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Novelist Colson Whitehead is riding a streak of success

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Colson Whitehead

Novelist Colson Whitehead will be appearing at Kleinhans Music Hall at 8 p.m. April 21 as the BABEL speaker presented by Just Buffalo Literary Center. 

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To say Colson Whitehead is on a roll as he prepares to come to Kleinhans Music Hall on April 21 for Just Buffalo Literary Center's BABEL series would be an understatement.

Prior to Whitehead's 2021 novel, "The Harlem Shuffle," the Manhattan native became the only writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for consecutive books, earning the award first in 2017 for "The Underground Railroad" and again in 2020 for "The Nickel Boys."

Whitehead, 52, has drawn numerous accolades for the eight novels and two nonfiction books he's produced since 1999, a pace of nearly one book every two years. But in a recent phone interview, Whitehead suggested his prolific output is a result of having nothing else to occupy his time.

"Well, I don't do anything else. I have no interests, I have no hobbies that give me pleasure, so I might as well just work," Whitehead said.

That explanation softened after being reminded he once reviewed films, music and books for the Village Voice. 

"Lets keep my public persona as someone who leads an empty life and confronts the void every day," he laughed.

"Harlem Shuffle"

Colson Whitehead's newest novel is "Harlem Shuffle."

Whitehead said writing for the Village Voice, a prominent alternative weekly at the time, taught him discipline and fulfilled a "dream" of being a staff writer for a publication he had long admired and been influenced by.  

"In high school and college, I would immediately buy on Wednesday afternoons the new issue, and go to the arts section and see what Robert Christgau and J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis had to say," Whitehead said. "The Village Voice was a place where people who were really engaged with the culture were writing."

Whitehead said his interest in being a writer began in adolescence.

"I was a very bookish kid and I wanted to make up weird stories about robots and monsters," he said.

Whitehead has written about monsters – like the slave masters in "The Underground Railroad." 

"The Underground Railroad"

Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2017.

The critically acclaimed book describes unspeakably brutal treatment enslaved people were subjected to. As a work of historical fiction, Whitehead said the book wasn't constrained by facts. After all, the "underground railroad" is presented as an actual train transporting slaves to hidden rail stations, including Cora, a 15-year-old runaway slave and the book's protagonist.

"As someone who is a descendant of enslaved people, getting their story right was definitely important," Whitehead said. "But from the very conception, it was a fantastic book that allowed me to do a lot of different things that a realistic book could not do. Once Cora gets on a literal underground railroad we're in the realm of fantasy."

Even what sounded fictional sometimes was based on historical accounts, Whitehead said.

"I'm a fiction writer, but the limits of my imagination are such that I can't outwit generations of slave masters," he said.

Whitehead said he took less license in telling the story of "The Nickel Boys." He wanted to shine a light on the real-life people who survived a Florida reform school that was based on an actual boarding school that operated for more than a century. Unmarked graves of murdered children were later discovered on the property. 

But Whitehead said he has no expectations that what he helped expose will have a lasting impact.

"I think people who change legislation and reform our prisons and juvenile detention facilities don't read novels, so I can't expect 'Nickel Boys' to have any particular impact in terms of social change," he said. "I am under no illusions that the novel is central to culture and changes things on a societal scale." 

Whitehead was asked if he felt pressure to keep writing historical fiction after the attention his Pulitzer prize-winning books received. Was his release of "The Harlem Shuffle," a crime caper, akin to Bob Dylan turning his back on folk music by going electric?

"I don't think people are writing books about my switch from Jim Crow to crime novels," Whitehead laughed. "But there are a lot of books about Dylan going electric. I think he's much more interesting culturally. 

"Other people may have expectations of what I should be doing, but who really cares?" he said. "I think life is pretty short, so I should write what I want to write."

Whitehead's monumental success has meant no longer having to teach to supplement his income, which he did at seven universities, including Princeton and NYU, and was a writer-in-residence at three more.

"The Nickel Boys"

Colson Whitehead's "The Nickel Boys" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020.

He is also being pursued for speaking appearances around the globe, with visits to South Korea, Finland and Norway on his spring itinerary.

Given all of Whitehead's success, writing would seem to be the last thing he still struggles with. But that's far from the case, he said, even as he expects to send the sequel to "Harlem Shuffle" to his publisher Doubleday next month. 

"Writing has always been hard and continues to be hard," Whitehead said. "I tried to work this morning for a half an hour, and I'm calling it quits to go for a walk outside because nothing's going to happen today.

"Some days the work comes, some days it doesn't," he said. "Either way, you try to keep going."

PREVIEW

Colson Whitehead

8 p.m. April 21 in Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets are $10-$40. Call 832-5400 or visit justbuffalo.org.

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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