Writer's Room: Colson Whitehead gives himself permission to write anything — and anywhere
When writing his new novel Harlem Shuffle — a riotous, introspective heist story about a New York furniture salesman–turned–occasional crook — Colson Whitehead turned to a very literary cohort for inspiration.
"Patricia Highsmith, Chester Himes, and Richard Stark were my Mod Squad," the author, 51, tells EW with a laugh. "A white lady, a Black guy, and a white guy."
On shelves now, the book arrives as Whitehead is still riding high from Pulitzers for his back-to-back novels The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, but that doesn't mean he's coasting on his success. Here, he lets readers in on his prize-winning process.
Where My Inspiration Comes From
I'll often read a newspaper article about, say, the hidden dangers of escalator inspectors, and think, "That's a weird job. Maybe there's a story there." Having downtime and allowing myself to be open to ideas from anywhere and then letting them germinate seems to work. 2014 was a weirdly productive year for me: It's when I came across the story of the Dozier School that became The Nickel Boys, it's when I finally committed to writing The Underground Railroad after putting it off for so long, and it's when I had the idea to write Harlem Shuffle. I was looking out a car window and thinking, "I love heist movies. Can I write a heist novel? And if I did, how would that work?" To this day, I still seem to be riding off that year's creative energies.
The First Thing I Remember Writing
In seventh grade I was like, I'm going to write horror novels. I still have them and came across an old box of them and refused to look; if I want to be overcome with embarrassment by my writing, I don't have to look at old stuff. [Laughs] Then I tried to get into writing workshops in college and was always turned down. So it wasn't until I was in my mid-20s that I realized, if I want to write novels, I should just get started. Time's a-wasting.
Where I Work
The Underground Railroad's success gave me freedom in my career, but it also required me to travel so much that I had to learn to write in hotel rooms and on airplanes. I used to think that I couldn't, but the work has been fun and compelling enough that I can break free of my old ideas about what I have to do to work. With quarantine, I've gone back to working at home, in an office, or the corner of a bedroom, but I also have the element of my kids coming in every few minutes.
My Writing Routine
Ideally I'd have eight months free just to work on a book. But, really, I'll write four or five days a week, and my goal is eight pages. If I have a dentist appointment or something, that day is shot. I have to leave the house at 1? Might as well not even get started. But that's new — Underground Railroad allowed me [financially] to not have to teach anymore, so my time is more my own.
What New York City Means to My Books
I define myself quite strongly as a New Yorker, and I keep trying to find ways to talk about it — I think all my books do it differently. In Zone One, the post-apocalyptic ruin of New York allowed me to explore post-9/11 trauma and rebuilding the city. And if I'm doing my job right, Harlem Shuffle and [main character] Carney allow readers to give a crap about the expansion of New York in the 1960s. Seeing the city change has also enriched my creative life. I used to live near the Meatpacking District, and I would walk through it and be like, "Who are these people? I hate this." But now, whenever I'm in that same neighborhood, I think, "Look at all these beautiful weirdos." It's a great and lively pageant, instead of a place filled with invaders.
How I Solve Writer's Block
If I do have trouble, it's not knowing what a character is going to do in a situation — so I'll just skip ahead in the plot. But after my poker book, The Noble Hustle, I've been able to find my voice really quickly. I think it was writing in that first-person voice: There was a confidence there, and it stayed with me. Not a lot of people liked that book, but I've felt sure-footed ever since. [While] I can easily find flaws with my earlier novels, I really feel 100 percent behind my last four. I also know it can all come crashing down, so I keep working and trying not to coast. The fear that my luck has run out keeps me going.