If hope and history seemed to rhyme in Colson Whitehead’s magnificent The Underground Railroad – the imaginary tracks its runaway slave protagonists follow arcing towards freedom and progress – that promise hits the buffers in his latest novel, The Nickel Boys.
Set more than a century later, in 1960s Florida, its young African-American hero, Elwood, appears to be going places too. Inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, he has enrolled in a local black college. But after innocently accepting a lift in a stolen car he ends up instead in a monstrous reform school, the Nickel Academy, where his idealism makes him only more vulnerable to abuse.
The two novels bear out the thesis of Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary, 13th – that slavery has been perpetuated through the discriminatory criminalisation and mass incarceration of African-Americans.
Whitehead, soft-spoken and reflective, seems to wear lightly the honours bestowed upon him, the first author ever to win back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for fiction. The Underground Railroad is being adapted for Amazon by Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight.
“If greatness is excellence sustained over time, then without question, Whitehead is one of the greatest of his generation,” Time magazine declared. “In fact, figuring his age, acclaim, productivity and consistency, he is one of the greatest American writers alive.”
His country’s horrible history and its painful present weigh heavily on Whitehead. George Floyd’s violent death under the knee of a white police officer is but the latest of a long line of police killings of unarmed black men. What does he make of it and the violent suppression of the subsequent protests, egged on by a president as keen to divide as to rule?
“It’s pretty exhausting, effectively for the last five years writing about institutional racism and state-sponsored racial terror,” he says. “Sometimes I think it’s very futile to think that things might change. Here we have proof that the same terrible machines that have destroyed black lives for centuries are still continuing in their same, sad course. It’s terrible confirmation that we have so far to go, and for me a grim reminder that I have spent so much time writing about it and seeing it play out as it always has.”
Most fiction writers writing about the present moment are having a hard time outdoing what Trump has come up with and what Republicans have enabled
Whitehead grew up in Manhattan and was 19 in 1989, when property developer Donald Trump spent $85,000 on ads calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, young men of colour wrongly convicted of rape. How does it feel to watch him now occupy the White House, sowing seeds of bigotry? For an author of fantastic fiction, in both senses of the word, his response is striking.
“I knew that he would be terrible. I lacked the imagination to conceive of how terrible he’d be and how he’d outdo many people’s worst fantasies. Most fiction writers writing about the present moment are having a hard time outdoing what Trump has come up with and what Republicans have enabled.
“Donald Trump entered the media landscape as a vulgar real-estate guy. In 2006, when he was on The Apprentice, I thought he was a B-list buffoon, a moronic TV show host, and now of course he is one of the most powerful people in the world, and able to commit so many destructive acts on a daily basis. If I imagine talking to my 15-year-old self, and explain what’s going on, it gets even more ridiculous.”
Many have pointed out that racially motivated killings happened under a black president. Can we have much confidence things will be better under Joe Biden, who mused that unarmed protesters might better be shot in the legs, not the heart?
“Things will be better,” Whitehead says, chuckling. “No one is as terrible as Trump. Obviously Biden poses many problems of his own. We have a very long way to go before we outrun our racial reality. Our racial problems in America and the world are not going to be accomplished in the lifetime of anyone who is capable of reading this interview. Really nice people are capable of great evil. People who voted for Obama voted for Trump four years later.”
While similar in theme, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys are very different in form. The former is an epic flight of fantasy, reimagining the secret networks of sympathisers that spirited escaped slaves to freedom as an actual subterranean railway. The latter is short and sharp, rooted in realism, based on a real-life exposé of the Dozier reform school in Florida, after the discovery of unmarked graves in its grounds confirmed former inmates’ claims about its murderous regime.
The lesson of Eric Garner and Michael Brown is you can get away with killing young black men
“I thought I had a very cool and interesting way of talking about American history in Underground Railroad because of that fantastic conceit,” says Whitehead. “I was constantly asking myself, can I pull this off? Is it too strange? Will people be able to figure out or follow along as I move from state to state?
“Nickel Boys was very different. It was more compact, more realistic, dealing with such a terrible real-life event. I didn’t want to insult the memory of people who had gone through Dozier, who had suffered and survived. In both cases I was trying to fulfil my ambitions of the two ideas and not screw them up.
“Writing The Nickel Boys I was thinking of what I could learn from novellas, short novels. Julie Otsuka, the Japanese-American writer, was very useful for me, being concise. Denis Johnson, who I didn’t read till my 30s, was very useful. I hadn’t read Ethan Frome, which my sisters despised. I read more widely now.”
If press reports of past crimes were the prompt for his story, the ongoing problem of police brutality, specifically the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, were the contemporary context that fired his resolve.
“The lesson of Eric Garner and Michael Brown is you can get away with killing young black men. White policemen who kill unarmed black men are rarely held accountable. The lesson of the Dozier school is that you can abuse poor kids of colour and no one will hold you accountable. When I read the story of Dozier I was thinking about all the stories you never hear about. We only heard about George Floyd because we were able to record it on cellphone cameras, but how many other things were happening that same day? If there is one Dozier, there is many. That’s why it stayed with me and eventually became the seed of this novel.”
Whereas with The Underground Railroad Whitehead was constantly having to figure out his plot’s progression, his vision for The Nickel Boys was clear: to pair Elwood, part of a new generation hopeful of effecting social change, with his opposite number, the tough, cynical Turner – two sides of the same coin. Here, his worries were about execution. “Is this philosophical battle between the two boys getting on the page or is it just in my head?
“Going back to will Biden’s election change things. Somewhat. We are pretty bigoted people and we treat each other with sadism and malice. That terrible part of human nature is not going to go away because we change president. Should I be hopeful that the world will improve for my children? Should I be despairing? I wouldn’t say the hopeful and realistic sides of me are in constant conflict because the pessimistic side is winning. That dilemma, when Trump got elected, made me work on The Nickel Boys as opposed to another book I was thinking of.
“Am I foolish to think we can change things? If you don’t think things can improve, nothing ever happens. Elwood and Turner became a way for me to work through some of that.”
Travelling with The Nickel Boys, I would hear about the Magdalene laundries, the homes for unwed mothers in Ireland, and people would say ‘It reminds me of that’
The prologue of The Nickel Boys, featuring the unearthing of boys’ bones in the grounds of an institution, will make many Irish readers recall the discovery of children’s bodies in a septic tank in a nun-run home in Tuam. Whitehead is aware of the parallels.
“If it’s working, it is universal. Cora is a slave in mid-19th century America. Elwood is a young black boy in the Jim Crow south, but if you’re pulling it off as a writer, as an artist, people can see themselves in characters that are very much not like them.
“Sadly, injustice is a universal human condition, so travelling with The Nickel Boys, I would hear about the Magdalene laundries, the homes for unwed mothers in Ireland, and people would say ‘It reminds me of that’. In Canada they had residential schools, where they took indigenous children from their families to teach them white culture, and abuses happened. Sadly, injustice is a universal.”
Whitehead’s literary style seems to constantly or restlessly evolve. Or is it more a case of horses for courses?
“Every story has its own method that is required,” he says. “For me part of the fun and the challenge is finding the right tools: should this be expansive and digressive and postmodern or direct and realistic. What kind of sentences will best serve the story?
“But as a person you evolve. In the early part of my career I was very much in the sway of Thomas Pynchon, very exuberant postmodern narrators. Having done that for a few books, I wanted to do something different, but five years from now who knows where I’ll be?”
There are very childish people out there; you should never be so precious that you can’t take a bad review
In fact, his work-in-progress is a crime novel set in 1960s Harlem. “I just finished the first draft last week. It’s realistic, not as compact as Nickel Boys, not as grim as the last two books, there’s more jokes. My first book, The Intuitionist, comes at detective fiction from a sideways angle. This one is more direct.”
Discussing literary heroes and villains, I mention Richard Ford, who shamefully spat in Whitehead’s face in revenge for a bad review. “There are very childish people out there; you should never be so precious that you can’t take a bad review.”
New York is clearly a core part of his identity. He began his career as a critic for the Village Voice and wrote a nonfiction book, The Colossus of New York, about the city after 9/11. The book that has him buzzing is The Power Broker by Robert Caro. “It’s great, it’s awesome to behold someone else’s incredible talent. It gives you a whole alternative history of how New York City came to be.”
Asked to pick a hero, he chooses “an exemplary New Yorker”.
“I was a very enthusiastic fan of pop culture as a kid, people like Stanley Kubrick and David Bowie, who changed from project to project. I took that in very early, so I think Kubrick. He’s from New York, he would do his war movie, his sci-fi movie, his horror movie, his dark satire, bit of a weirdo, kept going even when people didn’t understand his zigs and zags.”
The author is currently holed up with his family in his holiday home in the Hamptons, Sag Harbor to be precise, the setting and title of his autobiographical fourth novel. Another of his books, Zone One, is a pandemic novel. Which of his back catalogue of five other novels and two nonfiction books would he love the success of his last two novels to shine a belated light on?
“I think, because it is very different, maybe Sag Harbor. There’s a lot of humour, it’s very digressive in a fun way, a universal story about trying to find yourself as a teenager.”
A lot of energy is spent making sure kids are all right, taking care of their emotional and mental health. My mental health? Who cares at this point?
Zone One sadly has been no help in coping with coronavirus. “I try not to think about it for the last few months to try to keep sane, but I grew up as a big science-fiction, horror fan. Every weekend my brother and I would rent splatter movies and old horror movies – Dario Argento, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg. I grew up wanting to be a writer because of horror and sci-fi – Rod Serling, Stephen King. I thought, a couple of novels in, it would be a fine thing to salute that influence, figure out the psychological hold it had on me.”
How is he coping with lockdown?
“We came out for a week for my son’s spring break and then we are still here 12 weeks later. My mom is out here and my wife’s grandparents. We do their shopping. It’s a big part of my life. It is good for mental health of various people in my family, but it’s very difficult. A lot of energy is spent making sure kids are all right, taking care of their emotional and mental health. My mental health? Who cares at this point?” he laughs.
A protean writer, it’s been claimed he changed his name from Arch to Chipp to Colson over the years. “It’s not actually true. As a kid my parents called me Chipp, but at college I started going by Colson as Chipp seemed very preppy. The only people who call me Arch are bill collectors; that’s how I know not to answer.”
And how has he changed from a teenager to today?
“Hard to say. Hopefully the older you get, you improve as a person – writing, having a family has improved my life immensely, but I’m still the same weirdo I was when I was 12.”