Colson Whitehead tells the story behind the 'Underground Railroad'

Colson Whitehead’s 'Underground Railroad' is the focus of VCU Libraries’ 15th annual Black History Month Lecture

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When Colson Whitehead was in fourth grade, he learned about the Underground Railroad, the effort to help shepherd slaves in the 19th century from captivity to free states through a network of people, routes and homes. Whitehead mistakenly thought the railroad was an actual railroad, with trains secretly running on rails in underground tunnels to ferry slaves to freedom.

His teacher set him straight, but the image did not fade completely. Years later, when Whitehead was 30 and an up-and-coming writer, he recalled that childhood misunderstanding and saw the storytelling potential the premise held. He envisioned a story with a protagonist traveling north on a literal underground train, stopping in each state along the way and facing some new adventure. Each state would have a fantastical element attached to it and represent a particular state of American possibility.

However, the idea intimidated him, and he did not believe he was ready to explore the idea in a novel, either from a technical standpoint or an emotional one. In the ensuing years, he would occasionally revisit the premise and the notes he had accumulated on the story. Each time, he decided he was not yet ready to do justice to the subject. Instead, he wrote other novels and nonfiction books, which helped gain him a following of devoted readers and a reputation as a skilled, entertaining author who incorporated elements of genre into works of literary fiction.

Then, three years ago when he was considering his next novel, he finally discussed the idea with others. He brought it up with his wife, his agent, his “shrink” and his editor. The response was enthusiastic and convincing: It was time to write the book.

Whitehead, now 46, relented and the result is “The Underground Railroad,” his sixth novel and the most acclaimed of his career. The book was the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence from the American Library Association, among many other honors, and a selection in Oprah Winfrey’s prestigious book club.

Whitehead detailed his journey to becoming a writer and the story behind “The Underground Railroad” on Thursday as the featured speaker of the VCU Libraries’ 15th annual Black History Month Lecture. As part of his appearance, Whitehead read two sections from the novel and signed books afterward. The event was held in James Branch Cabell Library's Lecture Hall.

An actual railroad, underground

Whitehead’s novel follows the journey of Cora, a young slave who escapes from a Georgia plantation with her companion, Caesar, and heads north on an underground railway based on a network of tracks and tunnels. Cora and Caesar are hunted on their journey by a ruthless slave-catcher and face a number of challenges and dangers. Whitehead uses a large cast of characters and moves among a selection of them to show their perspectives and inner lives, while never losing sight of Cora’s terrifying escape. 

Whitehead said he initially resolved to re-read past slavery novel classics, including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World” and Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage,” before diving into his own book. However, 30 pages into “Beloved,” he set it down and decided he would have to avoid reading the novelists that had come before him and focus on his own viewpoint.

“Toni Morrison is an incredible genius, and I can’t really compete with that,” he said.

“No matter what you’re writing, you just hope that you have something new to contribute to the subject,” he added. “Whether it’s slavery or war or domestic troubles, someone smarter and more talented has written about it before you got to the scene. But you’ve got your own particular set of skills and experiences and talents, so you can do your own thing.”

No matter what you’re writing, you just hope that you have something new to contribute to the subject.

As he tackled the novel, Whitehead found that he became most concerned with producing a work that was sufficient to approximate the experiences that his ancestors and other slaves had faced. He often tried to place himself in their position to imagine their circumstances and performed diligent research of the time and slave life. Because of the subject matter, the book is brutal, but Whitehead said, “It’s still only 10 millionth of a percent of what they actually experienced.”

“I recognized that my family went through this,” Whitehead said. “I don’t know who they were and where they lived and died … I don’t know what they worked on, how they lived and suffered. I tried to testify for them and for other people who went through slavery as much as I could. The anxiety of influence I set aside and the anxiety of trying to represent the true reality and brutality of what my family went through was the greater anxiety.”

‘In some ways, we haven’t come far’

Whitehead said the novel would have turned out much differently if he had written it when he was younger. For instance, the fantastical elements would have been bigger and been featured more prominently in the foreground. One of the states, he said, was originally going to be set in the future. Instead, he opted to dial the fantastic from “a Spinal Tappian 11 down to 1.” The railroad has become less the emphasis of the story and more the critical device that gets Cora from state to state.

Whitehead said he feels proud of the finished work and noted that he didn’t have any regrets about the novel — no pieces he wished he had cut or could redo. And, in fact, “the final 20 pages are the best work I’ve ever done. If I was to never write again, I’d be happy with that.”

Whitehead said he did not write the novel with a design to draw comparisons to contemporary times. Since then, however, he has begun to notice the parallels more strongly, such as recognizing certain justifications that slave-owners and slave-catchers used for their harsh, heavy-handed practices — even when dealing with freed blacks — in the phrasing used for race-based discriminatory practices today.

“In some ways, we haven’t come far,” he said.

Early forays into writing

In addition to discussing his latest novel, Whitehead recalled his youth and the path he took to becoming an author, often with the savvy timing of a seasoned stand-up comic. Of his childhood in Manhattan, he recalled, “I was a bit of a shut in. I would have preferred to be a sickly child, but it didn’t work out that way. If you read a biography of someone like James Joyce, it will say they were a sickly child and forced to retreat into a world of imagination. It always sounds so wonderful. Instead, I just didn’t like going outside.”

Even as a child, Whitehead saw the appeal of the writing life.

“I really liked comic books and science fiction and I adored Stephen King,” Whitehead said. “In sixth grade, I saw that writing X-Men or Spiderman could be a great job. If you were a writer, you could work at home and you didn’t have to wear clothes or talk to people. And you could just make stuff up all day.”

At Harvard, where he attended college, Whitehead began to eye a career as a writer more avidly — though his early ideas were limited in scope.

“I wanted to write the black ‘Shining’ or the black ‘Salem’s Lot,’” Whitehead said. “Take any Stephen King title and put ‘the black’ in front of it. That’s basically what I wanted to do.” 

As he expanded his reading selections, Whitehead discovered writers who employed genre in literary fiction in a way that excited him and suggested clear parallels to the science fiction and horror he had consumed as a child. In particular, he pointed to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the absurdity of Beckett and the invented worlds of Jorge Luis Borges. To him, these authors were playing with the fantastic as much as any genre writer.

He found his own early forays into writing disheartening.

“In college, I considered myself a writer but didn’t actually sit down and write anything, which apparently is part of the process,” Whitehead said. “I smoked cigarettes and I wore black. Finally, I mustered up the energy to write two five-page epics that I used to audition for creative writing classes and I was turned down for both of them. I was very devastated, which was good training for being a writer.”

‘I got back to work’ 

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at the Village Voice, an alternative newspaper in New York. His first published written work was a “think piece” about the season finales of TV sitcoms “Growing Pains” and “Who’s the Boss?” He said he is confident that his article was “the definitive piece” on those two episodes. 

Eventually, Whitehead gained enough confidence to pursue fiction again. His first novel was the story of a “Gary Coleman-esque” child star of a popular sitcom called “I’m Movin’ In.” He secured an agent and the book was sent to numerous publishers. They all turned it down. He found his inability to reach an audience frustrating and illustrative of a reality writers often must confront.

“You’re a microbe in a gnat in the butt of an elephant, just trying to catch the elephant’s attention,” Whitehead said.

As he pondered the pile of rejections, Whitehead reconsidered a life as a writer. Eventually, however, Whitehead stuck with it. In a humorous digression, Whitehead described a scenario in which being a writer for him was simply a matter of evolution, tracing his possible heritage to the first Neanderthal who wondered “hunting and gathering, gathering and hunting. Is that all there is to this life?”

“It didn’t matter that no one liked what I was doing. I had no choice,” Whitehead said. “So I got back to work. And it went better the next time.”