Colson Whitehead Talks Ferguson, Fiction and Acclaim vs. Bad Reviews

The press whirlwind for Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which is being touted as his masterpiece, continues unabated. And the author is remarkably self-aware and smart about both the topical nature of his book in a moment of civil rights protest like we haven’t seen decade in an interview with New York Magazine‘s Boris Kachka. It’s fascinating to watch a writer having a big moment reflect on that moment with (at least what appears to be) genuine equanimity and understanding.

Whitehead talked about the racial politics of the moment, writing a “big serious novel,” and maturing as a person and writer. Some highlights below.

On racial politics today, and progress or lack thereof:

You must have been starting your research just as Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson. Did that, and subsequent shootings, fuel the story in any way?

I think today is the second anniversary of him being killed. But I came of age in New York in the ’80s, when Yusuf Hawkins was beaten to death for being in the wrong neighborhood, Michael Stewart was beaten to death by cops for doing graffiti, Eleanor Bumpers was a mentally unstable woman killed by police. And so I was trained that whenever you leave the house you’re a target, even in lovely Manhattan. So I think we do get these periodic eruptions and the conversation changes briefly to police brutality. There hasn’t been an uptick in it, just in people recording it. It’s not news to me and I don’t know how long our present conversation about the vulnerability of the black body will continue. Since we’re not changing the underlying causes, these moments are temporary, because our attention has always shifted elsewhere.

Do you think there’s been any progress?
Sure — it’s very slow progress. We have a black president and various laws have been implemented, and I’m at a big publisher, I’m talking to a big magazine, and I owe my career to writers who have come before me. So things have changed.

On critics treating him like he’s finally “grown up” as a writer:

There is a theme in the recent reviews — kind of praising you for putting away childish things. Is that how you see it?
It’s an imposed narrative, and it’s fine. Eighteen years have passed since my first book and I do feel older and wiser, and while hopefully I can write a book with humor again, there are certain broad gestures I don’t have to do anymore — certain pyrotechnic effects I’ve gotten out of my system. I felt more in control when I was writing this book. I was teaching a lot and I was a pretty ruthless editor of my students’ fiction. It seemed unfair to spare myself the knife.

On gushing media coverage vs. getting bad reviews:

This is your first book to come out to universal acclaim in a long time. How did you react when Apex Hides the Hurt was widely considered a disappointment?
I really liked the voice! I thought it was a really clean narrator, unadorned. But just because you like it, it doesn’t mean everyone else will — or will pick up on it. And all I could do is just write the next one. Sometimes people will figure out what you’re doing, sometimes they won’t, but that’s out of your hands. And then with The Underground Railroad, I assumed I would still have my regular readers, maybe gain a few because it’s in the historical mode. Having people like the book this much — and Oprah and theTimes thing [last week’s stand-alone print excerpt] — it’s never gonna happen again. So I should enjoy it, and the next book might be received Apex-like.