Colson Whitehead arrives at this Frankfurt Book Fair at the tail end of a touring schedule that would make Bruce Springsteen seem lazy. In the past year he has been talking about his two most recent and much-fêted books, 2016’s The Underground Railroad and this year’s The Nickel Boys, at more than 90 events spanning 10 countries and 21 US states. It may be forgivable, then, if you catch his stint with Margaret Atwood and Elif Shafak at Friday night’s Literary Gala, and he opens with "Hello, Cleveland!" instead of "Guten Abend, Frankfurt."
Is he still enjoying the road? He says: "It’s all work. I’ve been going to a lot of nice places that I’ve never been before—but I have no time to see those places. But it has been great meeting up with old publishers, and ones I hadn’t worked with before at the start of a new sort of relationship which I hope to continue with in the future."
The Underground Railroad was, of course, Whitehead’s big breakout. His previous five novels had been well reviewed and performed decently at the tills. But the book looking at slavery in the US through a genre-busting speculative lens—which posited that the network of safe houses which helped runaway slaves escape the South was an actual underground railway—put him into the stratosphere. In the US, it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—E Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993) is the only other novel to have done that double—plus a Carnegie Medal for Excellence. In the UK, it notched up a Booker Prize longlisting and won the Arthur C Clarke Award for best science fiction novel published in Britain—only Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale had previously had such a Booker/Clarke crossover, when it was Booker shortlisted and won the SF prize in 1987. The sales have matched the plaudits: The Underground Railroad has sold 171,000 print units through Nielsen BookScan UK; Colson’s next bestselling previous title in Britain is his 2012 zombie-apocalypse satire Zone One, which has shifted 2,500 copies.
Part of the reason for the length of his tour has been his now-elevated status. The spotlight is not particularly daunting, Whitehead says, he is just enjoying the ride: "I’ve been writing for 20 years and I have had books that have been well-received and books that have been ignored. No matter how it’s going—poorly or great—the work is always there to challenge you and remind you how hard the job is. Ten years from now, when nobody cares about me anymore, I can look back and say, ‘Well wasn’t it nice how people wanted to talk to me for a brief while?’"
While The Underground Railroad looked at America’s wretched slave-holding past, The Nickel Boys in many ways came out of its current racially-charged climate. Beginning in the early 1960s, it is set in Nickel Academy, a brutal reform school in Florida where young and bright African-American teen Elwood is sent (unfairly). The institution is a house of horrors for its occupants and Elwood tries to keep body and soul together, helped by his new friend and fellow inmate Turner. The book is a deeply affecting and complex meditation on the abuse of power, race and, perhaps above all, how one can put a life back together after all hope is seemingly lost.
Shockingly, Nickel Academy is based on a real-life Florida panhandle institution, the notorious Dozier School for Boys. Dozier operated for over 111 years, closing in 2011, and became national news in 2014 when the state of Florida wanted to sell the property: the unmarked graves of 55 boys were found during the demolition. What happened to those children, and even who they were, is still being investigated. The revelations about the reform school shook Whitehead, as they came amid a number of other flashpoints. He says: "It was 2014: there was the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder [by police] of Michael Brown. Eric Garner, a black man selling bootleg cigarettes on Staten Island, was choked to death by a white policeman on the sidewalk. These were instances where people committed horrible crimes that went unpunished. The backdrop of that summer made me particularly appalled at the story of Dozier, and stayed with me until I had to figure out how I was to write about it."
There was some personal experience to draw on, too. As a teen, Whitehead was stopped, handcuffed and interrogated by police simply because he was the first black person to come along after a white woman had been mugged nearby. "That sort of twist of fate can happen to any black person: you are walking down the street and it’s the wrong policeman, and you reach for your wallet to bring out your ID too fast, you might get shot. So, when Elwood is picked up by police it speaks to that random act of misfortune that could happen to anyone of colour."
For Whitehead, writing has "pretty much always been the plan. Going back to sixth or seventh grade, when I was reading Marvel comics and my parents’ Stephen King books, I thought storytelling might be a cool way to make a living." His folks, however, wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, and were a little bit peeved when he decided to study literature at Harvard. He says: "They would say, ‘Don’t you know that writers only make about $14,000 a year?’ And I would say, ‘That sounds like a lot of money.’"
Although Whitehead had some dark nights of the soul—"I remember particularly sitting in my little shitty apartment, broke, writing a dumb book about elevators and thinking I made a bad move"—he stayed the course. The dumb elevator book became his début, 1999’s lavishly praised The Institutionist, which even brought his parents round: "Once they saw the book as an object, and what it meant to me, they got it."
The Institutionist had speculative elements and Whitehead is currently working on a crime novel set in Harlem in the 1960s—"it’s a little bit Chester Himes, a little bit Richard Stark: you know, a bunch of sociopaths hanging out"—why does he like to switch genres? He says: "I like fantastic stories, I like horror, I like realism. Sometimes you just need to pick the right tool for the job. As a kid, I really liked David Bowie and Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick would have his sci-fi movie, his war movie, his horror movie; Bowie would have a different persona from record to record. If you do something once, why do it again? I internalised that early."
Whitehead has been to the city of Frankfurt before, but not the fair. But he knows what he is in for: he has been warned by his agent wife, Julie Barer, a partner at The Book Group whose clients include Celeste Ng, Madeleine Miller and Alice Sebold. Whitehead says: "She actually hasn’t been for a few years; she did go for about 14 years straight until she finally said, ‘Nah, I’m done’. So, I know [FBF is] hectic, but I’m looking forward to it. The fair, and the touring, might be a bit of a grind, but it just means people are out there enjoying The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys."