Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, follows two students at the Nickel Academy, a fictional version of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida. A notorious reformatory where students were segregated until 1968, made to work in the fields, and brutally and sometimes fatally abused, Dozier was only shut down in 2011—years after Whitehead’s book ends. Donors, inspectors, and local politicians had allowed it to function unimpeded for over a century.
The false comforts of law and order are common threads in Whitehead’s work, which ranges from the comedic quasi-memoir to zombie thrillers. As he puts it, The Nickel Boys as well as its two predecessors, The Underground Railroad and Zone One, have been about people “hoping to find a safe haven for themselves in the ruined world.” He talked to The Nation about horror, political writing, and the particular challenges of making art out of disaster.
Nawal Arjini: The Nickel Boys, like The Underground Railroad, takes place decades ago (in this case, in Florida in the ’60s). What interests you about the past, and why have your last two books been set there?
Colson Whitehead: There are stories you have not been told, there are aspects of slavery that haven’t been explored, and I thought this was a different take. I hadn’t heard of a story like the one in the Nickel Boys, about two young black boys in Jim Crow Florida, wrestling with the various obstacles that the white world placed in front of them, so I thought it was worth telling. The news reports about the Dozier School, which the Nickel Academy is based on, were mostly told by white former students. I wondered what was happening on the black part of campus.
If we don’t think about how we got here, we’re going to repeat the same mistakes we’ve been making for generations and generations. But my novel isn’t a didactic directive. I know that abuses in reform schools, or in the incarceration camps on our Mexican border, those types of things will blink out of existence, because I think we’re very stubborn. We don’t change. The kind of cruelties I outlined in The Nickel Boys go on everywhere; they always have and they probably always will, when there’s a place where wicked people can indulge their worst impulses.
NA: Both The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys are horror stories of a kind—there’s gore and dread and surprise throughout. Zone One was a zombie novel. What interests you about the horror story?
CW: I grew up wanting to be the black Stephen King. I think the darkness of the world is terrifying. Some of my books try to find the humor or optimistic avenues we can take to deliver ourselves from the darkness. I also explore things that terrify us—you know, true monsters. For me, a zombie is a person who’s stopped pretending. They look like your loved ones, but they’ve dropped the veil of humanity to reveal themselves to be the monster that they’ve always been. If you look at the kind of brutalities I’m writing about in The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, human beings are pretty terrible. What do you do with that fact? How do you find hope for the future, when so many of us are compelled and driven by our worst natures? Not to be too bleak.
NA: Do you feel like your novels have gotten more pessimistic about human nature?
CW: I think that’s there in The Intuitionist and John Henry Days. I’m working now on a crime story set in the ’60s, and it isn’t as bleak, as it deals with class as opposed to race. Class in America is a ruthless machinery that can be as terrible as the institutional monstrosities I’m describing in the last two novels. That’s there, but the jokes are there too. We can’t survive without a sense of humor as a way to bring people together. We can share our tragedies, but we can also share our jokes.
NA: You’ve often written books that deal tangentially with race, but your most recent, Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, have become very explicit about the most famous episodes of racial injustice in America. In your new work, as you mentioned, you’re turning to class, another fundamental tension in American society. Do you feel like your books are getting more systematically political?
CW: I write books because of where I am emotionally, I write books because I have an intellectual question I’m trying to figure out, and it is rare for me to do two books in a row that are directly about racism and our institutional failures. But before that I wrote a book about poker, and now I’m writing a crime novel. So I’m not sure if there’s a trend. I have no idea what the political purpose will be inside of me; I’m trying to fulfill my own artistic needs, and hopefully they will make enough sense to other people that they’re worthy of reading.
For many years, I avoided writing about slavery—it seemed a very hard subject to write about, and I wasn’t up to it, artistically or temperamentally. I wrote The Underground Railroad in the happy, bright, shiny days of the Obama administration. It seemed like it was time to pull the trigger on that book, as I’d been avoiding it for some time. With The Nickel Boys, the country was on a disastrous course, and it seemed that wrestling with my notions of hope and my notions of pessimism could help me reconcile what I would like our country to be versus what it actually is. It really was just, I don’t know what the hell is going on in this country. And maybe 200 pages later, I have a better notion.
NA: Do you feel you’ve reached a conclusion about that at the end of your books? With The Nickel Boys specifically?
CW: Nothing I care to share. Hopefully the readers can come to their own conclusions about what I’m laying out there. The book was very important to me, and it felt very different writing it—in terms of structure, writing a compact book about two characters instead of taking a wide-angle view.
I think of how people in my own life have not figured out how to navigate society, the ways to think about how people do or do not get their act together, do or do not recover from trauma, escape their circumstance, or find a way of being happy. I’m very proud of the book and it was emotional for me, writing it, partly because of the subject matter, and also partly because I’m projecting myself onto different characters more than I have in the past.
NA: Do you feel that there’s a difference in the stories people are asking for? You’ve said you’re writing for yourself, but once your books are published, what do you think people respond to?
CW: People have their expectations, but I feel no duty to live up to them. Right now it takes me about a year to write a book. I keep doing that, working at that pace. I can write different kinds of stories that I find interesting.
NA: Are there certain books that people got closer to or further from understanding what you were writing about?
CW: I think all my books are good—I don’t hand in a book that I think is bad to my editor and say, “This is crap. Publish it.” I was disappointed that people didn’t respond as enthusiastically to my third novel, The Colossus of New York. People sometimes say, “My favorite of yours is Apex [Hides the Hurt],” and I’m very touched. I was surprised about the reception of The Colossus of New York, which is impressionistic essays about the city. People see their own hometowns in the way I write about the city. I was just published in China with The Underground Railroad, and the second book my publisher there picked up was Colossus. I guess something in there speaks to Shanghai and Beijing and Hong Kong. That’s delightful, you know—people responding in a way you didn’t expect.
NA: Speaking of Colossus, you’ve written a lot about New York in the past, but your last few books were set primarily in the South. How do you approach writing about different geographic parts of America?
CW: I think I approach character and setting in the same way: I just try not to screw it up. I’m trying to figure out ways of talking about my hometown, the way it was 20 years ago is different from the way I think about it now. I did sneak in three pages of New York in The Underground Railroad, and in Nickel Boys. My next book takes place exclusively in Manhattan.
NA: It seems that people are more comfortable talking frankly about race now, or at least they’ve been partially embarrassed into taking problems of racism seriously. Does that free up space for black novelists at all?
CW: We have 70 years of an African American novel-writing tradition, but black art is being taught and studied more than it was 50 years ago. The audience is more receptive, and we’ve made some progress in terms of representation, acceptance, and interest in black, feminist, and gay and lesbian literature. I was on tour when Black Panther came out, and I was being asked, Is this an important moment? But I remember being excited in 1990, when there was John Singleton, and Julie Dash, and Robert Townsend, and Spike Lee, and all these articles about this big black new wave—and then two years later, it was a bust. There are moments when the larger public is in tune with what African American artists are doing. But it’s always hard, because it’s making art, and making art is hard.
NA: Do you see white writers trying to tackle race more? Or trying to write politically more often now?
CW: I think, yes. One thing that’s happened a lot in the past few years is, publishers send me letters when they publish books by white writers that tackle race, and I think they want me to kind of sign off on them. But I don’t think anyone has to write about anything. You can be a black writer and write about gardening, and obviously you can be a white writer and write about white people. I actually endorse stepping outside of your cultural home. You should write across race and class and gender, and as long as you don’t screw it up, you should do whatever you want. Kudos to anybody who’s tackling how we live in this country.
How you want to spend your short time on earth is really up to you. If you want to write sitcoms for the Disney Channel, kudos to you; if you want to write biographies of Malcolm X, that’s cool, and if you want to write about impending environmental collapse, good for you.
NA: Do you see a direction that novels are taking? Any general trends that you find interesting?
CW: Nickel Boys is pretty short. My friends John Wray and Nathan Englander write short books. I think short books seem to be having a little bit of a moment—writers find the form useful.
NA: What makes the short book, as a form, useful to you?
CW: The constraints—what you leave in, what you take out. There’s an exuberant strain in American literature, from Whitman to Melville and Thomas Pynchon. I don’t write short stories, but I admire the concision of people like Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer. I like writing in an encyclopedic mode, as in John Henry Days and Sag Harbor, which has a three-page section on an anthropology of TV dinners, but I also like being focused, as in Nickel Boys.
NA: Is being around other writers, or being in New York, helpful for your writing?
CW: I don’t do book events. I’m a homebody—I like hanging around the house with my family. I was never much of a schmoozer, or felt like I had to be seen at this party. My advice to writers is, stay at home and work. Don’t go out. It’s not very sexy advice. You go to a writer’s conference and it’s like, Shouldn’t you all be home working?
Creatively, yeah, it’s my hometown. I love it, and it’s a great source of inspiration. Hopefully, I can keep finding different ways to write about it without repeating myself and boring people.
NA: The city is changing fast enough that you can’t really write about the same thing too many times.
CW: Yes, it’s very dynamic. My upcoming book is set in the ’60s—it’s very fun doing research and figuring out: “Was this building there? When was this public housing put up? When did they run the highway through this neighborhood?” Money and power have always determined the contours of the city, and they still do—where people live, where people can afford to live. Writing about the ’60s in New York is exciting.
NA: You mentioned the community of black filmmakers and creators in the ’90s. You were close to a whole circle of black artists when you were in college—it seems like an exciting time to have been a young black artist.
CW: My good friend Kevin Young was part of the Dark Room Collective. I wasn’t in it, but I went to their events. They found and supported each other, making a gang and being on the road together. I’m very lucky to have found a kindred spirit in Kevin. There’s another gang of 22-year-olds and 24-year-olds who are working hard on their art, and we’ll hear about them in a couple of years.