Focus 580; John Henry Days: A Novel
This is focused 580 telephone talk program my name is David Inge. Glad to have you with us this morning. In the first hour of the show today we'll be talking with novelist Colson Whitehead. His first novel was the intuitionist. It was a story about a woman who worked in a city very much like New York as an elevator inspector. And then about some of the tension between two rival schools of thought when it comes to inspecting elevators the empiricists of those are the people who pretty much just believed in the things that they could touch and hold in their hands and the intuitionist people who went about their work by feeling and it was the hero the lead character Laila Mae Watson who was indeed an intuitionist. That book got a lot of positive attention is still available to now available in paperback. I'd like to read it and I think it's a good book. This morning though we'll talk with Colson Whitehead about his new novel which is titled John Henry days. It has just recently been published. It's published by Doubleday. And again like the intuitionist is getting a lot of positive attention. We'll tell you a little bit about the story or stories
that run through the book and talk about writing with Colson Whitehead and as we do that anyone who's listening certainly can call in you have questions of your own. All we ask is people just try to be brief so we can keep things moving along but of course Anyone's welcome to join the conversation. If you're here in Champaign-Urbana where we are 3 3 3 9 4 5 5. We also have a toll free line and that one is good anywhere that you can hear us. And that is if it would be a long distance call for you can use that number it will pay for the call and that's 800 to 2 2 9 4 5 5 6 0 3 3 3 W I L L that's what you get if you match the numbers on letters 3 3 3 WY and toll free 800 to 2 to W while at any point here if you want to call it you're welcome to do that. Mr. Whitehead Hello. Yeah it's gone. Good thanks thanks for talking with us. It's a pleasure. Operation there's a lot going on in this book but probably the simplest way to start out
talking about the stories that run through it is to talk a little bit about the main character a man named Jay Sutter who is a freelance journalist from New York who ends up traveling to West Virginia to cover any event that owners and celebrates John Henry. And that's happening because the Postal Service has created a series of stamps honoring American folk heroes and John Henry is one of them. And so that is what the title John Henry days refers to. Right. Yeah. So it's a little bit about this guy Jay. Well he's ever very very hacky journalist he's part of a I guess a group of I call them junkets here is I mean. So cover any media events no matter how small no matter how insignificant Yvonne is they get free drinks and you threw it at the depressive and free sneakers. It's like a new kind of sneaker
that's being promoted and I dispatched five years younger two years to cover just you know dinky events and talk about West Virginia where they're unveiling this postage stamps and she said are you. When I suggest a cure for a couple years but you can gauged in a contest where he's going for the record of junket cheering which is the most consecutive days of covering crappy media events in a row so he's three months into his junket touring JAG and he finds himself and talk of West Virginia which is the town name and most of the John anime ballads and he is he is compared in the book to another junkie who tried to do something like this before at least he says he set the record that existed and became unhinged in the process so everybody is kind of looking at Jay and wondering is this guy what's going to happen to this guy if he keeps on like this. Yeah I mean it. It's sort of
an existential sort of contest isn't the previous record holder Bobby status sort of went mad and disappeared after nine months of a chunk of caring and covering this team. Tiny events so he's he gets a lot of flak from that tears over what exactly his mission is and what he's trying to accomplish by doing this. These these guys feel very real to me which maybe suggests that you know some people like this. Not really I mean it's more from just being a critic over the over now a couple years for about five years I've worked at The Village Voice covering music and books and TV and film. And you just get acquainted with. The evidence of media complicity. So you know that I first had someone's first effort a first novel as the first filmmaker gets a certain kind of brand of hype there. They return with their
second book or still our albums disc gets another kind of media attention. There's a comeback. There is the downfall. So I just from just observing these things over time I am just I came to you came to know you with the way publicity happens. Well there's a wonderful bit of business in the book where they're talking about how these kinds of stories all fall into one of four everything can be reduced into one of a handful of categories and they are as as you explained they are and they've all they give this generic guy the name Bob. So the stores are all about Bob and it's Bob's debut. Bob's return Bob's come back in and it's their sort of cynical way of saying well basically everything boils down to just a handful of themes and we're just doing the same churning out the same stuff over and over again. Yeah and it's kind of funny. Your magazine was
going to cover in my new book but I had to be self-conscious about it. They're complicated and and in fact that's that sort of paradigm of just how we treat a second you have a second novel from somebody so the writer is a very nice guy. But it's very self-conscious about the Bob's return geez you know and it was just kind of funny. Well it also certainly invites a lot of speculation a lot of thinking about within popular journalism. Now on all levels including the Internet how much how much is written and created about stuff that really doesn't matter is not terribly important and awful lot of an awful lot of words being churned out about nothing essentially you know. You know I was in I was in New York in the early 90s and was I guess I was part of web content boom where basically you
could be unemployed for many years now and suddenly you get a random web content job for a website you never heard of. No no no one ever went to but they're paying two bucks a word or a dollar a word can and it just I mean it was just really ridiculous I got a job with some friends who are web designers to do a comic for TV Guide To Dot Com and a comic you know it's a webcomic and took me half an hour to write. I get paid 500 bucks. And then when I debuted none ever went there to try and figure I have to make money off of it so I was supposed to mention movies like keep the characters and make offhand references to movies and then you could click on the movie and I go to TV Guide listings and when it's coming on so it's kind of. And after like 60. Use your cancel because it was just a very meaningless operation. But I certainly has lived off the money. I never went to the site. As it is this is very weird external kind of condition.
Well then I read this little essay that you wrote about that the essay title I worked in an ill conceived Internet start up and all I got was this lousy idea for a novel which actually was a good idea for a novel but you apparently were doing this thing and it didn't require that much time during the day so you ended up spending some time surfing and even and I know that this interest in John Henry goes back a way and we can talk about that too but that seems this was after the intuitionist was finished and he either hadn't been published yet or hadn't quite taken off yet and you were trying to make some money to survive and that's when you again started started thinking about John Henry and collecting information and that's really where this book gets it started. Yeah I mean. Yeah I just finished the book and it's a web web content catalog and job to on the off the bills and it was a lot of down time and trying to think of what to do next. And I'd always
really been drawn to the John Henry story so I did start doing web searches at that point I had no idea that there was some story some sort of historical basis to fit the story. For those who don't remember it the legend goes that John Henry was a steel driver on the railroad in 1870 and. He's the biggest baddest you'll drive around and one day the company buys a steam drill which will replace him and his men and John Henry in a sort of hubris or something else challenges that engine to a race and he he beats it he drives farther and faster than the machine and then he was over Dad. So I got the idea to update it for the information age has just the basic idea. But I didn't do nothing. And so I plug in John Henry to various search engines and it turned out that the post office had made a shiny stamp that's up to the real life event that the novel takes office
and they're going to hold the stamp ceremony the unveiling of a stamp ceremony in Pittsburgh the home of steel and railroads. But on top. What's that you know called up and they're very incensed terrified John Henry is our hometown boy and that's why I found out that the Big Ben's tunnel which is named in all the ballads is a real life tunnel and it's in Talcott West Virginia and people in the town sort of hold a sort of maintain that he actually he really existed the vase was real. And it's not just a made up legend so they gave me a more factual basis than just a few verses to work from. So there really is a John Henry stamp and there really is a John Henry Day celebration to take place in West Virginia. Yeah I mean I haven't been there is I assume a lot more smaller than the one I would describe it just like sort of a crafts fair. But it takes off from. Yeah. First John Henry days and then
Cox this is a big a bigger media event out of it that I can I could dispatch these junkets here and here is to. Let me introduce Again our guest with us part of focus 580 We're talking with novelist Colson Whitehead. His new novel is John Henry days and it's published by Doubleday. His previous novel The Intuitionist is also out certainly still out there it's in paperback now. If you'd like to read it and your questions are welcome 3 3 3 WRAL toll free 800. While I'm just kind of as a side note I think in the book at some point someone's talking about John Henry and explains the fact that most people don't really know what it is he did. They have this idea that he was laying railroad track and I guess I probably kind of thought that too. And in fact what what these people were doing was they were using metal bits and sledge hammers to drill a hole into rock that then would be filled with explosives and
blown up as a way of their what they were doing was they're literally blasting a tunnel through a mountain. Yeah it was you know it was very hazardous for a lot of deaths from cave ins. And. I mean it the conditions are pretty terrible. Most of the workers were freed slaves and they're paid pennies a day and I guess in the garbage out itself the skilled driver drives the drill bit into the Rock and has a guy called a Shaker who has to be a very brave soul who holds the drill bit horizontal for the from having a head and hands in the wrong place. You know they'll be mangled and between each spin the drill bit so that the dust inside gets loose. He asked to exchange like a three inch a three foot bit for a six foot without missing a beat or else you're going to get smashed so I guess driving stakes seems a lot more glamorous or like you're at. Foot
by foot and making a transatlantic railroad but what joining me we actually did his real job was pretty terrible. So in the in the book there's this scene in a school classroom where a teacher shows to the children cartoon version an animated version of the life of John Henry. Yeah this is based on your own experience was this happened when you were a kid and you were in school the teacher hauls out this John Henry cartoon and that was kind of your first exposure to John Henry. Yeah you know it's early 70s in there. This is the start of a multicultural kind of education and school systems so I'm I'm not sure if it was an English class or a history class but the. Teacher. When a projector and showed us a flame and movie on John Henry and I was immediately taken with him seeing a black superhero for the first time. Pretty rare event it's pretty rare now and and you haven't in the years to follow of the story stayed with me but I still have no idea
what the story meant and that this is a triumph for the individual against the industry is it time for the community. Is he serving humanity am I still I mean I still have after finishing the book but just nodded and kind of habitations you can make about. The ambiguous ending of him dying after accomplishing this goal is that the big question is he won the contest but he died so the big question is well did he when did he lose. Yeah I mean they see a sacrifice for the cause. Is he just being punished for his hubris. There are all sorts of different interpretations and part of us trying to do is have different characters have their own interaction with the John Henry legend so that you get all these different kinds of interpretations over time and he means different things to different
people and different time periods and to some professions from different backgrounds. That's what you know part of what I was trying to do there. So we have these two these two figures. J The writer and John Henry and John Henry is this figure this epic figure involved in this epic struggle and one can talk about different sorts of things that the struggle is about Certainly it's on one level it is this man machine thing and probably by a lot of other things too. And J. He is on his own quest. He's involved in what passes I guess for an epic struggle that he has he's trying to set the record right. And yet the the two things only set them next to one another seem the the one jaise jaise the road he's on seems in what he's doing seems so much smaller in a sense and he sounds so much. It's sort of ridiculous to put the two together and yet in a way it seems to be saying that about this is about all you can do in our time
to try and do something that seems at all heroic. Yeah I mean that kind of superhuman contest as some of the exist anymore are I mean I think if it ever did then you know I think today maybe we can have our own individual machines ever struggling against. And I think for Jay it's how to be a writer and a very corrupt. Media landscape for you and I. And in the different chapters I have you know I have different characters across the across the century who have their own sort of John Henry contest so in the 30s it's a blues singer who's. Town to town folk singing tradition will go by the wayside with the rise of the record player so you really want to get on vinyl and get his name in
among the pantheon of people of other blues singers are going on records. So he has his own sort of machine literally and then a larger struggle you know with his creative life. There's a Tin Pan Alley songwriter who's putting this Doc John Henry ballad on sheet music for the first time and sheet music. You know it was the first one the first way that we forged a national pop culture. But people are always you know drawing room spying latest thing the latest Diddy Diddy and harbors or munchies whatever the magazines were back then. And he's he's struggling to get his name out there and have a million seller and keep his wits about him in a tenement on the Lower East Side in the early part of a century or so. I think you know as the as the belly gets older and the nation gets older those kind of contexts become rarer and
rarer. I mean it just sort of hunts and find around our own contests because they're out there but we maybe not we don't see them as heroic as such but in some ways they kind of are. We're approaching the midpoint of the program and our guest this morning is novelist Colson Whitehead his new novel is John Henry days. It's published by double day and his first the intuitionist is also available now in paper. And if you'd like to read the books and I think they're both very good. And course you like to call and you can talk with our guest three three three. W-why allowed toll free 800. Two two two. Wy love your main character. We never learn what his first name is. He's just always referred to as J. How come this poor guy doesn't get a name. He has a name. Sister. Oh it's just we don't know. I apologize for any confusion. That's all right. It's that they just have something to do with his in a sense being a kind of a
a an ending bad it blank sort of figure kind of a cipher in a way. I think if you can see that I think just some other sort of interpretation you can spin out of it. Defn Not to Jesus thing as fast as a Christ figure and stay away from you know that Jay and the show as a Jesus thing but I think. I think it works because I don't I think it's hard to go into it but. I think it's sort of truncated moniker works. I guess I thought I found myself wondering whether in fact his name was John is John. Yes one could possibly wonder about something like that yeah. That's different. So how do you know that the intuition was it was was very well received a lot of favorable press a lot of attention directed towards you as being a very successful first novelist. Of course that puts a great deal of pressure on you for
the second book because people there will be people who are waiting to see how you see this guy was just a flash in the pan and. He really didn't have the real stuff. How has your life changed as a result of the fact that the books have been as successful as they have been. What I think with it in terms of writing John Henry. I guess you know the bad thing about the publishing process is that it takes about a year for a book when you hand it in to when it comes out but the good to end you're impatient because it's you know your first book but the good thing is that I was well and John Henry by the time the first book came out so it wasn't a question of paralyzed by you have a great reception and the good reviews I followed up it was more a question of I had this book I knew all the characters are halfway done. I'd have to get back to work and pension off.
And I'm definitely glad that John has gotten the kind of. Reviews it's had and exposure because basically you know just want people to hear about it and have it's out there and they can approach or retweet that. But then we find I think you have to have there. It's funny because you know I just came out in bookstores two weeks ago. I did my first reading today is going to Minneapolis and that kind of makes the book real for me by going to reading and seeing people come out and you're reading to them they're responding reviews come out and it's still kind of abstract of the books out there and it's in bookstores but you can used to seeing the cover. So I'm still getting used to John how many days just being out and in the world and you have talking to people about and stuff like that so I'm not sure where to house how I feel like a month from now.
Yeah well that's interesting because I I would guess that there is a big difference. You create something you work on for a long time it exist as a manuscript. But then when it actually gets the point where it's something you can hold in your hands it somehow becomes something different. Yeah you know. A pretty solid solid weight in your hand and a half. Yeah the typeface is your criticism from your computer is gone. You are so sick of staring at and you start talking to people about it again after you find things and good parts to read and readings and you know you're good you become reacquainted with it and become as you know in some way the new book you kind of forget certain paragraphs like oh that's a really good paragraph and I kind of forgot that I was there. Yeah yeah you're proud of yourself for your you know certain things that you forget as time goes on. You reminded me of like oh yeah I was actually a fun great experience to work you know write the book. So are you still carrying with you your copy of American standard practice for elevator inspection.
I'm so sick of it. Yeah I that was that's actually was sort of my reason for asking because I'm sure that he gets to the point where no matter how good you think something is and what a great achievement it was and how much you love it and other people will love it and continue to discover it they will get to a point where you figure all right enough of the elevator thing I don't want to talk about it anymore. Well yeah I mean like I was saying about finishing something and it's published a year later. You know there's a real distance between writing the thing and other people seeing it. So that's definitely when I'm done writing I can you know I'm fond of it but I don't want to hear the John Adams song again I don't want to and when I step in elevator I'm reminded and it's sort of like how much I want to move on. Yeah so I think next I mean I think elevators of all too commonplace to escape from so I think you know I'll.
Stay away from trying to stay away from the Monday and I guess well I have now in two different things I've read you read this coming from you that said you were working on a novel about Band-Aids. Now was this a joke or is this from Mr. pretty true. It's pretty true. There's nothing some Babbage in and they play a part I mean it's pretty early to you know talk about too much. It's not so much a bandage I can never wear and it's use of bandage and stay away from hospitals again. Well let's take off from sort of the idea of flesh colored bandaids and what Color Splash that was that was my thought exactly because in one in one of these references just said Band-Aids on the other and said flesh colored and of course my first thought was Oh yeah what color is that. Yeah and you know the crayon box is a thing to stop it but it's like a Frank I called flash when we were kids snatch my flash yes there was and I thought yes now I think they call that peach or something like that. They don't know they don't call that flash anymore you know. Anglo American
and European European. No they don't they know that would it wouldn't fit on the rap on the on the ground it would just be too long. Yeah well I'd like to give people the opportunity here. A little bit of John Henry days so would you read something. Sure. I'm going to read the opening of the John Henry Days fair itself the county fair. All the characters are down there and people are assembling for this afternoon of fun and delight so here we go. They come out of cars out of vehicles hot from sunlight and conveying engines to hoods to cool parking is a hassle. Nose to nose on Weeds almost in ditches on crumbling terraces of asphalt on the stable because rainwater has swept the dirt from under. Passengers are reminded by other passengers
several up the windows. The father surveys and orders the son to put the camera under the seat locks are locked are double checked sometimes by remote control with beeps. Somebody forgot something in the car. Sunglasses Nestle over an ear is snug on the scalp mudflaps the cars move slowly. There are too many people on the road. Little kids not looking where they're going and it's a creeping progress. Those who have found parking spaces do these drivers with a certain superiority and they take a few steps and get lost in the fare. Portable equipment has been hauled to the grounds. One look at the line for the Port of sands and you reconsider your need. The line for the men's is always shorter discernable from the line for the women's and inspiration for many identical observations about biological equipment repeated over the course of a day by many different people. Some men sneak off into the woods by the
bandstand for the middle of the grounds. A generator rattles the amps I have already been tested. A man was sent to fetch tape to tape down our engine industrial cable where a child might trip or an old lady break a hip along the sides of the bandstand. Black sheeting is taped up to keep people from seeing the fragile looking scaffolding. Some kids will sneak in there when no one is looking and peek through at the people. A quarter mile of steel fencing separates the tracks from the grounds and several guards patrol the space between all day for the agreements with the railroad. No one wants to have a credible incident the day before the registered vendors match lot numbers with Marks territory and learn the pecking order. Of course some favoritism is to be expected and those who registered late are penalized with less than optimum placement. So is the. Tom spots feel something that draws itself up to contentment.
Some try to come up with ways to beat the system. It's quite a thing to stand there the day before the fair and see the land sectioned off like that by strings and stakes and the three long rows. They can hardly believe the day's almost here. The people who will come the next day will move from booth to booth. It is important to have a flashy sign to draw them in and the next day some of the vendors will return with paint on the flash that has resisted turpentine. Many of the vendors have never met before and extending readings while checking out theirs neighbors their neighbors where no one wants to be next to a booth that will be a turn off. Put all that effort and then something like that happens out of your control. One booth will have some kind of trick to draw people over and the neighbors think why didn't I think of that. Mostly friendly but then it's dog eat dog on some level. Colson Whitehead reading from his new novel John Henry days it's published by Doubleday is
first the intuitionist got a lot of favorable tension won number of awards it's available in paper if you'd like to read it. And questions are welcome. Three three three W I L L toll free 800 to 2. To W. One of the things that I feel like periods when I have read your books is that on the one hand there's a real I feel there's a momentum that propels me through the sentences and at the same time they're very loaded there's and there's lots of stuff there that makes me want to once I've gone through to go back and say Well what of it I want to go over that again. How do you approach writing and do you do a lot of revising a laborious process. It's funny because I guess my work habits generally I kind of work really hard for six months and then for an hour and it's just yeah. Cho and that's for another six months to go back to work. So.
I guess when I'm working I am doing you know a bunch of hours a day five days a week and I get a lot done. And in terms of revising I just revise here and there and over that over time. The senses turn out okay I guess. You know one day I'll come back to a chapter and just fix a comma or defeated where and a month later I go back to the same chapter and you know take out a clause and. Then you finish and you kind of you know it happens that you know things work out OK in the end you sort of revise over time and they work themselves out. It seems it seems to me. In the The New Yorker John Updike wrote about you and your books and what interested your reaction just one thing he says in the piece where he notes that he talks about the the book. Look taking its name from John Henry right. But here's here's what uptake
says he as a book takes its name from John Henry epitome of black strength and heartbreak but its central character the disgust a junkie Jake Sutter need not be black at all. His discontent might just as well be that of a young white or Asian American of a literary bent. And I wonder what you do you think about that because I don't think I agree with Mr. Updike here I'm not sure this would be the same book or for that matter you would be the same writer if if you and J were not African-American. Yeah I mean I guess that's the thing about that of us there's definitely some kind of a generational and racial divide between Updike and I think you know came across in different parts of the book. Later on he goes to say that I'm talking about Dr. Douglas and James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and sort of complaining that. Jay ciders problems are not as big
as supreme civil rights figures and this was kind of like I kind of thought Black Friday was more interesting more interesting when they're really struggling a lot. And it's so different point of view. I've got to step back and to say you know he's sort of missing key parts of the book. You know Jay said there is a middle class black man from New York and he's not Bigger Thomas and he's not the invisible man. And that doesn't mean his struggles aren't a as deep or as interesting if you have perhaps you have you know escape slave but but these are different times and the struggles of assimilation are different. But no less sort of deep and intriguing than a pre civil rights struggle. You know it's a strange review in different ways.
Yeah it is I guess I I wasn't at the end of I guess I wasn't sure that I understood what exactly he did feel about the book because it was you know I suppose you could take it as a kind of a backhanded. Complement or I don't know. Yeah I mean. In I guess in a lot of interviews some people find that Jay is the story of Jay ciders Odyssey didn't turn the weekend more compelling than other people find the historical chapters with Paul Robeson or the blues guy or John to six chapters John with John Henry more compelling. And then some people you know of course my idea will be yours and you can see how those two strands play and play off each other and accents and Canterbury have the contrapuntal energy of the book. Well there is a some of things I read about the book make reference to the
Odyssey and I guess that there is something of that in in this story and I suppose also some people would resist the comparison and that's sort of you know comparing Jay and his experiences to the Odyssey is kind of like saying that the Odyssey was about a guy who had a really long commute on the way home from work. But I do I do see though I do see some parallels there between the one journey and and these others that are in the book. Yeah I mean I'm not sure. You know it's really strange when you people compare the book to defend him to other books and sometimes you can see the compassion and sometimes you can't. But yeah I'm trying to find. Not miss of him a modern tell a tale of heroism but try to you know consider. What a primal tale like Jon Hammar struggle you know can mean today and where do we fit
in and can we fit in and where we overlap and where we down and just sort of find my way through the story as someone used to him. Writing and and the year 2000 the other reference and you know I guess I've read too many things now I don't know where I read them anymore I guess it was in there it was the review that was in the New York Times that also in addition to making reference to Ulysses makes reference to Moby Dick. And do you see that on some level John Henry days it is a story of obsession that. Level. Yeah and I think also just the sheer kind of Bashir American ness of it. It's you know if the structure is hard for some people because it is instead of the more direct thought of the intuitionist which is playing off detective conventions and John Henry I have a more
fanatic plot I guess where each new chapter a new character that pops up is extending the narrative of an idea of John Henry as opposed to people running around and various crises happening. It does have more. There are many more in John Henry days there are many more stories going on for a year and I mention this is a technical point but makes it a more difficult kind of thing trying to write a book. This managing to juggle all those different stories. Yeah I mean if you spend a lot of time think about the structure of balancing a shorter chapter with a longer chapter How long can me go without seeing Jay Sutter and the adventure that weekend so I have to be you know matter of technique you're thinking about how everyone's going to respond to it because for me you know I could have it
because I knew all the water and it is still be my book but you are trying to communicate ideas to other people. I had to take that into account. One of the fun things about you know once the book is done you can see how things have played out and you can move things around. I would start with a pretty solid outline that changes over time but I know what I'm doing. But I sit and write the book from you know first chapter the last chapter. It wasn't told it was undone and so I was completely done so you know for six months. Page 200 or 300 are missing. And then and then when you have all the chapters you can arrange them into a summary and make sense or you're outlining this kind outmoded because Diprivan didn't take into account of rhythm of the stories are. So yes I'm on time thinking of how people the best way to get to the arc of the story across to people.
We have about 10 minutes left in this part of focus 580 Our guest is Colson Whitehead. His most recent novel is John Henry Days published by Doubleday. It's now out in hardcover it's been out just a couple weeks. He's also the author of another book that's titled The Intuitionist that was his first published novel and it's in paperback I think Angkor is the publisher. Yeah that book and they're both out there. If you want to read and of course your questions are welcome. Three three three W. Weil toll free 800 1:58 W while I'm just going back to this. This Updike quote that I mentioned there also was one of the things that came with the book was the transcript of a conversation you sat down in a talk with Walter Mosley who's written a lot of good books and was the creator of the character Easy Rawlins and some others and at one point in here you're having this conversation about the issue of being being a black writer or being referred to as a black writer and how you feel about that and whether you'd rather just be
said to be a writer rather than having that extra thing thrown in there for whatever it means. Yeah I just I mean you know it's a very strange issue. In the 60s you know with the rise of nationalism you're a black writer and that's a political cry. And then over time it became. Target is the n word. Depends like who sang it and in what context. When I think of the Updike piece the first sense is you know what young African-American buyer to watch you know maybe Colson Whitehead and then so. I mean we have got to get a wise but then it was like Walter Mosley I'd be like yeah yeah yeah. Roy Black writers are writing in a black tradition and you know we're taking our cues from what's gone before. So it's sort of you know of it it's like someone said oh you're black but I'm not down on a black writer and then and then in terms of bookstores it
becomes a separate issue of are you being put in a black literature section and not in literature section and what does that mean like how do you people find your books so it's you know it's really it's a really strange issue. How do you see yourself and then how other people see you and what it means. Well it seems to me even when you are compared to other contemporary writers you're not being appeared to black writers do you. Do you somehow see yourself to use the phrase you used as being part of a black writing. Ed. And if so who. What writers do you feel that you're connected to. I think definitely. Ellison and Ishmael Reed you know that's I discovered them both in college and they had a profound influence. Well you know the first thing that I was in Iraq was an elementary school and they'd accepted scene of an invisible man and I didn't read
the novel till later but at that point I'd only read. I mean gosh actually I had been a black fiction and it's been kind of eye opening the way you could veer from extreme naturalism to this you know these absurd riffs and this absurdist view of American life in the 50s and then as I got older and in college or even if it is various conspiracies and. Also absurd kind of riffing on a convention that there gives the western novel and detective novel you know I think I'll get a lot from that and I was able to like you know some of my own voice from these various and challenge figures. We have a couple callers and we're getting real short on time. Try to get them to first color here is paint flying
high and really enjoying the program and join the discussion. I have a question about the process of being a writer and also I guess being an African-American writer. How much do you and your work do you feel you've sort of confronted the issue of and really the previous discussion discussed touches on this but you deal with the issue of what is realistic what is represented to you. I'm in the process I guess of thinking about for quite a while. Writing a bit of a historical novel and I'm struggling with the issue of how much to really sort of reflect what was true of African-American history as we know it or as we think about it versus how do we extend beyond that. So if you sort of struggle with that and dealing with these various areas in your current work histories a lot more interesting than fiction and so on you know. I think you can
really make up stuff as crazy as say Paul Robeson for performing in a really racist production of John Henry in 1942 on Broadway. That's if you have a crazy out of this world event which you know I talk about in the book and I came across it. It said and so you know a lot different themes in the book and you know you have definitely improved the book in the end. I guess there is like. In there's a realisation you know there's a very realistic take on slavery in say beloved And then there's this Mel Reed's fight to Canada and it's you know one is you know hardly affecting me naturalistic and the other is you have placed slavery as a farce. And I find adventure in that. Fighting slavery as a kind adventure novel so it
is sort of pens of a kind of writer you are and what kind of tools you're going to use and what you're trying to say I think. Well when you say I get that and this will be my last question would you say that sort of you know Langston Hughes is sort of reference to the you know the Negro Artist often in this case negro writer and the Racial Mountain. I mean do you still think that confronts you know writers and the idea of having to be representative having to be. Again I guess in using the word realistic. I guess I feel like other people other writers sort of are doing more traditional more traditional characters I mean now you have the rise of a B-Boy girl novel you have these kind of romances where things are a lot more realistic than they are in my novel I 10 novels I tend to take very strange characters and insert them into very odd situations and see and use that as a way of talking about race and talk about
culture. So. I think it's a kind of roundabout way of talking about race and blackness and what it means to be black and you know they're really part of 21st century and I think it's more just coming up out of. The fight for the black arts move and you know the early 70s and those people were freed us up to try different things and not feel we have to do this with a certain kind of thing we're not the one black white of the moment. We're just you know we have a lot more leeway in doing our own kind of strange talent I think. OK well thank you very much for the call. And I am afraid I'm sorry say we have somebody we can't take because we're at the end of the time we're going to have to stop. I want to say to you Mr. Whitehead thanks very very much for giving some your time today we appreciate it. Uh no it's awesome thanks a lot. Our guest Colson Whitehead and his novel. If you'd like to read His newest is John Henry days it's published by Doubleday is out now just in a couple of weeks in
hardcover and you can also read his previous novel The Intuitionist. It is in vailable in paperback.
- Focus 580
- John Henry Days: A Novel
- Producing Organization
- WILL Illinois Public Media
- Contributing Organization
- WILL Illinois Public Media (Urbana, Illinois)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- This record is part of the Literature section of the Soul of Black Identity special collection.
- Episode Description
- with author Colson Whitehead.
- Broadcast Date
- Talk Show
- Books and Reading; ENTERTAINMENT; Fiction
- Media type
Producer: Brighton, Jack
Producing Organization: WILL Illinois Public Media
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-6eed314d3b0 (unknown)
Illinois Public Media (WILL)
Identifier: cpb-aacip-3a0366e12af (unknown)
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “Focus 580; John Henry Days: A Novel,” 2001-06-01, WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 1, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-16-6q1sf2mk55.
- MLA: “Focus 580; John Henry Days: A Novel.” 2001-06-01. WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 1, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-16-6q1sf2mk55>.
- APA: Focus 580; John Henry Days: A Novel. Boston, MA: WILL Illinois Public Media, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-16-6q1sf2mk55