In this extended transcript of correspondent Lee Cowan's "CBS Sunday Morning" interview with author Colson Whitehead, the Pulitzer Prize-winner talks about his latest novel, "The Nickel Boys," as well as "The Underground Railroad"; the emotional drain of research; and searching for different ways to attack the world through literature.
LEE COWAN: So, let's start with the "The Nickel Boys." It sounds like from what I was reading you were gonna write another book, but after you heard about the Dozier School, it sounds like it just couldn't really leave your mind.
COLSON WHITEHEAD: I try to vary it up. You know, maybe write a book that's more serious and a book that has more jokes. And definitely, "The Underground Railroad" had the fewest number of jokes per page that I've written! And so, I was gonna do a nice crime novel. That seemed like a nice way to clear the palate, and then I read about the Dozier School. It was the summer of 2014 and a lot of things going on in the news.
COWAN: It was, like, Ferguson? Black Lives Matter was in the headlines?
WHITEHEAD: It was the summer. Eric Garner. And it seemed, at least in my life, always had this conversation about police brutality and then it goes away. And it's Rodney King, it's Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond. And then the summer of '14, Michael Brown. And I came across the story of Dozier in the news. And it seemed part of this process we have where no one is ever sort of called to account for what they've done. An unarmed black boy is killed and no one's ever brought to justice. And there's a school, Dozier, which I never heard of, open for 110 years. And people come forward; they're ignored. Reforms are briefly put into place, and then ignored.
COWAN: The perpetrator's gone to live this nice long life.
COWAN: But it was sort of that notion of this notorious place that just kept chuggin' along, despite everyone knowing what was going on there.
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, well, I mean, and if there's one place, there are others. Other reform schools. Or maybe it's a church-run orphanage. Last year in Ireland, there's a story about a home for unwed mothers and their children. And they found a lotta buried bodies. And the survivors are, you know, horribly malformed by their experiences. They never get a chance (in many cases) to have a normal life.
COWAN: But when you first heard about it, did you think that might make an interesting novel?
WHITEHEAD: Immediately. I didn't know of any novels about young black boys under Jim Crow, the 1960s. And so, there are so many stories that haven't been told. And for a fiction writer, that means there's a lot of material to go through and try to figure out if there's a story there. And so, I had a place and I had to make up my two main characters, Elwood and Turner.
COWAN: Is that where you usually start, is place?
WHITEHEAD: In my younger days, I would have, like, a sort of weird, intellectual problem or (LAUGHS) a question I wanted to solve. How do you update the myth of John Henry for the information age, this industrial age story? What if an elevator inspector had to solve a criminal case? And then with "Sag Harbor," my fifth novel, I started with setting and character. Sag Harbor, 1985. And since then, I've sort of focused on having a place and then figuring out the story. And not so much the sort of more abstract question I'm trying to solve.
COWAN: And what was it about the Dozier School as a place that you thought was so rich?
WHITEHEAD: I think the fact that it was unknown to me. And unknown to a lotta people. I think people were shocked [to learn of it]. And again, it's that sort of iceberg thing. If there's one place we're finding about, there's dozens dozens more.
And how can this sort of atrocity continue? How many people have to turn a blind eye? And the thousands of kids who go through it, what are their stories? And where do they end up once they're kicked out into the world?
COWAN: So, once you had a place, what did you start with next? Then you had to figure out who your characters were, I guess? And where did they come from?
WHITEHEAD: I'm not always in my books, but sometimes I am. And in this case I thought I was sort of confused in the spring of 2017, you know. We had elected Donald Trump. Our country's in a sort of vastly different place than it had been in the year before. And I was trying to figure out where my head was at.
I have an optimistic part of me that thinks that things are getting better. We are making progress as a country, in terms of race and other things. And then there's a pessimistic, or realistic, part of me that says, no, things never change, and we make some progress and then we slide back. And so, Elwood and Turner in their initial incarnation represented different sides of me. Elwood is 16. He's a straight-A student. He's been inspired by Martin Luther King, the civil rights marches. Every week, he reads Life magazine and sees the picture of his heroes.
COWAN: And that was you, to some extent?
WHITEHEAD: The optimistic part of me (LAUGHS) takes inspiration from those days. And he sees himself as part of the new generation that can change the old order. And then there's Turner, who is an orphan. And he's been sent to Dozier 'cause there's nowhere else for him to go. And he lives by his wits. He's a survivor. And he sees the system as it actually is, unchanging, casually cruel, callous. And he doesn't believe in the same sort of enlightened goals of Elwood.
COWAN: He just believes in surviving it?
WHITEHEAD: And making his way through the obstacle course, getting through a day without getting beaten, and then getting out of school where he can find some other survival tactic that works in the outside world. And so, they meet and they have to survive but also consider each other's philosophies – what works, what doesn't, and how do you maybe perhaps integrate them.
COWAN: It sounds like most of the stories about Dozier were told from the white students' perspective. This was an opportunity to tell the story from the black students' perspective.
WHITEHEAD: This school had a majority black population. But in 2014, when I was reading the newspaper accounts – the Tampa Bay Times was very good on the story – the website for survivors, White House Boys, it was predominantly white, and I wondered, who were the black students? What were their stories? The campus was very segregated and you can sort of see one situation on the northern black half, another kind of situation on the southern white half.
COWAN: Different worlds in the same universe?
WHITEHEAD: Completely different worlds, and completely segregated. And so it seemed there was a story in what was the black experience at Dozier. And it was a provocative question.
COWAN: What were you hoping that you'd be able to answer?
WHITEHEAD: I never know when I start out. You know, I sort of know what the ending is. I know where the characters always end up, and I usually have an image of the last page before I start. I'm a big outliner. But you can't know everything and you have to be open to discovery.
And so, I don't believe in, you know, characters talking to you and the work, you know, goes-- (LAUGHS) goes where it goes. But as they get more fleshed out, page by page, Turner, Elwood, the place, it comes into clarity for me and starts changing the direction of where the story's going.
COWAN: How much of the historical details of it did you use? I mean, obviously, it's a novel. But how much of the actual history of the place comes out?
WHITEHEAD: I changed small things. You know, there are sort of five ranks of students in real life; I used four. There's certain terminology you don't wanna inundate the reader with, so, I left out. I think I made the school a little bit smaller. But in terms of the punishments, the layouts, the dorms, it takes pieces of the Dozier history from the '20s and '30s and '60s and all stuff you find during research just feeds the book, the language, the attitudes of the supervisors toward the students and then vice versa.
When I was in high school and college, I hated doing papers. I hated researching. But now, whenever I find a bit of slang or some sort of new operation of the school or how things were, it feeds the book and makes it that much more lively.
COWAN: So, how did you start researching this place?
WHITEHEAD: I don't like to leave the house. And luckily, there's (LAUGHS) a lotta stuff online. Ben Montgomery at Tampa Bay Times covered the story exhaustively. I like to use people's own's words. And the White House Boys organization has collected a lot of testimony of former students.
They're three paragraphs long, they're a page long, how they got there. And you get this sort of the idea of how the school worked. Dozier was closed in 2011. They started exhuming bodies in 2014. And Erin Kimmerle at the University of South Florida brought her archaeology students to dig up the graves, and they did a very exhaustive report on how people died and when, and how the school worked, the fire of the 1920s where a bunch of students died. And all that stuff ends up making a real portrait that I can pick and choose for my own Dozier, which I call the Nickel Academy.
COWAN: It must've been hard, though, to read through that stuff?
WHITEHEAD: It's very difficult. I wrote a book about slavery before this, and this book is about Jim Crow and its victims. And usually, I can compartmentalize. But the last six weeks of writing this book were very difficult. I had set out a trajectory for my main characters.
And then, there's only 40 pages left, and I have to follow through. (LAUGHS) It's not abstract anymore. I'm actually, you know, bringing things to a conclusion, you know; everything I planned out a year and a half before is finally coming to a head. There are always opportunities for more research, documentaries, other books. But after writing for four or five hours, I couldn't do any more research, I was so depleted. And that was new for me, that kind of emotional drain.
COWAN: Because of the personal stories that you're reading about and the images, obviously, of what these kids were going through?
WHITEHEAD: To get it on the page, you really have to use your empathy and your imagination and imagine the psychology of the students, of the supervisors and the sadists who run the place. In order to make it realistic and credible to the reader, you have to put yourself in their place. I always do that when I write. Figure out what the character's doing, how they're going to react to these different things I set in their path. In this case there was all these people whose stories overlap or intersect with my two main characters.
COWAN: So, there's little bits of whole bunch of different students and a whole bunch of different experiences?
WHITEHEAD: All coming together in the last 40 pages and the last six weeks. So, I finished the book, handed it in, and then played video games and barbecued for six weeks.
COWAN: Just tryin' to erase it?
WHITEHEAD: Took my mind off it, yeah.
COWAN: It sounds like it's some of the smaller, almost intimate individual details of the people that you read about that kind of really help flesh out the characters. Little things, as opposed to the bigger themes.
WHITEHEAD: Sure. I mean, I'm always drawing from people I know, myself, what I know about people in the world. You're always pick and choosing and making a composite of what you know about people and the world. And if you do it right, and hopefully, I've gotten better at it, you know, from book to book, if you find the right words, the reader can see themselves in these very different people; Elwood, Turner. They can see themselves in the other students and it's no longer a rough draft of a story about a place like Dozier, but a hopefully compelling account.
COWAN: Have the White House Boys read the book yet? Do you know?
WHITEHEAD: It's not out yet.
COWAN: So, they haven't gotten an advance--
COWAN: Lucky me!
WHITEHEAD: You know, the book was announced last fall and I started getting some emails from people who'd been there. There was a man who was there in the '60s. He reached out and only lived five blocks away from me, so we had lunch. I sent him the book. He said he liked it.
He pointed out some things that I had changed and I was like, yeah. And he was like, I know it's fiction. I know it's fiction. So, you know, when it gets out into sort of wider circulation, we'll see what their verdict is. I hope I've done some justice to their story.
COWAN: What it seems like, with all these terrible facts that are in the book, that you don't overdramatize it. You just sort of let those facts speak for themselves in sometimes kind of a matter-of-fact way.
WHITEHEAD: I think that's been true in with "Nickel Boys" and "Underground Railroad." You don't have to dramatize or sell to the reader what's actually happening to the slaves in that first book, and then the boys in this book. The violence speaks for itself. And if you sort of get out of the way, you can actually get to the human story and the results of what's happened to them, and the reactions of the people.
So these last two books, I haven't felt the need to sort of gussy up what's happening. It's there on the page. And the more quickly I can get to how they're actually feeling and being altered as individuals I think the stronger the book is.
COWAN: You've returned to racism and slavery several times in your writing. Do you find something different about it each time? Do you uncover a new layer that maybe you weren't expecting?
WHITEHEAD: I've written about New York a lot and race a lot. And I keep coming back to those two subjects. And hopefully, I'm coming up with new angles. New York was my hometown and I think my book about New York, "The Colossus of New York," treats the city in a much different way than, say, the city is treated in "Nickel Boys." There are some scenes in contemporary New York.
And in terms of race, I'm always on a sort of investigation of how the world works and how we work. And these different settings and situations I come up with provide different angles on race, on our conceptions of ourselves and the other. And these different characters, whether they are in 1850 or 1962, are coming at our reality from very different perspectives. And so, there's a continuity of misery, and then the conditions on the ground in 1850 or 1962 and 2017, 2019, always provide a different angle of discovery.
COWAN: You ever surprised, what you discover?
WHITEHEAD: I am, and hopefully, that gets into the work. I wrote a book about John Henry, the mythical folklore hero who raced a steam drill and died. And I think there's something about black heroism in that book, this larger-than-life portrayal of John Henry that captures one idea of black survival.
And I think the characters in "Nickel Boys" provide different, smaller-scale portrayals of how we get through the day, survive, beat our own machines. And so, I'm definitely not trying to repeat myself. And hopefully, you know, from book to book, I'm finding a different angle on race or the city or pop culture.
COWAN: If there's a through line, though, from so many of those books, it seems like it's really our capacity to be cruel to one another.
WHITEHEAD: I think we're hard-wired for it. Hard-wired for cruelty, and definitely America doesn't, I think, corner the market on it. I think demonizing people because of their race or religion or gender or sexuality, what kind of God they worship or team they like to root for, we're built for tribalism. And definitely in our lifetimes, we're not gonna escape that. It's deep in our structure.
COWAN: Is that discouraging?
WHITEHEAD: It is discouraging. Hence, the battle between Elwood and Turner and which philosophy is more realistic to abide by.
COWAN: Either the hopeful one or the pessimistic one?
WHITEHEAD: Or, you know, an integrated bit of the two. And I think most of us sort of veer in-between hopefulness and hopelessness at different points in our lives. Maybe different points in our day or maybe different points in an hour. Definitely, when I get on the subway I'm usually in one mood on (LAUGHS) on 21st Street and a different mood uptown, and vice versa. So I think we're adaptable and have to be able to integrate those two different ways of being in the world.
"The Underground Railroad"
COWAN: Can we talk a little about "The Underground Railroad"? That idea of a literary idea of an underground railroad, what did that allow you to do, storytelling-wise?
WHITEHEAD: Well, if I'd stuck to a realistic portrayal of a slave's run to the North, I couldn't really have a play with history that I think makes the book interesting. I mix and match different historical episodes to create a different take on how America came to be. And that use of fantasy allows for the sort of larger conversation.
It makes the book limber. It makes the story more dynamic. And it's hopefully sparking different kinds of recognitions in the reader. How is black life similar in 1850 to 1910? What's the similarity between scientific racism in America and scientific racism in Germany in the 1930s? Where's the through line? And if I stuck to a realistic novel, I couldn't do all that.
COWAN: When you first had the idea, were you a little worried if you could pull it off?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, it was the spring of 2000 and I was like, this is a great idea! It's got literal underground railroad and each state that our protagonist goes through will be a different aspect of America. It's so good. If I try now, I'll screw it up.
COWAN: Is that what you thought?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, (LAUGHS) I mean, I didn't think I was a good enough writer to pull it off. I didn't think I was a mature enough person to pull it off and deal with the subject in a way that it deserved. So, I waited. And every couple of years, I'd pull out my notes and ask myself, am I ready.
COWAN: So, this was rollin' around for years?
WHITEHEAD: Yes. (LAUGHS) You know, it sounded good. I was not up for it, emotionally or in terms of technique. And so, it took about 14 years before it seemed – I'd been avoiding it for so long, was probably the project that I should be doing.
COWAN: What changed? Was there a moment that you're like, okay, I'm ready?
WHITEHEAD: I think it was the fact that it was scary. And I think in art, it's always more advisable to do the thing you don't know you can do. This scary thing, as opposed to the story you've done before, which is why I try to mix it up. And if I know I can do something, what's the point of doing it again? And so, there seemed to be so much peril in pullin' this off that it seemed like the only thing to do.
COWAN: When you sorta got the nod from Oprah, what was that like, as a writer?
WHITEHEAD: Well, (LAUGHS) she started a book club when I started publishing, 20 years ago. And I had put the thought of getting a nod from Oprah out of my head. I think because my book sounds strange on the flap copy, it's easy for someone to pick it up and think, this sounds dumb! (LAUGHS) I'm not gonna read it, and keep walking.
And the thing about Oprah is that, with her endorsement and blessing, people who would normally walk by my books will say, oh, well, I'll give it a chance. And so, doesn't mean that they'll like it. But it means that they'll take a chance on a literal underground railroad. And of course, I was, you know, overjoyed.
COWAN: How does one find out you're on the Oprah book list? Does she call you? Do you get an email?
WHITEHEAD: She usually calls.
WHITEHEAD: I was sort of traveling that day. And my plane landed. I was doing a reading at Duke. My plane landed and I saw there's a voice message from my agent. And I was like, what did I do now? I'm in trouble. (LAUGHS) And I called her from the the airplane cabin.
And she just said, "Oprah." I was like, huh? (LAUGHS) I didn't wanna, you know, curse; I was on an airplane. (LAUGHS) And then, I was like, a review in the magazine or what is it? And she said the book club. And I was like, shut the front door. And that started a lovely journey into Oprah's world.
COWAN: I mean, life-changing, right?
WHITEHEAD: Oh, yeah, definitely. I handed "Underground Railroad" in and the reception by my editor and agent, my wife, you know, people I knew, was different. You know, they're always very supportive. But something in their voice was different with this book.
And I was like, oh, maybe I pulled it off. And then it went to booksellers and it went to reviewers and it just kept sorta building. And then you get the call from Oprah and it's, maybe it is gonna work out okay, (LAUGHS) you know?
COWAN: And then comes the Pulitzer, a whole new level.
WHITEHEAD: That was a year later. And I was in a good mood for, like, a year. You know, (LAUGHS) it takes a lot to put me in a good mood for more than a couple hours, but it was hard to resist the allure of being joyful about something like that. Usually, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. and I'm like, oh, the mortgage, I'm a bad writer, I'm a bad person. And then for a year, I'd wake up (after the Pulitzer) at 5:00 a.m., like, oh, sweet mystery of life, at last I've found you! (LAUGHS) It was a different sorta morning wake-up experience.
COWAN: For a year?
WHITEHEAD: For a year. And then life, you know, reasserts itself with its daily mysteries. But I was very excited. I was writing, you know, the book. I was just tryin' not to screw it up. You know, my motto is, don't screw it up; page by page, Colson. You like the idea. Just try to do your best. And that's what I did with "The Underground Railroad" and that's what I always do. And so, I had no idea until it sorta went out into the world that people would react so differently to it.
COWAN: So, what's it like – and I know people hate this question – after winning the Pulitzer, expectations are probably pretty high for this book? How do you deal with that? Or do you just not?
WHITEHEAD: Well, other people's expectations are exactly that; other people's (LAUGHS) expectations. I try not to worry about them too much. You know, was it hard to follow it up? You know, it's always hard. Like, were the other books easy? Not really. This book is hard because you're broke. This book is hard because you're depressed. This book is hard 'cause you're broke and depressed.
"The Nickel Boys" was difficult because I was traveling so much. You know, I was being published in a lotta different countries and that was really new for me. In my ideal world, I'm home for nine months in my office and I'm not teaching, I'm not traveling; I'm just working on my book and it can be a pure experience.
COWAN: But this one, you were kinda living in both worlds, the sorta celebrity from "The Underground Railroad" while you're trying to write the next one?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I mean, I could've not written. But then life is short and may as well get back to work. And so, I started writing on planes and trains and hotel rooms. And I'm sure other people do that all the time, but it was new for me. I'd taken a year and a half off, and a year and a half off is a long time to stay away from something that you loathe and love equally. But obviously, you know, writing is something I have to do and it fulfills me. And so, after a year and a half I had no choice but to get back to work under whatever conditions.
COWAN: But there wasn't that little voice in the back of your head every time you wrote a sentence, like, this isn't good as "Underground Railroad"? Is this gonna land as good as that one did? 'Cause I know that's the way I would be.
WHITEHEAD: Sure. I mean, there are voices in my head. And they're always scolding me for something or (LAUGHS) other, you know. So, that voice is one in a lively chorus.
COWAN: Always in your head?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. Is the sentence too long? Is this paragraph too short? Am I slowing down the action? You know, I'm always wondering, sentence by sentence, and then even word by word, if I'm failing the idea, if I'm being true to what I'm trying to pull off. And so, there's always doubts and I think that's part of any kind of artistic venture.
COWAN: So, what is the process of writing like for you?
WHITEHEAD: I'm very orderly. I have to know the beginning and the end and know the structure.
COWAN: The outline and everything?
WHITEHEAD: I outline. The middle could be fuzzy but I have to know what's happening on the last page. And if you don't know what's actually happening every day, it's hard enough to find the right words. If you don't actually know, like, where the story's going, it seems sort of useless.
So, I outline and definitely things change. Characters become more or less important as the story changes. But the ending is always sort of staying the same. And then, if I can write four or five hours a day, I like to work at home, not, like, a café writer. In cafés, you can't nap or weep spontaneously. And if I can write a page, take a nap, eat a sandwich, write another page, suddenly, it's 3:00 p.m.
COWAN: It does sound like it's a bit of a roller-coaster for you?
WHITEHEAD: Well, I think the best days are when you sit down at 10:00 a.m. and, at the end of the day, you've done something you haven't done before. You just discovered something new about a character or you've written a sentence that you couldn't have written ten years before or 20 years before.
There's a way of crafting a simile, a rhythm to a paragraph that's vastly different than how you would've done it when you were younger, or even the day before. And I think those are always the best days when I discover something about the character or the book or how I'm developing as a writer that I didn't know when I sat down that morning.
COWAN: Like anything, I guess, though, there's days where you're in the zone and there's days when you're just not?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, some people say write every day. That seems sort or fascistic and not very fun. If I can (LAUGHS) get eight pages a week, that seems to make sense to me. And it could be Monday, Tuesday and then Saturday and Sunday, or it could be Thursday through Sunday. But eight pages, that's 30-something a month. In a year, that's a good amount. You have to take off for holidays and people's birthdays. But --
WHITEHEAD: But eight pages a week, I think, is a good accumulation. But writing every day, it seems some days you just want, you know, see a matinee or walk around.
COWAN: I read somewhere where you said that usually – it wasn't the case for these two books – it takes you about a good 80 or 90 pages before you get the narrator's voice kind of in your head?
WHITEHEAD: I think, you know, structure comes easily to me. And then what's the rhythm of the page or the narrator, the sentences generally come later. And I know when it clicks and I've discovered the dominant voice of the book and the narrator talks like this. Maybe the narrator is very expansive. Maybe is very curt.
And then, you know, I'll go back to page one and bring up the rest of the book to the new prevailing voice. But it is nice to sort of, when you finally have the story and then actually what it's gonna sound like in your head. And then you can keep going with your new knowledge of what the book sounds like.
COWAN: With "The Nickel Boys," did you have that sense, though, right away?
WHITEHEAD: It came very quickly with that first sentence. And it came quickly with "The Underground Railroad," too. So, maybe that's my new way of working. Or maybe (LAUGHS) my next book--
COWAN: Or you're just lucky?
WHITEHEAD: I just lucked out, yeah. (LAUGHS) Every once in a while, I guess you get lucky.
COWAN: But what was the voice for "The Nickel Boys"? It's a broad question, I know.
WHITEHEAD: No. I mean, it's blunt. It tries to convey the brutality of their situation. It tries to capture the optimism of some of the characters. There has to be room for jokes, the humor between the boys. They are in a terrible place but there's also that human quality that still thrives and still lives in the midst of all that.
I knew I wanted to be short and direct. You know, I've written books that are digressive and encyclopedic in that kind of ecstatic, post-modern mode. I've written short books. And this book definitely seemed like I could do it in, you know, 200 pages and a little bit of change. Once I knew who the boys were and what was gonna happen to them, there's a certain kind of inevitability that argued for a short book, and directness and a more linear approach than some other things I've done.
COWAN: For as much of the research as you did for it, though, you never wanted to go and look at the school yourself, right?
WHITEHEAD: I did when I started. It made sense, you know. There's a lot of photo archives. So, I knew what it looked like, anyway, but you like to go in person; just get the atmosphere in your skin, and the sound of the insects. But page by page, the more Turner and Elwood came into being, the more I hated the place and couldn't see myself going; the more it revolted me.
And so I'd say, oh, I'll go next month, on page 50. I'll go next month, you know, page 80. And I was gettin' closer to the end and wanted to get that kind of atmosphere. And then part of me refused to go. And I may go, you know, [at] some point in my life. But living with the boys in the way that I did, my characters and the stories of the people who went there, the only thing I could really see myself doing at the place is torching it or taking a bulldozer to it.
COWAN: It makes you that angry?
WHITEHEAD: By the end, yeah. I think committing to the story I decided to tell left me, perhaps there's no other way to do it but go all in, in the way I did.
COWAN: And that anger comes from a place of, what, that it went on for so long and nobody seemed to care?
WHITEHEAD: You know, we were talking a bit earlier about police brutality and the summer of 2014. And we're talking about instances of violence that were captured on cell phones. And it's not like there was an upswing in police brutality; we just have the technology to capture it, this everyday, really mundane sort of catastrophes that happen all over the country, all over the world.
There's so many other places whose stories have not come to light. And the vastness of that misery and its overwhelming enormity made me wanna write the book. And then of course, if you're in it every day, and I think thinking about it in a very truthful way, you can't help but get caught up in it. Be impacted by it. And that's definitely what happened to me. It was a new experience with this book. It hadn't sorta happened to me before.
COWAN: Did your wife ever worry that you were getting down that rabbit hole so (LAUGHS) deep? Were you tough to live with for--
WHITEHEAD: My office is separate. And you know, I come out and I forage for dinner and make dinner. And by the time everyone comes home from work or school, I'm a happy Colson, (LAUGHS) you know. But definitely, the last six weeks, it was hard to do anything but just sort of veg out at night.
COWAN: So, what were you like like, growing up? I mean, did you always wanna be a writer?
WHITEHEAD: I did. You know, when I was, like, seven or eight and reading Marvel comics, thinking it'd be cool to write "Spider-Man." That'd be a cool job. It'd be cool to write the "X-Men." My parents always had the latest Stephen King or Peter Straub novel. And whether it was "The Stand" or "Carrie," it would make its way through the household.
And I thought, yeah, writing stories about werewolves and vampires, that could be a good gig. Workin' from home. You know, it's sort of overcast outside today and this is my perfect day, growing up. I could just watch "Twilight Zone" reruns on UHF, read comics, science-fiction, and no one's gonna say, "Can't you go outside like a real boy and do sports or go swimming?"
COWAN: That was your preferred state?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, yeah, just hangin' around and reading and watching stuff I loved.
COWAN: And was there a moment, though, that you realize that you were a good writer? Was there a teacher? Was there a class? Was there somethin' that you thought--
WHITEHEAD: Not a teacher. You know, whenever I applied for writing classes, like in college, I was always turned down.
WHITEHEAD: I was. And, you know, I was very depressed. But looking back, you know, it was good training for being a writer, 'cause when you're a writer, no one wants to read your crap, (LAUGHS) everyone hates you. And if you internalize that hatred, you know, early on, you'll be prepared.
But I think my first gig at a college was writing for The Village Voice. I was on staff as a fact-checker, and then started freelancing for them. And I was writing every week, and so, I was technically a writer. It wasn't fiction, which is what I wanted to do.
And I think I became a writer when I wrote a novel. Everyone hated it, and again, I was sort of staring off into space despondently. And I realized that I wasn't gonna do anything else with my life. I just had to write another book and maybe people will like it, and maybe they won't. Or maybe it'll take three books before I figure out how to write something that other people wanna read, or other folks wanna publish.
COWAN: How old were you when you wrote that first novel?
WHITEHEAD: Like, around 26, 27.
COWAN: And why was it so bad?
WHITEHEAD: 'Cause it sucked, (LAUGHS) for one thing. But I was a critic. And it was very theoretical. It was about a Gary Coleman-esque child star who grows up and is abused by the media sphere. And so, it's very much concerned with, like, black representation in pop culture, and I don't think it had very compelling characters.
It was really more of a theoretical exercise, and that was what I was doing as a critic, considering pop culture through a black critical lens. And maybe that works for essays but not a novel other folks wanna read. And so I decided to start over, and that's when I became a writer with "The Intuitionist."
I thought maybe I'll try a book with plot. People seem to like it. It's kinda crazy (LAUGHS) notion. Use a narrator that's a third-person narrator, not a first-person narrator. Hadn't done that before. Have a female protagonist. I hadn't done that before. And I just thought by setting these sort of impediments in front of me, I would learn how to be a better writer.
COWAN: Do what scares you?
WHITEHEAD: Exactly. And it might not work out, but certainly will be better than a novel about Gary Coleman, you know. (LAUGHS) That seemed obvious from the first page.
COWAN: What was it you think working at The Village Voice, I mean, how did that inform how you became a writer? What training, I guess, did you get, or what experience did you get from that that helped you?
WHITEHEAD: Well, growing up in the city, I would buy the Voice every Wednesday. You know, famous, alternative weekly. Go and see who's playing at CBGBs and Urban Plaza. And then go to the arts pages, and you have people who write about film one week, and then books the next week, and then music the third week.
And they were sorta nimble in all these different fields. And I thought, I wanna do that. And then once you're in the building, if you nag folks for work, you'll get it. And the TV editor has one sort of expectation for his section; the music editor; the book editor. And so, you're learning to write with a reader in mind, that first editor.
If you write a great article, people are like, oh, Colson, that's really great. If you write a dud article, you know, it's crap. No one says anything. And you're like, maybe I shouldn't have talked about myself for the first three paragraphs or something. (LAUGHS) And so, writing every week, I was getting bad habits out of my system. I was getting more confident. I was writing longer pieces.
And then once I went freelance, I had the time to work on my own stuff. And I think I learned the collaboration of editing in that you become less precious about your own work when you work with so many great, smart editors. And I think that's very important.
COWAN: What did your parents think when you first told 'em you wanted to be a writer?
WHITEHEAD: I think my dad said, you know how much a freelance writer makes every year? (LAUGHS) It's $12,000. You know, you hope your kids will be able to support themselves. I certainly don't want my kids to enter this life.
COWAN: You don't?
WHITEHEAD: No. You know, it takes a lot outta you. (LAUGHS) There's something to be said for the regularity of a straight job. And so, I was writing for the Voice and that's where it made sense to them. And then once my first book came out, they're like, oh, I guess, you are a writer.
COWAN: What do your parents think now?
WHITEHEAD: You know, they're very proud and happy. My dad passed away a couple years ago. My mom just went to her 60th college reunion and she said, oh yeah, my roommate read your book and said she said she liked it. And so I'm sure she's glad that I have a roof over my head.
COWAN: Do you ever send her stuff and say, "What do you think?"
WHITEHEAD: Yeah, whenever I get, you know, the first copy of the book, I send it to her and I get her input. You know, she's always very nice. I think some books of mine appeal more than others, and I think that's true for most writers.
I think if you like one book by somebody, that's a lot. In my years of traveling around, I realize that not everyone wants to read a book about zombies set in New York, (LAUGHS) or a nonfiction book about poker when Uncle Bob gambled away their college savings, so I write different kinds of books and I realize that I'm used to disappointing people. People come along for this book and not the next one and that's okay with me.
COWAN: But that's purposeful in a lotta ways? You don't wanna do the same book twice?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. I think if I can find different ways of attacking the world through realism, through fantasy, through jokes, through a more sober story, then it keeps it interesting for me, and I think that does keep it interesting for those two people in Des Moines who follow me from book to book. Larry and Mary!
COWAN: Larry and Mary? (LAUGHS) If you could describe yourself as a writer, how would you describe yourself?
WHITEHEAD: I'm gonna borrow an assessment from a friend of mine who I used to hang out with in 20s, and we'd go out every night. And then suddenly, I had a manuscript and she said that I was the most productive, laziest person she knew. (LAUGHS) And for me, that was the greatest compliment, because I do like hanging around the house and staring off into space and not doing too much physical activity.
And I also love having something in my life that I'm compelled to do, that does give me pleasure. And so, I like my productive times. I like my downtime where I'm recharging. And at this point, I know that I don't have a fear that I won't finish a book. I'll finish it, and maybe it may take a little longer. But I will finish it.
And I know that in between books I can have my time with my family and cooking and grilling and walking around and catching up on my reading. And then when I'm working, I'm working fairly hard and very diligently. And both of those modes make sense; the inactivity and the high productivity.
COWAN: So, how much time off do you take between books?
WHITEHEAD: It used to be a year, a year and a half.
COWAN: Just to clear your head?
WHITEHEAD: Clear my head. Teaching, recharging. I have two kids and definitely there are times when my downtime weirdly coincides with them being toddlers or not in school yet. For the first time I finished a book, "The Nickel Boys," and then started writing two months later. I went back to the crime novel I put down to write "The Nickel Boys." I'm not sure if that's because I had worked on it and now, you know I had time to go back to it, or if I'm entering a new phase.
COWAN: But that's what you're writing now?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. And I've gone through a third of it. I'm stopping now to, you know, hit the road with this [book tour] and I'll pick it up in the fall.
COWAN: So, have you ever done a crime novel?
WHITEHEAD: "The Intuitionist." It's about elevator inspectors. But the structure, the characters, and the intrigues all come from detective novels. You know, I looked to them as a model of how to tell a story. There are stock characters, the notions of suspense, delayed information. So, I learned a lot from storytelling from crime novels, TV shows, movies.
COWAN: So, this one is in that vein?
WHITEHEAD: But I'm playing it straight as opposed to having an elevator inspector be a hero. (LAUGHS) This is actually about some people who are actually in that world.
COWAN: Any hints on what's the time period?
WHITEHEAD: Harlem, 1960s. I think I've done my bit about contemporary life for a while. And I am finding different corners in American history, or black history that I haven't seen told before. And so, they make sense as avenues of investigation.
COWAN: Does this one feel like it's taking as much out of you as "The Nickel Boys" did?
WHITEHEAD: It's more fun 'cause there's the slang. And then there's writing about New York in a different way. The last time I wrote about New York for a whole novel was "Zone One," which was about the apocalypse. The world's over. On the one hand, it's like a utopian New York 'cause everyone's dead and no one is gonna compete with you for a cab, or (LAUGHS) Whole Foods is empty; you can get food without anybody else bugging you!
And this, you know, my realistic, 1960s New York, I get to figure out where the characters live, what street. I'll do all this research into, like, where was Chock Full o' Nuts in 1961? Was there one on 125th Street? I'll do all this research. And then I'll call my mom and she'll be like, oh yeah, I used to go there all the time, you know. I just should talk to her! And so, in terms of research, it's much different than "The Nickel Boys" and "Underground Railroad." And I'm sort of discovering my hometown in a different way.
COWAN: So, what do you want people to take away from "The Nickel Boys" after they read it? What do you want to leave readers with?
WHITEHEAD: There are corners of America that we never see, never think about and never hear about. There are people walking around with stories no one cared to listen to. And if we put the effort in maybe we can discover them. I think trying to figure out my version of the Dozier School, my version of the boys who went there, I was forced to think about how we find our way in life and how we don't.
How does someone go to Dozier and find their way? Who makes it out? Who doesn't? And whether you have a place like that school in your life or you've grown up in a destructive household, a certain neighborhood, who makes it out? Who doesn't? I found that question very interesting. And in the end, it's sort of random who can cobble together a full self. So hopefully, in the boys, the reader can find a recognition in characters they never heard about or thought about before.
COWAN: And in some ways, the story of the Dozier School is still being told? I mean, they just I think found some more graves last month or the month before last?
WHITEHEAD: They found, yeah, 27 more possible graves. They're gonna dig 'em up mid-July. And who were those boys? We thought we had the story three years ago. And now a whole 'nother chapter opens up. And maybe through dental records or DNA, some family will finally find out what happened to their great-uncle who disappeared at the Dozier, they were told he ran away, and he didn't run away. He's still there and he's been there all these years. So, it'll be a long time before it's unraveled, if it ever is.
COWAN: But it's like, the horrors just keep coming out of that place?
WHITEHEAD: There. You know, in a detention camp on our Southern border, refugees coming in in for-profit camps with staff who aren't trained to deal with the young children, who have no training in psychology or how to deal with young folks. And so, it continues. It's always been here. And we'll discover a different form, different ways unfortunately, to wield our power over the defenseless and the innocent. And folks will get off scot-free.
COWAN: So, in some ways, the Dozier School, to you, it's not so much about the school, it's about what it represents about cruelty in so many other places?
WHITEHEAD: The universe is vast and we're discovering new corners all the time. And discovering just how small our idea of what the world is. There's a whole lot we haven't seen and never will see.
COWAN: Do you think you'll keep following the developments in Dozier in the news? Or do you think you might need to distance yourself a little?
WHITEHEAD: It's good to step back. I'll follow the stories. And maybe one day I will go, when it makes sense. Perhaps that day will come. For now, I'm takin' the story of Elwood and Turner on the road and that's enough for me.
COWAN: So, just from people who've never heard of it, from my reading of it, it was originally designed to be sorta this new idea where you take kids and you get 'em out of the general population in regular prisons, and this would be some grand experiment to help wayward kids.
WHITEHEAD: No, it's a very enlightened 19th century idea. You know, if you give the kids their own school, education, teach 'em a skill, they won't end up as hardened criminals. So, the idea was very lofty. The Dozier School, Florida Industrial School for Boys (as it was called back then) opens up in 1900. It's actually January 1st, the first day of a new century; a new start.
And they would take in juvenile offenders, orphans, wards of the state, kids who had nowhere else to go. And they had school one day, working on the farm the next. The place was self-sufficient. They had a dairy, a brick-making plant, a printing press. They did a lot of work for the state of Florida printing pamphlets. And so, the state made money off of the school. And then periodically, there'd be investigations.
COWAN: Sounds like almost right away, there were questions and whispers of bad things going on?
WHITEHEAD: Kids were being chained up and they're in solitary confinement. They're being beaten. Kids are being leased to local businesses and disappearing. And so, you know, every ten years, there's an investigation. There are short-lived reforms. This goes on for decades and decades.
Finally, corporal punishment is outlawed, which meant that they moved them to another part of the campus. And that's the White House, which is a white cement building on campus. I believe it was a tool shed, two rooms. And a big industrial fan. There was an industrial fan from the laundry building.
And when the kids heard it turn on at night, it meant that people were getting beaten. It was a loud fan that covered the noise of the screaming and the whipping. And in my book, you know, kids are taken in individually. In real life, actually kids were lined up dozens and dozens, waiting for their turn in the White House.
COWAN: So, the White House was a real thing. I mean, what happened inside that white building?
WHITEHEAD: The White House was a utility building, a white cement, rectangular [building]. The White House became the place where the boys were beaten with a leather strap called Black Beauty. And it was a utility shed repurposed for the weekly punishments of kids who actually did bad things, but also smoked, cursed, were disrespectful.
You would lay on a mattress, hold onto the bars and take your lashings. Sometimes you'd get so many lashes that your clothes would get embedded in your skin and the doctor would have to pull out the fibers with tweezers. That comes up in a lot of accounts of what happened there. And the white kids called it the ice cream factory because you came out with bruises of every different color; all kinds of different colors and textures.
COWAN: Were the records from the school very complete? I mean, do we know how many kids actually died and what of?
WHITEHEAD: No. You know, they didn't keep proper records. Kids disappeared. They ran away. That's what they would tell their parents. And we know some of them ended up in the dirt. They didn't keep track of how many people died of influenza or what they died of.
And so, that made identifying the bodies that they pulled up difficult. You know, you're reconstructing causes of death from evidence in the bones that the skeletons are stunted. What caused that? Malnutrition. There's blunt head trauma. How did that happen? Some of the skeletons they dug up had buckshot in them. And the school didn't keep track of what was going on, what they were doing and, you know, we'll probably never know.
COWAN: I guess one of the big reveals back in 2014 was there were far more bodies in that cemetery than anyone ever thought?
WHITEHEAD: There was an official cemetery called Boot Hill that was marked by white crosses. And then as they investigated the grounds, they found evidence of other graves. They brought in radar and found more grave sites. And they were scattered all over the campus. And if you read the stories of people who were there in the '50s and '60s, they'll have legends of people who were dumped in the swamp or dumped in rivers. And so, not even on the school grounds. And how much of that is true and how much of that is legend? Again, we'll actually never know.
COWAN: But there were certainly a good number of kids who just disappeared to history. Nobody knows who they were, what happened?
WHITEHEAD: Yeah. And their families are still (all these decades later) wondering what happened.
COWAN: Wow. So, back to writing, when you said you have this sort of love/hate relationship, what's that like?
WHITEHEAD: It's (LAUGHS) terrifying. It's exhilarating. I like my ideas. I think this is a good idea for a book. Can you actually pull it off? And so, there's your hopes and wishes for this project, on one hand. And then on the other hand, your limitations as an artist, as a person.
And if you're lucky, you can find a nice path in the middle. (LAUGHS) And I'm always wondering, you know, page by page if I'm doing the idea justice. I don't necessarily think about the reader out there at home. But I am thinking, is this making sense to other human beings? It makes sense to me. (LAUGHS) Other humans might have a different standard. Am I meeting their standard?
And that's writing, it's revising, and then collaborating with the editor. And then it goes out into the world and you finally get the verdict of bona fide humans and you have to come some accommodation of, did you pull it off or not.
COWAN: When you talk about it taking a lot out of you, it sounds like there's more pain than pleasure in writing?
WHITEHEAD: I don't get writer's block. There are only problems I haven't figured out yet. And I know I will in a week or two months figure out the problem with this page or this character. But the terror of the first page, there's the terror of being two pages from the end. And it's also exhilarating when you do nail a scene, a character, you've written a sentence in a new way or discovered a different way of telling a story. And that's the exhilarating part.
COWAN: That's what keeps you writing?
WHITEHEAD: And discovering different ways of talking about the world through these different characters and situations.
I had the Dozier School as a model, its history, its physical plant. But I wanted to have the freedom to make my own school and make my own characters. I'm not tellig a nonfiction story. I'm creating my own people that I have to put in a situation. So, the working title was called "The Blackwood School." I just thought it sounded good on the tongue. It looked good on the page. Sounded sinister. And then I handed the book in and my editor said, well, there's a Blackwood School in New Jersey and they'll probably get upset. (LAUGHS) So the book was done. I had to come up with a new name. And you know, I think I wrote a book about branding and people are always tryin' to gussy up terrible things with nice-sounding names. And Nickel Academy sounded a little high-falutin'. Might even be a private school. And it stuck.
COWAN: And there was also that phrase in the book, right, that people aren't worth more than --
WHITEHEAD: A plug nickel!
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