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Colson Whitehead’s new novel considers a startling premise: what if slaves had fled southern plantations via an actual subterranean train? Jeffrey Brown sits down with the author at BookExpo America in Chicago to discuss the challenge of blending fantasy with tragic historical truth and what made Whitehead ready to write this latest work.
Now: a new look at the terrible cost of slavery in America. It comes in a work of fiction, one that combines gritty realism with a leap of the imagination. What if the Underground Railroad was an actual train?
Well, in fact, "The Underground Railroad" is the title of Colson Whitehead's novel.
He spoke with Jeffrey Brown earlier this summer at the BookExpo America in Chicago.
Let me ask you to sort of introduce what you have done here. It's a novel, but — but…
COLSON WHITEHEAD, Author, "The Underground Railroad": It starts off as a traditional, realistic about slavery.
Our main protagonist is a woman named Cora. She's 16, 17 living on a cotton plantation. And when conditions deteriorate, she's convinced to flee north on the Underground Railroad.
When I first came up with the idea many years ago, I thought, what if the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad, literally underneath the earth?
Yes. Well, let's explain that.
The Underground Railroad was a system, right, I mean, an idea. It was people, places, and — but not a real railroad.
No, there were people who were sympathetic to the slaves and arranged safe havens and got people north, hid them, moved them station to station.
And it wasn't a literal Underground Railroad. But I think a lot of people, when they first hear about it when they're kids, at least for a few minutes, they think it's an actual subway.
So, the conceit is, what if it actually was an underground train system? How would that work? And then it…
And you said this came to you many years ago?
About 16 years ago.
And I knew if I tried it then, it wouldn't work. I wasn't really up to the task. It seemed a bit too big for me. And I figured, if I got a little older, or wiser, became a better writer, I might be able to tackle it and give it its due.
And so, every couple years, in between books, I would pull out my notes and think, am I ready? And each time, it was, no. And so I would do a different book.
Why was the answer no? In what way were you not ready?
Well, the subject is so huge. How do you wrap your head around, completely around the atrocity of slavery? How can you make people that you care about, your characters, and put them into this horrible system and create a realistic story?
So, I think, if I had tried it 16 years ago, it would have been much different. Now I'm older. I have kids. And I actually know what it is to contemplate having your mother sold in front of you, having your children sold, seeing your siblings, your friends tortured, beaten.
And so I think, now I'm in my mid-40s, I have more of an idea of what family means, and that's very much important to the character in the book and creating a realistic family structure for my plantation characters.
I was wondering if you were worried or putting it off because of the mix of taking the horror of that real history and the reality of those real lives, but then putting it into this kind of "Gulliver's Travels, where there is a kind of fantasy aspect to it.
I think, a couple years ago, the fantasy would have been much more pronounced and much broader. Now I think the magic realism dial is, like, set on one, as opposed to 10 or a "Spinal Tap"-ian 11.
So, each state she goes through is a different sort of state of American possibility.
South Carolina is a benevolent paternalistic state, where slaves are given programs for racial uplifted. North Carolina is a white supremacist state. And they're — so each stop is a sort of island in the "Gulliver's Travels"-type sense.
One that you have imagined.
Yes, but it's treated in a very deadpan and matter-of-fact way.
And so while I am stretching the truth or tweaking reality, it is still much grounded in what we would call, you know, the truth.
Once you opened it up that way, was it freeing as a writer?
It was very liberating.
Once you have a literal railroad, you're bringing a fantasy element that allows you to do different things and play with time.
And so I bring in the Tuskegee experiments. I bring in sort of Nazism and white supremacy. And even though it takes place in 1850, I'm allowed to rove in these different kind of modes and bring in a lot of different aspects of American history in a way that I couldn't if I was being — if I was sticking to the facts.
Because it's all — all of it is fraught territory, right, for, I mean, today?
People have asked, was I inspired by Ferguson or Black Lives Matter?
You know, the fact is that white people in authority have been abusing the black body for centuries. You don't have to go — look to Ferguson to find someone being gunned down by policemen. In the 1850s, before they had kind of police force in the South, the authority was the slave patroller.
And a slave patroller could stop any black person, free or slave, and demand to see their papers. And if you didn't have your papers or an excuse for being off the plantation, you would be beaten, put in jail, brought back to your master.
And that's analogous to stop and frisk right now. When I was younger, I guess more threatening-looking, I would be stopped, I would be searched. "What are you doing in this neighborhood?"
So, I'm not addressing contemporary ills. I'm addressing the sort of problems that have been around since the beginning of the country. And, hopefully, by the end, I have learned something in finishing the book.
You used to doubt whether it was ever going to be finished?
I mean, I think I had a concept called the get-hit-by-a-bus draft. And that's like the draft you want in case you get hit by a bus an hour later. Like, will people understand what you're trying to do? Because you're working on a novel for years, and then if something happens to you in the middle, no one is going to know what you were trying to do.
So, if you can just get to that hit-by-a-bus draft, that's always a nice…
I never heard that one before. That's when you know you're OK?
It needs to be copy-edited, but people will understand what you were trying — what you were up to.
I don't know if you want to put that out in a self-help for writers book.
I think all of my writing tips are grim. My students definitely have gotten used to that.
The new novel, the coming novel is "The Underground Railroad."
Colson Whitehead, thank you so much.
Thanks a lot.
Online, you can watch many more of Jeff's author interviews from BookExpo America and other book festivals. You will find them at PBS.org/book-view-now.
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