MORNING COFFEE 6 - conjuring worlds

by Susan Weber

Colson Whitehead said he had the idea for what would be his triple-threat novel (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction) about the Underground Railroad as a younger man, but he knew he lacked the technical skill and personal maturity to write it. His talk last month was laced with humor and profanity. His hearers lapped up both, delighted when he mentioned the microbe on a gnat in the butt of an elephant, which he claims is how little impact your typical literary fiction book has on the world.

But his readers pointed to the force of his latest novel. The professor of English who introduced Mr. Whitehead said that after she read the last page of The Underground Railroad, she wept. The dignified scholar had found herself hugging the book and thanking the author for Cora and Ceasar and all the other characters he’d conjured into being. A woman at the Q & A following the talk said she’d carried his story around with her for weeks, revisiting its world. I pictured the physical book in her hand all that time, pulsing back at her. A man asked the author how he handled his immersion in the slave's world in the deep South when he surfaced to be with his wife and kids. Mr. Whitehead said the research time had drained and horrified him, especially when it detailed the cruelty heaped on children. But once he started writing, his narrator’s matter-of-fact style proved to be a good buffer. “I let the facts speak for themselves,” he said.

His discussion of world creation felt like a master class in pacing. Science Fiction and Horror were his go-to genres growing up. Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, and short story minimalist Raymond Carver knew how to sell brave new worlds to their readers. His favorite authors made these possibilities believable by parceling out how people talked, what they did, and what their characters took for granted at a granular scale.

This wasn’t so different from how Colson Whitehead coaxed us from our usual worlds into his own. His self-effacing, comical, and nonchalant irreverence said he didn’t have to take himself too seriously and neither did we. When we were good and loose from laughing, trusting him to humor us back — because whenever the matter of race is favored with a keen eye, fright and flight so often intervene — he could give us details of his novel’s world. By then we were co-conspirators. There was not much left for him to do but read aloud.

Photo by Molgreen CC BY-SA 3.0