Colson Whitehead is a NYC-based novelist and MacArthur grant recipient. His books include The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Apex Hides the Hurt, and his latest Sag Harbor, which has been met with great acclaim.
E: First of all, I’m sorry to hear about your cat. I read about that on Twitter.
Colson Whitehead: (laughs) Thanks. She was a good cat and had a nice, rewarding life, as much as we could tell.
E: Why was 2009 the right time to put Sag Harbor?
CW: I started working on it four years ago and I think in order to write about one’s childhood or adolescence you need a little more distance. I had no interest in my twenties to write about being a teenager, and it took a good long while to have enough critical distance that I could shape the material into something worthy of a book. And also just the technical chops, because I hadn’t done a first-person narrator before for a whole book. I tried and it never really turned out the way I wanted it to. So it took me four or five books for me to understand how to make a first-person narrator and it took a couple years to figure out how to write about adolescence, get those other things out of my system, and come back to this material.
E: How do you stay well-rounded?
CW: I try not to be bored. In terms of books, I definitely try to make each book different than the one before in terms of subject and narrative style, so say The Intuitionist has a very strong linear plot, a parody of a detective novel, and has a main character who’s very repressed and laconic. In order to have an antidote to that book, John Henry Days has a lot of different characters, it’s very open, it sort of prowls the prairie, and it’s very different in style and structure from The Intuitionist. So really I’m just trying not to do the same thing, in order for me not to get bored and for people who follow my books not to get bored.
E: What’s the landscape like for novelists?
CW: If you’re starting off as a writer, what you always should have done, is to just keep working to make the book the best that it can be. The level of the artist is always the same whether it’s 1899 or 2009, how do you keep producing quality work and how do you get it out there to people in an indifferent marketplace? It’s very hard to put out a first novel now because of the convulsions of the publishing industry, I know people who had their first books come out this year, they’re not really going on tour, there are fewer venues for it to get reviewed in. With that said, it’s always hard, it always will be hard. The only thing that changes it is the quality of terrible that you encounter when you put a book out.
E: I read Sag Harbor on my kindle.
CW: It’s not that people are going to stop making art, it’s just how we receive it that’s going to change. The Kindle is the death of the object, but it’s not the death of art.
E: How do you think publishing will evolve?
CW: I don’t know, I’m not sort of a, marketplace theoretician…In terms of journalism, I never buy a paper magazine, I get it all online, and if it’s not online I barely consider it to exist at all. And the problem is not having people pay for it or knowing how to monetize it (ad)…so, again going back to my earlier point, it’s not like journalists are going to stop finding stories, it’s just that the way we receive them is different. It’s not like people aren’t interested in the news, they just don’t want to pay for the physical object.
E: There’s more content demanded than ever.
CW: Yes. You know, I wouldn’t read The Washington Post or the San Francisco Chronicle if they weren’t online, but I do read them because I can get them. I’m reading more arts coverage, following arts and political blogs, so I’m actually getting a lot more kinds of information, but I’m not paying for it.
E:What kind of things do you read or listen to? What’s the creative process for you like?
CW: When I’m between books I’m sort of reading nothing at all, just around the house, surf the web, or read, or watch TV. When I’m working, I try to keep abreast, not abreast, but I always try to find new music. Electronic, big beatbox stuff, which makes me excited. I just got the new Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse record. When I’m working, I put on a lot of loud music, from the Clash, Daft Punk, whatever…I know some people have to have a very quiet sanctum but because I love very loudly I find it a very warm, conducive atmosphere. Growing up in the city, it’s always loud. When it was a record, or a siren going by, or a jackhammer, I’ve had to work with sounds.
E: To what extent is Sag Harbor based on direct experience?
CW: Well, I can’t give you a percentage. I grew up in New York and I would go out to Sag Harbor in the summers. The environment, the atmosphere, it’s all drawn from what I know about that place in the eighties. Certainly I’m not interesting enough…my ’85 was not that interesting, so I had to make stuff up in order to get a novel out of it.
E: What kind of projects are you pursuing right now?
CW: I’m sort of between projects. I get way into a book if I have a book coming out, but I still don’t know. And I’m fine with that (laughs).
Journalism is a side thing I do when I’m bored or have an idea. I have a few books ideas, I’m not sure which one I’m going to do…so I’ll take the summer and relax, enjoy that the book’s out, and start trying to figure things out come the fall.
E: What are the most important things you try to communicate about yourself?
CW: There’s nothing off hand, you know…I have interests, and over the course of books they’ve crept into my work in small degrees or large degrees. I’m from New York, I like writing about New York, the city, where it’s going, where it’s been. Pop culture, race, technology…I can’t say what kind of stuff I’ll be doing in the future, but if I’m forced to point out the things that I’ve talked about, I’d point to those couple things. I don’t have an agenda.
E: How have you feel about the good press surrounding your work?
CW: The critiques are specific to each book, and by the time the book is out, it’s a little too late to go back and change it. The people who say they don’t read reviews, I feel that they’re always lying. I’m definitely curious until the first batch comes out…will people connect to it, understand it? A good review is a good review and a bad review is a bad review. No matter what kind of reviews you get each day, the problem is the same. How do you create art? You can get some nice kudos or some condemnation, but the blank page is always waiting for you the next day. You’re always alone the next day no matter how many things people said about you the day before.
E: Do you ever think about blogging? You’re on Twitter…
CW: I feel like if I have creative energy it’s best directed in my books or my articles. So blogging, I have a website, I put up news about the book, or readings and stuff like that. In terms of Twittering, it’s not something I would normally do, personality-wise, but since I am in between things I sort of like the outlet. I enjoy the randomness of it. I could stop tomorrow, or a year or six months from now, but it’s a nice random outlet in the middle of the day which I’ve been enjoying.
Colson Whitehead Interview