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Q&A with Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 and grew up in Manhattan. He attended Harvard College, then spent two years working as a pop culture critic for the Village Voice. In 1999 his debut novel about elevator inspectors, "The Intuitionist," received wide critical acclaim, with the New Yorker calling it strikingly original and scintillating.

His next novel, "John Henry Days," was published in 2001 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and other awards. In 2002, Whitehead received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. His first full-length non-fiction work, "The Colossus of New York," was published in 2003 and is a collection of essays about city life. "Apex Hides The Hurt," his forth novel published in 2006, is about a nomenclature consultant who is struggling with his past.

Whitehead's most recent novel, "Sag Harbor," is semi-autobiographical and deals with a group of bourgeoisie African-American teenagers who spend the summer of 1985 in The Hamptons. Whitehead's work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's and New York Magazine, among others. He spent the fall of 2009 as the Tucker-Boatwright writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, where he taught two creative writing classes.

Recently Sag Harbor was included in the New York Times Book Review's 100 Notable Books of 2009. How have you been handling the increasing fame and success?

Well you know, when you write so-called literary fiction, you're not really famous. Most people don't read my books or care about that. I've been very fortunate that with my first published book, the critics got it and I started getting a readership, and that's remained so I've been very lucky in that respect. In terms of handling it, each book is really hard because you're always starting from scratch. Whether you got a bad review or a bunch of good reviews, the next time you sit down to write you're always at zero. No matter how good things are going, you always have to do it again. You can't sort of coast.

So it never gets easier for you, with each book you do?

No, I think for most people that's true, once you have a formula. Definitely I try to do different things for each book, so I'll try to figure out how to do a coming-of-age novel, because I haven't done that before, or how to do something that has more of a thriller plot, like "The Intuitionist." Each time that I'm trying to tackle these different genres and modes, I'm starting from scratch.

Were you surprised at the popularity of "The Intuitionist"?

When I was writing it, I was really broke, I was really depressed and I didn't think that anyone would relate to it because it is such a weird idea. But I knew I had to write it. It was the idea that I had and the various sort of intellectual problems I was trying to tackle were very compelling. So I didn't have any choice. I was very pleasantly surprised. I'm glad that, even though some of my other books have been strange in different ways also, that people have sort of been coming along for the ride.

Do you ever go back and read your books? Do you feelings about them evolve over time?

No, I'm really sick of them when they're done. When I was in France I had to read from "Apex Hides The Hurt" and "The Colossus of New York," because they came out together last year. For me, they're both really old news. On the one hand I'm glad that they're finding new lives in different countries and people are encountering them, but I'm pretty sick of talking about them. I have a hard time remembering how I got started on them or finding new ways to tell how I came up with an idea, because there's only one way, but at this point I've said it a hundred times.

Is there one novel that you're proudest of?

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Well now it would be "Sag Harbor," I guess, because that's the most recent one.

So is it always the most recent one?

Generally. I think if you've pushed yourself and challenged yourself then the last thing you did was your best work, hopefully.

How would you describe your writing process?

Before I start writing I know most of the outline, and it takes months of non-concentrated work. I'll have a good day and not think about it for two weeks or one day. A line will come to me on the bus, and I'll write that down and a week later maybe pick up on that. So when I'm outlining I'm not working 40 hours a week. But if you keep writing notes, eventually you have the outline of a story. Then each time, you're presented with a problem like, "Who's this character?", "Where do they work?", "How do they live?" You decide, "Well, he's a lawyer," and so you've added something. Slowly you accumulate a bunch of details, and the book starts to take shape.

You've mentioned that you never took fiction writing classes in college, so what helped you get started on the path of being a novelist? Did you always know that's what you had to do?

Yeah, I was a bookish kid and always liked comic books, and I read a lot of horror and science fiction so I wanted to do that. In terms of actually becoming a writer, it was being a journalist and having to produce an article every week. Getting feedback from readers, doing that constantly for two or three years and making a living at it, I became confident enough to start working on fiction on the side. Even though I didn't have any sort of institutional support, I knew I wanted to do it. For years I didn't write any fiction, and one day I was just like: "Okay now I have to. I said I was doing it." Everyone says they're writing a novel, but talk is cheap.

What is your day-to-day writing process like?

I have a lot of downtime in between projects. I finished Sag Harbor two years ago and I was teaching, and I don't write when I teach so I was writing short articles. And then for the last few months, I've been outlining a book. So when I'm actually working, I try to think about what the rhythm of the book is, like how many pages seems doable to do in a week. With "Sag Harbor" it was eight pages. Some weeks it'd be six, some weeks it'd be ten, but eight was a good average. I need the whole day clear, and I generally work three or four days a week. If I have a really productive Monday and Tuesday, maybe I'll slack off till Saturday and catch up. So if I have two pages on Monday, and I take the next four days off, then Saturday and Sunday I'll try and write three or four pages.

Do you work on getting those eight pages almost perfect?

It's eight pages where I write what I can. But it's eight pages a week and also editing what I did last week or a month before. So if I write a page and it's 1 o'clock, and I have no new ideas, I'll go back and edit what I did last week for two hours. I'm always editing and revising. Maybe it's two new pages and revising one page from yesterday or writing three pages and revising what I did last month.

Do you ever hit a point where you're not sure how to continue with a story, and, if so, how do you get past that?

I wait and just try and figure it out. If a week goes by and it's a dead week, then it's a dead week. I can't force myself to come up with ideas. I can try and sit down but if it doesn't come, it doesn't come. "John Henry Days" is a really complicated novel, because there are different time periods. With that book, if I didn't know a character, I could avoid him for like a year. And hopefully in a year I'll figure out the character. That happened a few times, but I just give it time.

You recently contributed an op-ed article, titled "The Year of Living Postracially" to the New York Times. Obviously that was a satire, but how do you really feel about the term "post-racial"?

It's silly to think that we're post-race. Obviously racism didn't disappear overnight. Definitely there are great things about Obama's election and they do have ramifications in terms of race relations. But there's obviously a huge way to go. We evolve as a species very, very slowly. A year and a half ago, the media realized they didn't have enough black people to pontificate about issues, and now they think they need some more, so I was getting asked inappropriate questions about my politics. I don't worry about politics but people kept asking me, "How do you feel about post-racial society?" And I got sick of saying, "No, we're not in a post-racial society." So writing that partially gets me off the hook. Now no one's going to ask me anymore what I think, because I'm just going to make jokes.

How do you feel you've grown as a writer?

I've done it a few times so I know I can do it. You asked what I do when I get stuck, and I know eventually I'll come up with a solution. Maybe the solution will suck, but I will find some sort of way of fixing the problem with the book. It can take a long time, but eventually it'll get done, one way or another. So I don't fear, "What if I get hit by a bus before I finish my opus?" I'm proud of my work. I can take pride in my work and not be afraid that I haven't contributed. Because I feel as if I have contributed something, even if it's just something small like a book, which in the scheme of things isn't that big.

But that allows me to try different things, like a book that is more about being a teenager, as opposed to big intellectual ideas like my previous books, where I was trying to solve some sort of philosophical or intellectual problem. I'm more open to trying different things. Life is short. Why not write a humor piece for the New York Times? It would never have occurred to me five years ago, but I have their phone number, so if I have a thought, why not do that, even if it's not a novel. Just writing short pieces can be satisfying and a way of expressing myself creatively.

Do you read the reviews and do they affect how you feel about writing?

Definitely I'm really anxious six months before a book comes out. I can't sleep, wondering, "Will they like it?" "Will they get it?" Then the first reviews come in and after the first half of them you know if most people like it or dislike it. It's out of your hands; you did the best you could, and now you know what other people think and you can go on with your life. I definitely am interested in reviews as they come out. The later ones I don't really care as much, because generally there's a narrative: people like it for these reasons or don't like it for those reasons.

What do you think has most influenced you as a writer?

Being someone who watched a lot of TV, read a lot of books and watched a lot of film really influenced me. I really loved other people making up stories and wanted to do it myself. So just from an early age, I felt a real connection to storytelling and saw it as being an appealing way of getting through life.

In an article called, "Wow, Fiction Works!" published in Harper's Magazine, you wrote, "Writers confuse the encyclopedic for the illuminating and the meaningful, mistake the exuberance of frenetic language for that which addresses the higher self." Do you believe that writing is moving in the direction of "exuberance," as in embracing pop culture references and experimenting with language and syntax?

That piece is mostly making fun of people who are pompous about literature. But I think it's two different things. In terms of language and syntax, each book demands a certain way of being told. The sentences in "Sag Harbor" are different from the sentences in "John Henry Days." They're different characters, different situations. In terms of pop culture references, if it serves the overall story, yeah I'll include it.

In "The Intuitionist," there's no pop culture because it takes place in this weird 20th-century bubble. You're not really sure what decade you're in, so I couldn't really pin it down with pop culture, whereas "Sag Harbor" takes place in a specific time and place and the characters relate to the world through what they're wearing or the music they're listening to. Pop culture is very important in that book, and so it has a role there. You use the right tool for the job, and you use pop culture or a certain kind of sentence where it's appropriate. Definitely if it's not your style of writing you shouldn't look down your nose upon people who do it a certain way. That's their thing. There's no one way of going about writing a book, so let's be open to different approaches.

You mentioned that you're outlining a book now. Are you allowed to share what it's about?

No, not really. It's still very vague. But it has been two years, and I've been outlining so I actually am going to start writing next week. I know my characters; I know what happens at the end. I have a few pages, and so I'm going to start it, probably not Monday but Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Maria Ribas at maria.ribas@richmond.edu

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