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"Dread, rage and despair" kept Colson Whitehead from visiting the school that inspired his new book

Colson Whitehead talks "The Nickel Boys"
"Dread, rage and despair": Why Colson Whitehead never visited the real-life setting of his new book 04:24

Colson Whitehead's new book, "The Nickel Boys," centers on two black students navigating violence, abuse and corrupt officials at a segregated reform school in the Florida panhandle. While its protagonists are fictional, the setting is inspired by the real Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which operated for more than a century despite repeatedly being investigated for allegations of child neglect, abuse and sexual assault.

After it closed in 2011, teams from the University of South Florida found more than 50 sets of remains on the school's grounds and this past spring discovered another 27 suspected graves.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Underground Railroad" told "CBS This Morning" his own "dread, rage and despair" kept him from visiting Dozier while conducting research for the book.

"The more I got into the story page by page and the more I started telling the story of my two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, the more I came to hate the place. You know, I sort of — it occurred to me I would only go there, if ever, with a bulldozer or some dynamite to blow it up. It doesn't deserve to be here anymore," Whitehead said.

Colson Whitehead on "The Nickel Boys" 07:37

What caught his attention about the Dozier school story, Whitehead said, was that the atrocity was so large yet had remained so anonymous. He also sees exploring the past as a way to understand what's happening today.

"If you talk about race in 1850, you end up talking about it now. If you talk about the incarceration system and Jim Crow era, you're talking about it now," he said. "If you talk about institutional racism, there's a continuum of how black folks are controlled in this country. The past is the present unfortunately in many ways. In terms of my own personal response to the material, I was raised in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and my parents told me 'This is America and you can do whatever you want. You can be anything.' And also there are systems in place to deny you opportunities, and you will be undermined … both things are true and that's America."

"The Nickel Boys" goes on sale July 16

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