Colson Whitehead switches literary styles the way a race car driver shifts gears.
His genre-skipping books range from the speculative fiction of his 1999 debut, “The Intuitionist,” to the blood-splattered humor of the 2011 zombie thriller “Zone One.” He has written historical fiction (“John Henry Days”), a poker memoir (“The Noble Hustle”) and an autobiographical coming-of-age novel about upper-crust black kids in 1980s Long Island (“Sag Harbor”).
A MacArthur Foundation “genius,” he was just nominated for a National Book Award for his most ambitious novel yet — “The Underground Railroad,” which brings him to St. Paul on Nov. 3 for the final event of this year’s Talking Volumes series.
Oprah Winfrey ensured that “The Underground Railroad” would be one of the year’s most buzzed-about titles when she announced in August that she had selected it for her book club.
“She reached out to us in April,” Whitehead said during a phone interview this month. “I had to keep my mouth shut for four months so the publisher could print extra copies.”
A father of two — a 12-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son — Whitehead lives in New York City’s West Village with his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, to whom “Railroad” is dedicated.
His novel, set before the Civil War, re-imagines the safe houses used to conduct enslaved African-Americans to freedom as a literal railroad. Its heroine is Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who, impelled by violence and a desire to own her body and soul, decides to flee north.
“I wanted to create something about this time period that gives us hope,” Whitehead said. “Cora is part of a lineage. She’s part of the generations of people who were limited in their physical world but who, somehow, had bigger dreams. All she knows is the borders of the plantation. What’s it like for her to go beyond that?”
The novel is a bleakly profound reckoning with a past shrouded by fear, misunderstanding and myth. At the same time, Whitehead conjures heady poetry as the railroad carries Cora from state to state, each stop along the way representing a different state of being that feels Dante-esque.
Q: How long was this novel in gestation?
A: Sixteen years. I’ve carried this idea with me for a long time, but I needed the maturity to be able to complete it. I wrote 20 pages in January 2015, then I taught, and put the book down. Then I wrote the rest between May and November last year.
Q: Why did it take so long?
A: I had to grow into the subject and have a better understanding of my literary role models. Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison play with fantastical elements. You look at people who’re smarter than you, more talented than you, and hope that, whether you’re dealing with history or family or war, that you’re a writer of your historical moment. Hopefully, I’m adding something to what they have given us.
Q: You seem to be someone who creates something, then breaks the mold. This novel seems like a departure even for you.
A: My last couple of books [“Zone One” and “Sag Harbor”] had a lot of humor — a satirical edge. I realized that that kind of voice and attitude wouldn’t work for this. I had a lot of freedom to make things up and deform reality. But I had to ground it in something recognizable. I wanted the [early] Georgia section to be as realistic as possible before I started altering things. I paid tribute and honored the slave dead in my family before I began to play with things a little.
Q: What was the balance between research and imagination for this book, and how much did you immerse yourself in the period?
A: Whether I’m writing about kids growing up in the ’80s in Long Island or post-apocalyptic New York, I’m building a world. In the early section, I create a credible world for the characters to populate.
In terms of finding realistic voices for the characters, I had a rich resource in the writer interviews that the government conducted in the 1930s with former slaves. I got nouns, verbs, adjectives — the gritty details of their lives. “The master scourged my mother last night.” So “scourged” becomes a verb for “beat” or “flog.” These narratives were incredibly helpful.
Q: Was there something that shocked you in your research?
A: I wouldn’t say shocked. But it’s terrifying to contemplate what millions of Africans endured. Someone would say, casually, “I moved to another plantation and wore clothes for the first time.” They were kept like animals.
Q: Was it difficult to walk away from the horror?
A: No. I work in the morning and early afternoons, then knock off. Then I start planning dinner for my family. When I was done for the day, I was done.
Q: There’s a surprising dispassion in the work. You’re revealing a lot about your characters but not making judgments, per se. And you don’t seem to belabor things that are horrifying.
A: Once I wrote the story of Cora’s grandmother, I found a voice that worked. It’s intimate with the characters, how they saw their mothers flogged and sisters sold off. It’s very matter of fact.
Q: Your novel keeps company with Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage,” with some Gabriel García Márquez-esque elements of magical realism. In all three, the characters who are under intense trauma escape into fanciful flights.
A: Maybe it’s a way of escape, or trying to fashion a world that’s free in the imagination.
Q: In your book, the metaphorical underground railroad is real. And some real things become metaphors.
A: The fantasy structure was built in from the beginning. Every state [where the railroad has stations] is a different state of reality. I didn’t want to belabor things, like have a 10-page tunnel section. The tunnels are just doorways between the states. But the book isn’t about the fantastical. It’s about Cora as she comes into her ideas, her widening notions of freedom.
Q: This novel gives us an alternative to the ideas we have about plantation life. What goals did you set for yourself in writing this book?
A: I just wanted to live up to the promise of the idea. There are certain demands, like the realism of the world [that the book imagines]. I can’t think of what I was rebelling against, but [certainly] the pop-culture plantation of “Gone With the Wind.” I wanted to show different kinds of plantations, different kinds of people. I wanted to have a larger conversation not just about slavery, but about eugenics and forced sterilization in Nazi Germany. I can talk about the plight of people on plantations, but also the plight of Jews in a book like this. It’s not just about slavery, it’s about oppression.
Q: The book is set during a benighted era, but it’s informed by some very contemporary ideas around trauma, especially as it relates to Cora and her partner, Caesar.
A: Today, we have a very different notion of the damage that assault and rape can cause. When I was writing it, I wanted to explore the psychological realism of the era and animate the plantation with that. What do you do with the outcasts, with the people who are too damaged? Where are they exiled? When Cora gets close to Caesar, how much does the trauma and abuse she’s experienced determine her idea of romantic freedom?
Q: What do you say to readers who may fear taking up a serious book like this?
A: Art sometimes makes you sad. This is not a work about laugh-a-minute slavery.
Q: Any surprises in the response you’ve gotten to this work?
A: I’ve written a bunch of books and have never had something be embraced by critics and readers so quickly. Obviously, having Oprah and President Obama endorse it in different ways is thrilling. [“Railroad” was on Obama’s summer reading list.] The book is still selling pretty well. Word of mouth is kicking in. People are liking it and pushing it onto their families.