Our latest author to participate in a Q&A needs no introduction. With a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award now under his belt, Colson Whitehead has become a household name among readers. His critically acclaimed and beloved novel The Underground Railroad follows a young slave’s desperate bid for freedom via an underground network of railways and tunnels. The journey is fraught with struggle and hardship, and her story is one that will resonate with reading groups of all kinds.
In the Q&A below, Colson reveals his literary influences, discusses writing from the perspective of a female protagonist, and hints at his wicked sense of humor. Keep reading to get to know this incredible author a little bit better!
Reading Group Center: The Underground Railroad has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. What does it feel like to have been recognized in this way?
Colson Whitehead: Certainly it’s not something I could have foreseen when I was writing it—I was just doing my usual thing, trying not to screw up a good idea in executing it. It’s wonderful. I’m in a much better mood these days, that’s for sure.
RGC: Why did you choose to focus on a female heroine’s perspective?
CW: You make choices early on—regarding story, protagonist, mood, narrator—that determine everything that comes later. I’d had a string of male protagonists, so it was time to mix it up. The plight of the female slave as described in Harriet Jacobs’s famous slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was an inspiration. When a slave girl becomes a slave woman, Jacobs wrote, she becomes prey to her master’s desires (if she wasn’t already) and is forced to pump out babies to create more property—and that dilemma was worthy of exploration.
RGC: The Underground Railroad may be set in the past, but many of the issues that you touch on, sadly, remain relevant to this day. How do you see the novel fitting into the current cultural and political conversation?
CW: If you write about race in 1850, you end up talking about race today, because in many ways so little has changed. We’ve had dumb, racist presidents in the past, we continue to do so now, and their policies perpetuate a lot of misery.
RGC: What is your favorite question you’ve been asked about the book and how did you respond?
CW: I like questions that tee me up to make weird jokes, frankly. I usually have a lot more humor in my books, so if I can get that other side of my work in, I’m glad.
RGC: The Underground Railroad unflinchingly describes countless acts of violence and brutality against slaves. Why did you choose to write these scenes in such explicit detail?
CW: The novel is a realistic story about slavery, not, say, Gone With the Wind. Slavery was a violent, brutal, immoral system, and in accurately depicting how it worked, you have to include that, obviously. Or else you are lying.
RGC: Which authors or specific works influenced your writing?
CW: I take inspiration from books, movies, television, music—it all goes in the hopper. Depending on the project, I’m drawing from this or that piece of art that has stayed with me. Toni Morrison, George Romero, Sonic Youth—they are all in there.