cane, topped with a silver wolf's head. many remembered its bite on their flesh. terence said, i recollected james told me about a nigger down here could recite the declaration of independence. i can't bring myself to believe him. i told him perhaps tonight he can show me since everyone is out and about from the sound of it. we'll settle it, james said. where is that boy, michael? no one said anything. godfrey waved the lantern around
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pathetically. moses was the boss unfortunate enough to stand closest to the randall brothers. he cleared his throat. michael dead, master james. michael, the slave in question, had indeed possessed the ability to recite long passages. according to connolly, who heard the story from the nigger trader, michael's former master was fascinated by the abilities of south american parrots and reasoned that a slave might be taught to remember as well. merely glancing at the size of their skulls told you the nigger possessed a bigger brain than a bird. michael had been the son of his master's coachman, had a brand of animal cleverness, the kind you see in pigs sometimes. the master and his unlikely pupil started with simple rhymes and short passages from popular british versifiers. they went slow over the words the nigger didn't understand, and if truth be told, the master only half understood.
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but they made miracles, the tobacco farmer and the coachman'sing son. the deck declaration of indepene was their masterpiece. michael's ability never amounted to more than a parlor trick, delighting visitors before the discussion turned, as it always did, to the diminished faculties of niggers. his owner grew bored and sold the boy south. by the time michael got to randall, he was a mediocre worker. he complained of noises and black spells that blotted his memory. in exasperation, connolly beat what little brains he had left. it was discouraging that michael was not intended to survive, and it achieved its purpose. i should have been told, james said, his displeasure plain. michael's recitation had been a novel diversion the two times he trotted the nigger out for
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guests. terence liked to tease his brother. james, he said, you need to keep better track of your property. don't meddle. terence continued, i mean, let your slaves have revels, but i had no idea they were so extravagant. are you trying to make me look bad? don't pretend you care what a nigger thinks about you, terence. james' glass was empty. he turned to go. oh, one more song, james. these sounds have grown on me. george and wesley, the musicians, were forlorn. noble and his tambourine or were nowhere to be seen. james pressed his lips into a slit. he gestured, and the men started playing. terence tapped his cane, his face sank as he took in the crowd. you're not going to dance? i have to insist. you and you and you. they didn't wait for their master's signal.
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the slaves of the northern half converged on the alley haltingly, trying to insinuate themselves into the previous rhythm and put on a show. putting on a show for master was a familiar skill. the small angles and advantages of the mask, and they shook off their fear as they settled into their performance. oh, how they caper asked hollered, shouted and hopped. certainly, this was the most lively song they'd ever heard. the musicians, the most accomplished players, the colored race had to offer. cora checked the randall brother' reactions on every turn like everyone else. jacques tumbled his hands in his lap to keep time. cora found caesar's face. he stood in a shadow of the kitchen, his expression flat. then he withdrew. you! it was terence. he held his hand before him as if it were covered in some
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eternal stain that only he could see. then cora caught sight of it. the single drop of red wine staining the cuff of his lovely white shirt. chester, the boy, had bumped him. chester similar per ored and bowed before the white man. sorry, master. sorry, master. the cane crashed across his shoulder and head again and again. the boy screamed and shrank to the dirt as the blows continued. terence's arm rose and fell. james looked tired. one drop, a feeling settled over cora. she'd not been under its spell in years, since she brought the hatchet down on blake's doghouse and sent the splinters into the air. she'd seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and yous, women carved open to the bones, feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to stop theft. she'd seen boys and girls younger than this beaten, and it had done nothing.
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this night the feeling settled over her heart again, it grabbed hold of her, and before the slave part of her caught up with the human part of her, she was bent over the boy's body as a shield. she held the cane in her hand like a swamp man handling a snake and saw the ornament at its tip. the silver wolf bared its silver teeth, then the cane was out of her hand, and it came down on her head. it crashed down again and again, and this time the silver teeth ripped across her eyes, and her blood splatter ored the dirt. so that's it for that section. i guess you can see how things deteriorate for cora on the plantation, and she decides to take caesar up on his offer. and she has a few adventures, misadventures, and ends up later in the book on valentine farm where free men and free women
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have runaways and fugitives have set up their own community. a kind of black i utopia commune. and they work together, and every saturday they have music, and they debate the philosophical issues of the day about what's next in black society. and mingo is a more conservative voice, and he's having a date with lander who's a more progressive choice. and mingo has just spoken, and lander addresses valentine farm. brother mingo made some good points, lander said. we can't save everyone. but that doesn't mean we can't try. sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. here's one delusion that we can escape slavery. we can't. its scars never fade.
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when you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think that you'd sit here today without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick, yet here you are still rerun, tracking by the good, full moon to sanctuary. valentine farm is a delusion. who told you that the negro deserved a place of refuge? who told you that you had that right? every minute of your life's suffering has argued otherwise. for every fact of history, it can exist. this place must be a delusion too. yet here we are. and america, too, was an illusion, the grandest one of all. the white race believes, believes with all its heart that it is their right to take the land, to kill indians, make war,
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enslave their brothers. this nation shouldn't exist. if there's any justice in the world, because its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty. yet here we are. i'm supposed to answer mingo's call for gradual progress, for closing our doors to those in need. i'm supposed to answer those who think this place is too close to the grievous influence of slavery and that we should move west. i don't have an answer for you. i don't know what we should do. the word "we" in some ways the only thing we have in common is the color of our skin. our ancestors came from all over the african continent. it's quite large. brother valentine has the maps of the world in his splendid library. you can look for yourself. they had different ways of subsistence, different customs, spoke a hundred different languages.
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and that great mixture was brought to america in the holds of slave ships to the north, to the south. their sons and daughters picked tobacco, cultivated cotton, worked in the largest estates and smallest farms. we are craftsmen and midwives and preachers and peddlers. black hands built the white house, the seat of our nation's government. the word "we." we are not one people, but many different people. how could one person speak for this great, beautiful race which is not one race, but many with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and our children? for we are africans in america. something new in the history of this world without models for what we will become. color must suffice. it's brought us here this night to this discussion, and it'll take us to the future. all i truly know is that we rise
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and fall as one, one colored family living next door to one white family. we may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we arrive together. when the former residents of valentine farm recalled that moment when they told strangers and grandchild of how they used to live and how it came to an end, their voices still trembled years later. in philadelphia, in san francisco, in the i cow towns and ranches where they eventually made a home, they mourned those who died that day. the air in the room turned prickly. they told their families, quickened by an unseen power. whether they'd been born free or in chains, they inhabited that moment as one. the moment when you aim for the north star and decide to run. perhaps they were on the verge of some new order, on the verge of chancing reason to disorder, of putting all the lessons of their history to bear on the future.
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or perhaps time, as it will, lent to occasion a gravity that it did not possess, and everything was -- as lander insisted -- they were deluded. but that didn't mean that it wasn't true. thank you. [applause] >> wow. that's intense. and, you know, i've read the book a couple of times now, and, you know, it's, or it's a book, i think, that's going to continue to, like, resonate and change in people's minds, the more they dip into it. and the more the political context changes. so i want to congratulate you for winning the national book award. [applause] >> thanks, thanks.
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[applause] >> rolson -- co to lson, that must have been an amazing night for you, standing on a stage with john lewis. >> yeah, it was inspiring, awesome and also, you know, i was pretty scared the whole night. [laughter] i wasn't really eating or drinking that much, i was just sort of -- >> i heard you got really drunk. >> later, yeah -- >> i'm kidding. >> it's been four months since the book came out, and it was announced as an oprah pick, and the reviews have been so great, and word of has really kicked in and really begin it a life throughout the fall. it was really just the end of a really nice run. i would say it's been, like, you know, the most pleasant four months of my life, you know? [laughter] looking back fondly upon it already. >> yeah. little nostalgia. but you'll be stopping your tour now and getting some rest, so that's good. >> sure. >> i wanted to ask you a little about process.
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so this book is so many different things. you know, it's got a kind of speculative element, it's historical. the speculative part of it is, i guess, the thing that really fascinates me and gives it its real boldness. so, for example, valentine farm. what inspired you -- how kid you create that? -- how did you create that? and what in history resembled that, if there was something? >> sure. i mean, like i said before, the structural model is akin to gulliver's travels. so every 60 pages the book is being rebooted as cora goes through different states with its own laws and customs. south carolina is a white separatist state, north carolina a white supremacist state. and really, you know, 14 years ago i wrote down will one state be a black utopia state, question mark.
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and so there were blacktowns similar -- black towns and communities similar to this one. without getting too spoilerrish, i was drawing upon black communities in the 19th century. and, you know, it's not a historical novel. i definitely mix and match and move things around, and i think that allowed me to make the book about american history and race and different ideas about how race has changed over time. and so, well, the first section is realistic and sticks to the historical record. once she escapes, cora, north i start moving things around. and i guess my motto was that i won't stick to the facts, but i'll stick to the truth. and by moving things around and playing with history, i was able to get the larger american truth. >> i always knew there was a club. [laughter] >> slap me around.
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>> you know, one of the things i, as a books editor for a magazine, i get galleys way, way far in advance. and, you know, it's, it's sometimes difficult to wade through everything, but your novel jumped out at me immediately. and i think it was because of something about the first line. you know, where you're thinking, you know, the first line immediately puts you into the mind of cora. and the mind of someone who really can't even imagine is there life off a plantation. and yet she, you know, has that, enough of that imagination, determination, spirit, whatever it is to pursue it. and you tell us a little bit about how cora evolved? because i think at first you were thinking the protagonist would be a man, right? >> sure. i mean, over the years the protagonist was man escaping to get himself free, a man looking
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to find his wife who'd been sold off, a father looking for a child. and i hadn't explored the mother/daughter relationship before, and it seemed a good challenge. i also had a string of male protagonists, so mix it up, colson. [laughter] get out of your comfort zone. and one of the first narratives i read was by harriet jacobs who ran away from her master and hid in an attic for seven years until she got passage out of north carolina. .. because more babies are more
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slaves digging more cotton and the plight of the female slave doesn't seem worthy of exploration. for all those reasons it made sense. in terms of the structure of the book you think hiding and attic, and frank is an attic. so i thought about making links between white supremacy in 1950s america and nazi germany 1930s and 40s, the same white supremacist tracks and the same bad thoughts, how can i expand a book about slavery and this summer, it carries over to mexico how certain candidates talks about mexicans or muslims, or the fact that they get to a
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larger discussion about oppression in america and two moments early on were defined, standing up to a bully and the section i read where the human part of her supersedes the slave part of her and there are millions of slaves, most didn't run. what is it in someone? not sure if i have it or anyone in history has it to say i am going to escape, i believe in a place of refuge, a huge leap of faith and a tremendous act of courage. having moments where she set herself apart disastrously from the other slaves. >> i love that line that you cited, that you read from where she talks about you talk about how cora, the slave part of her
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and the human heart of her reconciled, met up, can you elaborate on that idea a little bit? >> she is a recognizable person who overlaps with you. that makes a successful character, no matter who they are or who you are. how are we in our daily lives enslaved, by depression, work, our families. all of us are somehow in bondage and to step up and have a human part, a stronger part of us sometimes step in front of the enslaved, shackled part of us, it is a good moment, that is kind of what happened and also
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struggling to have that better part of ourselves. >> you make that analogy but i don't think any of us in this room can relate to the legacy of slavery. it is something i am trying to say has this country grappled with the legacy of slavery? has a grappled with racism? what role do you hope, if the answer is no, what hope do you think this book will play in helping us to grapple with it? >> the answer is no. i think things progress as a country by degrees, obama talked about the election in new york and said sometimes you go forward and sometimes you go backward. that is true to human nature and there are all sorts of stumbling forward. my grandparents never imagined
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their grandchild would be here, a published author, a big book fair with the book endorsed by a black president. my parents are definitely surprised that last week i am on c-span right now, so -- >> it is like speculative fiction. >> it is quite fantastic if you step back. we have not grappled with slavery or race or sexism in a real way and have a long way to go and it is quite unfortunate. >> i was thinking about john lewis again at the national book awards for those who didn't follow up with the national book awards, john lewis talked about this trilogy of books in march and won a national book award
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and got on stage and when he went to the library where he was growing up he was not allowed to have a library card because it was whites only and yet he was encouraged to read and that moment was so profound to me. can you talk a little bit about what that night was like, what the feeling was like and what role do you think art and literature can play in changing our country? >> before you asked what my book can do. i don't know. i think about myself sometimes in the book, trying to write the world and if i do it right, it takes the right sentences and paragraphs and characters, come along on that journey with me.
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i think i was going to take a few months off and this afternoon had time to kill and went downloading research for my next book and i can take a break and maybe i want to do something. i am not going to say. >> we won't tell anyone. >> 50s and 60s. i am very pessimistic to think we are all sort of citizens in different ways and for me it is making books. for other people maybe it is donating money and other people it is activism. so i think we are all sort of called to serve in our own different way and if we have a facility for speaking in a certain way that is your way of
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contributing. >> this was a book you did not feel prepared to write earlier in your life and having children made it feel like a kind of responsibility to comment on slavery and so on. with that be a fair assessment? and if it is, is it going to be difficult next time to write something that is more frivolous? this book for me, how many of you have read the book? for me, talk about a wake-up call. this book is a wake-up call because even if you think you are a good student of american history, you think you are well read, feeling what cora feels is an incredible awakening. my question is would it be
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difficult to move to something that is just for entertainment value? >> we are supposed to write the books we write at different times. it was in back of my head and did it and between who i was last year when i was writing it, i have a lot of different aspects of myself. my book still a lot of jokes, some are novels, some are nonfiction, some address different parts of my personality and some address parts of my personality and a lot of us have those aspects to our personality and i think there is a place for escapist entertainment, there's a place for being serious. i think i will write both kinds of books because there is a place for a thriller, a place
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for a novel that addresses history, a novel that someone coming of age and family. this is my eighth book. don't know how many i have left. i think of philip ross. >> he was like 100. >> so depressing. >> you only have 92 to go. >> we will be in a place i hope in the next couple years where it is more obvious that may be a thriller or detective novel or a heist book. >> i do find myself immersing myself in books even more right now if that is possible. one last question before we turn to questions from the audience and that is just tell us a little bit about where do you
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right? do you write? do you have a writing room? do you leave the house? do you feel you have to dedicate a certain number of hours to writing? >> i work at home. i leave the house because there are people out there. if i stay in the house i never see people. i have an office, tv and couch in their so i can take a nap if i have 2. make a sandwich. 10-3 is a good day for me, good day's work. if i get one or 3 pages i'm glad. particularly writing novels, i like to keep the momentum going. if i can do eight pages a week that is really good. maybe monday and tuesday, wednesday i have a dentist appointment, i have a dentist and catch it on sunday but eight pages a week makes sense which i feel like i am accomplishing something.
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even a paragraph, close to the end, close to the end of this horrible thing, novels fall into that category. >> sound like a painful process. >> guest: a few moments of joy like this one. >> host: congratulations on being one of go's ten favorites of the year. [applause] >> host: thank you. time for questions, folks. >> have any questions or tips? >> moving toward the lake. >> thank you for this wonderful book. it was riveting and really important particularly now. i was wondering why you decided
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to use the mechanism of magical realism after that first chapter which seemed so realistically real. what lay behind that? why didn't you just continue something that was a story that was realistic? >> my conception originally is a book where she is going to different parallel countries which i'm not a historical novelist. one day i may write a historical novel. i couldn't bring in nazi germany and civil experiments. late 19th-century lynching protocols and a book about 1850. it allowed me to have that play with time and different historical events and
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conversations with each other. never occurred to me to play it straight. it would be a totally different book especially to me as a writer. >> your book was very powerful. my question is did you know when you started writing the book how the end particularly her mother was going to be? >> there is a linear story of the book, cora and a short biographical section, caesar, bridgeway, the slave capture. >> you do women really well. >> host: -- >> guest: i had a structure in different states and they were auditioning for biographical sections. if you were to guess after that section, should martin or ethel get their section?
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and then figuring out where to move different sections around. two thirds of the way through i decided to have mabel in there and decided that would be the most dramatic place to put it for many reasons. >> thank you. >> hi. i have read all your books come my favorite is sag harbor. what is your favorite of your books? >> guest: thanks for reading all those. going back to the early ones definitely. i like them all but the one i just finished is the one i like the most. definitely brought two strands of my way of writing together. first several books that we updated the myth of john henry, the information age and we had this idea many years ago the
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underground railroad, what if it was real and from sag harbor on, starting with a different situation of the story ends the what if premise went to a strong character. a union of two creative strands for me seems like a culmination. i will be two pages into my next book and that will be my favorite book. >> thank you so much. >> congratulations. i was so moved and in pain from what you wrote about and it made -- there is a very established impact from the holocaust that is very accepted and there is the post slavery psychological reaction. i would be interesting in what you think as generations go on
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what the psychological impact of all that cruelty and strength. >> guest: it persists in john lewis, the book my grandparents generation, most generations, still scarred by seeing lights only fountains and took the signs down 40 years ago, that primal memory, it is present in stop and frisk. the police force and slave states and enslaved narratives to describe being caught by slave patrollers and the same language i would use in the times i have been stopped by police, being in the wrong place
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at the wrong time. lender in the section i had, still undergoing these in different ways. the mechanisms that are still in place. to feel subjugated and changed. so optimistic things get better by degrees and a setback, you can move slowly forward. >> i am an nbc student, i have two questions that are too heavy, i will try to be slow. as a young woman writing about
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historical fiction in the 1920s and interracial romance, very hard and heavy. how was your experience writing "the underground railroad," reading the county read as someone of color and how were you able to separate yourself from being emotionally involved, and i am 21 and very young, at your age being so accomplished, it is very hard. are you ever too young? >> no. and the creative writing workshops, and everyone hates you and i get used to it, tough enough for later on.
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my apprenticeship in writing for a newspaper in manhattan, every week you are writing and getting better, and i was paying my bills and doing it and i think you are 21, a lot of books have been important to you, read the authors, be the writer you want to be, the writer you actually are. and dealing with heavy material. and slavery and how bad it was. ancestors going through it, died in georgia, some had no idea.
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how to put cora through terrible scenes, going back to the question about starting with the realistic sections and going to the fantasy, i want to play it straight, pay tribute to my ancestors who went through it and everyone else who went through slavery as much as i could to testify for them. it was terrible putting on the page and at 3:00 pm i knock out and start looking on the new york times website for recipes, make dinner and go to bed. >> host: thank you for being a voice for young people of color. [applause]
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>> host: we have been allowed to go a little bit longer but i ask you to have short questions and you might have to have a short answer. >> i want to know how and when you first learned about the underground railroad? >> guest: i had that moment, and underground railroad, that is crazy. stay with me. >> the idea of having caesar be in would was incredible. the first time you went to fletcher's house where they are talking about him finally escaping and so on. one short line i thought was a stroke of genius. don't know if you personally managed that line in there or if it was grace of god or the reader but talking to fletcher,
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working out this difficult idea of the escape, the dog past gas. it was just incredible. it broke the tension but it the same time you realize, while heavy decisions were made. >> really excited. >> where is waldo? >> the absurdity of life and mundane things going on. i am having moments like that in there. i don't think of that as one of the key lines in the book but every sentence is there, hopefully doing his job and i remember putting that in there. [applause]
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>> we thank you so much for coming. we thank colson whitehead. it has been a great session. he will be signing books around the corner. you can buy your book and you must if you haven't read it because it is fabulous, right outside this room. thank you very much. if you are staying for the next session you may keep your seat. [inaudible conversations] >> we are here tonight with james conroy, author of "lincoln's white house" the people at houston wartime.
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in "lincoln's white house" you describe life in washington dc and in the research once i got to you, what is with you like about life in the nation's capital in the 1860s? >> as far as washington in general the striking thing is the lack of development, the frontier aspect of the city at that time. pennsylvania avenue and 1 other street were the only paid streets in the city. the others were dirt roads was when it rained as it often does in washington, torrential the they became rivers of mud, streets were too thick with mud to walk on and too thin to swim in. people would be surprised how underdeveloped the city was time. >> with the country and a tomatoes time, two assassination attempt made on the president at that point. where they are serious concerns
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and assassination attempt would be carried out and what kind of syria was in place to discourage that attempt? >> it wasn't until the very end of lincoln's administration in the last couple months that there was any full-time security at all, and they wandered in and out of the white house, to every waiting room outside lincoln's white house and if you waited long enough you would see the president of the united states, shake his hand or ask a question or whatever you want to do. there is very little security. there were people deeply concerned about lincoln's safety, friends of his and others who persuaded him to accept bodyguards but on the night of his assassination, bodyguard went next door for a drink and was not on hand at
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ford's theater. >> what was your interest point in this book? >> lincoln and the hampton roads peace conference called one common country and wanted to write another but only if there was some subject like the first that hadn't been written to death and i found no one had ever written a book about the white house in lincoln's time, what it was like to live there, to work there, to be entertained there, to do business there. the day to day life, look, feel and smell of the place. that is what i set out to do and i hope i have achieved that. >> what is the most stark difference between now and then, not only the presidency but in dc in general? >> certainly the starkest difference in the white house is the total open door at the time,
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you could walk in and out, the grounds were open to the public every day but sunday. very stark difference from what we see today. that has got to be the most obvious. >> we have three days of booktv on this christmas weekend with our holiday schedule features ellen silver to the guild on afterwards. she reports on new farming methods and how they affect consumers. that is just a few of the
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programs you will see on booktv this christmas weekend. for complete television schedule, booktv, 72 hours of nonfiction books and authors, television for serious readers. >> we are joined on our booktv set by wesley lowery, author of this book, "they can't kill us all: ferguson, baltimore, and a new era in america's racial justice movement". where did you get the title for this book? >> the title comes from a sign left at a vigil after the fatal shooting of antonio martin, one of the first fatal shootings after the grand jury decision two years ago not to charge the officer in ferguson. one of the reasons we stuck with it was we thought it should the egos and feeling of so many people who have taken to the streets the last few years was


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