Writers’ Workshop presenter Colson Whitehead visited campus in December, following a school-wide read of his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Nickel Boys
What books influenced you when you were in high school?
Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude as a senior in high school and making that link between science fiction and fantasy and so-called high-brow literature was important for me. I was a big Steinbeck fan: Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath. Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Pynchon.
Is there something special about speaking to high school students?
I just try to roll with whoever I’m talking to. I do hopefully reach that one weirdo kid [laughs] who’s like, Oh, maybe I want to write, or maybe I want to paint, or I don’t have to conform to some conventional idea of what I should be doing with my life. I can be a weirdo like him. So hopefully I’m reaching some of those folks.
When you think about that “weirdo kid,” what would you want them to know?
This is going to be terrible, but if you really want it, you’ve got to stick with it. And it is possible.
In your novel The Underground Railroad, the written word plays such a pivotal role in the lives of the characters. Can you reflect a bit on the power of literature?
There’s the reason why it was illegal to teach slaves, because if they get a taste of that knowledge, it’s power. Those almanacs Cora reads transport her far beyond the confines of the attic and North Carolina. The books are important to her, and if you read slave narratives, there’s always that moment where the main character, the person whose story you’re reading, learns to read, and suddenly they’re a person, not an object anymore.
Have you been reading a lot of fiction lately?
Not so much during this lockdown. I’m just working hard and I can only read crime novels and New York histories or biographies of New York politicians. My discovery this year has been Patrick Radden Keefe. He wrote a book of nonfiction about the Sackler family—oh, wow. It’s called Empire of Pain. It’s about their drug empire and how they brought Oxycontin and opioids to the masses and got people addicted as a business plan. So, I guess I’m getting more juice out of nonfiction lately than fiction.
What else have you been up to?
Video games in between projects. I’ll happily, when I finish a novel, spend two months playing video games. It’s always a nice way to unwind.