An Evening with Colson Whitehead Recap

Sunday, May 29, 2016

An Evening with Colson Whitehead

By: Justin Mitchell

On April 19th the Novel Project at Duke in collaboration with Novel: A Forum on Fiction, the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, the English Department, the Center for International Studies/Global Cities, and the Department of African-American Studies hosted author Colson Whithead at Duke University's Nasher Auditorium. Whitehead, whose celebrated works include the zombie novel Zone One and the essay collection The Colossus of New York, spoke at length about his origins as a writer before reading a passage from his forthcoming book The Underground Railroad, a work of speculative fiction that envisions the slaves’ legendary road to freedom in the antebellum south as an actual network of underground tunnels. Afterward, Whitehead engaged in a stimulating conversation with two professors from the English department— Popular Culture scholar Mark Anthony Neal and novel theorist Nancy Armstrong—and responded to a broad range of questions from the audience.

Whitehead explained how he grew up reading novels by Stephen King and initially aspired to write books like The Shining and Salem’s Lot from a black perspective. “Basically if you put ‘the black’ in front of [the title of] every Stephen King novel, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. As an undergraduate at Harvard he also found inspiration in modernist literature, partly because it shared genre writing’s preoccupation with the “the fantastic.” Initially, however, Whitehead lacked the discipline to achieve his literary ambitions. “I considered myself a writer in college,” he said, “but I didn’t actually write anything. Apparently that’s part of the process. I wore plaid and smoked cigarettes, but I didn’t actually sit down and write.” He tried twice to enroll in one of Harvard’s creative writing seminars but was rejected both times. 

After college Whitehead landed a job at The Village Voice, a newspaper that nurtured writers who felt equally drawn to highbrow and popular cultures. He eventually convinced an editor to let him review television shows. His work as a television critic inspired his first novel, which he described as a “very theoretical” work of “Gen-X fiction.” The book got him an agent, but failed to find a publisher. Whitehead offered a droll account of how he dealt with all the rejections and finally resolved to start writing fiction again: “As I sat in my dirty studio apartment, watching Jerry Springer, I realized that I was a recipient of all that sit-on-your-ass-and-muse-about-crap-all-day DNA. And it didn’t matter if no one liked what I was doing. I had no choice. So I got back to work and it went better the next time with The Inuitionist.”

During the Q&A with an enthusiastic audience of faculty and students, Whitehead described the writing process (which included regular TV watching and listening to music), his many literary influences, his engagement with critical theory, and his current fascination with pop culture. Although Whitehead remains culturally omnivorous, he only feels at home writing novels and essays. “I didn’t ever figure out how to write a short story,” he said. “I’ve written, like, two in the last twenty-five years. I’ll have a simple idea, and it gets bigger and bigger and becomes novel size.” Not surprisingly, he has received offers to work in other media, but, at least up to this point, he has not felt compelled to pursue them. He prefers the independence and solitude of fiction writing over working in television and film. “All those sort of non-fiction, non-novel things always seems attractive—‘oh, a piece of money’—but then I always get like ‘I’ll just write a novel,’” he said. “It’s so much easier than working with people.”