October 2018 – Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead mixed deadpan humor and anecdotes about his early days as a writer during an animated talk at Drew University.
Whitehead, whose 2016 novel The Underground Railroad earned the Pulitzer for Fiction, pointedly recalled how in his early 20s he amassed rejection letters from big name and esoteric publishers when he tried to sell his first novel. Rejection sparked self-doubt, which triggered questions about his career choice. Still, other options he joked about at Drew—pianist? hand model? surgeon?—certainly didn’t suit him like writing. Besides, he thought more profoundly, “Maybe it’s out of my hands. Maybe I have no choice.”
Nearly three decades later, the dynamic and popular author is preparing to release his seventh novel, The Nickel Boys, which will explore the dark history of a segregated reform school in Florida through the eyes of two teenagers there.
During his Drew Forum talk, which was supported by the Merrill Maguire Skaggs Lecture endowed fund, Whitehead also read a passage from The Underground Railroad and answered questions from the audience. Here are the 5 best questions.
Where do you get your ideas?
“There are a few different places. Sometimes I’m reading a newspaper article and I think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Underground Railroad—I was just thinking of when I was a kid and had images of the train and that became a book. I got an idea from a dream once: Zone One, my zombie book. I grew up watching horror movies.”
The last novel that you loved and wished wouldn’t end?
“I really liked Pachinko. One thing that did end was this trilogy called The Three-Body Problem. They call it the Chinese Game of Thrones. So, three really huge books about alien invasion. And that went on forever, but it’s really good.”
How do you feel about your books becoming movies or plays?
“When you allow someone to adapt it, you’re not forced to. You’ve got to give it over. And most adaptations are terrible. So, you accept that and also accept that it’s someone else’s vision,” Whitehead said. “The Underground Railroad is being adapted by Barry Jenkins, who did Moonlight. That’s a TV series and he’s a great artist and he’s really sound. So, it’s a no-brainer.”
Do great TV series rival novels?
“I don’t pit different kinds of art against each other,” Whitehead said. “I watch a lot of TV. I love TV. I’m rewatching The Sopranos. I recall being in my late 20s, early 30s and I can see all those influences sort of seep into these larger serial dramas.
“I’m flying a lot, so I’m also rewatching Breaking Bad and I can see different choices they make,” he added. “These different streaming services need content and that means a lot of writers and artists and actors can get work—on a six-episode series or a 10-episode series. And so, it is a great time to sit on your butt and watch TV.”
Favorite zombie movie?
Beyond the George Romero trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead), Whitehead mentioned Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Undead and 28 Days Later. “And sometimes,” he deadpanned, “like Whole Foods, rush hour.”