No matter the yard stick, Colson Whitehead is in the midst of a tremendous year. From winning both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award, to being one of the few Americans long listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, Mr. Whitehead’s latest novel, “The Underground Railroad,” has been a smashing success.
But, when Mr. Whitehead slipped into the packed Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor last Saturday, one would be forgiven for not realizing it. As he took the podium, the atmosphere inside the creaky shop was akin to welcoming home an old friend, not one of the greatest living American novelists of our time.
And that’s because it was a homecoming for the author. Mr. Whitehead has deep ties to the area; he summered in Sag Harbor as a child and now, as an adult, spends time with his own family out east. He chronicled his time in the hamlet with his semi-autobiographical novel “Sag Harbor” in 2009. The coming-of-age story of a teenage boy scooping ice cream on the wharf remains one of the few novels about the East End that rings true for both locals and part-time residents.
Kathryn Skoza, the co-owner of Canio’s Books with Mary Ann Calendrille, opened the night’s reading with remarks about the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia. Around 35 patrons had reserved seats weeks in advance, but for most, the event was standing-room only, with extra attendees spilling out onto the sidewalk on the rainy day. The anticipation was palpable as the crowd waited for the reading to begin. Amagansett poet Scott Chaskey was there, as well as other East End artists.
As Mr. Whitehead addressed the crowd, he spoke about buying a particular book at Canio’s decades ago, only to have Canio Pavone, the original owner, ask him if he was a writer. Although at the time he knew he wanted to be a writer, he said that no, he definitely was not one. Years later, he used that book, “New York on 5 Dollars a Day,” as background for his first novel, “The Intuitionist.”
Although Mr. Whitehead has read at the bookshop at least three times, the co-owners felt that this occasion was especially important given the content of “The Underground Railroad.”
With clean, beautiful prose, the novel tells America’s forgotten history, portraying the brutality of the country’s nearly 250-year slave industry. Thanks to the ingenious conception of an actual underground railroad that transports the main character, Cora, from, what the author calls, “different states of American possibility,” the book illuminates the country’s legacy of racism, holding a mirror up to the 21st century. As Mr. Whitehead said at the event, “the past is not the past.”
Mr. Whitehead, who has given numerous interviews about avoiding the cliché of his so-called Southern Novel of Black Misery, told The Press that part of the reason he thought he could do this book was that he knew he would bring something different to it. He said, “If I can make the subject fresh for myself, I can make it fresh for the reader. Other people write about slavery, I’m writing this book in 2015, as someone who grew up in the 1980s with my own set of experiences … if it’s been told before, you have to trust you have something to add.”
And the fact that Mr. Whitehead was able to add to the conversation around one of America’s original sins is evident for anyone who has read even a portion of the book. Aside from the critical acclaim, the book was excerpted by The New York Times as well as chosen as an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
“Kathryn and I really feel strongly about the importance of this book,” said Ms. Calendrille in a telephone call after the event. “The fact that the reading took place as we learned about the horrible events at Charlottesville resonated in a chilling way about how we have to reconcile this sin of slavery with our country and progress as a united nation of all peoples and of all colors.”
Watching luminaries grow over time is part of the reason why she and Ms. Skoza love running a bookstore. “We’re very lucky to be in the community which for decades has harbored many, many writers both before they became famous and after they became super famous,” said Ms. Calendrille. She pointed out another local writer, Alan Furst, who was a longtime friend of the shop, during which time his reputation magnified.
The ability to bridge the gulf between the literary elite and a small town community speaks to both the store, as well as the authors who have chosen to foster these sorts of relationships while they are also juggling the logistics of international book tours. As Mr. Whitehead signed books and took pictures after the reading, audience members shared their memories of his family or well-wishes for his mother.
Toward the end of the event, Mr. Whitehead offered select details to The Press regarding the television adaptation of his latest work. Describing the process as “very separate,” Mr. Whitehead said that the project was completely in the hands of “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins.
However, Mr. Whitehead did say that in the Amazon series, viewers can expect snow.
“In Indiana on the Valentine farm, it takes place in the winter. And [Barry Jenkins] said, ‘I’ve never seen a slave movie with snow.’ And I said, ‘You’re right.’ He’s like, ‘I’m going to have the best snow ever,’” Mr. Whitehead recalled.
It was then that Mr. Whitehead realized that Mr. Jenkins was the perfect person for the job.
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