Colson Whitehead
Photo by Peter-Andreas Hassiepen

Colson Whitehead: “All our former selves are still there”

Short Profile

Name: Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead
DOB: 6 November 1969
Place of birth: New York, New York, United States
Occupation: Author

Colson Whitehead's latest book, Harlem Shuffle, is out now in Germany via Hanser Literaturverlag.

Mr. Whitehead, you’re wearing a “Welcome to Fear City” t-shirt today. As a lifelong New Yorker, is that how you think of your hometown?

(Laughs) So, in the mid-seventies the police union were upset by the lack of support from the mayor, so they had these “Welcome to Fear City” pamphlets made up for tourists, saying things like, “Don’t leave your hotel after dark,” basically to scare tourists. But crime in New York was actually pretty bad until the mid-nineties. My teenage years when we thought the atomic bomb would drop any moment, I think we had a more doom-soaked view of the world! My early memories of the ambiance in New York and the mood of those early days was that the city is dirty, it’s violent, and you should hold each other’s hands very tight when you walk down the street…

In that respect, New York is different these days.

It has been pretty cleaned up in the last two decades, yeah. These days, taking a taxi through Central park at night, you see people jogging. It’s astonishing. How can you jog in Central park? It’s ridiculous! There are newcomers who have no idea of the old city, all the New York survival training you get: “Hold your purse close, don’t put your bag down in the subway…” I see people  who didn’t have that training, walking around happily — and I shake my head.

“I think you remake yourself every two or three years, but all our former selves are still there.”

Did that kind of training instil you with a cynical view of the world?

Oh no, it’s just the way it is! I am a pessimist but not because of New York City.

Why are you a pessimist?

The rising tide of fascism and right-wing demagoguery about the world, global warming, our lack of gun control laws, a mismanaged global pandemic which has caused an incredible loss of life…

That’s fair.

There is no shortage of things to be pessimistic about in our failure to address how we should actually live.

Does writing provide respite from that?

My orientation towards the world is present in some books and not present in others. I have written books that have a lot of jokes and a lot of satire — but that’s separate from what we are discussing about pessimism and where the world is headed.

Does writing at least allow you to make sense of the world around you, even if it doesn’t always provide an outlet for your feelings about it?

It depends on the book. Underground Railroad is a deep dive in history and it gives me a different perspective on the interrelation between capitalism and slavery, imperialism and white supremacy. It gave me a clarity I didn’t have before I started writing the book. A book like Sag Harbor, where I am trying to dismantle my childhood and figure out how it all worked together to create this adult version called Colson… That’s more personal. So some books are personal and some are more examinations of the system.

How successful were you in figuring all of that out about yourself?

Well, that book is my 39-year-old idea of who I was. It’s been 12 years since then and many different things have happened to me. I now have a 51-year-old conception of who I am. Identity is always shifting. You can only fix it very briefly. I suppose I’ll figure out my childhood on my deathbed and I’ll keel over a few seconds later! It’s like a piece of Ikea furniture. You are putting screws in the wrong holes and when you finally figure out, you never have to do it again. And it’s done! Once you figure it out, you’ll never need the knowledge again.

You don’t think you’ll ever have yourself truly figured out?

I think you remake yourself every two or three years, but all our former selves are still there. You walk around a big city and where there once was a shoe store, is now a movie theater — but that shoe store truth is still real and vital to you, even though there is something else there. That’s how I see my past. All of my former selves are still within me, still present and both selves are occupying the same space.

Do you imbue any of those former selves in the characters or circumstances in your novels?

The characters in the last two novels, Nickel Boys and Underground Railroad, are not very much like me at all. There is some of me in Nickel Boys’ Elwood and Turner, but the features of their world don’t really overlap with my world. My new book Harlem Shuffle is about the sixties, and while I was not alive then, Carney’s orientation towards real estate and Harlem and Times Square overlaps with me. But at the same time, I am writing about the Hotel Teresa, which I had no idea about before I started writing. So it’s a culture of Harlem in the fifties and sixties that is partially alien to me. That entails research and projecting myself into the past; trying to figure out how to deploy all this knowledge in an artistic way.

“A lot of the joy is in the running of an idea. There were times when I overplanned a book and then I went, ‘Well, what’s the point of writing it? There is no mystery.’”

Is that depth of research empowering in some way?

I would not say it’s empowering, it’s just a different way of writing a book. Some books are research-heavy, some aren’t. Some have worlds I am more acquainted with, like Zone One and Harlem Shuffle, and some feature worlds that I have to research more fully: the world of plantation, the world of Florida in the early sixties. It’s just work and a different set of tasks.

What other tasks are involved in your writing process? Are you the type of writer who plans things down to a tee?

I am a big planner. I know the beginning and the end, the middle can be fuzzy. In the case of Harlem Shuffle, I knew what the last five pages were when I started, but I didn’t know all the mechanics of the third section. I knew the major emotional beats and mechanics of the story, but I didn’t know certain details like the name of the real estate magnate, or all of Linus’ psychology, how he walks and talks, things like that. A lot of the joy is in the running of an idea. There were times when I overplanned a book and then I went, “Well, what’s the point of writing it? There is no mystery.”

Was the pandemic a productive period for you as a writer? According to your Wikipedia, you wrote Harlem Shuffle in bite-sized chunks during lockdown…

When I saw that on Wikipedia, I went, “What are you talking about?!” (Laughs) But I think it was because during lockdown, in between getting my kids online for school, I would write an hour here and an hour there. So for the final 80 pages, if I could get two hours of work in, that’s an incredible gift. That’s what they were referring to, I think. But overall, it was one of the most productive periods of my life because I finished Harlem Shuffle and then I started writing the next book right afterwards. I couldn’t leave the house, so I thought I might as well work. There was nothing else to do. At the time, my attention span was short. I couldn’t read for pleasure. I would only read stuff for work: books about New York, histories of mobsters, stuff like that. With my short attention span, the only thing I could do was focus on my work.

And now? Have things settled down for you?

I am pretty calm these days. I started exercising and meditating. Things are not as dire as last year. When I Iook back on last summer, it was a pretty dark time… So keeping things in proportion, we are better off this year than we were last year, but there’s also a lot of work to do.