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Colson Whitehead’s Road to Writing

UC Irvine students, faculty and Orange County residents filled Crystal Cove last Tuesday to see Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead discuss his book “The Underground Railroad.”

Whitehead’s novel, which also won a National Book Award in 2016, follows the story of Cora, a slave from a Georgian plantation who escapes north via the Underground Railroad, which in this case is a literal railroad with tracks and trains snaking under America. The story makes readers’ hearts race along with Cora’s as she moves toward freedom. Whitehead’s matter-of-fact nature of writing is often frightening. However, many unsurprising parallels can be made between the novel and the present day. The book came out as Barack Obama’s presidency ended, and with the political climate of the past few years, it is no wonder why this book has made such an impact in the literary world.

“This nation shouldn’t exist if there’s any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty,” said Whitehead, quoting from the book. “Yet here we are.”

In addition to the Pulitzer and National Book Award, the novel won the Booker Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the IMPAC Award. Oprah also chose the book for her book club, and President Obama put it on his personal reading list.

At last week’s talk, Whitehead discussed his journey to become a writer. He explained that the idea for “The Underground Railroad” had been in his mind for years, but he never felt ready to write it. Whitehead decided to work on other projects to further develop his writing skills. His previous five novels — “The Intuitionist,” “John Henry Days,” “Apex Hides the Hurt,” Sag Harbor” and “Zone One” — have each won or been nominated for multiple awards.

Whitehead entertained the audience with the ups and downs of his life. He joked about wishing to be a sickly child so he could retreat into his imagination. He wanted to write “the black ‘Shining’” or “the black ‘Salem’s Lot.’” Whitehead also said he experienced his fair share of rejection from publishing houses, which gave him a better understanding of the song “MacArthur Park,” first recorded by Richard Harris in 1968 and famously sung by Donna Summers in 1978. One line in the song reads, “Someone left the cake out in the rain,” which Whitehead related to various publishers not picking up his book projects. As many of the audience members were students born in the 1990s, Whitehead provided an audio aid. The crowd went silent as he played the song and pretty soon, those in the audience familiar with it were laughing and singing along.  

Whitehead also read passages from the novel and discussed his ideas for future books. When asked about winning the Pulitzer versus getting on Oprah’s book club list, Whitehead said the Pulitzer was great but not very dramatic. The day he found out about the book club, which he calls “O-day,” and meeting with Oprah at her compound later was more magical. Audience members were also excited to learn that “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins is adapting “The Underground Railroad” into an Amazon series.

After the event, Whitehead stayed to sign books and take pictures. Overall, it was amazing to see the effect Whitehead and “The Underground Railroad” had on so many people of various ages and backgrounds.