Colson Whitehead stood onstage before a packed Paepcke Auditorium. “Howdy,” said the author of The Underground Railroad, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Whitehead has also written eight other genre-hopping books of fiction and non-fiction. Dressed in a denim shirt and jeans, his long dreadlocks tied back, Whitehead scanned the crowd for a long moment. Among his chief motivations for becoming a writer, he deadpanned, was to avoid people. Laughter rippled through the audience. A few people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. For the next hour, laughter and uncomfortable truths would play tag-team around the room.
Kicking off with his personal origin story, Whitehead borrowed a riff from Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk: “I was born a poor black child sittin’ on the porch a-singin’ and a-dancin’…” In fact, Whitehead was raised in Manhattan. He continued in jocular fashion to set up and slay stereotype after stereotype, as if daring the audience to pigeonhole him. He was alternately caustic, sarcastic, and completely disarming.
Whitehead recalled his journey to becoming a writer. Steven King and Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee were early influences. Drawn to horror and the fantastical as a kid, his favorite TV shows were The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. The author, a self-described shut-in, lamented not being a sickly child driven by illness to intense flights of imagination. That would have been romantic. Rather, he just didn’t like going outside, he said.
After college Whitehead served his writer’s apprenticeship at the legendary (now defunct) Village Voice. He was a fan of New Journalism pioneers Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson. He recalled have gotten his big break writing “think” pieces on the season finales of Who’s the Boss? and Growing Pains. He told a woeful tale of a first novel that went unsold. Then, in one of the more inventive author-talk digressions, he invoked Donna Summer’s 1978 cover of the top-40 melodrama MacArthur’s Park. Whitehead played the song for the audience by holding his iPad to the microphone. When the chorus came around, the auditorium erupted in a spontaneous sing-along.
Quirky and joyful as it was, one couldn’t help but wonder what strange track we were now barreling down. Whitehead went on to connect the metaphorical dots. The enigmatic song was — of course! — about the artist’s process. The cake was his unsold novel. He had painstakingly gathered the ingredients. He had taken a very long time to “bake” it. Then someone — Knopf publishing in this case — had left the manuscript to melt in the rain. His cake was in ruins.
He segued without a hitch into The Underground Railroad, reading a section that illuminates in devastating detail the brutality of slavery. During the ten-minute passage, Whitehead stared out from the podium for long stretches at some vague middle distance. At times, it felt more like an incantation than a reading.
When it was over there was pin-drop silence. A pall had descended on the room like a Tule fog. We had been taken down a dark road of American history from which no one with a conscience could emerge without a profound sense of shame at humankind’s capacity for cruelty.
Later, when an audience member asked how Whitehead staved off despair while writing about extreme acts of violence, the author reflected on the miracle of his own being. The odds were against his existence in the first place, he noted. That his ancestors survived the middle passage, survived slavery, survived Jim Crow eugenics and lynching, managed somehow to protect their children, through the generations until he was born, was nothing short of miraculous. Whitehead said he felt a duty to his ancestors to tell a story that, while fantastical in parts — the book imagines the underground railroad as a literal train with thousands of miles of subterranean track — reveals the truth about slavery and the Jim Crow south.
Whitehead is currently tossing around ideas for his next project. His ninth book, The Nickel Boys, will publish in July. In addition to having won virtually every prestigious literary prize out there, Colson Whitehead also happens to be the recipient of a McArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant.” Filing out of the auditorium that evening, it was easy to understand why. For the previous hour, we’d born collective witness to a rare and dazzling mind on one hell of a wild ride.
This event was part of the Winter Words author series hosted by Aspen Words.