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Aug 1, 2017 9:53 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Colson Whitehead Discusses 'Underground Railroad' And More In Bridgehampton During Fridays At Five

Aug 3, 2017 2:16 PM

“As a little kid,” said author Colson Whitehead, “I envisioned the underground railroad as a sort of subway beneath the earth.”

Speaking at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton last week, Whitehead told the packed house that the seeds for his bestselling novel “The Underground Railroad” were planted decades ago, early in his writing career—too early, he thought, to do it justice.

“I was thinking about that 17 years ago, sitting on my couch and wondering, what if the metaphor was made real, a real railroad? It didn’t seem like there was enough there, so I added the element that each state our protagonist goes through is a different state of American possibility, and it seemed like a really good idea, but I knew if I tried to do it back then I would mess it up. And so I waited. And every couple years I would pull out my notes and wonder, ‘Am I ready to take this book on?’ And every time, the answer was no. And this went on until about three years ago.

“I mentioned it to my editor, and she did something she never does. She emailed me on a Sunday and she said, ‘I can’t stop thinking about that new idea of yours.’ Then Wednesday was shrink day, so I told my shrink, and she was like, ‘What are you, crazy? You should totally work on this book.’ So I did.”

It was good advice. The book was published August 2, 2016, to instant acclaim. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it won the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal for Fiction. It was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, nominated for a Man Booker Prize for Fiction and landed on President Obama’s summer reading list in 2016. “The Underground Railroad” was also an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and has been widely read by book clubs across the country.

Mr. Whitehead, on his third visit to the library’s Fridays at Five series, managed to look both scholarly and hip in shoulder-length dreads and a button-down polo shirt. Clearly relaxed in front of a hometown audience, the author of 2009’s “Sag Harbor” riffed on topics from ridiculous questions he’s been asked at readings (What do you tell your children about what it’s like to be black?) to dealing with his own insecurities as an author, noting:

“No matter what you’re writing about, someone more talented and smarter than you has done it before, so just accept that, and accept that you’re an individual with your own ideas and perspective on the world. You’re bringing that to the subject, so don’t worry about other people—you’re gonna be okay.”

“The Underground Railroad” chronicles the life of Cora, a young slave growing up on a cotton plantation in antebellum Georgia, and her perilous journey toward freedom.

This is a soul-wrenching read with no sugarcoating to smooth the hard edges. “The book called for a lot of grisly research, but my main research was reading old slave narratives. In the 1930s, the government hired writers to interview former slaves and get their stories before they passed on.”

In one account, a former slave named Harriet Jacobs recounted spending seven years hiding in an attic until she could get passage out of North Carolina.

Mr. Whitehead noted the tie between that story and the story of Anne Frank, a victim of the Nazis who spent two years in hiding before being captured and sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “The Nazis learned all their ideas about eugenics and racial purity and scientific racism from American scientists. They took some of the more hideous aspects of it and ran with it.”

The author’s success in capturing the real horror of slavery was evident in the questions and comments that came from the audience following the reading.

“This book is unremittingly hard to read,” said Terrance Fiore of Water Mill. “It is a chronicle of cruelty, hardship, bad luck. Just when you think things are going to get better for the protagonist, it turns again.” He said he just couldn’t take hundreds of pages of that straight, but wanted to—had to—come back and find out what was going to happen.

Mr. Whitehead explained, “Before I started playing with history I wanted to get it right, which means showing the slave system in all its brutality.

“I felt a responsibility to my mostly nameless ancestors who lived and died in Florida and Alabama. It’s a miracle that I’m here. The system was so brutal it’s amazing that anyone survived. So I wanted to get it right.

“That means it’s not happy slaves dancing around like in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ where it’s like a white lady being self-actualized against the backdrop of the Civil War. It’s a little more realistic.”

Mr. Whitehead added that, much as we like to think all of that brutality is behind us, “There is a continuum of humiliation and oppression that was present 150 years ago and remains now. When I was doing my research reading slave narratives, the language a slave would use about being stopped by slave patrolers was the same language I’ve used to describe being stopped by police for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time. That American darkness doesn’t go away; it bides its time and waits for someone to harness it. It’s always there, and it always will be.”

“The Underground Railroad” is being developed as a drama series for Amazon by “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins.

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"Hometown audience"?????? It's not his home town. Just because he wrote a book called "Sag harbor" doesn't make him a local.
By fire11 (276), east hampton on Aug 3, 17 7:18 PM
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