tv In Depth Colson Whitehead CSPAN March 31, 2018 12:01am-3:01am EDT
and now booktv's monthly "in depth" program. with us fiction writer colson whitehead. mr. whitehead's 2016 novel "the underground railroad" was awarded the pulitzer prize and the national book award. his other books include "the intuitionist" and "sag harbor". >> host: welcome to booktv in depth program. this is our special year of fiction on "in depth." youel see authors such as jody pico walter mosley and last month we had david ignatius the "washington post" columnist and thriller writer who writes about the cia. this month we are pleased to have pulitzer prize-winning author's colson whitehead as her guest. his most recent book is "the underground railroad". mr. whitehead what is the appropriate response when your books are praised by oprah, president obama any win the
pulitzer and you win the national book award. what is the appropriate response? >> guest: well it's at the pain away. this book is taken on in a way that is expected. mostly i thank my lucky stars and i speak a little better and i'm in a better mood generally and i try to enjoy it. >> host: why does it put you in a better mood? >> guest: i have been writing for 20 some years and fiction for 20 years and sometimes you write a book and people dig it and they understand it. and then he read a book and nobody particularly cares and it disappears. i have pride in thinking i did a good job with the book and other people thinking that as well. >> host: your first book was "the intuitionist" about
elevator repair people. how do you sell a book like that? >> guest: exactly. with effort. when i send it to my agent either you dig the concept of an elevator inspector or you don't. you go along for the ride for the description or not. when i was writing it was my second attempt at a novel. my first one was charitable and it went to a bunch of publishers and everybody hated it. my agent dumped me because i wasn't going anywhere so per year and a half i would say to my friends the book is about elevator inspectors and they would make fun of me. eventually after that i got down to what sounded like a book and my new agent took him by the way
doubleday did as well. >> host: is there a connection between "the intuitionist," "sag harbor" and "the underground railroad"? >> there were a couple a of tops i circled around. i'm a new yorker and i love writing about new york. i love the vitality and energy of the city. pop-culture, raised in america, technology and some of these things are in some books and not as much in others. my book about new york, the cost of new york about a racialized take on new york. my poker book, it doesn't have to say about technology but those are four or five areas that i circle around. >> host: how can people read your work, social commentary,
autobiography? >> guest: it's an autobiography. "sag harbor" was my fourth novel in its about growing up in the 80s andnd make takeoff on my childhood. i would say "the underground railroad" is myes least autobiographical book. i am in there in some sort of coded way. i think from the beginning to the end is a good way, start to finish and then some books are funny. some are a little more tragic. my hope is that the experience is worth your time. and there's sometimes social commentary and sometimes there's commentary on whatever weird thing i'm going through. >> host: "sag harbor", benji has a bad haircut. >> guest: benji is a kid
growing up in new york in the 80s as i did. unfortunately my life was not very interesting so i had to exaggerate. i'm not that cool or compelling so you have to take a little bit of license. when i started the book unfortunately nobody appeared on the page and it became less and less like my friend david or my friend scott. it started off as a autobiographical and i'm definitely in there but the story supercede any kind of autobiographical. i'm trying to make a compelling story which means exaggerating what actually happened to me. >> host: colson whitehead what is the process to get to an elevator inspector or a zombie or an underground railroad in
the physical form? >> guest: t i don't do the same thing from book to book. if you know how to write a certain kind of look and perhaps that's foolish butk writing a book that is plot heavy and following up with a book that is not is plot heavy, a book that has a first-person narrator and one that's funny and not so funny is a way to keep it for me i went from a perverse streak in "sag harbor" a story about babies into an apocalyptic detail to the poker book to "the underground railroad" the historical novel. i get my ideas from articles, weird musings i have behind my
couch. sometimes the ideas stay with you and when you get an open spot in your schedule are you ready do you want to do it, do you not want to do it? sometimes they fall away. >> host: there seems to be a common theme in a lot of your looks about a a guy who really didn't get the rules of life and had an unease around other people. >> guest: assurer, while it's an autobiographical. we are here for three hours i want to save the good stuff for the last hour. you know i think there is something about an outsider but there you are misanthropic like i can be sometimes. we are all sort of outside and it could be a good observer good
protagonist a good storyteller. you are right in the action but also standing apart. so someone who observes but also has been removed is a good vehicle for telling the story and definitely and the apocalypse in the world of elevator there's i can have a point of view. and so my outsider comes away in addition for the reader. >> host: it didn't come out until 2011 but i think i read an article that you had written as a young guy like an eighth or ninth grade. >> guest: oh no, no. i wrote horror fiction fiction and the zombie genre going back
decades., i wrote a few stories in college and start writing fictions in my 20s. the obsession with zombies goes back to my childhood. my parents loved horror movies and we watched horror movie together. aaron burr seeing living dead at a very early age. me.tayed with to refresh your memory it's a story about the eve of the zombie apocalypse and people are trying to hide from what's happening in the main protagonists is a black man beings pursued by white people who want to devour him and eat him which of course is part of the story ofic america. growing up as a horror and science fiction fan five looks and i was ready to maybe try my hand at a horror story. >> host: you said you horror
stories-- horror stories of. >> guest: i don't want to get all judge he but yeah i had a real interest. my brother and i came of age during the vcr boom so we would go to crazy eddies which is my comic store in new york and watch horror movies science-fiction movies go and get them again the next week. it was science-fiction and horror and comedy and anyone who writes for marvel comics. fantasy horror seems to be a potent storytelling tool.
a few different ideas about what zombies mean. for me finding my own interpretation and putting my own stamp on the genre was important for me. >> host: what the zombies mean? >> guest: i think different generations interpret horror genre's according to their own needs. vampires mean something in the old century england and something to the twilight generation. for me they have always been an expression of social anxiety, fear of other people. you go to bed and you wake up in the world is changed or your loved one your neighbors your teachers, your co-workers zombies stop pretending.
they put their mask down and of course it speaks poorly of my psychology that i look at zombies thatly way but zombies have already-- always stayed with me. i have these areas ideas in the back of my head. >> host: is social anxiety common trait? >> guest: i don't know. i mean i'm not sure. i think it helps. think worrying about your work, are you doing a good job maybe it could scope for being a novelist. >> host: worrying about what others may think of your work? >> guest: anxiety worse is-- versus worry but a healthy
amount of worry helps you make sure putting everything into this paragraph on that page making sure it's coming out right. getting that ninth book under your belt. >> host: in "the new yorker" in 2012 you were quoted as being a novelist and for you delusions to give the interpret cookie aspect of one's freakishness is handy. >> guest: is. think what i like about my different books is that they are broad and allow me to expresspr my ideas about the wod and about myself then different theories. i think writing is becoming a way for mewa to interpret the
world for myself and figure out- -- how i feel about things and system, politics andso people. so that license is very important for me, not being tied to expectations and following my own inclinations. just because worrying about the health inspector sounds like ael bad idea and they pathetic idea. can you make a work and can you sell it to the reader at the same time you are selling it to yourself so that delusion that you have something to say, the delusion that your work is worthy of being read by others i think is useful. >> host: where did the term of the idea "the intuitionist" come from? >> guest: i'd written the
aforementioned book that everybody hated. that first book was about the note gary coleman the tv star, the little black boy. he was writing about black imageryy and pop culture. i wrote a novel about a gary colemanesque child store-- stars. it seemed like a good idea to me and the novel called i'm moving in. he was always getting adopted by people. i'm moving in sounded like realism and i send it out and everyone hated it. i think i became a writer then. i was going to get a real job and become a lawyer. i wrote another book.
maybe people will like you to maybe they won't. i figured people like cloth. maybe i'll have a plot with the climax so i wrote detective novels and i thought, was watching 2020 as i often do in my 20s. there was a piece on the hidden dangers of escalators. apparently it you don't prepare an escalator they can detach from the side and an escalator inspector they interviewed. that was the random job in growing up in new york you see the law. the elevator inspector signs such as certificate, everything is fine and they come once a year. your work or school and suddenly you see the elevator inspectors
in there. i thought wouldn't it be cool if in elevator inspector solved the criminal case. a funny detective story. i went to the library to see what kind of skills in elevator inspector would bring to a criminal case and of course it was none because they are elevator inspectors. i made up a different culture for elevator inspectors and figured they are conservative and progressive in that became the empiricists to do it the right way versus the intuitionist to our sort of progressive and that reality plays out in different ways. elevator inspector school and elevator inspector philosophy. i'd teach myself how to write.
i had a female protagonist and i have book that had a plot or any kindon of linear momentum so i s trying for that. elevator inspector solving a criminal case with execution. that's how the book happen. >> host: looking at here books are on the table, you said sorry for the clunkers you had to read. what you consider a clunker? >> guest: hopefully if you do something for a long time you get better at itco and certain books i will think about and i wonder why did i use so many adjectives? a simpler way of saying that. maybe that book was missing pages here and there. hopefully i became ao er betterk
writer and learn how to do things in a more efficient way. hopefully you get better and better and better but hopefully i'm still in the getting better phase and getting better at my job and taking that to the next one. >> host: 's desai moving in still exist? >> guest: the manuscript is there. for a while i thought maybe i will strip the assimilates but it's really terrible the energy it would take for my now very high standards writing something else. if my children have a gambling debt they can sell it or somebody 30 years from now, make some quick cash. >> host: liza mae watson is
one of your female protagonists. cora is another. what is the reason to write from a woman's point of view? >> guest: i think women exist and they tell different stories. you should take different points of view. i had us string of protagonists in this book that seemed sort of wise to mix it up. i couldn't do her new york voice in my first novel. i was choosing a third person narrator so i couldn't rely upon my first person narrator trick. a female protagonist i hadn't done before andnd by doing it i hopefully will become a better writer. and with cora i had to do to
female narrators in a row, and mix it up. there is aiv famous narrative written by harry jacob, the life of a girl and she writes about how when a girl becomes a woman she enters into a much more terrible form of slavery. you are supposed to pump out babies because more babies means more in more profit for your master. sometimes i'm just trying to mix it up and sometimes i'm trying to learn something and keep the challenge going. >> host: what was your favorite one to right? >> guest: i think, you know i was broke and also depressed.
when you finish something you can look back and think oh it was terrible but you know it was a special time in my life. so i think noble hustle and perhaps it was a freudian slip but it was a book taking off from a trip i took to the world series poker. i tried a to cram as many jokess they could in there. it was a journalistic framework for the linear movement but i really was trying toin cram as many weird jokes and bits of myself into it. it was really fun. it started from a journalistic assignment. they called me up to see if i wanted to write about the world
series of poker. i went no, i don't want to go to vegas. it's very hot. they said what if we changed the article and change your entrance fee to go to the series. okay, i will do that. i actually know how to play poker so i started cramming. the other parents would say what are you up to? i'm going to atlantic city to train for aai poker tournament d then i would take it bus to atlantic city and b gambling gamble and then i got to the world series. for the first time i had to get out of my comfort zone and put an area around my cats. getting out of my comfort zone and learn how to play poker so i wouldn't embarrass myself and my family and new york. when i was writing it i was
writing thei article. we write a novel, write a joke, make yourself laugh and two years later someone else reads it. you feel kind of stupid about your own jokes for a while but writing it like dickens did back in the day you get that immediate response of people liked it and it gave me energy to keep going. it was a very sort of special writing experience in terms of thedi material, in terms of howt came to be so i looked at that in six months. >> host: i'm going to paraphrase the first line of that book which is i got to wear sunglasses inside. it was good for me. >> host: >> guest: for years i was told i hadgo a good poker face and i realized that was because i was half dead inside.
that's the mask of a good poker player. my natural aspect was for once and aspect in social situations. dead? >> host: i'll post you in our therapy sessions a little bit. you do write about having a mask and you do write about the fact that you are semi-impressed, hermetic when you are writing and that you are adifferent person . is that important, is that depression important to your writing? >> i think it partly is impartially i think it's good to have a healthy joking relationship with the things you do in life whether it's art or anything else. so not taking myself too
seriously, i think is important. i think in terms of sharing how i feel about my work with other people, this design is important. as far as i know, they're just sort of crawling along the pavement trying to write the pages in hand and in so no one gets an arcade and we can keep doing what we like to do. so a lot of times writing is unpleasant. it must be great when you figure out a new sentence ora character or figure out a problem you've been working on but for me , i'm not taking it too seriously and i think the character of the depressive shot in i think is fun to play and it's partially true and also is
also sort of a default setting in my public relations. >> host: what was the easiest book to write? >> guest: they're all pretty hard, i have to say. i'm going to go with the shorter ones. the apex ispretty short, the book i'm working on now is pretty short . [laughter] so short isn't easy but it tends to not prolong the agony of a 400 pager. >> host: when you won the pulitzer at the national book award, praised by president obama, did that put a lot of pressure on the next book? >> guest: there's always pressure i think, imposed by myself because i wanted to be good, i want to be something different and i want to coast
so fortunately when i get good news, and i'm in the middle of something, i can, it will be good and that i start work the next day and it's like this kind of sucks and it's terrible, it's a terrible job so it's always hard, if it wasn't hard it would be worth doing in the pressure is self-imposed but it's always been there whether it's learning how to write a book, or, it better not be broke, there's always some kind of weird pressure on you. whether it's things are going well or are going well. >> good afternoon and welcome to book tv on c-span2. this is our monthly index program and this entire year we are doing a special action in addition with best-selling action authors. and this month, our author is best-selling author, pulitzer prize winner colson
whitehead. here's a list of his books, we've referred to several of them through the first half hour iwant to give you a list , "the intuitionist" is his first book in 1998, johnhenry days, 2001, the colossus of new york, 2003 . apex heights in 2006, "sag harbor" 2009. zone one about the zombies, 2011. the noble hustle which we talked about a little bit, a nonfiction book in 2014 and of course , his most recent, the underground railroad, which won the pulitzer prize, national book award, etc. we wanted to have your participation this afternoon in our conversation, here's how you can participate. 222-748-8200, if you live in the eastern central time zones, 202, 748-8201. to those of you in the mountain and pacific time zones. we have social media sites
that you can also contact colson whitehead if you have a question or a comment we've got facebook, twitter, instagram , at book tv is the handle you need to remember and here is our email address as well. book tv at c-span.org. we will take those calls in just a few minutes. >> what is the first line that you wrote in underground railroad? what are the first words you put to paper? >> it ended up being i think the opening line of the first time these were approached core about winning north, she said no. >> i will always do an outline before i start working. i had to know the beginning and the end and so the last couple books i've known the last line of the book before i started writing and i'm writing sports. i had that with this book
that first line i think came very quickly when i was ruminating and organizing the book and survived a horrible dating process to get into the book. >> what's the vetting process? >> you write something and it's a genius and two days later, that was really rough i don't know why i did it that way. and in this case, the first line was durable and sturdy. nothing spoke about the koran, not one sentence with me. >> from the underground railroad, about grave robbers. in depth negro became a human being. only then was he the white man's. >> that is from a section that takes place in the early part of the 19th century, as a doctor who's going to medical school and the book,
it takes sort of an eccentric route to american history. the main storyline takes place in the 1850s, that was my mental year on the books. that was my cut off or technology. and then there are sort of side stories in the book. that's for supporting cast in that section, doctor stevens meets later in his life is a young medical student in the 19th century, passionate about biology. he gives the cadavers up so there's a healthy trade in brave robbing. people would go and compete to find a fresh cadavers. there were gangs but they ransom each other at the same graveyard so he keeps himself very liberal in his musings
and he's talking about prejudice in the 19th century and uses that despite racial prejudice, despite the aspersions upon black folks in america. ironically, when they use for his actions, these folks become equal. these deadbolts become elevated only in death. to a level of equality, so one of the many humbling moments in the book.>> did you know you are goingto write about that when you started ? >> i mentioned the outline, yes. i had all these states and i didn't know giorgio would be the start, living in florida or south carolina with a white supremacist state, a
black utopia state which became indiana. and then i knew i wanted to have the opening be an overture of a slave, cora's grandmother, we followed up for six pages and follow it from the middle passage to the plantations and i figured i would look at typical slaves story and move on to story life, it seemed so short six-page chapters could be a way to open up a world to see where it can go. so i was writing a book and even though i did have a strong structure, the characters wereauditioning for those short biographical chapters, the doctor stevens , and in medical school. mabel, cora's mother gets hers and after a certain section i would think we should get them, after north carolina we need a husband and wife team who take cora in who's more interesting,
martin or ethel. and 's upbringing brings to the book, i give him that sort of age, what can ethel bring to the book, i give her that stage so even though i do have a strong structure, it had to be open for that obviously by the process of where the book takes you and those short sections are very useful. in terms of getting voice to how the book was evolving. >> can you read the underground railroad as historical fiction? >> i think if you are well-versed in historical fiction and you know that each section didn't actually happen in 1850, i'm moving something from the late 19th century , i had the idea to make the underground railroad into something real, that was the idea i had on my couch. and so from the very inception, this fantastic
element, not just for a historical novel. which means i can do a lot of different things in the book . how these different alternative america's, and i think all of the books power and successful conception comes from having a fantastic structure. but no, it was not a historical novel. i take many liberties and if my motto when i was writing a book was that i wouldn't stick to the facts but i would stickto the truth , the larger american truth. that's not bound by chronology, that actually happened but a different kind of connection, the reckoning that gives the reader my moving effort historical episodes around it. >> colson whitehead, did the rental plantation exists, you talk about. did you visit these places? >> the rental plantation
where cora is raised and where she's enslaved is my own creation. in doing the research, i had the latitude to make my own plantation and i take it from pop culture, i think a lot of us have the idea of a vacation is really big, 100 slaves . but you could be one of three slaves and a small family farm. you could be on the big size plantation, you could be a domestic slave a townhouse in baltimore. so randall is my own creation. and it borrows from plantations and how they work but it serves my artistic needs. in terms of the visiting plantations, two thirds of the way through i figured let's be a real writer and do some research so i put in new orleans with my wife. and went to see two plantation tours. i got on the tour bus, i was
the only black person on the tour bus. and we're going north and the tour guide is getting her spiel. and this is our river road that would take all the goods from north louisiana down to new orleans. and it was very complicated. owning a plantation was just sitting on your porch drinking mixed juleps. it was keeping track of the accounts, keeping track of the workers and once you bring in mixed juleps and the workers, obviously i'm not in a rigorously historically vigorous problem long. i went to two places. the whitney plantation which was a museum of the slave experience. it's great. so as a fiction writer, just feeling the atmosphere on my
skin, the sounds of the insects. seeing the implements. and then getting names. they would describe how they had various exhibits to how much slaves were sold, when people came and for me, i'm writing down names and some of those names i got from whitney plantation are in the book. how much people were sold for, all that grim stuff and to get back on the bus, go to the next plantation, the old galley plantation which you probably seen in movies. beyoncc filmed the video there and sort of that stereotypical plantation. and you know, if you want to do an antebellum themed wedding, you can rent costumes and have a slavery themed wedding. they have hotel rooms and i'm not sure if it's still on the
website, it says if you want to break free from hotel chains, you can stay here and so you know, writing a book about slavery and getting people's actual stories comes across early 21st century ironies about race and sort of the way we deal with race though nothing compares to the actual stories of slavery themselves. so it was a weird adventure and yes, i did go to plantations to research. >> the tour guide, the only african-american novel, the tour guide ignore you or spend too much time talking to you? >> guest: neither. i felt neither under the microscope or ignored. i think it's the same speech, two times a day, 30 times a year. they probably don't even think about it and they
probably think this is a lot about how we think about slavery, we don't necessarily think about the state of the conditions for slaves . the complete vast array of dehumanizing apparatus, of slavery. we don't examine or our assumptions about what the cost of in terms of people's families, psychology so the same way you sort of serve i think a speech about louisiana plantation life. a lot of us sort of necessarily think about slavery in that sort of throwaway, that would give us an understanding of it. >> this fiction is new to us at c-span as well and became almost a month long read for a lot of colleagues to read the underground railroad. we'll read you one from a colleague in davenport who
just finished your book and he wants to know about the five ads for slaves in the book. one is cora, are the other ones actual ads from newspapers? >> they are. the university of north carolina, they digitize runaway slave act. have a great digital archive and invited me to speak so i in a couple days i'm going down there and hopefully i can express my gratitude to their digital archive. so when a slave runs away, what do you do? you place an ad in the newspaper. and as a fiction writer, i like to figure out how people talk but it's competing with the tourists baseline runaway slave ads. they capture so much and so in so little space. the format is usually like $50, my slave bessie who ran
away for no reason at all, why? she has a downcast expression . a burn on an arm from an accident, she had an accident last seen in that the city of edmonson farm, a black community so how do you get that burn? how come there's so many levels of denial in the? i decided to stick them in there. copyright laws being what they are, i just put them in there andalso , when i was doing the research, i was struck at, sort of a banal observation but you'd have to be a farmer or a slave master to open up the system. you can be a journalist working a newspaper, writing classified ads and you are
upholding the slave system, the enterprise. you are part of a link in the chain that keeps the system going. you're a blacksmith and you make shackles but also you make the iron ribbons for the wheels or for the cars that are taking cotton to the markets. you're making nails for the houses or propping up these new slave economy towns so when i was researching, i ended up thinking about how fast the enterprise was and so a blacksmith in the classified ads down there, it brought the idea for broaden our id and the scope of the world of how fast the slave system was. >> host: you have a line here everyone is working foreli whitney . >> guest: the inventor of the
cottongin. the slaves of course , ridgway was the antagonist in the book, the slave catcher, these as much a slave of the system as anyone in bondage. everyone is propping it up, everyone is caught in its insidious grip. >> host: did i miss readthis or is there a sympathetic aspect ? >> guest: i think hopefully recognize his humanity. i think i wanted a well-rounded, compelling antagonist for my formidable protagonists and i think you should see your self in the heroes, in the villains , that's what makes them 3-dimensional and recognizable. it makes them live . but he's a terrible person, had a terrible philosophy. but in the same way that when cora is revealing her flaws,
you see her as a human being. when you see ridgway's moment of weakness, you recognize some self-deception in how he sees the world and if you can recognize that quality in your self, that's what makes fiction work. that what makes artwork, that recognition. >> host: when you teach a class, you've got several universities, what are two things you want your students to know >> guest: we have three months and so people can write three stories . do something different. if you teach a lot of undergrads, if you only write stories about girls in new jersey because you're an 18-year-old girl from new jersey, why not go crazy and write the story about a 22-year-old boy from pennsylvania? if you only write fantasy, try a realistic story and vice versa. you get three months to be
some sympathetic or semi-sympathetic to a workshop or audience, try these different stories. if you always avoid the first-person voice, try it. why do you avoid it? maybe it works for you and you have some sort of trepidation about expressing yourself so that's one thing. you have three months to fail and then pick yourself up and try something different and use it. and then i think if you find an author that you really love, sometimes i'm teaching people who are going to be architects or engineers or bankers and those are the ones that study hard classes, and bring them to people like lori moore or junot diaz or cz packer or people whodon't necessarily read once they get out of school . if there's something you like, read everything by then and figure out why you are attracted to the work, what
makes it compelling and then read a lot to find out what kind of writer you want to be and write a lot and find out what kind of writer you actually are, theyare two different things . just the inspiring voices that we encounter as we are finding our own voice. >> host: was it hard for you to write your antagonist as a white southerner? >> a little more, no more than having a elevator inspector, i don't know anything about elevator inspectors. i write him as a human being and i know people and you're always relying upon your own knowledge of yourself when you see other people. you speculate about how what makes other people operate. sort of a small collection of insights you have about humanity so if you have a big cast like "the underground railroad" does, if you have a
small cast like "sag harbor", you are always finding yourself in different characters and finding a place where you are different and hopefully to what you know about yourself and other people, making characters were not like you come to life on thepage . >> host: another colleague at c-span's been reading all your books and tweeting it out, i think you retweeted him a couple times had questions from several books that i'm going to start with "the intuitionist". he wanted to know who was james?>> james fulton, the first time i think about it is when you write a book and it's not yours anymore and people have questions and i get them questions and so i remember when the book came out, i got invited to a college and someone asked me james fulton, obviously that's based on foucault and i said no, i just looked out the window in brooklyn.
and it was the first name i saw. so james fulton is the inventor of the intuition's school of elevator inspection and the intuition is sort of steps into an elevator and divines what's wrong with it. it's like using the force and hopefully the elevator inspectors in your community go the right way but in my book, the intuition us is sort of a insurgent aggressive force. in the department of delegate elevator inspectors and james fulton is the man. with their philosophy. i grew up in the 80s and went to college in the 80s so that meant wars between the colonists and the multiculturalists. so it seems when i made my elevator inspector school, it would have that conservative and progressive war play out. so these were conservatives
in the intuition us are those multiculturalists fighting the establishment. and james fulton comes up with the sacred text of intuition is him. at this point either my book sounds good or bad. so let's go back to your first question. either this book sounds cool at this point or sounds totally stupid. so. [laughter] i'm re-creating my own way, my feelings when i was writing the book and perhaps my book is not so great. >> host: i literally have no idea what you just said but i'm sure the audience follow you closely. is "sag harbor" a real place? >> guest: that's a real place on the tip of long island. the hamptons is the community for the last couple decades and the town of "sag harbor"
is nestled in the more famous hamptons, southhampton and it's an old whaling town mentioned inmoby dick . a lot of people went from that part of long island sound into connecticut and starting in their 30s and 40s there were african-american doctors, lawyers, teachers we started going out there, getting summer places. they made some money and started a community. it was a safe place to go, bring your kids, heard by word-of-mouth. people inharlem are going in the 30s and 40s, there tell their cousin in new jersey and start coming . so my mom started going out there in the 40s, i spent my summers out there. grew up in the city but we would go out there every summer for college so "sag harbor" the book is based on my adventures in sag harbor the town. >> host: and here you write
was there anything worse than a bigot playing keep away with your stuff? a dreary rehearsal for adulthood. >> guest: the main character benji is 15 and you know, he's doing a lot of the identity formation. he's figuring out where he is in his community, where he fits in his identity. he's a black kid who likes bauhaus and susie and the banshees, is it okay to like run dmc or candy like both? he's figuring out what it's like to be a person and part of that, a lot of that is sort of this weird identity battle, continuing as you get older. kind of psychological warfare that you are engaged in with your community and the world because when you're a teenager, you wake up and
you're an individual bougie is an upscale, middle-class pretension. and it means you've made it, sometimes it's anxiety about making it. it's also embracing the fact that you're a little bit posh. >> host: back to "sag harbor". getting rid of your sad house, that was unforgivable. like sellingyour kids off to the circus .you still have your sag house? >> guest: my mom is living out there since the 90s. she owns it is the bottom line what's lovely about the place is that people have been going out there for generations. my grandparents and their peers bought little plots of land, little houses and the kids grew up in them and
their grandkids, they spend their summers in them and of course, at any place in the world the community changes and i wouldn't call it gentrified but a lot of families used to go out there , if you live in michigan you're not going to go to "sag harbor" anymore so you sell your house and people take over the neighborhood. people like this lovely piece of land, the black part of town and then the 21st century realizes it's nice beachfront property. so it's more integrated now. so it has changed similar to what it was when i was a kid and a part of the book is just this talk about that place and it's really just this moment before it becomes part of the hamptons proper and it sort of is this posh environment.
>> host: what was your mom's reaction and was your dad still alive when "sag harbor" came out? >> guest:my dad passed away a short time before, i'm not sure how much he would have liked it my mom it . i'm not sure how much my friends would like it. it came out , and everyone out there seemed to embrace it. i ran into my friend jeff who is a character in the book and he said i'm in your book. >> host: nick or mp? >> guest: he's somebody. but he's like, i heard i'm in your book? i'm like, yeah. i haven't read it but it's good. can you have me to the audiobook? he kept coming up in my friends that are in the book, like i heard on it . no one's really bothered. most of the people who are in the book haven't bothered or moved to actually pick it up.
>> host: if your mom read it, what was her reaction tothis and again, this is fiction . we were a made-for-tv family and when he called action, we get our marks and deliver our lines . the scripts were all the same, we had the formulasdown . >> guest: that didn't have much to do with my family but it did deal with pop culture and they are talking about the cosby show and when the cosby show came out, a lot of middle-class white people and black people embraced it and said we are finally on tv. there's a brownstone in brooklyn heights, a few parents were professionals and in many ways of course, for the first time we saw
ourselves in that particular way on tv. pop culture is very important to the main koelsch character, italian filters the world. so his relationship to the cosby show becomes a way of talking about the lie behind that kind of cosby show fiction. and of course now we know bill cosby, bill: cosby's own life has underscored the separation between the televisual reality and how things are in the world. so whether he's talking about the cosby show or road warrior, or hip-hop, pop culture becomes a way of filtering out the world and going through the motions and that i guess i had to exaggerate the story to make it interesting, because it's my family which was a proud family of movie watching folks ..
it was so rare that the black press would tell you when you would be on tv. >> host: we have talked for an hour with colson whitehead. we have had a lot of people. >> guest: are you kicking me off? >> host: there kicking me off! more poorly we are getting american involved. we have a phone call >> we will begin with a phone call from charles albuquerque new mexico. >> caller: you don't have to thank me for my patients i really enjoy listening to the show but colton whitehead
thank you for opening up to let us have a view into that magnificent brain ofto his to haveve the blessing and he talks about harvest time to get out of this treachery how this character has a life of its own you are crafted a certain wayki and making sure you make that movement of the book and the structure and the beauties and the difficulties like a historical novel. that does help with terms of story development so there has
been so much that he talks about so he talks about this idea and if there is certain times that he is bogged down and not know where to go and then to persevere you just have to write those pages down. sometimes there is a daunting task ahead of you to crank out a few pages a day. >>host: thank you for calling. >> it is work some days you are in tune with the project everything comes together every other days you struggle
through a paragraph. that is a victory. a novel is a marathon so that one paragraph is alo lot. if i can do eight pages a week that is like a novel that is my way to think about it and some days you don't feel like working so you see a movie. [laughter] or read a book maybe it is tuesday or wednesday or saturday or sunday or tuesday through friday but if i can get eight pages that keeps me sane some days it'll feel like working or i will revise and that is work but it doesn't take the same part of the oain but you are making progress.
>>host: do you have a sense of detachment from your characters? have you gotten mad? >> not mad by its -- i do remember getting angry like with sag harbor i was a little more removed from my previous character and that is very personal. writing about slavery which is about institutional racism and more horrific aspects of america so i do get angry when i research but when i write that a very separate it is an act of creation not grievance it is not an essay.
then the reader can come into the story. >>host: you have a lot with homer and underground railroad. >> homer is the assistant and i had that idea for that book many years ago but i waited until i was ready to write it and ten years ago i would have over explained his psychology but i'm going to let him do what he once so he's black assistant to the white slave catcher he has been set free by ridgeway and keeps hanging out with him and works with imhim so i try to eliminate the weird corners of the relationship slaves upon being
free state with their master because they do nothing but the plantation we cannot conceive of that psychology but it happened maybe raised by a house slave and would swear is part of the family i love her and she raised me but h of course we torture rape and abuse her and her children to have that psychotic denial of the slave master. so hopefully in a different episode that is a very odd dynamic. >>host: erie pennsylvania go ahead. >> caller: good afternoon. have you considered writing
leave my house to teach i will never write a screenplay. i know how to write a novel. so i end up going back to fiction but i grew up on tvv and film that is important to me from science fiction. but i can do fiction and nonfiction but i don't have the chops to leave those two genresgr. >>host: is underground railroad being serialized? >> yes our books have too many black people to be adapted but the book has been embraced when it came out we sent it to hollywood we got a call from
the young femaleom mom --dash filmmaker terry jenkins who did moonlight but we saw the early version so then we find that situation. slave movies? i was thinking thomas anderson there will be blood and that's my answer. >> then reading about the oscar and the contract so he was pitching and amazon studios will do a miniseries they are writing that now it is exciting. >>host: are you in new jersey? >> caller: 6 miles north of
princeton. you were kind enough to sign my copy of the underground railroad at the schomburg center kevin young you were classmates? yes. kevin young the poet nonfiction writer he has had a crazy year we started writing together and has been more professional and i am more of the slacker he knew what he was doing and had the first book of poetry now head of the
schomburg library in new york city. >>host: and his latest book just came out a few months ago and the american way so we have always traded work is great to have him have such a great year. >> caller: how do they come up with the underground railroad? how was it built? >> social networks. in the 1840s the locomotive
transforms america it is a great image and metaphor a master woke up the next day and said to himself there is noo trace it as if he disappeared on the underground railroad and that was the term for the network for the slaves to escape to the north they could have a seller hiding somebody for a couple weeks maybe just a night maybe you take somebody in your wagon a few miles white people and black people so there were eastern seaboard you can end up in indiana massachusetts orac new york obviously not a
literal trade but when the book camee out people thought it was a real train. we can barely keep the train going in new york. >>host: was their significance of that underground station that was decorated? >> some are roughly carved out of rock some are accommodating so defined as different characters of thee train station stations. >>host: we have an e-mail referring to your couch more than once is that where you write? what is a typical day
writing like? >> a typical day i get up and take my son to school, come back home, take the first nap of the day on the couch that i start working and write i a page, another nap or i cry than a right to another page and have a snack or three pages a day is a good day and i'm the kindin of person if i have a doctors apartment -- appointment at one go do something else but three or four days a week 10:30 to 3:00 o'clock then 330 and and figure out what to make for the family for dinner if you cook a couple hours and have a
sense of completion that sense of accomplishment to embrace him short ribs to share with people not waiting 24 months. >> go back to the crying fit. [laughter] i find joking about that greater process sometimes i go to a café to work i would rather be able to make a ham sandwich, take a nap you can't take a nap in the café. there are so many people out there. [laughter] so i just a home and keep
focused. >>host: with your notoriety because of the underground railroad can you still bes anonymous?st >> i do get recognized occasionally i have been doing more tv than usual so i am recognized so it is uncomfortable as somebody is looking at me like is my fly open or do i have food on my face? oh they recognize me. i just read your book i gave it to my mother and i could be taxicab almost hit me. but it is nice when they take the time to read the book.
>>host: in 2002 you were invited to the laura bush symposium at the renaissance riders and the washington post book editor at the time asked you the question howth you felt about african-american section in the bookstore and you didn't really give an answer. do you have a more definitive answer now? >> borders went out of business they had a long-standing policy to have literature section and an african-american book section or and ideally you are both in high school to go to the black section in the bookstore and iobrowse to find a person you never heard about frederick
douglass? who is this guy? it is a place to find works about your culture it was a good idea in the 70s with black studies but why do you have toni morrison and the black studies section? she should be in both. i do think she is in both sections in my bookstore. and then to have a purpose. n >>host: the next call comes from north carolina you are on the tv. >> caller. i would like to tell this gentleman i was raised in southern philadelphia. we were never never taught there was a variable with blacks. i just apologize to you if this is what you have
experienced. thank you for your work, it is wonderful. and i appreciate all you have gone through. thank you. >> thank you. i'm glad you grew up in a very progressive and lovely place like philadelphia a lot of the country isn't as lovely it does have its terrible side and then to determine so much of ourab history. >> you grew up upper-middle-class new york city did you go through a lot? >> it is prejudice based on the color of your skin not your zip code so yes.
like most young eichmann handcuffed andrr interrogated to beyond the wrong block at the wrong time in manhattan, pulled over for my drivers license why are you in this nice car and you never know when that episode will escalate black lives matter and then to create a conversation we have a conversation and then we stop like rodney king and then we stop talking about it so there is a national conversation
ever since i was seen as a target the first person to give me the talk was richard pryor about stop by the police a white cop will she witness to shoot you in a second when they say license and registration he says i am reaching into my glove compartment because you would get shot in the second so he gave me the first talk then my dad later many times i was made aware of that that i could be shot at any moment to base on -- basically. >>host: my question is do you
always write such brilliantly descriptive sentences. i quoted you on my facebook page as an example of your skill they devoured the next town did you hold it down or is that your original sentence? >> thank you. that is very nice of you to say. you get better and there is a narrator that is more encyclopedic and that has much more complicated sentences than the narrator of this book so you check the narrator for the job sometimes they are great right now with or mom --
underground railroad and i try different kinds of voices with narrative style you exhaust one and move on to the next and like i said before you keep going but thank thanks. >> will you tell us anything about this other book xp mckay takes place in florida in the 60s may be a funnier book or a darker book and has the smallest page count of anything i have done but this book is also a darker vein and maybe i should just mix that even the next one will be a
little lighter. >>host: keokuk iowa. >> caller: can i call you colton? mech that's great mech i said i wasn't sure if this was pre-recorded. i am 73 and i have had books in my head for years since i was in my 20s and i had people tell me that i should write but then you get busy to make a life with the family but iu get distracted have little stories my mother passed away last year at 92 i always told her i would write about her because she had an empowered mom --dash a
powerful impact on me like her father with her. you call the mother don't call me more. that is the only remember that i called her. my dad always called her her nickname. older ladies took me to church and they said that's horrible call her ob. call her mother and every time i did you said you are pulling away from me you are closer to me when you call me lb. i thought maybe i was adopted.wa [laughter] >>host: so he has books in his head. seventy-three years old in iowa. >> if you like that story and you like it, write another.
i teach undergraduate at grad school and i work at summer workshops with all ages people in their 60s and 70s writing their first novel or autobiographical story they have been carrying around and they finally have the time. this is my eighth book and i still struggle finding time to work. having a family, having a job where do you find those hours to get your story down? it is always agen? struggle with your eighth book or your first but only you know who she is and who she was and what she meant tohe you. the sooner you start the sooner it will be done. >> what is the biggest mistake riders make?
>> riding on -- rewriting the page over and over again. you get to the end and then fix it don't get caught making those first pages perfect keep going but don't get stuck that get to the end and that will save what is wrong with thean beginning. >> good afternoon. >> caller: i have two questions. the first is when you are writing who is your target audience and my second question is is there any subject that is off-limits you would not write about? >> that is too good questions
my ideal audience member was a 16-year-old black kid to think iea can write this guy colton is a weirdo. here is this guy maybe i can write as well that there is no 16-year-old kid and i stopped expecting my audience because that is a genre to gain people and lose people and with sag harbor it is less hard to describe and i followed up with a book on zombies. [laughter]wa so to get new readers to disappoint them so i don't think about my audience
anymore. what i want to write about i don't know much about football so it is unlikely to have a football novel that i never thought i would write a booki about poker but that fell into my lap as you go through life things become more or less interesting so there is no way i could have predicted a lot of my books. >>host: the ne next call from georgia good afternoon. you are on the air. >> caller: i was goin to ask i haven't read your books but the african slave trade? and he describes some arab traders coming down to east africa murdering those
villagers to get those 5000 slaves. of course there are buyers in the new world that is like the drug dealers now. if there is buyers people supply the drugs or slaves so what is your comment? >> i do have a section on the african slave trade and before i get to america with american slavery. that is all i have written on the subject but if there is money involved people tend to explore thosee worst impulses so with the african slave
trade and stories about slavery now or building iphones or on a shrimping boat that is not likely to america or anywhere else. >>host: longbranch new jersey go ahead. >> with my book club the interpretations are all over the place especially about the main character elevator inspector? >> that book is very open and more ambiguous than some of my other books which but
intuition what does that mean in terms of technology in a city when i started the book i think about it but without elevators you cannot have a modern city and then with the safety elevator it only goes up to five stories then that enables the modern city. that is one meaning of the elevator i was writing the book and uplift the race came with elevation sometimes it is about transcendence and achieving a higher consciousness or a higher level of being so it is very
we will continue our conversation in just a minute will show you his acceptance speech late 2016 right after the election and also one of his favorite books and influences and some of the books he is reading now be mech. >> the last four months have been so incredible. like make-a-wish foundation am i dying? everybody is nice to me. it is so confusing because my model for the acceptance speeches the oscars the first i saw was 77 star wars against annie hall and annie hall one and i was depressed and i never thought i would become a
writer to be up on one of these things. i've been with doubleday years. who gets to stay with the same publishing house 18 years and then robert caro was like. [laughter] well done. my daughter is at home watching onscreen i think i started living the day you were born and thank you for your ongoing gift. [applause] to my wife and my son is three it is so much fun watching
things with you you have all these ideas i'm excited to see how they develop in my book is dedicated to my wife julie. [applause] is okay to write good books when you're not happy but it's better when youer are happy. [applause] so i got the word out so people could read my copy then oprahh then it's all crazy this time last year i was finishing a book don't mess it up.
you never know what will happen in a year now it is out and i never thought it would be standing here. and a year from now outside is a blasted hellhole that we will inhabit but who knows what will happen in a year from now. because i am promoting the book they said are you worried about the election i say no i am stunned.. and then be kind to everybody. make art and fight the power. that seems like a good formula for me. [applause] ♪
>>host: colton whitehead in your speech you refer to the terror of trump land you were shocked couple of weeks after the election. >> i grew up in new york so it tabloid creature that persisted we watched on the apprentice a ridiculous reality show but then his campaign season with is racist and you know full big rhetoric and speeches and then how to
write a book about white supremacy and the white house again. >>host: do consider him to be white supremacist? >> if you say racist things and govern in a way that benefits whites or people of color consistently that is what a white supremacist means but then to raise those confederate flags that is a certain sympathy. >> to capture the story in the early part of the 20th
then the three lines pop up. those impressionistic essays hopefully and with that static american voice like walt whitma whitman. >> from the underground railroad colton whitehead writes the thread connects all human endeavors. >> peopleer were objects and they had a value placed on their lives and the more they worked for the people that own them.
and with a global player with imperialism and capitalism so it tries to wrestle and that helps to shape our country. >>host: the next call comes from new york. you are on booktv. >>host: i'm sorry we have to lose you but just a reminder turn down your volume when you are on the air or there is a delay and it is confusing.
>> hello mr. whitehead. i am enjoying the program but it has been answered but who was one of your favorite authors? what type of inspiration did you get from that author? when did you know that writing as if it was a nine to five job. >>host: we will get an answer to the first, who is a writer that has inspired you? which of his books have you read? >> toni morrison has been one of my most inspirational
riders. and writing one -- i'm reading mr. whitehead's book now the underground railroad. and to enjoy every bit of it. i enjoyed seeing you on tv today. thank you. >> i am a nurse i work at the hospital here. >> i hope the end of the book is not disappointing. there are so many different folks raymond carver and then
i feel -- the real and the fake so garcia marquez and and the grandmother would tell stories for kelly's growing up with fantastic detail than the share sprouted wings and flew away. and never knew what was real or not. but to be in the world that is a recognizable. and working on this book the underground railroad it was more science fiction or very different in terms of time and
went back to under years of solitude and instead to have a spinal tap at 11 then maybe a meltdown then to encounter these movements it is presented with a matter-of-factl tone. >> it was a very conservative department so to take african-american studies classes that i met someone and a citizen that recent to be taught and he said no.
then to be annoying. so first they learn about other cultures and races and then you are learning things for the first time that makes you engaged and it is scotland -- kind of annoying. but maybe more so than out here with us. [laughter] >> you mentioned depression your sense of humor comes through in thede interview so how does humor seep into your book?
>> i saw george carlin when i was very young making fun of the world and presenting the world and all of it of certainty with the perspective and that is life and then to have that narrative voice thatth goes from tragic so from hour to hour we tried to catch the network and i think, in your it will be first-person and outrageous than we go sad here
there were a couple of wayse people communicated to each other about the underground railroad of course one was through song or negro spirituals was there any other way? >> colton is a family name. my father was named archibald so named me arch and colton is my middle name my colton and's name his father my grandfather worked in a hotel in virginia in a small town and bought
himself out of freedom working in a hotel hiring himself out on weekends and then he kept doing that and by himself out of slavery so colton goes back to that individual who got out of slavery by paying off his owner's fees but in terms of communication if you were caught you would be put to death and looking at complicated ways and she comes from georgia in reality that far south you would never make in particular to the carolinas or virginia you could escape
the south to the caribbean and mexico if you state that far south but there are so many ways people communicated and again, if you were caught you would be jailed or beaten to death and strung up i love both tb. question. do you need to come through the msa program to find an agent if you write a different genre doesn't agent settle on you? >> good luck with your writing. that's how did my friends who writeg. go to grad school for writing?
half of them did half of them didn't for me it was a newspaper the village voice i could sit down- or five hours if not i would have to collaborate with editors because i could not see my rent. i did not get my agent through the msa. i worked at newspaper so i knew nonfiction riders so i had some ideas. when i had to find my agent i was with i got a recommendation of someone who passed i asked her if i got bumped? and who is open to that? she recommended a new agent
and to have a sensibilities the you find if you have an author that you like i don't know who their agent is but send it to them. in my case i write a two-page paragraph so you figure out who represents books like yours.re >> underground railroad is a phenomenon you've been talking about and working on it x number of years are you getting tired? are you getting bored? >> neither. this really is incredible to
burden or expectation but to leave you alone and you have to handling it at the end of five years. the way i took it was that i had written two books, oddball promises, haven't gotten that from now will, keep doing that will give you money to support you you can keep doing that. i took it as just encouragement and i wasn't anxious about it
but this pressure to live up to it was the saying that i'm doing exactly what i should be doing keep doing it. >> host: lets you from john in flushing, ohio. john, you're on with author and novelist colson whitehead. >> caller: thank you very much. also, the praise that you receive from the rolling stone in "the washington post" and the miami herald you deserve it. you are stepping in high cotton. i would like you to give a short overview of sag harbor because you and i come from north new jersey and on the curator of the underground railroad here in my town. go right ahead and tell us what you can. >> host: john, was there a station in flushing, ohio? >> caller: there certainly was. this is the northwest ohio territory, illinois, indiana, michigan and it was right over the ohio river so what colson
said was up-to-date. >> guest: thank you, john. sag harbor talks a bit about it before but it's important book for me because for a moment i started with these intellectual questions i was trying to explore and that was the premise of the novel so john henry and john henry days and what if i updated this industrial age of john henry went to the information age and what stories i generate from that. and it seemed that i've been avoiding writing drying the material that seemed for books and, four novels and, that it was time to so that book was important to me as a writer just to access different parts of my personality in my world that out there. and it started with the
character as opposed to intellectual question, a character in a study. benji, 1985, sag harbor's town in long island and since then i think i've had a bigger emphasis were put more work in my characters starting with sag harbor and for a and then the underground railroad combination of two periods of my work and there's a strong character grounding it and i've been learning from sag harbor and the other books too but i think the last eight years and they start in this absurd abstract premise what if i made the underground railroad something real so there was this totally strange abstract premise and the character work and they come together in this book. it was important as a writer and as a person and i see its influence in his work. >> host: angelo, newark, delaware or new arc, delaware.
>> caller: hello. how are you doing this evening? i'm here in the state of delaware and i'm amazed at how this gentleman writing this book. i just now received got his book the underground railroad and i just got finished reading my soul is [inaudible] by harold grimes and i'm going to tell you it's amazing. you are definitely the in your pen because you doing you got a sense of humor and you're doing it and by me being an author i'm learning something review. how do you get that last name of yours is that a, how can i say it, is that a slave last name or was it given to you because my father is from barbados and he's from roanoke, virginia but his father was from barbados and my family had a hard so how might me how you keep that sense of
humor? >> guest: if you think the name whitehead it's not from my barbados side. that name is clark and so clark family comes to new york, ellis island in the 1920s and talking with the book i talk about some parts of my family history in virginia and not knowing others in the summer someone sent me a genealogy that they did for me piecing together clues from things i had talked about and so whitehead i'm not sure of the origin but this person trace it back to florida and then before that georgia in the mid- 19th century so poor that i'm not sure. i know there are a lot of white people named whitehead and with the slave masters and, i'm not sure.
in terms of artistic work, your writing, you can only get better by doing it so you write a story that's not as successful as we only want to be better than he ever relates and then third story is not as good but you are not so i keep a sense of humor about my work and that's my point of view about the world and then i just keep going to get better. >> host: maria, el paso, texas. hello, maria. hello. >> host: we are listening. >> caller: thank you. i have a question how much should i accept a nice fiction book is factual -- is there a writers bias in their or can i rely on the facts from a nonfiction book? >> host: do you have a specific
book, maria, you are referring to? >> caller: just in general? i like history and autobiography and i accept fiction as just a novel that they may have some historical facts in their but it may not be truthful but i'll give you a simple example. let's say bill o'reilly book. his book on the pacific war the son of something the sun rises or something -- how factual is bill o'reilly book? >> host: thank you can mail. >> guest: strangely, i don't read a lot of bill o'reilly but i grew up in the 80s and that means that in the age of high
postmodernism and so there's no objective truth and your perspective in her vocal bias in her social conditioning affects how you tell the story. if you write a history of slavery now a feminist indication as possible and if you write a history of hundred years ago all these things enter in an intercultural point of view and someone telling the story of writing a memoir it could be subjective account of how you saw the and your mom and your cousin may disagree. so in terms of how much do you believe, you hope they are getting right but the difference between fiction and nonfiction is that action can make it up
but nonfiction has to get right. in terms of the railroad i have been asked by those who read a lot of nonfiction say aren't you getting trouble by mixing the real and fake in this age of big news and don't you have a responsibility to your reader and the answer is no. i don't have a responsibility to the reader. i assume that when the book says the underground railroad: a novel that it's a piece of fiction and should be taken as the gospel of how it actually happened. i know that you lose people die every year they step in tornadoes and think it will take them to the wizard of oz and is an error and you shouldn't take fiction seriously. i for one refuse to go to costa rica because i know that's where the film drastic park and i'm deathly afraid of dinosaurs. i don't want to get eaten.
but for most people i think don't have a problem and can differentiate fiction and. >> host: you really won't go to costa rica are you being for real about that do i don't think. [laughter] costa rica is nice. very humid. >> host: i just wanted to check on that. is there a significant in john henry's that the protagonist just as a j for first name? >> guest: i think i had the team cagey about the first name and i was trying to take this bigger full floor and find different avatars of john henry this throughout the decades and as paul said in a blue stinker in march or dirty the main character and he's another avatar in his john henry and i
will leave it at that. >> host: i want to go back to something you said to her last caller that you do not feel a responsibility to the reader. >> guest: to tell a good story, yes, but i don't feel responsibly to educate them about history. i think what has been nice about the experiments did not happen in 1850 but happen in the 1930s and 40s and beyond. forced sterilizations of people, immigrants, people of color and it did happen in 1850 but later in people haven't heard about those episodes in our history or if they have it happen under slavery in the mood to do more research and that's great. i have a responsibility hopefully not too poor people too much and have my books be worth their while. i have a responsibility to family and friends that has been
and good friend and besides that if you think of advertising the copy sounds compelling, pick it up. if you don't think it sounds compelling, don't pick it up. what next fall for colson whitehead. betty, in tennessee. hello, betty. hello. >> host: we are listening, ma'am. >> caller: i just called him to give him a message. i'm not able to see well enough to read anymore but he was talking about the way the black people and the things they use to get out and they used quilting and they would quote patterns insert quilts and hang them on the clothesline and that was used in the deep.
i'm a white lady and i'm an elderly lady and i'm not well educated but i've read a lot of history and i have a lot of love in me, too. i love people. i've always read a lot of books, black and white, and god gave me a lot of love in my heart. this guy is really interesting to watch. but i haven't read his books but that is something he needs to know is i have a paper here somewhere that shows the different patterns if i could find it again where they would hang the quotes on the clothesline and in 50 miles or a hundred miles they'd be another signal and they would use that. >> guest: betty -- >> host: before we let you go, tell us a little bit about yourself and if you were raised in tennessee and what tennessee was like over the years. >> caller: i was raised in tennessee but lived in georgia
for about four years in different parts and that is when i realized that part of tennessee i was raised in the mountains we didn't have that purchase but part of georgia and i met some will hate black people and i've never forgotten them and i couldn't believe, i couldn't believe, things i seem. i just couldn't believe it. let sit on the front porch i'd say and rocked the baby and oh no we can't do that. they would say. that was like 56, 60 years ago and it was a painful thing but now the quilts and i just thought he said that he would know about the singing but the quilting was used in the deep. certain quilts if i remember one thing, ma'am to thank you for turning in.
you said you're not reading as much now but the audiobook is very well done. >> host: did you do the audio? >> guest: i did not. i can read things that i read and i do them as lectures and reading but i read the audiobooks for my short books but it's exhausting and the people the characters and the drama goes into a dramatic reading of a novel i can't do. spy on my power. professional actors to it and i know that people who like the version and then you talk about tennessee and georgia and it's interesting since the book about your conversation in different parts of the south and i remember when the book came out people with it's weird taking this book down to the south where slavery happened and we
had slaves in new york, as well. it's not isolated to the south. north carolina gets a bad rap in my book. it's white supremacist date and it's an exaggeration of what happened under jim crow with the lynching time what sort itself one in georgia. >> guest: but north carolina gets it the worst. i'm going there this week to durham into waynesboro and i've been there five times the books come out and we have embraced libraries people come out to these events and its marketing. if you grew up on property and family for generations and you are a white person how do you reckon with the fact that your great, great great grandfather raped, tortured, brutalized people and that's what pay for the plan for the house you're
still in. you know, as a black person i was returning the story i was i had to reckon with in many ways i should be here and it's luck that my great-grandparents were killed at this or that junction or this or that plantation during the middle passage and so no matter where you come from i think it's an interesting reaction when they came out in france and they were not used for working against [inaudible] packet has been interesting to see people different cultures different countries react to parts of the book. >> host: you enjoy the college lecture circuit. >> guest: i do. would you have anxiety mark no, i talk about the book and if
it's something new for the first time then i want to have turnout and i'm going to start reading for my new book later this spring and how people respond. >> host: is the finished? >> guest: i'm two thirds of the way through but i think certain books it is pretty helpful to test it. are people laughing at the jok jokes? are they falling silent and terrible parts? also, if you get a good reaction then it's not such a crazy idea and it's working and you're trying to understand what you're doing. >> host: without delving too far into your character you didn't sign up for the college lecture circuit would you be essentially in this tethered to the scout? could you easily do that? >> guest: i work at home so i do spend a lot of time there and
going to foreign travel for publication in different countries and going to north carolina and tucson is a way of not being such a hermit but also being i love new york and i see a lot of places i would not normally go and it's a good and positive part of the work. >> host: president obama praised the underground railroad and did you get a chance to meet him while he was in office? >> guest: i did. it was very strange. i got the e-mail from one of his assistants and i was like someone is bringing me again and then i googled the guys name and he actually was a white house worker in so i went and a bunch of novelist and he just said he
had been in the white house for almost eight years and it was the week before leave and he said he always wanted to chat with writers and have lunch with them and he had only had a couple days left. our time is running out and so being lefty writers who were all [inaudible] and we were dazed by the news of the trumpet coming in and after 20 minutes we were like light not, and we did lighten up and then we talked about writing and he's got great books and he got animated talking about being a broke writer writing his first book and he was in indonesian island
and but he was broke and riding in a hut and there were lizards that would croak loudly and he got animated just thinking about how the thrill of creative actions which we all can relate to. >> host: where were you writing your first book? >> guest: i was in brooklyn. >> host: moving in or -- >> guest: i wrote some really good books in brooklyn and i'm fond of the early days. as we broke in writing the article and then i would write another article that would buy me another couple days and then i would live in various rooms with slanted floors so i was up looking at ads in [inaudible]
they were terrible apartments that you do when their 81 jenny, honolulu, good afternoon to you. hello. it's nice to be here on air with you. colton, i would like to know if you're familiar with the writing of an italian [inaudible]. he wrote in the 60s and his most famous word was the cosmic comic and he's not really a novel but each chapter is like a little short story unto itself but when i hear you laugh i thought maybe you'd like the humor of the cosmic comic and he also wrote i don't know how to translate it in english the climbing baron or the baron in the trees and it's about [inaudible]. >> host: why is this appealing to you? >> caller: it's magical realism. he came a little earlier than garcia and it's the language is beautiful and so intriguing to's
imagination. is that a familiar author? one thank you, ma'am. >> guest: he is great and [inaudible] are both great books. again, i felt a real affinity with him when i encountered his work in college. from being someone who like fantasy and was a so-called highbrow writer he's using the tools of storytellers that i adored growing up and whether that fantasy dial is on a calvino s or arthur c clarke 11 and if you pick the right the dog in that lovely, whimsical, voice is inspirational and if you're watching the book for short and, one according to what you sent us colson whitehead is
currently reading a comic book mr. miracle. >> guest: yeah, i had my last big comic tag when i was writing sag harbor. sometimes when you write a book you research and you go to plantations and was sag harbor which is about 1985 and pop culture we re-created my money men mix tapes from the 1980s with new wave mix tapes and i'm not up on all the stuff coming up nowadays but mr. miracle was getting great reviews and so i downloaded it and it's about a small corner of the dc comics world and the spider, king, is having a very sort of 20th century postmodern take character of the 70s and the.
>> host: david, tulsa, booktv with chris whitehead. >> caller: hello, thank you for taking my call. to preface my comment one of the most interesting summers ever spent as a teacher was in 2003 as a teaching [inaudible] for c-span and as mr. whitehead probably knows it's very difficult to encourage students to read and could he send a message to my students on the benefits of reading books as opposed to some other activiti activities. >> guest: sure. i'm only a writer because i love reading a lot when i was a kid and it wasn't like this are supposed to read with comic books and science fiction and i
wanted to write stories of zombies and werewolves and maybe want to write serious fiction. and so it doesn't matter if twilight or hunger games and if you like it, read it, don't for thworry about what others are saying and if you like hunger games, there are other dystopian books takes on society that you might also like from different writers. ...
my daughter novels for younger readers, tweens, are really big now. she is 13 and now she is moving into ya stuff. >> host: next call is merit-do myrtle in elizabeth, new jersey. you're on booktv. >> guest: every week on sunday. and sometimes during the week; mr. whitehead, i want to know if you're doing any book reviews and the elizabeth area?
>> guest: i'm not sure where that is. but my web site has -- i am doing touring in the spring, and perhaps i am coming to a town near you. >> host: she is in elizabeth, new jersey. >> guest: elizabeth, new jersey imthought new york. >> host: right. >> guest: i was there for a book festival a year and a half ago. i'm going to newark, rutgers, newark, on tuesday, actually, which is not too far. so i'm able to see you there if you do come, wave. >> host: you're speaking at rutgers. >> guest: yes. >> host: do you do book signings? >> guest: i do. i was like -- if you -- >> what. >> host: what's most common comment people make to you and the most offensive comment somebody has made to you. >> guest: offensive, i try to process at that time out. i think, that was totally messed up. it's funny because definitely in
new york there's a different acquaintance or lack of acquaintance with african-american black culture and questions about the underrailroad and how it worked, which makes sense. then questions like, could a white person have written this book? that's a question about cultural authenticity. you would never ask a, could a black person write this book? now there's a big question about cultural authenticity and being framed in a way with nothing to do with my book. sort of like you're an exotic black person. >> host: these are questions you get in europe? interviewers. >> host: you get a apologized a lot to in the south, here in the u.s.? >> host: a couple of caller head
apologized. >> guest: people are moved to apologize for some southern culture, what they're great, great, great, great grandparents did or did not do. but that's like a small percentage. it doesn't bug me. most common question is about why a female narrator, and i answered. being inspired by harriet jacobs, mixing up. exploring the dilemma of female slaves. basically take the time even to question is kind of dumb, i'm real happy you came out and i'm happy sort of answering and engage. >> host: because of the underground railroad and because of your books, have you become an african-american writer? >> guest: well issue think if you to -- if you're african-american, get any sort of slim recognition, people do
want you to talk about "black lives matter." we have a booking, need somebody to talk about on the 4:00 spot. are you available? and it's like, why don't you have somebody from "black lives matter" talk about "black lives matter" and not some dumb novelist. my book does spin off into a lot of different topics, about white supremacy, what is happening in america now, the racism and racism in 1850 because beings have or have not changed. contemporary political culture and goes into a natural conversation about the book. i'd rather be home working. it's not my job to fulfill your -- be the fourth seat on your talk show. i really am a writer, and rather be home writing. >> host: greg, missouri, good afternoon. >> caller: good afternoon, and thank you for the fascinating interview. two quick questions. as mr. whitehead -- are you
familiar with the slave writings of william falkner, especially in the long short store "the bear" and scream of consciousness technique, and second question was, watt do you think about he post modern novelist and that school? >> host: what do you think of them, greg? >> caller: well, i think -- i thought they're fascinating. robert cooper, post modernist now about the julius neville rosenburg, williams gast from st. louis who just passed away at an age 88 or something, and fascinating novels like "the
tunnel" and -- but interesting school of writing. >> host: thank you, sir. >> guest: sure. mean, i read -- in terms of faulkner issue read "light in august." i'm blanking. in college. he has not stayed with me. i don't think about him often as an influence, and i don't have much use for him, guess in terms of my work. i haven't read him in 30 years them postmodernist, robert kurver i remember reading "the baby-sitter" was very important for me. he is one of the first writers i read them in -- a class and he went out and bought their books that summer to continue studying up on them.
i haven't read gaddis, it's like 800 pages and jr, i prefer jr, those really distinctly american novels, kaleidoscopic interpretation of american culture inch terms 0 public burning, richard nixon there is as a character, and the kind of way of taking real life characters and putting enemiure book and having your own spin. it was okay to do that. i got some from kuver, from reading their works in my late teens. >> host: from a profile of you in "the guardian" in 2017, writehead's parents ran an executive recruit cutement firm
and were less than delighted when he announced a desire to become a write sneer -- writer. >> guest: sure my father was first generation college, grew up poor. and hope for his children that wouldn't be broke and i've been broke many times since i got out of college. because of my career choice, but hoping for a long time i would get a straight job, and then the intuitionist came out they real a'sed i was in it for a long haul and have been pet pretty zicked since then. >> host: is that's your father in sag harbor? can we read this is your father, quote: kept changing the channel out of habit. cnn and the nightly news were the only things he watched. to him the faces on the screen, anchors, newsmakers this day's news victim and heroes were a parade of shifting masks, props of an idea like the souvenirs or
friends and neighbors brought back across the atlantic. he didn't need a teleprompter, he knew his commentary by heart, the problem with black people is they waste time praying to god when they should be out looking for a job, a televangelist said. nobody ever gave u gave me anything, didn't give me anything, some people need to get off their asses, et cetera, it's. >> guest: a very conservative tame in terms of pulling yourself up from your bootstraps. he grew up car and started his own company that's him definitely in the last part. i think sadly the first part of that, yelling at the tv news, sounds like me. i've become him. [laughter] all i do is yell at cnn, mmsnbw.
>> host: thought about changing the channel? >> guest: exactly. i was -- when i work i have to have six months free, but i became such a news junkie in the last spring that just to avoid the news i started working on a new book, and i helped. front 10:00 to 3:00 i was off the tv news nipple. >> host: have you remained sober? >> guest: exactly. definitely the slow days, i'm back, or something crazy is happening, is this actually happening in america? i'm stuck back in. i'm glad i finished this book before our latest charming round of news. i know a lot of people who are writing who just now drooling idiots. it's like -- >> host: which round of news. >> guest: keeping on track of the -- did trump really say that? is this happening?
really going to open up a national park to drilling for uranium? all these crazy things cycle knew people would were just thinking, like, good liberal tradition, is my work worthy now? because i was writing a comedy and now living in such a dark time, i think, and so i'm glad i finished my book before i got affected by in the news cycle. >> host: kirstin, new york city. >> caller: thank you for taking my call. so, i. >> host: we're listening. >> caller: two questions. one it was dot mr. whitehead think about the use of the n-word today and if there's a difference in his mind win stereotyping and racism, between any races or ethnic backgrounds. >> host: what is your answer to those two questions, kirsten?
>> caller: well, i live in washington heights harlem for the past 30 years as a white woman, and certainly hear the n-word a lot, so -- but god forbid if i let it slip. it would be a big wrong. so my personal opinion is that all of vocabulary should be available to all people, and the second one is, i think stereotyping is a gateway towards racism or could be a mind set but there is a difference. so if i hear somebody saying, oh, black people have a great sense of rhythm, is that racism or stereotyping or a dangerous stereotyping? >> host: where did you grow up? >> caller: originally i'm from germany, and i immigrated 32 years ago to new york city, washington heights. >> host: thank you, ma'am. >> guest: very good. i can't break down the deep differences between stereotyping and racism.
racism depends on negative stereotypes of people of different skin. misogyny on stereotypes about gender. xenophobia about stereotypes you have about people from other cultures and the distinction between the two i'm not smart enough to make. in terms of the n-word, as somebody who has dealt with white-black culture for many years, to have to at this point in history say who can use the n-word and who can't is exhausting. it's just really tiring. if you're a white person and want to say the n-word, why do you want to say it? why is this an issue for you? why are you asking, why do you spend time wondering why cant use the n-word?
obvious lin word is used in different ways. in the way the word bitch can be used by men and women in different ways in terms of context. it's exalting someone's brassy personality or misogynies way of describing a female personality and female power. if you wonder if you can say it, don't. >> host: what if it slips out? >> guest: you're probably a racist. >> host: this is an e-mail from marsha. how important were your teachers in impacting your current literary success? >> guest: it's -- i'm often asked about was there a special teacher, mentor, who took a shine to you and the answer is, no. no one ever took a shine to me for singling me out for special treatment. i think about teachers i had, i think about mr. johnson
introducing me to ralph ellison, his teacher who -- they were consistent of racist but did introduce me to hundreds of solitude as a senior in high school. no one has took me aside and was like, you're special. but they introduced know great books and important moments in my development as a person and a writer and i still think about so many things i read in elementary school, reading the lottery for the first time like all of us do and what does that teach us about 1950s america, shirley jackson's story. introduced to this novel, to james joyce as a freshman in college, when i'm speaking with my voice, and there's an explosive dynamic talent in ulysses. so, none of the teaches remember my name or know me but introduce
node very important books that it still draw upon today. >> host: iris, south lyon, michigan. a few minutes left in the program with author colson whitehead other. >> caller: i love your hear. i think he went to my high school. lived in a mixed area. we all got along. we laughed together, we sat together, we didn't call each other names, and, boy, a lot of people that graduated with me of color, as they say, or noncolor, went on to really great things. in fact, one of the -- two of the officers from our graduating class were people of color. we didn't call each other names. nobody called me a dirty jew and i didn't call anybody another name. we live together in the same neighbor. we got long great and i think the new racism is really
ugly and don't like the groups getting together in government to fight each other. i think that's really petty. >> host: irish -- iris, what do you mean by the new racism. >> caller: sub group of grouped in government that he get together and call. thes one group or another and get behalf microphone fighting for a certain cause when it should be one person, one important. they're supposed to speak for their constituents, not for. thes, wearing colors to represent at thing the differences of this is america. >> host: iris frog michigan. any comment for her? >> guest: sadly it's not new racism. it's -- manifestation of an american darkness that goes back centuries. i think when obama was elected,
people would say, we're in post racial society. i don't know a lot of black folks who would say we're in a post racial society. that happened and i think obviously the people who did vote for obama, 49% of the population, did end up voting for donald trump. when we were talking about hate crimes on the rise, we're talking about people marching with neo-nazi flags and confederate flags, up ashamed to show their faces. they're not even bothered to wear a kkk mask. we're talking about the return of something or the reemergence of something that's always been there, it hides and will continue to be with us for a very long time, unfortunately. >> host: if you took out all the references to race, basically in sag harbor, that could have been
written by anybody. >> guest: it's a book about becoming a teenager and entering into your own identity and it's not -- for me it's not a black kid figuring himself out. it's about a kind of identity formation we all go through in our teens, where do i start and where my community ends? i. >> host: why did atex -- apex change its name. >> guest: it's about a town in the midwest and they want to regrand themselves so-so they -- they hire a consultant who is the pronag nist. he naming there is like knew antidepressants, names a band-aid calls apex. a kind of band-aid that comes in different skin tones so you can fine your own skin color and not
be ashamed, if you have dark skin, or flesh toned band-aid, and so branding, what apex -- the town wants to change the name of their town because of branding, the same way neo-nazis and white supremacists are rebranding themselves as the alt right. a new image projects a new identity for yourself, starts with a name. i'm bringing the two questions together. >> host: that was pretty -- what name wins, what names are considered, should i say. >> guest: it is the very -- >> host: we won't give away the end. >> guest: well, yeah. the main character is faced with what's the emessence of the town the essence of american history, how can the new name of the town capture where winthrop is going,
where it's been, has duty to tell the truth or sell this new identity? and he comes to a -- a few misadventures and comes one -- comes up with a solution that represents his world view. it's not t-shirts or signs but his solution to the town's problem. >> host: bryn, tennessee. you're on book tv. >> caller: hello. you got my name correct. i wanted to ask a question i think what i've been listening to the program that you written work that has some humor in your written works. i'd like to know have you thought about writing something that is purely humorous, either like a farce or a satire on some serious subject, like slavery or
lynching or civil rights period with jim crow possibly. >> guest: sure. i think john henry days deals we moments of black history through a satirical lens. humor is just a tool. it's a tool for this job or not? the right tool or this story or not? so, my most purely comic book is the novel hudsle and i had a lot of fun writing it. the first line is, you know, i have a good poker face because i'm half dead inside. either you find that line funny or don't. you're bored for the weird, miserable humyear or not but i think that kind of sums up where it's coming from in that book.
>> host: aneat dark madison, wisconsin, high. >> caller: hi. thank you for taking my call. got a big question. i'm a librarian or a retired one but never quite retired. i want to know, the books he loved or that were important to him in middle school and high school. >> guest: middle school and high school. thank you. reading hundred years of solitude as a high school senior was really great. i had a cool english teacher who taught a class on fabulousism. so we read pilgrims progress, that old british religious story about pilgrims going through adventures and that sort of template for corey and the underground railroad.
pilgrim's progress, the odyssey, that kind of structure. then that class, i read hundred years of solitude, and the introduction to magic realism and use that in this book. earlier -- i think stephen king, i remember reading "carrie" in seventh grade. an interesting structure, the linear store of carrie in her high school in her town, and then interspersed are newspaper conditions of the carnage that carrie unleashes. so it's foreshadowing and also an extra -- it's a text outside of the main text that's being inserted. and i remember reading that and, oh, you can actually play whatever seventh grade phrasing of that it, you can play with structure in that way, and play
with how you tell a story. however i would have phrased that back then, i remember thinking that by reading "carrie." >> host: ever have any trouble naming your main character in mark spitzy after the. >> guest: mark spitz one goad medals for swimming. mark spitz in my book cannot swim. so ironic name for mark spitz. >> host: barbara in virginia beach. hi. >> caller: hi. thank you for taking my call. such a fascinating interview. i'm enjoying so much. i'd like to ask colson whitehead if he admires or likes the work of walter mosley, a writer i very much enjoy, a writer who is
versatile like himself in terms of genre, and also, as someone who can talk about being a black man in modern america. i thank you for taking my call. >> guest: thank you for calling in. walter mosley is great. as i said earlier, when i was trying to find a model for a book with a plot, i was trying to learn how to back better writer, learning about structure, reading a lot of detective books and i read elmore leonard and walter mosley and a great couple of months of my life, studying the convention of suspense, how to bring in politics, in terms of james el roy, how to bring in race in terms of james walter mosley and very fortunate when the intuitionist was finished, they sent it out to people for blurbs, and walter mosley was
very kind and gave me three sentences endorsing the book, and i met him since then and it's great to see him. and when the book came out, people would say, i bought your book because walter mosley is on the back and i love walter most lee. wait really sweet of him to take the time. a good individual. >> host: warted tell mosley will be sitting in that chair for april during our special year of fiction authors. he'll be there in two months. if time, i think, for this last call from nancy in bremen, georgia, go ahead. >> caller: good afternoon. mr. whitehead, you are real refreshing breath of fresh air. want to ask if you know of the work of charles chestnut from the 1890s. he was an attorney and an african-american attorney in chicago, who wrote the conjure woman, and i was an attorney ump
wonder if you know about his fiction. >> guest: i do indeed. i told you that my english department in college was very consecutive so i took classes in african-american literature, and the african-american department and that's where i came cross slave narratives and charles chestnut, very early black fiction writer. the conjure woman is great and has a great word gooper which is black southern slang for magic so some of the gooper dust in your eyes eyes and you would be bewitched. a crazy that as a writer i'm always trying to use and i was lucky to use the word in underground railroad and talking about -- there was a slavemaster would hire conjure team, which
>> host: sag harbor, 2009. zone 12011, the noble hustle about playing poker came out in 2014 and finally the pulitzer prize winner, the underground railroad in 2016. the new book is out when? >> guest: hoping for next year. >> host: thank you for spending three hours with her audience. >> guest: thank you for talking with me and tuning in