A conversation with Colson

Features

by Ben Small ’19 and Lian Wolman ’19

Colson Whitehead’s novels span seemingly disparate genres. His words take readers from the horrors of slavery, to current day Central Park, to a futuristic apocalypse—transporting them with metaphors, pop-culture references, and wry humor. He encapsulates facets of the human condition in each page. Mr. Whitehead said that interest in writing stems from his childhood fascination with the X-Men. “I thought writing the X-Men would be a good gig,” he said. Despite being a voracious reader of comic books and the classics, Mr. Whitehead said he only wrote a handful of stories while in high school and college.

Aside from writing, Mr. Whitehead said that cooking is one of his major creative outlets. At the Thursday Symposium class dinner, he explained that his favorite food to cook is jerk-seasoned pork. After sifting through countless cookbooks, he finally settled on the perfect recipe. His secret ingredient in this recipe is a close-guarded secret which the KO News cannot reveal. Whitehead said he is also a fried-chicken connoisseur, recently making forays into Indian and Korean fried chicken recipes.

Placing the skillet down, Mr. Whitehead said he draws writing inspiration from a variety of different sources.  “Sometimes, I am reading a magazine article or watching something on the news and I think, ‘Oh, that could be a weird idea for a book,’” he said. “With ‘Sag Harbor,’ I was just thinking I didn’t like being a teenager so maybe I should write about being a teenager and figure out why I didn’t like it. He said that his inspiration for his zombie novel came differently. “‘Zone One’ came from having a dream,” he said. “I had a dream about zombies, and I woke up and thought ‘Oh, well that’s a cool idea for a book,’ so it varies.”

His first published novel, “The Intuitionist,” follows the first woman of color elevator inspector Lila Mae Watson in a world rife with political division. Mr. Whitehead said the original idea came from a news story about a faulty escalator. In “The Intuitionist,” Mr. Whitehead created a fictional animosity between the elevator and escalator inspectors. “Someone had to be the butt of the jokes,” he said. In fact, in a September visit, Director of Service Quality at Otis Elevator Brian Frye informed the Symposium class that—beyond Lila Mae’s world—there is a certain hostility between the two inspector professions.

While working on his own novels, Mr. Whitehead teaches college writing. He said that a good story is one that is original and creative. “Is it interesting?” he said. “Is it new? Is it not like, ‘I was at a big keg party and I broke up with my boyfriend or girlfriend.’” In his classes, Mr. Whitehead said he likes stories that are compelling. “You know I hate what I have seen before so [what I look for is] style, it’s story. It’s hard to describe because obviously, a student’s story that is five pages is not going to have a lot of plot,” he said, “but if you have an interesting way of looking at the world, a nice turn of phrase – I am always very happy.”

Outside of classrooms, in 2011, on-assignment for “Grantland,” Mr. Whitehead competed in the World Series of Poker. His original 80-page magazine article morphed into his 2014 book “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death.” Mr. Whitehead said that while “The Noble Hustle” is non-fiction, the “Colson Whitehead” within its pages is somewhat of a caricature of the real-life counterpart. “Well, it’s non-fiction and I’m definitely not interesting, and so having this persona of a weird, middle-aged depressive worked,” he said. “I was on Twitter, where various people do this kind of – I call it performative despair – these kinds of weird jokes, self-deprecating jokes ,and so that character grew out of just kind of sad humor I was putting out on Twitter at the time.”

Mr. Whitehead also said that writing the “Grantland” article, originally titled “Occasional Dispatches from the Republic of Anhedonia,” was a marked departure from book writing.  “I was thinking about what a different kind of project it was for me,” he said. “You write a novel, you’re in your little hovel for two years and then you emerge. With this, I was writing in public; it was serialized. It was great to have that sort of community sort of cheering, digging the article that was coming out, and I took a lot of energy from that.”

In order to prepare for the grueling four-day World Series event, Mr. Whitehead read poker strategy books by Doyle Brunson, got a professional poker coach, started seeing a shrink, and played in numerous taxing practice tournaments, according to his telling in “The Noble Hustle” at least. “And then, you know, I mostly hung around the house having to learn how to play tournament poker and do the research,” he said.“Learning something new was good for me at that point in my life, to sort of break out and change it up.”

In light of Mr. Whitehead’s poker days, senior KO News Editors Lian Wolman and Ben Small, as well as senior Symposium student Jason Meizels, sat down with Mr. Whitehead to play a few hands of Texas Hold ‘em.  The end result of what will surely go down in the history books as “the game of the century,” was a firm draw. Mr. Whitehead proved that he still carries much of his 2011 experience with him, bluffing Jason off of a winning hand. Jason’s pair of jacks was no match for the author’s smiling and inquisitive poker face.

At one point during a hand, Mr. Whitehead explained the comparative advantage of checking instead of folding. “You can check until there is a bet to you,” he said. “At this point, if you don’t know anything ,you might as well stay in because you might get a free card.” At first glance, this comment might appear to be a simple one on the rules of poker. Upon further examination, perhaps it’s a metaphor about contending with the hand life deals you. When Mr. Whitehead is concerned, you never know when he might drop some wisdom.

While his competing days are over, Mr. Whitehead said he stills plays poker casually, but less than when he was training for the World Series. “Well, I had a monthly game and now we play sort of quarterly,” he said. “We’re all sort of older and have kids and a little tired,” he said. “If there’s a casino in town, like in New York, maybe I would play more, but [playing] has definitely gone down a lot since then.” Reviewing Mr. Whitehead’s work, much of his writing takes seemingly ordinary topics – the subway, for example – or the tribulations of adolescents, and explores their complexities and profundities. In “The Noble Hustle,” he explores the myriad nuances and funny moments of the game of poker and those who play it.

Mr. Whitehead said that after writing a book by immersing himself in a world for months on end, he tends to distance himself from that particular subject for a while. “I won’t write about elevators again,” he said. Despite changing genres and plots, one ever-present character in most of Mr. Whitehead’s books is New York City. “It’s my hometown,” he said. “I get a lot of energy from it, I get a lot of ideas and stuff like that from it. So it’s just an important place.” For example, Mark Spitz—the protagonist in Mr. Whitehead’s sixth novel “Zone One”—clears zombies out of New York City’s avenues, subways, and office buildings. Mr. Whitehead also wrote a collection of essays about the city called “The Colossus of New York.” “Well, you know, the city lends itself different metaphors,” he said. “Are you out of the burrough or are you in? Are you on the inside? Are you on the outside looking in? I am writing about the city and, you know, I was trying to find different ways of thinking about it.”

Diving into Mr. Whitehead’s novel  “Zone One,” Connecticut is the worst place to be. Mark Spitz often refers to it as “repugnant” or “loathsome.” Mr. Whitehead explained that he personally doesn’t have any gripes with the Nutmeg state. “Just as a practical manner, the world is the apocalypse,” he said. “The world is a terrible place but what’s even the worse place in this fallen world. So, it had to be some state, and New Jersey was too obvious because everyone hates New Jersey, so I just picked Connecticut.”

Despite his character’s detestation of Connecticut, Mr. Whitehead said he thoroughly enjoyed his visit to KO.  “It is not very often that people have read more than one of my books,” he said. “When I visit a college or a grad program, they have read like one thing, so to have you guys be so thoughtful and read so deeply into the back catalogs was really nice.”