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Opinion | How Colson Whitehead Writes About Our ‘Big Wild Country’


[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

Hello. I’m Ezra Klein. Welcome to “The Ezra Klein Show.”

I want to begin today by just reading a few sentences from Colson Whitehead’s new book “Harlem Shuffle.” I’m not going to spend a lot of time laying out the background of this. I just want you to enjoy the music and the propulsion of it.

“Pepper, nonetheless, allowed himself a reminiscence of his last visit to the mill building, or he tried to reminisce. Pepper had definitely dangled the mope out the window by his ankles, black wingtips and black socks held up by garters, and threatened to drop him on Madison Avenue, though the window had an Eastern exposure. That much he was sure of.

“He recalled the man’s name, Alvin Pitt, and that he was an osteopath by profession. But for the life of him, Pepper couldn’t get a handle on why he was bracing the guy. He was at a loss. Perhaps when this job is over he’d pay Alvin Pitt a visit, ask the man himself what the fuss had been about.”

I just love that. “Harlem Shuffle” is one of those books where every few pages, I just have a note that says, “the writing!” It’s a crime novel by Colson Whitehead following the exploits and divided soul of Ray Carney, a furniture salesman and fence for stolen goods in 1960s-era Harlem. It is a blast to read, but it’s also a beautiful examination of patrimony, of capitalism, of ambition, of the moral costs and consequences of striving for a better life in an unjust world.

Now Whitehead, of course, is one of the most celebrated authors of the age. He’s the author of the “Underground Railroad” and of “The Nickel Boys,” both of which won the Pulitzer Prize, making Whitehead the first writer ever to win the Pulitzer in fiction for two successive novels. He’s the author of many other books, the holder of many other awards.

And so this podcast is just an opportunity to spend an hour in his company, listening to him skip stones across the water of his influences, his impulses and his idiosyncrasies. As always, my email is ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com. Here is Colson Whitehead.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Colson Whitehead, welcome to the show.

colson whitehead

How do you do?

ezra klein

So I’ve heard you say that Stan Lee and Marvel comics made you want to be a writer. What were the comics you were into?

colson whitehead

It was late ‘70s, so Marv Wolfman writing “Amazing Spider-Man.” Chris Claremont’s reboot of “The X-Men” was very big. Frank Miller doing his “Daredevil” magic. Get into his weird, scary New York — [LAUGHS] that he liked to do. So yeah, I mean, it was Marvel comics that made me want to write, Rod Serling.

I used to just hang around the house reading comic books and watching TV. And so it seemed like being a writer could be a cool job. You could work from home and not talk to people. That seemed pretty ideal.

ezra klein

What about them made you want to be a writer, as opposed to, say, the artist or the inker or something?

colson whitehead

No, yeah, I mean, a lot of my friends who are my age who now write novels I think either want to write the X-men or draw the X-men or be the X-men. So I think thinking up goofy crap all day seemed very appealing.

I was also very much into Stephen King. You know, my mom would buy his latest book whenever it came out. It would make the rounds of my sisters’ rooms and then me and my brother’s room. And so reading “Night Shift” and “The Shining” and “Carrie” when I was in sixth and seventh grade was quite special.

ezra klein

Which X-man do you identify with?

colson whitehead

I guess because I was kind of a nerd, I guess Cyclops. He was so boring.

[LAUGHTER]

ezra klein

He’s not even the nerd X-men.

colson whitehead

Yeah, yeah. No, but it’s like straight arrow.

ezra klein

Yeah.

colson whitehead

You know, Wolverine’s gone crazy and Cyclops is always, like, well, I don’t think we should do this. The humans might hate us. So.

ezra klein

Although, do you follow it now? Because Cyclops became more of a revolutionary leader and has become a more unusual figure in the modern thing, like a soldier who will kind of do anything.

colson whitehead

Yes. They’ve all gone through the various permutations the last 40 years. So if something gets a lot of reviews and it comes on my radar, I might pick up a graphic novel. But yeah, it seems like they’re up to some interesting stuff these days.

ezra klein

You talked, in another interview, about how much you love this simple sentence from Raymond Carver, which is just, “He lifted the cup.” What do you like about it?

colson whitehead

That was actually a joke piece about —

ezra klein

Oh, really?

colson whitehead

— about writing and people sort of over-analyzing sentences and close reading. And “he lifted the cup” was just “he lifted the cup.” But I do like — I like Carver. I also like Pynchon’s five-clause pile-up sentences. I think you pick the right tool for the job, and sometimes you want to be direct and terse, and sometimes you want to be expansive and complicated.

ezra klein

Yeah, that was going to be the question. How do you know which tool to use for the job? How do know when it’s time to do the simple sentence and how do you know when it’s time to let loose with a Pynchonesque five-clauser?

colson whitehead

Before I start writing, I do a lot of outlining. You know, I have to know the beginning and end. The middle can be fuzzy. But I figure out the major plot points in the novel, what kind of narrative voice, the structure. Is it a long-y or a short-y? Those are two technical terms in the writing world.

ezra klein

Sure.

colson whitehead

“Long-y” and “short-y.”

ezra klein

You get that in an M.F.A. program, I assume.

colson whitehead

And— [LAUGHS] present tense. You know, all that kind of stuff, I try to figure out beforehand. I’m not someone who can just wait around waiting for the muse to come. I’m in New York City. The muse is, like, caught on the 7 train. There’s a trash fire or something. So I have to have a plan every day and sometimes it’s, describe Ray Carney’s office. Describe Pepper, another character.

And so if I have an outline, I know what I’m doing each day, and if I plan the angle of attack, in terms of voice and structure, I won’t get 200 pages into a book and think, oh, this is really a dumb idea. I should never have started.

ezra klein

If I looked at your outlines, would I actually see notes for what the structure of a plot point should be? It would say “florid voice” or “comic energy” or something like that?

colson whitehead

[LAUGHS] A lot of it’s in my head, but I do break it down to one-page sequences. And so it is, “describe Ray Carney,” “introduce the furniture store,” a list of bullet points. And that helps me know where things should go. Obviously, if you’re going to introduce the main character, it’s probably not at the end of the book. Some things follow logically, in terms of the chronology, and you move up and down my little list — my weird little list.

Here’s the flashback to Carney’s childhood. Where is the best moment to deploy that? Towards the end? Toward the middle? Towards the beginning? And so all these little three- or four-word descriptions are rising and falling in my outline.

ezra klein

One of the stylistic things you do in “Harlem Shuffle,” which was one of my favorite parts of the book, though I realize not the most important, was something I began to call “side quests” in my notes on the book, which are these little one-paragraph short stories you would do introducing a character passing through, like a Lothario who ends up in a stickup or a couch that nobody can figure out how it got into the basement. And they’re just — they’re little, fun short stories.

And I’m curious about those. You could see them as a distraction from the plot, but they really brought a little sense of joy to it for me. I’m interested in how they came about.

colson whitehead

I think they’re fun to come up with and they come very naturally. I have to populate the hostages in the heist scene. Who are they? How can I compress a lifetime into a paragraph? So there’s a challenge there.

But mostly when I see paragraphs like that, I think, oh, I’ve been doing this for 22 years. And 20 years ago, that would have been a three-page digression, and now I know how to do it in a paragraph. So for me, I’m always — I’m really glad that I’ve learned some discipline, and I’ve learned how to boil things down into 10 lines as opposed to three-and-a-half pages.

ezra klein

That’s making me feel kind of bad because I’ve gone from a writer who used to be able to do a short blog post to now, I joke with my editor, that I can’t seem to get anything under 1800 words.

colson whitehead

Well, “The Nickel Boys” was, like, a 200-pager. “Harlem Shuffle” is cut up into three novellas, each about 110 pages. So I feel like I’m getting shorter and shorter, and I’m basically looking for a haiku or something. I’m trying to get to the haiku and then I’ll keel over dead, once I accomplish that.

ezra klein

Having achieved the platonic form.

colson whitehead

Have goals, yes. It’s all about goals.

ezra klein

You said that with your books, you’ve got some sort of question you want to solve and that solving the question is writing the book. So what’s the question that you were trying to solve with “Harlem Shuffle?”

colson whitehead

I haven’t figured it out, so I’ve been continuing. So now I’m working on a second book with Ray Carney as the main character set in New York in the ‘70s. And hopefully, when I finish the story, I’ll know what I was trying to get at.

Part of it is about the divided self. You know, Ray Carney is — he comes from a family of crooks. His father was a petty thief and he does not want that for himself. He wants to be a good family man and an upstanding member of society. But there is that call of his blood, his sort of criminal nature, and that’s part of the trajectory of the book.

The more I get deeper into the second novel, I realize it’s also about New York. I think it’s there in the first book, but in trying to figure out New York in the ‘70s for Carney, those are my first memories of being a little kid, living in a very dirty, gritty New York City. So it’s tracing the evolution of New York from the late ‘50s to the mid ‘60s — where we got the World’s Fair and we’re starting to get into New York’s version of the Civil Rights movement — to New York in the ‘70s, when crime’s at an all-time high.

So I don’t have the answer yet because I’m still working on Carney in a story. But it’s about wrestling down different parts of our natures, and also about our changing hometown.

ezra klein

Let me hold on the divided self idea for a minute because what struck me reading the book was the idea that some of our self isn’t ours at all. I mean, it’s very focused on what we’ve inherited from our fathers. Carney, with some of his father’s not just criminal nature, but the love of or desire for payback. Freddie, with his father Pedro’s approach to women, I guess we’ll say.

And this is all in my mind. I have a young son who feels to me a lot like me. I’m about to have another in a couple of months, so I’m thinking a lot about what fathers pass on to their children. What got you interested in that question? What do you feel was passed on to you?

colson whitehead

Oh, that’s a good question. And 20 years of therapy have helped me pinpoint it a little bit. [LAUGHTER] Although, you know, my dad was a very difficult guy and troubled. He wasn’t a criminal, but he was very depressive and angry. And over my lifetime, I’ve tried, when I’ve felt those things, wonder where — is it in me? Is it something I observed? A pattern of behavior?

My parents had their own business and they worked at home, and so it seems sort of normal that if you had a job, you could work at home. And now, as I spend day after day in my apartment these last 25 years, am I doing it because I saw them do it or because I’m a writer and most suited to it?

And so, I’m still wrestling with how much of me is me and how much of me is them. I think the way it’s expressed in this book is interesting because I didn’t realized that when I started, but I’m describing my parents’ ‘60s New York. They were newlyweds in Harlem, a little bit younger than Carney, but starting a family and making a business.

So I’m re-creating where they used to live and some of the characters’ aspirations overlap with theirs. But I’m also very, very proud of where I have diverged from my father and what I saw growing up. So I guess I’m at that place — [LAUGHS] my mid-life, where I appreciate what they gave me and I also appreciate where I’ve diverged and split.

ezra klein

I just always wonder how much of our self we get credit for. And this seems like a question in some of the books. You talk about it elsewhere in some of your books about how do you create a coherent sense of self. And I wonder, looking at Carney, looking at some of what you’ve written, looking at myself, if we create stories about ourselves, but I do wonder if we create the self. And I’m curious where you come down on that and that difference.

colson whitehead

I guess I’ll — you know, I’m pro putting the work in to figure out yourself and where you fit into the world, where you fit into your family. From what you were just saying, I was thinking of Carney, but also one of the kids in “The Nickel Boys.” You know, he’s spent some time in this terrible reform school and has been brutalized and witnessed other people being brutalized.

And then he comes to New York and in that book, I follow him in the ‘70s for a brief section, in the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s. And each moment we find him, I’m charting his journey into selfhood. He’s been ruined. His comrades have been ruined. And some of them figure out how to be loved, to love, love themselves, and then some of them don’t.

And I think all of us are on that trip in some way or another. And some of us figure it out sooner than others, and some of us don’t.

ezra klein

There’s an interesting way that this plays out to me in politics, or a distinction in the way this plays out in politics, which is, I will say particularly conservatives — although this is maybe true for everyone — are very alert to the idea that our lineage shapes us, that who our grandparents were matters, who our great-grandparents were matters. The faith traditions we grow up in matter.

But then you move to politics and there’s this idea that whatever the country was like 50 years ago shouldn’t matter at all today, right? I call this the zero-hour theory of politics. It’s always the zero-hour. You know, we’re starting right now.

And it’s always been a fascinating disconnect to me because I think we get, in our own lives, that we are shaped in both subtle and fundamental ways by currents that go back pretty deep into our familial history, or even geographic history. But there’s a real unwillingness to see that as being true of a country because it puts a burden of the past on the present that we often don’t want to face, and certainly don’t want to pay. And as somebody who’s both been writing about people shaped by their past and a country shaped by its past — you’ve been doing a lot of novels about historical America — I’m curious how you see that.

colson whitehead

I think, in researching “The Underground Railroad,” so much of the connections I was making in that book about slavery and capitalism and white supremacy and imperialism, these are eternal forces. They shaped the country 300 years ago. They’re shaping us now. And to look away from that is such a tragedy, and leads us to all sorts of terrible mistakes that we keep repeating over and over again.

So writing these historical novels and studying, say, slavery and American history as a 40-something, 50-something, as opposed to a kid watching “Roots” at eight years old or studying in college, just that the true scale of the tragedy, of the dumb repetition of things really strikes me. And so this urge to look away seems particularly ruinous.

ezra klein

Do you feel more or less shaped by your past and your country’s past at 50 than you did at 30?

colson whitehead

I think I understand myself more and American history more. When I was 30, I was sort of a gen-X douchebag. Self-centered, not particularly evolved. And settling down and having kids has shaped me and, I think, improved me and made me more empathetic.

And writing these books has forced me to think about where I’m coming from, if it’s an autobiographical book, or where the country’s coming from, if it’s dealing with American history. So yeah, I mean, I feel that I have put some distance in there between who I used to be.

ezra klein

Because it’s on my mind, how do you think parenthood changed you as a writer?

colson whitehead

Oh, well, I think if you — it’s one thing if I eat ramen for dinner, but — [LAUGHS] you know, it’s maybe not necessarily — you want a more balanced meal for your children. So if you’re thinking of someone else in this deep way that you’re supposed to when you’re a parent, it makes you a better person. And I think if you’re a better person, it makes your work better, no matter what kind of work you do.

But definitely, it’s made me more empathetic. And that can help get into the novels, in terms of who the characters shape out to be on the pages, how I feel towards them. I think writing “Sag Harbor,” which is an autobiographical book — I think when it came out, I said semi-autobiographical, but 10 years later, who really cares? [LAUGHS]

It was a big breakthrough for me because my first novels were very postmodern, detached. And I realized, after my daughter was born and various other things in my life, that I had to be less removed and put myself in there more to grow as a person and become a better writer. I had reached a point where I had to do something different to make the next step. So my life got better when my kids entered into it, and I think my work has gotten better too.

ezra klein

Did watching little humans grow before you change your view of human nature at all?

colson whitehead

I don’t know. I mean, it’s — it seems more mysterious as they get older and diverge from your idea of who they were and who they were when they were five. Or grow into themselves even more, strangely. I have two children and I know them quite well, and they’re also totally mysterious and that mystery deepens year by year.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

One of the themes of “Harlem Shuffle” all the way through is this tension between being a striver and a crook. And how would you describe the difference between the two?

colson whitehead

I think the strivers, you know, those who are clamoring into the middle class, upper middle class, want to work within the system, and a crook wants to manipulate the system for his or her own ends. But of course, that dichotomy doesn’t really work because a lot of crooks want something better for themselves, and a lot of strivers are kind of crooked.

So part of what happens in the book in those three sections — 1959, ‘61, and ‘64 — is that I start off with this very sort of street-level view of crime in Harlem and then pull back. And in the second section, we get more about class and race, and see how the strivers are just as corrupt as the crooks. And then pull it back in the third section even more and see more of the forces — the money, the politics — that really shape the characters’ lives in New York.

But as much as I push these differences, I also collapse them. And I think Carney is a good example of someone who has all these different impulses inside of him, and maybe they’re not very different impulses at all. They’re just different ways of trying to survive in the world.

ezra klein

Well, one of the ideas in the book is that the people who have managed to elevate themselves out of looking like crooks are sometimes the most crooked. There’s a very searing line where a character says, “They’re getting all mad at us for looting, but this whole country is looted.” Like, ask them about where the land came from.

And I wonder how you see that. If you just see that it gets worse as you become more respectable. It seems to me there’s a very deep suspicion, I’ll say it this way, of respectability and what it might cover up in the book.

colson whitehead

Sure. I mean, I think Carney’s journey is one of understanding. He’s not entering into a moral judgment about the corrupt banker, the corrupt real estate magnate. He’s more really sort of understanding in a deeper way what he’s always expected: that the world is corrupt, and you can’t escape that in any sort of meaningful way because it’s all around us all the time.

And in the second section as I sort of pull back, he’s being taken around by a corrupt cop who’s pointing out neighborhood landmarks. And to Carney, you know, that’s been a bakery he’s passed every day for years, and that’s a dry cleaning store. And the cop was like, oh, yeah, there’s a craps game in the back, there’s a numbers racket in the back of the dry cleaning place. And that superficial exterior masks this hidden corruption, and Carney had no idea.

So I don’t feel Carney is entering the judgment and I don’t think the narrator, as a proxy for me, is. But we understand, over the course of the book, just how crooked everything is.

ezra klein

The one major character in the book who seemed to me, at least in what we could see, to not be crooked at all, not be corrupt, was Elizabeth, Carney’s wife. And we really don’t hear from her in a deep way, but she struck me as really interesting. And her experience of this era, given what her job is, was really interesting. Can you talk a bit about Elizabeth and talk about how you understand her in the book, why we don’t hear from her more?

colson whitehead

Sure. I mean, I focused on the criminals, and so the straight world doesn’t necessarily get the page time it deserves. But Elizabeth comes from a bourgeois family, Strivers’ Row, which is a row of very dandy townhouses in upper Harlem. And that’s where the bankers and the doctors and the teachers live.

And so she comes from this very upper-middle class lifestyle. Her in-laws looked down upon Carney for his job. He’s “a rug merchant,” is what his father-in-law describes him as. And his dad’s a crook. Obviously, he’s from the wrong side of the tracks.

So I get to get into some of the class tensions there. And her job is as a travel agent. By now, we all know about green books, which were travel guides for Black folks moving through the country during segregation. Where do you stay that’s safe? What towns do you not want to be seen on the street after nightfall? Where can you stay?

And so she’s planning out trips for Black travelers who are visiting their relatives or going on business, and planning safe routes through — I don’t go outside of New York very often in the book or at all, actually, and it’s a big sort of wild country out there. And she navigates safe travel for her clients. And that changes as we move through time in the book.

And so it’s people on vacations in ‘59. And then by ‘61, ‘64, she’s helping out Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who are going to the South and getting involved. And so I want her to be a conduit to normal people. Carney and some of the criminals aren’t necessarily keeping tabs on the rights movement. And she provides a sort of reality check on Carney’s behavior, and then also on what real people are thinking outside of the criminal world that Carney belongs to.

ezra klein

One thing that felt to me like an argument of the book is that we all have, to some degree, these divided selves. And so I really wondered how to take Elizabeth, if I should think that she was as coherent as she appeared. I mean, she does seem to have this very coherent sense of self. She has this very clear orientation to the moment in which she lives.

She’s the daughter of strivers, but sees their flaws really clearly. She manages to be both a capitalist, but actually working within that system to make people safer and to serve her community and to make change. Should I think there’s something we don’t see here? That she maybe knows more about Carney than we see, or is she just an example that some people are just navigating their worlds in a clean way?

colson whitehead

Well, you know, I’m doing more Carney stories and, of course, Elizabeth returns and we see more of her later on. My wife is convinced that she knows everything about Carney’s criminal life and is sort of giving him a pass. And I’m not sure if that’s true. I have to have to figure out exactly what she knows and when she knows it and how she feels about it.

So there’s money coming in. Where’s it coming from? How much does Elizabeth know and how much is she willing to overlook? Those are questions that will be playing out.

ezra klein

I’ll just say, I really love that your wife and you disagree about how much the wife character in the novel knows. [LAUGHTER] And your wife says, of course she knows everything, and this effort at subterfuge is, of course, failing completely.

colson whitehead

Yes. Well, I think that’s a reflection of various moments in our relationship. “I have to confess I had a cigarette.” “Yeah, I know, you smell terribly.” So yeah.

ezra klein

Yeah, so maybe our — you have a lovely passage about our avenues and then our side streets, the ones that are visible to others and the ones that are not. But maybe sometimes we think our side streets are our side streets and they’re not. I’ve often found that about myself, that the things I think are hidden are a whole lot more visible than I had intended them to be.

colson whitehead

A little more well-lit than we think, yeah.

ezra klein

Yeah. One of the questions in the book is whether it is possible to succeed under capitalism, and I think particularly to come up under capitalism. I think something with Elizabeth is she starts at a high level, and that gives her more choices.

But Carney doesn’t and a lot of players in the book don’t, and so they’re making tougher choices. In your view, can you rise up through capitalism without compromising yourself morally pretty badly?

colson whitehead

Oh, I don’t know. I mean, probably not. 30-year-old douchebag gen-X me says, definitely not. And when we’re taping this, it’s the 30th anniversary of the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. And I was thinking about the production on that record and the production on the second record and their struggles with fame, Kurt Cobain’s struggles with making a bunch of money and rising through the capitalist system of the record biz.

So I’m not sure. And definitely, I think in my early novels, I definitely have more of a critique. I think in Carney, he is quite plainly trying to ascend into the middle class, upper-middle class. He wants a better apartment. He wants all the nice things for his family.

And in his case, he is compromised because he’s actually a criminal. So — [LAUGHS] and all the very successful people in the book, maybe not Elizabeth, but a lot of the heavies in the book who have risen into positions in society that most people would think are exalted, are deeply corrupt. So I guess the book says no, and me? It’s beyond my pay grade, in many ways.

ezra klein

Although on some level, I mean, you’ve had real experience with it. You started out as a Village Voice critic. You now have two Pulitzers. One of your books is a Barry Jenkins series. You have a National Book Award. I mean, you’ve risen through a system.

I’m always interested in people have been very successful who have very complicated relationships to what it takes to be successful. Has your rise made you more or less optimistic that doing this in an ethical way is possible?

colson whitehead

I just try to make the books not suck, and that’s my sort of main goal. And not go easy on myself because I have had this string of fortune in the last five years, where things have gone really well and people have accepted the books. I think I’m always humbled when I go back to work the next day after something nice happens and remember how just hard the job is.

It doesn’t get easier just because it went well last time. I still have to figure out the sentence, figure out the paragraph, talk myself into thinking that the story is viable. Is Carney a good character, interesting character? Am I pulling it off?

So because I’ve been writing fiction for 20-something years and I’ve had moments when I’ve been up, and then also when I’ve been down, all the good times seem pretty fleeting. And all it takes is a read of a writer’s biography, a famous writer, to see the ups and downs. And usually, there’s a big down after big success.

So all this good stuff that’s happened in the last couple of years, I realize, is not how it is all the time. It hasn’t always been like that. And 10 years from now, things could be quite different. So I should, despite my depressive tendencies, savor these good times, and perhaps they’ll fortify me through the next bad patch.

ezra klein

That feels very wise to me, but in a strange way, it feels very optimistic about the system. I mean, to boil it down a bit, you’re saying, if you make books that don’t suck, great things could happen. And then you have to come in the next day and keep making stuff that doesn’t suck. That sounds, in a way, very fair.

colson whitehead

Well, just because the book doesn’t — the book is good and does not suck doesn’t mean people will come to it. It doesn’t mean critics will like it. It doesn’t mean readers will dig it. So writing a good book is actually not enough.

[LAUGHTER]

ezra klein

That seems reasonable. What’s your favorite book of — which is a book that, to you, had the biggest difference between how good you thought it was — or the work of yours — between how good you thought it was and how it was received? Like, what is your most unloved child?

colson whitehead

Well, it’s two different questions. My first — two different books. But the most unloved is “Apex Hides the Hurt.” And I think when it came out, people were like, oh, another racial allegory from racial allegory guy. But that’s not my favorite one. It’s sort of too old for me to like too much.

But “The Noble Hustle,” which is a nonfiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker, was I think just a breakthrough for me personally, in terms of confidence on the page. From reading “Underground,” you wouldn’t expect the tone of that book, it’s really full of just weird jokes, and it’s so much of my personality in there.

It’s a nonfiction story, and I grew up reading my mother’s and sisters’ creative nonfiction from the ‘70s, like Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, stuff like that. So it was my sort of turn at doing a longer nonfiction piece. And I just felt great about it. I felt really in control, in a new way, writing it. And even though there were the usual ups and downs in its creation, I was incredibly happy with how it turned out.

And then very few people bought it. And in the end, it made me so angry that I became recommitted to writing fiction and writing. I’m going too fast on this, but I think I had to figure out why am I doing this? I was teaching a lot to pay the bills and teaching at places where a lot of famous writers in their 70s are sort of walking around.

And I got really depressed seeing them having to come to the office. Like, can’t we retire like normal folks at 65? Do you just, like, write a book and then people like it or dislike it, then you write the next one and people like or dislike it, over and over again until you have a heart attack? It just seemed really depressing.

So I was going through a moment after “The Noble Hustle” came out. [LAUGHING] But out of that came “Underground Railroad,” so I was figuring some things out.

ezra klein

So that’s interesting. “The Noble Hustle” drove you away from nonfiction, to a degree.

colson whitehead

Not away from non-fiction. You know, I’ve only been two nonfiction books. But it provided, like, a five-year break from writing fiction. And I think in that break, I came back more in shape. And part of that was the focus I got from “The Noble Hustle.”

ezra klein

Oh, that’s really interesting. So it’s been a bit since I’ve read “The Noble Hustle.” I didn’t reread it for this and I apologize for that. But that came out of a series you did for Grantland on the poker championships. And one of the things I’ve always — I liked about those essays when I read them is there was a real moment in which the internet had its own journalism style. And I feel like it didn’t last long, but Grantland was a real place that happened. You saw some of it in Gawker.

There was a kind of — just like new journalism was fostered in Esquire and GQ and some of these magazines in the midcentury, you had this moment of this really interesting, a little bit postmodern, writerly nonfiction that emerged on some of the not-that-big digital- first websites. And then it just seems to have gone away as a style. And I’m curious if you have reflections on it, because I think you were somebody who did it really beautifully at that point. And I’ve always been kind of sad that it didn’t keep going more. It somehow got overwhelmed by social media and new trends in internet writing.

colson whitehead

No, it was a cool time. And for me, I started off as a journalist. And so that was my one big sort of return. And it was a once-in-a-lifetime assignment. I got a call and they asked me if I wanted to cover the World Series of Poker, and I was like, no. And they were like, well, what if we paid your entrance fee and you played? And I was like, yes. Except I didn’t know how to play casino poker, so I had to train. And being forced to learn something new at that age was great, because I just sit in my house all day. So I had to learn — train.

And then, but — I’m getting to the point, which is, it was coming out in installments. And so I never — I’ve never written something where it’s not finished and it’s going out into the world. And then the feedback in the first installment from people who knew poker, people who know poker— like, on Twitterv— was so positive that it really gave me this energy, and I felt like we were all in it together, me and the readers. And that really sort of fueled the next three segments.

So it was a great experience for me, as a novelist who toils for two years and then people see it, to have it come out in real time. And the whole Grantland experiment was really special. I think it’s led to a lot of not really edited pieces. I think people have now taken the license not to be edited that much.

And now, maybe because I’m looking for concision and being compact in my own writing, I find the legacy of that is pieces that are a certain length because of the internet, and they should probably be much shorter. Also, I think Grantland really, towards the end, had oral histories of everything. Like, oral history of the second episode of “Taxi.” They got micro — they made these oral histories —

ezra klein

Yeah, I remember that. [LAUGHTER]

colson whitehead

— of the most minor thing. And I think that — it’s OK that that died out. I don’t think — [LAUGHS] we needed the chorus dissecting the evolution of Klinger on “M.A.S.H.”

ezra klein

The great thing about writing on the internet is you can figure out new things that work. And the terrible thing about writing on the internet is then everybody can see the new thing that worked. And it is a real fast process of finding something cool and then driving it into the ground.

And I say that as somebody who has run these sites and has been part of that process, and has even discovered some things and watched them driven into the ground. I mean, it’s — we actually know, now, too much. Not that you’re necessarily, or the audience, interested in this, but one real change in my last 10 years is I was a very big proponent of journalists having access to direct analytics. I thought it was a really good thing. I always wanted to know more. And I’ve really changed my mind on it because I think it’s good in the moment. And then over time, it becomes pretty toxic to the writing, to the story selection.

colson whitehead

Yeah. I mean, sometimes I’ve done interviews and then they’re like, what do you think of this new Frank Ocean record, just for the S.E.O.? I mean, I was like, I don’t know Frank — I’m an old geezer. I don’t know Frank Ocean that much, and I have nothing to say. I’m sure he’s great. But just asking me a question so that it will rise higher on the rankings that week in search terms seems sad.

ezra klein

Let me ask you about one other piece of that Grantland experience, which is, you were describing something that is wonderful, at its best, of writing on the internet, which is this ongoing, in-the-moment relationship with the audience. And I found this to be — I’ve always had that. I was a blogger and then I’ve always written for digital publications, and I write a lot and I have a podcast.

And so when I wrote a book, by far the hardest part of it was that it was years between when I started that thing and when anybody could see it. And it felt very hermetic. It felt also very scary, right? It was all going to come out at once and people were going to absorb it all at once.

But it really changes the writing, and it really changes the intellectual project. You really have to figure out your own mind. And so I’m curious how you think about that difference, given that it sounds like you enjoyed that. But now you’re mostly doing things that don’t give you that real-time relationship.

colson whitehead

Well, you know, I’m not as active on Twitter as I used to be, but working from home and being sort of curmudgeonly, and 10 years ago, trying to find a different way of doing things in my life, Twitter and interacting with strangers was actually really great for me, even though it seemed very contrary to my personality. And just making weird jokes with comedians and writers and normal folks, it was just a real blast.

In terms of my work, I feel weird talking about the second book in Carney’s story because I’m in the middle of it. It won’t come out for another two or three years. But for me, it’s very vital and exciting, and I want to share it with you guys, even though the first book hasn’t even come out yet. We’re taping this a few days in advance of publication. And so even talking about a sequel to a book that hasn’t come out is weird.

So I’m used to that time lag, and then busting out and talking about things that aren’t going to come out for a while is fun for me because I’m excited about it and I to share it with folks who are listening. Even if it’s not particularly practical, because it’s not coming out for years.

ezra klein

This is the first sequel you’ve done, right?

colson whitehead

It is. I’ve always been really sick of the book when I’m done with it, which is why I vary in terms of tone. Like, a lighter book and a more serious book, or switch genres a lot. You know, I’m really done with the book when I’ve gotten to the last page.

And then this, halfway through writing it, I knew that I had more stories for Carney. I wanted to write about New York in the ‘70s. And you know, this book started off as just a novel about a heist, and I kept coming up with capers for Carney.

So the three-part structure came in and each one has a different job that Carney’s undertaking. So I’ve never done a sequel, and it’s good to break your rule. So now I’m following the person, I still have a lot to say about him and the world. And the voice is very compelling for me, so I’m just going ahead.

ezra klein

One reason I’m surprised to hear you’re doing a sequel on this one, although I’m very excited for it, is that — so when I was preparing for this, I read a bunch of press you ended up doing after “Underground Railroad.” And at that time, you kept telling people — well, first, you’d have a bit where you told people you were working on a Star Wars novel, or a romance in the Russian revolution. But then you’d say you’re working on this book in Harlem, a Harlem crime book.

And then you did “Nickel Boys.” And so it seems like it took this book some time to catch for you, to become the thing that really obsessed you. But now that it’s over, it’s interesting to me that it’s actually the one that is pulling you forward, that you can’t seem to leave.

colson whitehead

Yeah. I mean, when my schedule cleared after “Underground,” I had the idea for “The Nickel Boys,” and I was taking notes for “Harlem Shuffle.” But it was spring of 2017 and Trump had just got elected, and trying to work out my hopes and fears about America made “Nickel Boys” more compelling.

So you know, what argues for a book’s worthiness is when it stays with you, and “Underground”— I had that idea in the year 2000 and 14 years later, it was still compelling and became the right time. So the ideas that you can’t let go, that keep sort of pulling at your arm, are always the most worthwhile.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

This is just a very beautiful book about New York, among other things. And something I’ve seen in your writing about New York is — your other non-fiction book was a book of essays, in some ways post-9/11, about New York — is that there’s this a little bit elegiac tone, that you’re always mourning this place disappearing. What do you think you would have loved about 1960s-era Harlem that isn’t there now?

colson whitehead

I did not know, when I started, my deep feelings for mid-century modern furniture. So —

[LAUGHTER]

So the first thing that came to my head was those sleek lines of the couches and the armchairs. I really like that furniture. And describing it in the book and finding old pamphlets from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then stealing that language for Carney’s descriptions was fun.

But I’m really more of a ‘70s nostalgia guy. You know, birth of punk and disco and hip-hop. So my real spiritual home is late ‘70s New York, early ‘80s. And I’m not nine years old. I’m 18 and I can actually go and see Suicide play at CBGBs. I can see Liquid Liquid play The Mudd Club or something. So that’s really my — the place I’d love to go.

ezra klein

Is that part of the appeal of doing a sequel, you get to go there through your characters?

colson whitehead

Well, sadly, Carney’s such a square, he’s never going to CBGBs. So — [LAUGHS]

ezra klein

But he’s got kids.

colson whitehead

He does have kids. They’re kind of young. I mean, there is some music stuff in the second book because of his kids, but he’s definitely not going to Max’s Kansas City and doing some lines with Iggy Pop.

ezra klein

[LAUGHS] Though that would be a good scene. Let me ask you one other New York question, which is you did write this book of post-9/11 essays. We’re just hitting the 20th anniversary of 9/11. How do you feel it ended up changing New York, or for that matter, America?

colson whitehead

In terms of the War on Terror and the human cost of our missions overseas, its ramifications have been incredibly terrible and have defined so much of our lives that when you step back, it’s really staggering. In terms of the city, I do have this long view, which is probably annoying. But in going to the history of Harlem, I was reading these New York histories, and we’ve always been under attack.

And maybe its Native Americans we’ve displaced. It’s the British. We have yellow fever, various plagues. The whole city burns down. We rebuild. We’re laid low, then we come back. That’s the ‘70s period I was just describing, and then the artists are working and they’re inventing punk and disco and hip-hop and New York salsa. If you check out Will Hermes’s “Love Comes to Buildings On Fire,” that’s just a great chronicle of these different tribes coming together to make new art. And the broken city galvanizes them.

And last year, walking around when we were in lockdown and the city was pretty dead, I felt this sense of despair, but also, I knew we were coming back. And walking around this summer, in the neighborhoods I hate, like the meatpacking district, two years ago, I would have been like, oh, the meatpacking district. All these jerky, loser tourists. But this time, I was like, look at these lovely humans. We’re all back, man. We’re all back. And we’re in it together.

So I think we’re always being knocked down in our personal lives, and the city is always taking these huge hits, and we come back. So the city is a magnificent organism and it repairs itself.

ezra klein

A couple of years ago, I read Moby’s memoir of basically the early period of house music in New York and being part of that. And one thing that really struck me when I read it is how much that was a memoir of the kind of art you could have when housing was dirt cheap. It was a memoir of art being made in a place a lot of people didn’t want to live because it was dangerous, it was gritty. You had these margins of society where amazing things could flower.

So I really agree that 9/11 and attack won’t break the spirit of New York or its ferment. But I kind of wonder if housing prices will. If you really can have — and I think — I live out in San Francisco and I see the same thing here, which has had such an amazing art scene for so long. But a lot of those people are leaving because you can’t live here doing that. I wonder if you think that’s a threat to the New York you’re talking about.

colson whitehead

I don’t think you have to be in New York to make great art, and pulling back to the last 60 years, you’re in the West Village as a young artist, and then you’re in the East Village, and then the Lower East Side, and then you’re in Brooklyn. And then you’re in deep Brooklyn. I think you always find a way to make it work. You have no choice if you’re going to make the art.

And so that imperative overrules the terrible conditions and terrible reality. And you may have three jobs and you may have six roommates, but if you’re going to do it, you’re going to find those two hours to write a paragraph or to write the song. You have no choice.

ezra klein

What’s the art being made right now that excites you?

colson whitehead

Oh. I think lockdown has affected artists in different ways. And some people can’t write. Some people have no attention span. My damage is that I can only read stuff for work. So that’s good for my work, but not good for my leisure reading.

And so all I really do is just, at night, I watch cooking shows and drink wine and try to get ready for the next day. So I haven’t really discovered anything new. I am sort of in a rut that way, and that’s my lockdown damage.

ezra klein

Let’s talk about lockdown for a minute. And I want to do it by talking about something you said about zombies, which has always stuck with me, which is, quote, “I locate the terror of the zombie apocalypse in the idea that suddenly, your friends, your family, your neighbors, the guy at the cafe, all these people can be revealed as the monsters you’ve always sort of suspected them to be.”

And the pandemic had a real feeling of that to me. This sense that, suddenly, everybody was a threat to you. You never knew what horror was lurking just in another person’s exhalation. As somebody who spent a lot of time — wrote a book on zombies, thinking about that world of zombies, did the pandemic feel a bit like a zombie apocalypse to you? Was there some resonance there?

colson whitehead

Definitely those first few months. And I think those kind of passages, I think I hit upon something. That’s always been my zombie construction, is that it’s your neighbors, your family, being revealed as the monsters they really are that make the zombie story terrifying.

But yeah, I think because I always dwell on the bad side, I think about my failures of my imagination in terms of the apocalypse. And so in “Zone One,” they’re cleaning up after the apocalypse and trying to get rid of the zombies who are locked in their apartments so they can restart society. But I had no idea how much toilet paper they would find when they found these leftover zombies.

I didn’t recognize that toilet paper hoarding would be so important. And I didn’t realize that people would go, oh, the zombie virus, it’s like the flu. Who cares? A zombie vaccine? I’m not going to get that. That’s crazy. I have a high — I have a good constitution. So I think about how the plague played out in the last 18 months, and I dwell upon how much I couldn’t foresee because it was so silly and ridiculous.

ezra klein

Let me ask you about the other side of that, which is the historical novels you’ve done and the way they maybe relate to that, which is, in history at various times, again and again, it turns out that many of us are monsters, can become monsters. You spent a lot of the last couple of years sitting with characters like that. Do you come away from it thinking some people are just evil? Or is there just always an explanation for the way our timber has been shaped?

colson whitehead

No, I mean, I think we have a great capacity for evil. I think, in “The Nickel Boys,” when I was touring with it, people would say, oh, this reform school reminds me of this home for unwed mothers in Ireland. This summer, we learned about the — we learned more about the residential schools in Canada and the abuses there. So the kind of darkness I was describing, where the powerful bully and brutalize the less powerful, it’s everywhere and it’s part of our nature.

And we don’t — there’s no shortage of reasons that we can abuse each other. And sometimes it’s because someone is powerless. Sometimes it’s about race or gender or religion. Maybe we’re just competing over the same water source. But we’ve always been this way. We’ve always been pretty terrible. And the evil part is the basic trait. And the goodness and empathy and beautiful things that we can create is sometimes the exceptional thing.

ezra klein

So you feel that the good is layered on? That’s the one we have to work to achieve?

colson whitehead

Yes. We can often be pretty terrible to each other, and that’s just how we’re wired.

ezra klein

Yeah. Going back to my question earlier about human nature and watching kids, something that watching my toddler grow up has really convinced me of is that — not to sound too communist, but private property really does create a lot of tension in society. [LAUGHS] You really see the way, once somebody owns something and nobody else can have it, or just once they own something and don’t want anybody to get it, it really changes social dynamics pretty quickly.

And I’m not saying there’s an ideal alternative, because people do want to protect things that they like, but you see how much resource wars are a pretty natural phenomenon once you hang out with a lot of two-and-a-half-year-old boys and trucks.

colson whitehead

Well, once people get involved, things get terrible pretty quickly sometimes. I mean, I think the idea for the reform schools in “The Nickel Boys” was a good one. You know, why are we going to lock up little kids and teenagers who are juvenile offenders with adult criminals? Let’s have a separate facility where they can get education and learn a skill.

But then actually, when you implement that, things go wrong. And I think — there’s a character in “Harlem Shuffle” named Pepper, who’s the consummate criminal. He’s a total pro. And he would get much further in life if he didn’t have to pull these heists with these total losers who always screw it up.

So there’s the platonic ideal of the job: you’re going to rob this bank. You’re going to rob this hotel. But then, once you get humans involved, it gets degraded pretty quickly.

ezra klein

As we wind down here, let me ask you, before I do some book recommendations with you, to ask about your recommendations on seeing good jobs pulled off. I know you watched a bunch of heist movies for this, read a bunch of books about heists. I’m somebody who enjoys a good heist. What would you recommend?

colson whitehead

Yeah, I think most of us know “Ocean’s 11,” and that’s one kind. That’s a successful heist. Money’s no object, so you can get the million-dollar electromagnetic pulse machine that knocks out the security. I deal with a more low-tech heist, and so my examples were the ‘50s, early ‘60s ones, like “Rififi,” which is sort of like a heist template, a French movie. “Asphalt Jungle,” “The Killing,” Stanley Kubrick’s foray into the heist.

Low-tech ‘70s crime movies, like “The Taking of Pelham 123.” Walter Matthau is in that one, and he’s also in “Charley Varrick,” and I value his early ‘70s crime work. “The Outfit,” Robert Duvall. And then the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. “Red Circle,” “Le Deuxième Souffle.” I’m not sure if I pronounced that right.

But he took American noir and did his own crazy French spin on it and made these really hard-boiled crime movies. So low-tech, lo-fi heists were my template. They plan so hard, and I feel so bad for them when things go wrong.

ezra klein

Yeah, I have a bit of that reaction too. And then, finally, always our last question here. What are three books that have influenced you that you’d recommend to the audience?

colson whitehead

Yeah, I’d mention again Will Hermes, “Love Goes to Buildings on Fire.” Just this great history of New York music, ‘73 to ‘77. And it goes into — he’s very agile and can deal with these different types of music with authority and in a very pleasant voice. Julie Otsuka, who writes short novels once every 10 years. She has one coming out next spring.

But her first two books, “The Buddha in the Attic” and “When the Emperor Was Divine” are great. And I thought about them a lot when I was writing “The Nickel Boys,” trying to get this compact, short novel together. And then a third one would be David Itzkoff’s book about the movie “Network,” “Mad as Hell.”

I was saying that I could only read stuff for work, but I could read books about movie history. And so I went back to “Easy Rider, Raging Bulls,” about the ‘70s film industry. And then “Mad as Hell,” which is a book about the filming of “Network.” And now that I’m saying it, I realize they’re both ‘70s books and I write about the ‘70s, so it was work. So I’m still trapped. I’m still trapped.

ezra klein

Yeah, you’re still doing it. Well your new book is great. It’s called “Harlem Shuffle.” Everybody should grab it. Colson Whitehead, thank you very much.

colson whitehead

Thanks a lot. Stay safe.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ezra klein

“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Annie Galvin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Jeff Geld.



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