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NewsOct 31, 2018

Colson Whitehead: From ‘MacArthur Park’ to MacArthur ‘Genius’

'The Underground Railroad' author visits campus as part of the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series

Colson Whitehead

As a kid, Colson Whitehead holed up inside his Manhattan home watching “The Twilight Zone,” reading Stephen King and dreaming of writing a black “The Shining.” It seemed like the perfect gig.

“You didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people, and you could just make up stuff all day,” said Whitehead.

Writing professionally turned out to be a little harder than that, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author admitted during a wry and self-deprecating lecture at Washburn Auditorium on Tuesday night. The event was part of the Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series, funded by trustee Hans Strauch and the Mosse Foundation, which brings world-renowned artists to campus.

But becoming the bestselling author of “The Underground Railroad,” “Sag Harbor” and “Zone One,” receiving a MacArthur “genius” award, and being named a favorite author of Oprah was no lucky break. Whitehead had more than a few lean years in his writing career, where he grappled with giving up (though he knew his slender fingers and wrists were only cut out for jobs like pianist, hand model or surgeon). He finally got a so-called big break into writing with a “think piece about the series finales of ‘Growing Pains’ and ‘Who’s the Boss’” for the now defunct The Village Voice.

Gary Coleman fan fiction and wet cakes

Writing his first novel, about the “misadventures of a Gary Coleman-esque child star,” got him an agent but also a mountain of rejection slips that led to some pretty dark places, namely repeating the dirge “MacArthur Park.” Whitehead invited the audience to join him in the maudlin song, which he joked mirrored the author’s journey. The author and the audience crooned:

“Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
’Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again.”

“You’re just sort of in your apartment, surrounded by takeout and your ambitions for the project and your failures as a person and an artist and, hopefully, in the middle there’s a book that works out, but it takes a while to get on the page,” Whitehead said.

Obviously, his literary cred has grown exponentially since those days, though writing hasn’t gotten easier since he was a struggling author with no health insurance.

“If it comes too easily, you’re probably not putting in enough work,” he told would-be writers.

back book cover for "Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead
"The Underground Railroad" became a national bestseller and earned Colson Whitehead a Pulitzer Prize.

Realism, magical and otherwise

“The Underground Railroad,” a fictional and, at times, fantastical story about Cora, a runaway slave attempting to escape via the eponymous railroad, was a complicated book to write. In researching the novel, Whitehead visited and revisited slave accounts and also studied the Nazi appropriation of antebellum racial oppression and torture. The result is a book that experiments with magical realism while remaining grounded in the harsh realities of 1850s America, something that was important to Whitehead.

“I realized that it had to be realistic. Bad things would happen to Cora,” he said. “For her not to be sexually abused would be a lie on the slave experience. I had to commit to putting that on paper.”

The structure of the novel gave Whitehead the freedom to interact with history in a way that a straightforward historical novel couldn’t. And, no, he wasn’t worried that readers would believe there was an actual subterranean railroad, thereby becoming confused about the history of fugitive slaves.

“On page 70, it’s a literal train beneath the earth that runs thousands of miles.” That should be a hint that the book is a novel, Whitehead quipped.

From left: Hans Strauch, Colson Whitehead, Richard Zauft
From left: Board of Trustees Chair Hans Strauch, author Colson Whitehead and Dean Richard Zauft

FAQ

He also responded to another frequent question of whether the world needed another story about slavery, or if he was the one to write it.

While rereading “Beloved,” he thought, “I’m screwed. I can’t really outdo Toni Morrison.” But he realized he had his own story to tell, and that the slave narrative still has relevance, especially if Hollywood and publishing houses could keep putting out stories about World War II, a much shorter period of time than the centuries-long practice of slavery in America.

“No one ever says, ‘Why do we have two movies about Dunkirk in the same year?’” Whitehead pointed out.

As he discussed his process, Whitehead also advised fellow writers in the audience to avoid making excuses, paying attention to appearances or adhering to someone else’s writing rules.

“People say you have to write every day. What if you don’t feel like writing every day? Don’t write that day. Figure out what works for you,” said Whitehead, who writes eight pages a week.

Accolades, such as the MacArthur Fellowship, awarded after he’d published two “weird” novels, do help though.

“I took it as them saying, ‘Keep being a weirdo,’” he said.

As Whitehead’s next novel may be a Russian Revolution-era love story or an exposé on the “Star Wars” robot R2-D2, it seems he’s fully embraced that identity, to his readers’ delight.  

See more photos from the evening.