Arts and Culture

This year’s National Book Award for Fiction went to Colson Whitehead for his novel, “The Underground Railroad.”

It’s a piece of historical fiction that doesn’t quite stick to history, telling the tale of an escaped slave moving through the pre-Civil War South. The book was also chosen by Oprah Winfrey for the most recent installment of her wildly popular book club.

colson-whitehead-underground-railroadWhitehead will be in Louisville on Dec. 5 for an event with the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum, where he’ll be interviewed onstage by BuzzFeed Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald.

I spoke with Whitehead about his book and why it was a story he needed to tell, starting with his childhood understanding of what the “underground railroad” actually was.

Listen to our conversation in the player above.

On first learning about the Underground Railroad as a child and how it influenced his work:

“I was in fourth or fifth grade and first heard about the Underground Railroad and thought it was a real subway for a minute or two before my teacher explained what it was. And so really just sort of that oddball idea: What if the Underground Railroad were an actual, literal network of tracks beneath the earth?

“Which is a premise, not really much of a story. So I added that structural element of every state our protagonist goes through — as she goes north … South Carolina, Tennessee, etc., is a different state of American possibility, an alternative America with its own sort of rules and culture.”

On researching the Underground Railroad for his book:

“I didn’t know much about it. I mean, I definitely had never had any classes on the railroad. The main research — my introduction to the period — was a book called “Bound for Canaan” by Fergus Borderwich. And that’s about the Underground Railroad, it came out about 10 years ago. And then really I just went to the slave narratives: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs.”

On what he stretched to make the novel: 

“Having these different alternative Americas allowed me to have a broader conversation about race. If I stuck to the facts, it would’ve been a story about one person running away in 1850. But by playing with time and moving different historical episodes around and putting them in friction with each other, I can talk about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. I can talk about forced sterilization of people of color — how does that compare to the treatment of the black body under slavery. How can I compare the license of slave patrollers — their police force in the South — with contemporary law enforcement.

“And so by not sticking to the facts, I could get to a larger truth about history.”

Colson Whitehead will appear at  the Kentucky Center for the University of Louisville Kentucky Author Forum on Monday, Dec. 5 at 6 p.m. Details here.

Tara Anderson is the host and producer of Five Things, a podcast about the objects that tell our stories.