Colson Whitehead by Suzan Sheman

BOMB 76 Summer 2001
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Colson Whitehead. Photo by Natasha Stovall. Courtesy of Doubleday.

The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed first novel rests on a completely original premise—elevator inspectors split into two opposing camps. There are the Empiricists (the good-old-boy network of textbook followers) and the Intuitionists (who “intuit” elevator malfunctions, and are chided by the Empiricists as “voodoo men” and “witch doctors”). When a new elevator named for Fanny Briggs—a slave who taught herself to read—crashes, Intuitionist Lila Mae, the “first female colored elevator inspector” is scapegoated by the Empiricists for the free fall, and goes undercover to unravel what actually occurred. With consistently elegant prose Whitehead transforms the elevator into a multilayered metaphor for metropolis, religion, race and upward mobility. Painted in cool shades of gray where urban grit, philosophy, and poetry quietly coexist, The Intuitionist is a stunning, mysterious world.

Whitehead continues to explore themes raised in The Intuitionist in his much anticipated new novel, John Henry Days, with the folk hero and former slave John Henry, who in the famous race of man versus machine, beats the steam drill and dies afterward. Henry converges with the present day at a John Henry festival, and with J., a black New York journalist who smugly covers the event. In this ambitious novel Whitehead presents a chorus of voices linked to John Henry, weaving the past and present together with confidence. Like the elevator in The Intuitionist, the John Henry myth is heightened to take on varied meanings and interpretations, as the recurring replacement of man with machine is explored. Whether it’s the dishwasher, Victrola, or the Internet, whether industrial or technological, whether John Henry or J., the question of “progress” and its startling affects on humanity is raised. ThoughJohn Henry Days is written in the third person it contains the flavor of oral history, pointing to forgotten moments, gaps in American history, through Whitehead’s extraordinary fiction.

Suzan Sherman There is a grandness, in both scale and subject matter, to John Henry Days. No stone is left unturned in tracing a huge chorus of characters who converge on the John Henry legacy. I am reminded of Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts; the splicing together of lives, a fantastically complex mosaic, though your characters cross centuries. I wonder how you began writing it; was it with the John Henry myth, or with J. the journalist, or was it more a conceptual idea?

Colson Whitehead The book started off conceptually; I wasn’t sure how to write about John Henry, though I knew I didn’t want to do a historical novel. The early idea was very formal—five-page chapters dealing with different aspects: the history of the steam drill, the Altamont Speedway, and some modern trajectories such as the John Henry stamp ceremony. I plotted it out but it felt like I hadn’t discovered anything new, it seemed too conceptual. I had the great myth of John Henry to jump off of, but no characters, no story. So the real-live historical event of the stamp ceremony became the backbone of the story, J. and his group of hack journalists erupted from there, solidifying the industrial age/information age angle. I fleshed out the town and what would happen over the weekend of the stamp ceremony, and when I did, it became a pretty linear, contemporary story. By forcing these hacks to cover this relatively insignificant event, I found an entry. They were my modern equivalents of the railroad laborers, pick and shovel men of the information age. I wanted to break free of my previous novel, The Intuitionist, which is very hermetic; it takes place in one city and has a very small cast. In John Henry Days a lot of characters present themselves. As I started to think about the transmission of the John Henry myth and the theme of changing technology, I created characters who would provide footholds for discussing the oral ballad transmission, and then sheet music, the advent of vinyl, and then the late 20th century where we have all different technological formats for expression.

SS Initially, why didn’t you want to write a historical novel?

CW It just didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to do something where I could talk about modern pop culture. The Intuitionist had no pop culture references at all. From being a TV critic and a cultural critic, it felt like an obsession for me. With John Henry I got my history jones out by having chapters that take place in different time periods.

SS There is such loving reverence in The Intuitionist for the elevator as a grand machine, and the swelling metropolis of skyscrapers it brings. Industry takes on a biological, almost human quality—“a tunnel like a throat,” “a stone cocoon,” “the skyline rows of broken teeth”—whereas in John Henry Days there is an overall disdain for the ever-advancing technology. From the steam drills to Web startups, it’s like some sort of amorphous disease. In moving from The Intuitionist to writing John Henry Days, did you see a thread of continued interest in man’s relationship to machine, but from an opposing perspective?

CW I wasn’t trying to make a counterpoint to The Intuitionist. I definitely have a fascination with machines, the sheer mechanism of the steam drill, the kind of obscure, random invention of the elevator. I like those weird, fun facts. It’s only afterwards, now that the book is done and I’ve read it a couple times…

SS A couple of times? (laughter)

CW Well, yeah. You get a copy of the manuscript and then the galley, each a few months apart, so each reading is like a new experience. You start to love and hate different chapters, and you gain and lose favorite parts. In both cases there’s an anxiety about progress and the advancement of machines. Everyone in The Intuitionist has all sorts of hopes and aspirations tied into the perfect elevator. In John Henry Days it’s a lot more diffuse, where you have a songwriter threatened by the mechanization of sheet music, and a blues singer, who makes his living doing concert work, threatened by the advent of the Victrola. There’s this anxiety and uneasiness, which I guess is a part of me since it’s in both of my books. But technically and structurally I know exactly why those sections are there.

SS You mentioned there are parts of John Henry Days that you love and parts that you hate. I’m wondering, what are they?

CW Oh, it varies from week to week. Without getting specific, there are chapters that I can feel proud of because there’s a new kind of sentence, it’s like wow, that’s a weird comma-clause-comma construction I haven’t done before. Some chapters are just funny, light and lively, and it’s a different kind of humor than the rest of the book and what I’ve done before. There’s so many different voices in the book; the stream of consciousness voices were fun to do and worked well, but the following week I thought, nah, that’s kind of mannered. Then next week I change my mind again and think it’s great. So I still have a relationship with the book even though it’s in the can.

SS A tremendous amount of research went into John Henry Days. Historical references abound; from the steam drill to the Harlem Renaissance to the free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. Was it a challenge to incorporate history into a fictional narrative without weighing it down; was it some sort of balancing act?

CW It was definitely a balancing act. Since I didn’t write it start-to-finish, I wrote different sections at different times, if I got bored I could take a break doing research for a month before writing another chapter. I’d get five stamp books out of the library and just have a stamp week, or a Tin Pan Alley week. Even though I’m kind of a lazy person, I went down to the town of Talcott, West Virginia, where the actual John Henry Days festival takes place every year. I flew to Georgia and my friend picked me up and we drove around in his car for a day and a half. We got a small hotel room in Talcott and walked around, saw the Big Bend Tunnel named in the John Henry ballads. It wasn’t something I normally do because I work out of my head. The Intuitionist is a book with a lot of small rooms, and John Henry Days is a lot bigger; I guess I had to break the mold.

SS John Henry Days begins with people recounting their versions of who they think John Henry is. Each person has a different take on the man, in some cases their point of view is completely tied up with the color of their skin. By beginning the book in such a way, it clearly shows the subjective nature of history, the fluidity of truth, depending upon who tells the story. The idea of truth is also toyed with in The Intuitionist, when we learn that Fulton has been keeping the color of his skin a secret. Can you trace when your concern for that sort of truth emerged?

CW I don’t find history very reliable; there’s a white history, and there’s a black history. And I grew up at a time in college and right after college when there was this crazy deconstructionist sort of thing that nothing exists, everything is fluid, meaning in itself is fluid. It’s hard to keep up with everyone’s version of the truth; they cancel each other out.

SS In John Henry Days slavery is referenced with a focus on emancipation; that’s certainly not the whole truth of what happened in this country.

CW The end of slavery is not a happy ending; it is not the complete triumph as it’s presented in children’s schoolbooks. In The Intuitionist I left a lot of things open, like the meaning of the perfect elevator. At different points in the book it means a literal transformation of the city, and then in other parts it’s more of a personal transcendence. Then in John Henry there’s the question of whether John Henry existed or not. In the book I talk about the two folklorists who went down to Talcott in the ’20s; one guy came away talking to 40 people with the idea that he did exist, and two years later, another guy went down and talked to the same people and thought he didn’t. The John Henry myth is so ambiguous. He challenges the mechanical steam drill that will replace him to a race; he drills faster and farther and wins, and then he dies from the exertion. So is that a triumph? Is it a defeat? Is it a triumph for the individual, a triumph for the machine, a necessary sacrifice that the community needs? I was trying to emphasize that kind of ambiguity.

SS Earlier, you said you consider yourself a lazy person. You don’t seem that way at all, but of course I don’t know what you do on a daily basis.

CW Yeah, you don’t want to know. (laughter) I write very intensely for say, six months at a time. And then when I’m not writing, in between books, I take a lot of time off. I’m gestating, thinking about stuff. But I really do plumb the depths of complete slug labor, play a lot of computer solitaire and catch up on TV. The greatest compliment someone ever gave to me was, “You’re the most productive lazy person I know!”

SS In both books you delve into the self-consciousness of talking about color; not only in terms of white people, but black people as well. Here’s a quote: “The biracial who adopted a superficial militancy to overcompensate for light skin discussed the perfidy of ice people with gangster rapper ashamed of a placid upbringing in a middle-class suburb.” Your books challenge white presumptions about blackness; I’m thinking about the marketing of your book in the predominantly white publishing industry. What have been your concerns in this regard?

CW It’s being marketed as a literary novel, which is what it is, and what I want. Personally, I don’t have any gripes the way things are going, though I definitely have gripes with the amount of black fiction being published. In my generation there’s me, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna and others, and we all do different things. And there are so few black editors around that certain voices aren’t getting out there. Then on the other hand, I think there are five new black publishers opening up this year, putting out their particular flavors, so there are ways around the traditional outlets of the commercial publishers.

SS Were you working on The Intuitionist when you were at the Village Voice?

CW I had a TV column there, which gave me a lot of free time. At that point my living expenses were low and I had a really cheap-ass apartment, so I only had to work four days a month. I had time to do my fiction. I did the column for two years and then I ran out of things to say. I had become a hatchet man, criticizing shows that no one watched anyway; the unseen Fox “Married With Children” rip-off. So I quit that and started The Intuitionist. I was freelancing. I was definitely very broke, but I had a lot of time to work on the book.

SS What did you study at Harvard? Were you a philosophy major?

CW No, I was an English lit major. There weren’t a lot of 20th-century fiction classes, just the classics. So I spent a lot of time going to the library to look up Ishmael Reed and Thomas Pynchon. Harvard has a really cool drama program with the American Repertory Theatre, so I took a lot of postmodern drama classes. I got this absurdist theater training, which, you know, comes out periodically in different things.

SS The postal workers.

CW Yeah, their humor, that Abbott and Costello back and forth.

SS Your writing makes achingly clear the complexities of black upward mobility. Lila Mae views the first elevator inspector as an Uncle Tom figure, while he feels she’s made it because of him. In John Henry Days, in the Harlem Renaissance scene, the mother is disgusted to discover her daughter’s purchase of black folk music. Blackness is reinterpreted generationally; how heavy is this weight of reinterpretation when you yourself are writing about it?

CW It’s not so much a weight.

SS Is it a freedom then, to be writing it yourself?

CW Coming out of the post-Black Arts movement, and having blackness being reaffirmed in literature and drama, I think the young black writers of my generation have the freedom to do what we want. I can write a book that uses elevators to talk about race. Or I can talk about John Henry as a slave doing the only kind of work he can in 1873, and then talk about a privileged middle-class black man in 1996 who chooses his own numbing drudgery. I chose different moments in history to accentuate how issues of race and class have been dealt with; one example being the Strivers Row chapter in John Henry, where the bourgeois mom forbids any street Negroness in the house, to the point of erasing the black contribution to pop music.

SS There is no written account from that time of John Henry having beaten the steam drill—there is only oral history. For many reasons it’s been imperative for blacks to assert what’s been left out of history books. Were you thinking along those lines in terms of the Intuitionists, those who intuit what something is; they feel it, without relying on textbook facts?

CW Maybe, unconsciously.

SS Your narratives have a wonderful zigzagging quality. The plot is in a progression, but it’s not anything that’s expected. There’s a scene in John Henry where a girl gets an internship at a newspaper, which she ends up resenting because all her friends go to Europe that summer. This girl does not show up again in the rest of the novel; I kept expecting her to reemerge. What was the decision in bringing her up and letting her go?

CW In terms of the story itself, there are chapters that serve to further the story of what happened during the John Henry Days stamp festival weekend, and then there are chapters which serve to further the advancement of different notions of John Henry, what John Henry-ness is to different people.

SS And the notion of what journalism is becoming, its elitism.

CW Yeah, she’s a part of the journalistic hackery world; the dilettante intern. She doesn’t come back because I feel like she served her purpose. A lot of the characters show up and don’t come back, or come back only in references, or come back as ghosts in other characters’ stories.

SS You chose to center the book on a postage stamp festival honoring the John Henry stamp. Despite all the technological advances, there are still some things, like postage stamps, which are steeped in nostalgia. When you were writing were you thinking at all about this, as a contrast to the ever-advancing technology?

CW I think for me, the nostalgia comes out in different ways; the town of Talcott embraces the 120-year-old myth as a cause for celebration. The John Henry Days Festival actually exists.

SS Is that when you went down there?

CW No, I went down in the off-season. (laughter) I’m pretty sure the festival in my book is a lot bigger and definitely more lethal than theirs. In the face of rapid growth of these mono cities, these edge cities, where every town has a Gap, and we’re all connected through the media. We’re united in a mass-produced culture, and then there’s this nostalgia for things we never had. You get that tension in Lucien, the PR guru who goes down to Talcott, he’s not really sure what to make of all this authentic sentiment. He wants to embrace it, but can only think in a corrupt way. He doesn’t know what to make of these strange feelings of community and loss. Because I grew up in Manhattan, I have a lot of weird notions about small town life. It was definitely fun for me to go to Talcott and try to create a few characters in opposition to the cynical, urban Lucien.

SS There’s the husband and wife who run the motel that everyone stays in. Did these characters emerge as you were going along?

CW Yeah. I had a semi-outline. The more research I did, the more I wanted to expand on the myth. I put in Guy Johnson, the black folklorist who goes down there in the ’20s, I put in Paul Robeson because he’s such an incredible figure, and then I found out he was in a John Henry play on Broadway. I definitely had to reign myself in, because it just became a kitchen sink, anything that mentioned John Henry I wanted to put in. (laughter) The one thing I’m sorry I didn’t put in was a Johnny Cash chapter, because he has this John Henry song which is pretty cool. He sang it one day on a variety show in the seventies and misidentified the town as Beckley, West Virginia. The residents of Talcott were very upset, and so he paid for the John Henry monument in Talcott. It would be incredibly cool to write about Johnny Cash, but it seemed like I had enough as it was.

SS Was it easier writing the second book with all the acclaim you received for The Intuitionist, or did that make the writing, the living up to something, all the more difficult?

CW I was lucky that I wrote half the book before The Intuitionist came out.

SS Lazy you!

CW Lazy me. (laughter) So what happened was I wrote half of John Henry Days, we moved back to New York, The Intuitionist came out, and I didn’t actually work on the book for a year. I knew exactly what was going to happen in it, I had the voices down, though that wasn’t what was weighing on my mind, anxiety-wise. John Henry is such a different book, stylistically and structurally, from The Intuitionist, I just hadn’t done anything like it before; that was more my worry rather than can I live up to the good reviews of The Intuitionist.

SS In John Henry Days you describe the writer Bob the newcomer, his debut, then Bob’s return as, “the second novel, recapitulating some of the first’s themes, somehow lacking—emboldened by success tries to tackle too much.” Do you have different fears on the publication of your second book?

CW I’m fearless. (laughter) I attracted a lot of mystery fans with The Intuitionist, because of its structure, so I’m not sure if they’re going to be coming along for the ride this time. But I think it will attract different people for being a very different book.

SS Do you have an ideal audience?

CW I have a few friends who read all my stuff, works in progress. I think about what they might say, their predilections, but my ideal reader is me. (laughter) I guess the effort’s wasted, since I’m actually writing it. But someone like me, or younger, who hasn’t been exposed to crazy, more contemporary fiction, or who might want to start writing. For me, it’s been important when I’ve encountered particular books in my life like Invisible Man at the age of 20, or Gravity’s Rainbow as I started to write and to learn what I could and couldn’t do.

SS Do you remember what you were told you couldn’t do?

CW In sophomore English, reading Jane Austen all the time, you think that’s what literature is. I don’t worry about following some sort of Dickensian structure I learned in high school. The canon is not all that it’s cracked up to be—there’s a lot more out there.

SS Do you like Ben Katchor’s cartoons?

CW Oh yeah, I’ve always felt a real affinity. His New York is the New York I love, the sort of fictional New York I never lived in; the buildings below 30th Street that I got from growing up with “The Twilight Zone,” and the beleaguered guys in fedoras who are shoe salesmen and ventriloquists. All the weird, kind of Broadway, shticky 42nd Street, sad characters living in this sort of pug-nosed world. I’m not really sure why I latched onto that as an interesting place or landscape, but Ben Katchor really captures it.

SS I’m going to a lecture of his tomorrow night on museum cafeterias of the world. (laughter) In The Intuitionist Lila Mae is described as the first female colored elevator inspector. Do you see yourself as a “first” in some way?

CW The first colored novelist to write about elevators.

SS Maybe on a more personal level?

CW Well, I think I’m trying to do what’s not expected.

SS What do you think is expected?

CW When I started writing, the 20-something, angsty-struggle, first novel would come into theVoice all the time. It was the slacker moment. And that was what I didn’t want to do; I wanted to make it new. It’s the way my mind works; I can’t write any other way. I don’t worry about staking a claim for myself because what I end up writing is freaky in conception and readable in execution, at least I hope so.

SS Numerous male authors are accused of focusing predominantly on male characters and concerns in their books, but you’ve painted consistently strong, independent female characters. In an interview you gave for Salon you mentioned that Lila Mae had initially been a man. Did you choose to make her a woman to further separate her from the good-old-boy world of the Empiricists?

CW Once the character became female that came into play, but it was more just trying to not do what was comfortable. When I first finished the manuscript for The Intuitionist the main character was a wise-talking, young guy. And after reading a page of it, I was like, who cares? So I said, female character. Let’s stretch it, not make it first person. Both those things, a third person book and a female character just seemed more interesting; it made the book more fun to do than something I already know. In the same way that John Henry Days started as gemlike essays on facets of John Henry. Once you think it up, why do something you already know you can do?

SS I imagine it would not be as fun for the reader either.

CW Yeah, that’s more of a secondary concern. It’s just less fun to write. If there’s no challenge, there’s no point in doing it.

SS Does being a writer make sense to you in relation to your familial history? Were you one of those people who planned on becoming a writer when they were six years old?

CW I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I thought it would be cool to write big geeky, slasher, horror, sci-fi movies: Blade RunnerThe Shining, or be a comic book writer. I was living in a kind of fantasy world. My parents wanted me to do something more stable, lawyering or doctoring, but they got off my back when I started working for the Voice. As a kid in New York I always wanted to write for the Voice. Every week I went to the back pages to see which band was playing, and then went to Irving Plaza and the Ritz, and read the music reviews afterwards. I became a sort of Voice addict.

SS Intuitionism, the ability to feel without having to see is described by the Empiricists as “downright voodoo.” I’m curious about your own religious upbringing.

CW Did we practice voodoo? I guess my mom went to church as a child, and started going again a few years ago. We were not a religious household when I was growing up. We were agnostics or atheists, I’m not sure which.

SS Skeptics.

CW We were a very skeptical household.

SS Why in The Intuitionist did you choose to make the metropolis “the most famous city in the world,” as opposed to simply Manhattan, and why not place it in a specific time? Did the choice of leaving it vague, sort of Kafkaesque, have to do with giving the story more reverberation in relationship to today?

CW I wanted it to start as a parody of a detective story. I wanted this noirish city to work in, and then as different themes began to develop I started playing around with Lila Mae as a civil rights baby thrust into a completely male workplace. It became advantageous and fun to have a timeless locale where creatively I wasn’t pinned down. Also the story is so fantastic, like a parallel world of New York that exists only on certain street corners at certain times of day. As the story became more allegorical, it seemed like the right choice.

SS Did it feel like a relief then, when John Henry became incredibly specific?

CW Oh, totally, yeah. There was one thing I couldn’t figure out how to shoehorn in: Flight 800, the New York-to-Paris plane that went down in August of 1996. I thought it would be interesting to have one of the junketeers on that plane, since they’re such doomed mercenaries. It fit in with the undercurrent of modern violence in John Henry Days. It was great to put real life names in the book instead; to be able to say he walked down Broadway as opposed to the great boulevard. And then being able to bring in Paul Robeson or the Eleanor Bumpers case or Altamont; real life scenes that glance off the themes in John Henry. It was totally fun, and liberating.

SS Here’s a question about endings. The Intuitionist concludes with Lila Mae sitting down to write her own words, and John Henry ends with J. almost certainly going off with the woman he’s grown fond of—the “real story,” as he calls it—as opposed to remaining on his sorry press junket. Do you consciously see your novels as ending on hopeful notes, and are you yourself hopeful in regard to the future?

CW It’s funny because in both books, different people interpret the endings in different ways. It seems that the more pessimistic you are, the more optimistic you find the endings of both books, and the more optimistic you are, the more pessimistic you find the endings.

SS Hmm. (laughter)

CW I thought of both J. and Lila Mae as writers; Lila Mae writing The Last Elevator and having a room of her own, being apart from the world in order to create, and J. having his existential dilemma about writing and if it’s worthwhile. For me, personally, I summon those feelings for the books apart from their constructions. I find both endings to be both optimistic and open-ended, but then people read them and seem really upset.

SS What could possibly be upsetting about them?

CW Well, people say Lila Mae’s all alone, everybody hates her, she has no friends, and she’s stuck in this small room overlooking a factory and nobody understands what she’s doing for many years—which is actually a writer’s dilemma; you’re writing something and it might get published, it might not, and if it does no one buys it and you struggle, and maybe one day someone will actually dig it. With John Henry, without trying to spell out the ending, it’s a question of whether J. is fated in the same way John Henry is, to meet a certain course of action, or can J. escape the loop that seems to be his destiny? I got calls from some people who said, I finished the book and the ending is so sad. God, I’m so depressed. And other people said the complete opposite.

SS Do you like the variety of interpretation?

CW Yeah, I feel pretty hands-off once it’s done.

SS But was that your intention?

CW Yeah, it was more intentional with John Henry. It’s what I wanted.

SS In the face of all the acclaim you received with The Intuitionist, and that you will certainly receive for John Henry Days, you have such a humbleness about you. How have you maintained this sense of yourself?

CW Well, my attitude is that hopefully I’ll be writing books for awhile, and they won’t all be as well received as The Intuitionist. You have ups and downs. They’ll all be received differently, I’ll have different experiences writing them, and they’ll serve different purposes for me creatively. I’m glad people can read them and have different responses.

SS Do you have another book in the works—being that you’re so lazy?

CW I’ve started a book which you could say is about the Band-Aid industry. It’s pretty fun, and I’ll leave it at that.

Karyn Olivier by Michelle Lopez
Fairground tent with a single chair behind a wall covered in various cloths and clothing items. A passerby examines the tent.

At the heart of Olivier’s sculptural inquiry is the fate of our existing and future monuments. How can they teach, and change us?

Danielle Evans by Jamel Brinkley
Portrait of author Danielle Evans. The photograph is tinted pink.

In Evans’s first interview before the release of her new and unintentionally prescient collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, she discusses humor, power, and replicas of the Titanic.

Portfolio by Malcolm Peacock
Malcom Peacock Single Pages Min

Originally published in

BOMB 76, Summer 2001

Featuring interviews with Robert Mangold, Brian Tolle, Robert Pollard, Carl Phillips, Colson Whitehead, Kenneth Lonergan, and Guillermo Arriaga.

Read the issue
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