Colson Whitehead is now the most decorated writer of his generation. He's not slowing down
Plus: The one book he's read in the last few months, and how he just finished his next novel.
At a time of unprecedented unrest, Colson Whitehead has reached some milestones worth celebrating of late. In April, he became the fourth author — plus the only Black (and only living) author — to ever win a second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for his Jim Crow-era 2019 novel The Nickel Boys. Last week, in the wake of the paperback release of that book, he returned to the New York Times best-seller list yet again. On Monday, the Library of Congress named Whitehead, 50, this year's recipient of its prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award, the youngest honoree in its history. And on Wednesday, the author announced that his next book, Harlem Shuffle, would publish in 2021. It's a book, he tells EW, that he spent years on, and that he ultimately finished in bite-sized chunks over months spent in quarantine in New York City.
It's an odd moment, perhaps, to be experiencing so much good news. Indeed, as Whitehead (also the author behind the award-winning The Underground Railroad) embarked (virtually) on a second book-tour for Nickel Boys to coincide with its paperback release earlier this month, the conversations he's been having have shifted to, as he puts it, "the discussion around police brutality and racial discrimination in policing," resurgent in the wake of George Floyd's killing. Though of course, the book's themes extend far beyond this moment.
EW caught up with Whitehead to discuss his role as a public figure, the completion of his new project, the one book he's read of late, and more. Read on below. The Nickel Boys is now available for purchase in paperback.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How are you these days?
COLSON WHITEHEAD: Hanging in there. Making sure the kids' internet classes — that the wifi doesn't go down. Try to make some nice meals and keep everybody sane.
It hasn't been all bad news for you these past few months. How has that second Pulitzer win settled in?
[Laughs] Every once in a while it hits me. Seemed like a very abstract thing; I haven't even gotten my head around it yet. It was a very strange six months. I just try to be happy. I also pretend it happened to somebody else; or else, my head would explode.
When we spoke last year, we talked a lot about how this book was especially different for you, formally. Did it resonate in a particular way, to receive that honor for Nickel Boys?
Yeah. There's more me in this book. My brother passed away last year, and there's a lot of that dynamic between me and him in this book, which I was still writing when he was having various health issues. I felt very close to the characters in a way I didn't to Cora [from The Underground Railroad]. I felt very proud of the way it turned out: It's compact and linear in a way I don't usually do. Despite the time-jumps. [Laughs] I was very glad and proud of the final result. To have people pick up on that and respond in the way that they did was really delightful and gratifying. And we spoke before it even came out, right?
So I had no idea what was happening. [Laughs] To have both those books that are very different be appreciated by peers and critics and all sorts of folks was very delightful.
Returning for a second tour of this book, now virtual, how have you found that experience? Especially in what we can call a newly resonant moment.
I'm at home a lot. I do like doing events! I like traveling, I like doing lectures and going to bookstores. Looking out in the audience, I see someone who was there for John Henry Days or Sag Harbor. I love those interactions; it's different when you're just talking to a video camera and you can't really hear what's happening in people's homes. Which is probably good! But strange times. Despite being a private person, I get a lot out of that interaction. I'm sad that is gone for now.
Have you found the conversation different?
My last few books are so much about race and history that the conversations move into each other. With foreign audiences, they don't know anything about Underground Railroad, so I explain how that works; they know about segregation but not necessarily Jim Crow, so with Nickel Boys, I end up explaining what the Jim Crow laws were. It's about corruption and law enforcement, too, so yeah, definitely since George Floyd was killed and the protests started and with this newly revitalized Black Lives Matter movement, the book is wrapped up in this discussion: around police brutality and racial discrimination in policing. It hit differently last year than it does this year, even if the messages remain the same.
Right: Obviously the book was written years ago. Its themes are not new.
And well, when I learned about Dozier — the model for the school [in The Nickel Boys] — in 2014, it was when Michael Brown was killed and Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island. The reason the story of Dozier stayed with me was because it was the summer of people getting away with murder, literally, and no one being held accountable, whether it's a security guard at Dozier or a policeman in Missouri. Six years later, obviously, those inequities remain. But the genesis of the book is tied with my personal experience to that summer of 2014 and the birth of Black Lives Matter.
Separate from the book, thinking about your role as a public figure: How have you negotiated that these past few weeks? I saw you'd canceled a Free Library event in Philadelphia in a sort of public way.
You do what you're compelled to do. I'm not appearing at the Philadelphia Free Library when so much of the Black staff is in revolt about how they've been treated. It was a no-brainer. Placing Nickel Boys in context with racist policing feels like a no-brainer. But I'm not itching to appear on an MSNBC panel spouting off. If I have something to say, I put it in my books. I've gotten a lot of requests to do radio and TV lately. I really feel no compunction to do that. There are people who spend their lives studying policing and incarceration and know much more about what they're talking about.
Are you able to write right now? Do you feel stalled out?
In February, when we started coming down [in New York], I was on the downward slope of a book. I had 80 pages left. I had a lot going on and was taking care of the kids. I was very much near the end of it, though. About six weeks in, got an hour and wrote a page. The next week, I was able to get two hours. I finished last month, a book I was working on for almost two years. And I have no attention span! I've read only one book in the last four months. I can work and watch TV and follow the news and take care of the kids. So I'm fortunate that my job is to write and I can write. [Laughs] After that, I have no attention span for anything more than a tweet, unfortunately.
What was the book you read?
It was a reread. [Laughs] Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes. It came out eight-ish years ago. And it was actually research! So I can do research.