Author faces his fears on Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 'The Underground Railroad'
Colson Whitehead might be the first author to respond to news of winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction by playing a song from a children's cartoon on repeat in his head.
“I'm not sure if you know the show ‘Dora the Explorer,' but at the end of each episode they have a song where they go, ‘We did it! We did it!'” said Whitehead, who received news of the award earlier this month and visits the Schottenstein Theatre at Bexley High School for a moderated Q&A on Friday, April 28. “And so that keeps going through my head: ‘Dora the Explorer.'”
Whitehead received the award for “The Underground Railroad,” a potent, devastating and decidedly un-childlike novel centered on a slave's escape from a Southern plantation that reads, at times, like the 1930s slave narratives collected by the Works Progress Administration filtered through the surreal landscape of Jonathan Swift's “Gulliver's Travels,” which served as an early template. “I had the idea of doing a ‘Gulliver's Travels'-like structure, where each state is sort of a different state of America,” Whitehead said.
Starting with a basic seed of an idea — what if the Underground Railroad actually was a system of subterranean trains? — the author constructed a nightmarish world where black bodies swing from trees on an endless “Freedom Trail” and doctors and government officials conduct clandestine medical experiments on an unsuspecting citizenry.
“Maybe the Freedom Trail didn't exist in this country, but I feel like the Romans did something similar, crucifying people on the road into town. Or at least that was how it was portrayed in ‘Spartacus,'” Whitehead said.
Whitehead, 47, first conceived of the idea for the book 17 years ago, saying he lacked the skills needed to pull it off at the time. “Writing about slavery and doing that deep dive into history it required was daunting and terrifying, and I put it off as long as I could,” he said. “I didn't feel ready in many different ways.”
Three years ago, with work finished on his humor-filled “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death,” a nonfiction tale recounting his attempts at learning how to play poker, Whitehead opted to revisit the grim subject, which forced him to finally confront his earlier fears.
“I think the hardest part was before I started writing, and realizing what I'd have to get on the page for it to feel real,” said Whitehead, who did a bulk of his writing in his home office, accumulating anywhere from one to four pages a day, writing four days a week, with a target of eight pages a week (“That's 400 pages a year, which kind of adds up,” he said). “Becoming acquainted with slavery through ‘Roots' as a kid, or studying American history in college, those are two different ways of understanding our country's history. Coming to it as an adult with kids and a family, you understand in a more adult way the gravity and depravity of the enterprise.”
In addition to the Pulitzer, “The Underground Railroad” also garnered Whitehead the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. Recently, news also broke that “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins will be adapting the novel for a limited-run series.
“This time two years ago, I had about 30 pages and I was just trying to do the usual thing I do, which is trying to pull it off and do a good job,” said Whitehead, who is still grappling with the success of the book and doesn't sound eager to embrace a producer's role as it makes its way to the small screen. “They've asked if I wanted some input, but … trying to figure out how something works on a TV show is different than I see it on the page. But it'd be cool to visit the set. [Jenkins has] had a great year and I'm excited to see what he does with it.”