The Collegian
Saturday, June 25, 2022

Q&A with novelist and former Richmond writer-in-residence

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.

He Colson Whitehead, which have received accolades such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. In 2002, Whitehead received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

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 The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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

A: 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.

Q: How would you describe your writing process?

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A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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"?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

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

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