On March 15th, Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad, gave a reading at the Salt Lake City Library. What really struck me about him is how funny he is. Except for when he read somber sections from his book, it felt more like a stand-up comedy routine than a book reading.
The person who introduced him said Colson Whitehead is more genre than most literary writers. While other literary writers like to wade into genre from time to time, Whitehead dives in.
Whitehead told the audience how much he loved genre shows such as The Twilight Zone when he was growing up and about his desire to become the black Stephen King. He spoke about how he viewed the Donna Summer song “MacArthur Park” as a metaphor for the writer’s journey: You go to a lot of trouble gathering ingredients and when you’re done, someone leaves the cake out in the rain. “Knopf Publishing, why did you leave my cake out in the rain? Houghton Mifflin Publishing, why did you leave my cake out in the rain?” In a hilarious interlude, he even played the song for us.
He said the average literary novel only sells about 5,000 copies, which is depressing when you consider there are billions of people in the world. He tried to reassure himself by imagining beings on other worlds wanting to read his book, but the chances of us discovering life on other worlds is slim, and even if we do, they probably won’t want to read our crap anyway. They’ll probably be into haikus or something else like that.
At one point, he joked about a snooty medieval writer telling his friend, “I don’t watch puppet shows. I don’t even own a puppet show set.”
After he first came up with the idea for The Underground Railroad, it took him 18 years until he wrote it because he didn’t think he was a good enough writer to tackle it yet. He said that when he was writing it, he reread other books about slavery such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and he realized that no matter what you write about, someone else has already written a better book about it than you. You’ve just got to trust that you’ve got something unique to say. He also mentioned that it’s hard for him to watch movies about slavery. Reading about it is easier than seeing it depicted on the screen.
Whitehead said that he sometimes gets asked if he’s worried about readers thinking the The Underground Railroad is real and he quipped, “It says ‘A Novel’ on the cover. That’s a tip off.” He joked about the people who die every year stepping into a tornado thinking it will take them to Oz. He sometimes gets asked why write about slavery? Aren’t there enough books about slavery already? His response: “I guess I could write about upper middle class white people who get sad sometimes.”
His jokes continued even into the audience Q&A. Someone asked how race relations could be improved and Whitehead joked that we could have a post-racial society if 99.99% of the human race was dead as in his zombie novel, Zone One. Things like race, religion, gender, and whether or not someone is a Yankees fan will cease to matter when there aren’t that many of us left.
Someone asked why Cora (in The Underground Railroad) didn’t kill the slave catcher when she had the chance and Whitehead replied, “Maybe she’s a better person than you.”
When asked what he thought of the recent Black Panther movie, he joked that his favorite Afrofuturism movie is the “California Love” music video by 2pac and Dr. Dre.